A friend of mine teaches political science in a college in New York City. I have spent many a lunch listening to him eulogize James Madison. When his students complain, “It’s hard for the government to get anything done,” my friend loves to retort, “Right, Madison wanted to make it that way.”

I love hearing about this stuff—the founding of our country and the composition of the Constitution.  So I hope you’ll excuse me if I still walk around this neighborhood with a lump in my throat, realizing that this is the place where it all came to the fore. The cradle of liberty indeed.

I’m reminded of similar feelings I experienced last spring when I was teaching a course on the Second Vatican Council. We were studying the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, one of the most important documents issued by the Council. On this July 4th weekend I find myself here in Philadelphia, reflecting on our Church’s strong affirmation of a principal right guaranteed in our US Constitution—the right to religious freedom. True, the Church’s statement issued in 1965, almost two centuries after the Constitution, was a little late, but perhaps the Church goes even deeper to give a firmer foundation to religious freedom.

The First Amendment says simply, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  Those were truly revolutionary words in 1789, and we can be justly proud as Americans that our country led the way to enshrining this right in the legal framework of our government.

This bold statement offers no conclusive rationale justifying the recognition of this right.  Certainly in our minds, the tranquility of the social order requires this limitation on government action. Our sense of fairness and respect for other people impels us to acknowledge this legitimate claim on freedom. But is there anything about the human person or the nature of truth itself that requires this freedom? That’s the question the Church answered in the Vatican Council document.

You’ll have to read the Vatican document—it’s not very long—to get the full answer, but here’s the basic idea:

First, what is it about religious truth that requires that we be free?  “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth,” the Council says, “as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” Religious truth, therefore, cannot be coerced without losing its own integrity.  If forced on another, it is necessarily corrupted because it is robbed of its own inherent power.

Second, what is it about the nature of the human person that demands this freedom?  “The very dignity of the human person,” the Council claims, “as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself” is the foundation of religious freedom.

Religious Freedom, like so many of the rights recognized in our Constitution, ultimately rests on  deeper truths and values that point beyond the limits that our secular culture imposes on civic discourse.  Perhaps the framers themselves intuited this.  And maybe that is why so many commentators warn that we citizens must always be vigilant, not with muskets trained on our government, but with consciences that are clear and spirits that are open to transcendent truths.  Let’s think about that this Fourth of July.

Walter F. Modrys, S.J.