I will freely admit that my personal experiences make me less than objective when considering the question of the truth or falsity of the Catholic faith. But I also insist that those same experiences make me particularly knowledgeable about what religion actually is, how it functions. And I'm fascinated by it -- how it works, how it fails to work, how it works excessively well at times.
Too often Catholics narrow it down to a list of propositions: Catholics believe these things, that's our religion. If you can sign onto the dogmas, you should sign up for the religion. But any religion is a great deal more than that: it is relationship to the divine, ritual framework, community tie, law, mythic structure, shared history, and moral indoctrination.
I say moral indoctrination because our morals are something we learn long before we have a good sense of why. And yet I don't think that conscience is necessarily innate. Sure, we naturally have a sense of empathy, which gets us as far as, "I should seek the benefit of others," but other rules beyond that vary widely between times and cultures. [Note: "people's moral assumptions vary" isn't intended to imply "no one set is correct."] That variation explains the sense of moral outrage I feel on reading ancient history (how could people attend hangings and treat them like parties?!), Greek epics (why the heck is Athena praising Odysseus for lying?!), or the Old Testament (.....you know THAT story already). I am seeing people do things which are morally wrong (from my viewpoint) but which they seem to assume are right -- and which they don't bother defending because everyone knows they are right!
I can't imagine how a discussion on morality between me and, say, an ancient Babylonian might go. What shared principles would we start from? Heck, I am not sure how I could explain to some of my quite near ancestors why it's so terrible to be racist.
The only reason we think that morality exists apart from religion is because most religions (and philosophies) we normally come into contact with have very similar moral codes. Not only that, but the religions practiced in America all seem to have mutated somewhat to be accepted today.
Think about it: what are a few ethical standards Americans, in general, agree with? "It's okay to do what you want so long as you don't hurt someone else." And, "People should be able to believe and worship how they want." And, "We should be nice to people who are different." What religion do these ideas come from?
The Catholic Church used to be rather touchy about
religious freedom; now it accepts it and points out that God himself
seems to let people believe what they want. Aggiornamento, I
suppose -- this progressive idea is just what people think nowadays; I
suppose the cardinals felt as I do about it, that it's just morally
right and therefore the Church has to be okay with it. So
Catholics can now -- as they could not so easily before Vatican II --
sign onto the secular ideal without compromising their own faith.
Tolerance, freedom of religion, etc. aren't from a religion at all; they are from the philosophy that America is founded on. (And most other modern nations -- it's a pluralist, secularist, progressive sort of creed, developed in the Enlightenment.) Religions that are accepted in America are all religions that are able to sign onto this philosophy -- or at least are willing to coexist with it. We can have Catholics, but not Inquisitions; Puritans, but not witch trials; Islam, but not jihad. You're welcome if you're willing to live and let live. But if your religion commands death to the unbeliever, you're not welcome.
This seems like it would go without saying, but it only seems obvious because you're used to it. The ancient Romans and ancient Jews shared the common belief that failure to worship properly would lead to punishment, not only on the unbeliever, but on the whole nation unless it punished them. That is why the Romans threw the Christians to the lions, and why the Old Testament has a little bit about stoning to death anyone who even suggests worshipping other gods. It really was a part of their religion -- it was just as sincerely held as any belief you hold today. But just try explaining that to the judge, as you plead First Amendment protection at your murder trial!
And honestly it makes good cultural sense, in a very dangerous world, to defend your cultural standards with violence. If you are part of a tribe/culture/religion (because those almost always go together) that believes in the sanctity of human life, and some stranger wanders in whose beliefs you don't know, you can't just trust him. His religion might mandate cannibalism. Tolerance comes in second to self-preservation.
What made modern religions give up this sort of attitude? Was it Jesus and his talk of loving your enemy? Possibly. Or perhaps it's just an idea whose time had come; things had gotten safer and one didn't need to be quite so careful. Even despite this, though, there was an Inquisition, and religious pluralism wasn't accepted until fairly recently.
But don't be deceived: pluralism itself is something you don't really have freedom to deny. Well, maybe you could, if you lived in an area with a religious majority, and it was just understood that you would have to abide by its rules if you lived there. Here in America, it's a fact -- there is no religious majority that agrees on all ethical standards. So law cannot be derived from religion, not without causing all kinds of chaos as people refuse to follow a law they don't believe in. Instead, we've just agreed -- our standard is something different, it's the idea of human rights, of freedom so long as you don't harm others, of a secular public sphere so that no one religion dominates.
Even the whole concept of majority rule is an enlightenment idea. Before that it was cuius regio, ejus religio -- everybody has to follow the religion of the prince. Because for people to live together, there has to be some rule as to how they interact. Is forced conversion okay? Is blasphemy okay? What about heresy?
This stuff comes up all the time. If Doctor Joe is against abortion, but Susie believes it's one of her human rights, does Doctor Joe have to perform one for her, or not? Is a pharmacist allowed to refuse to dispense birth control pills? What about poison, or a drug he knows will cause a dangerous reaction? Does a diabetic child's right to receive insulin trump his parents' right to raise their child in a religion that forbids medical treatment? We wrestle with these and argue them out as a society -- but in the end, we can't even have a conversation about them without a shared set of moral principles. We have all agreed on rights that people have, and that's what makes it possible to weigh one right against another in the first place.
America has a nice little balance -- majority rule is a general principle, but everything decided by the majority has to abide by the constitution, which respects individual rights. We decided that the majority should rule, but it couldn't infringe some basic rights the minority gets. Those rights are carefully enumerated and they have to do with harm -- if you can demonstrate you are being harmed, you have a claim to stop someone from doing what they are doing to you.
But when all the fuss goes on about "religious freedom," meaning freedom to opt out of the laws everyone else is obeying, I think .... well, this is what you get when you are a minority religion in a country with shared ethical principles that differ from yours. When there is no conflict, you're fine. When there is one, you have to acknowledge that your morals aren't the standard the country is run by. What will you do, pay the jizya or leave?
Well, I guess you have more options than that. You could withhold consent from the reigning establishment, refusing to vote and biding your time to overthrow the state and set up a Catholic theocracy. (Because if you don't believe in majority rule it's a little silly to vote.) You could come up with a different sort of shared philosophy which involves voting but has Christian values enshrined in the constitution, and try to get people to sign onto it and vote for your ideals. You could try to find a secular argument for the thing you want -- for instance trying to prove that you are harmed more by being forced to bake a cake you don't want to bake than a gay couple is harmed by having to ask someone else.
But you can't say "everyone has the right to do what they think is moral," because that would be chaos. If you thought stoning gays was morally obligatory, you would be out of luck. Turns out the shared Enlightenment philosophy that says you can't impose your beliefs on others trumps religion. It has to, or else you wouldn't be allowed to practice your own religion, because guaranteed, your religion isn't allowed by somebody else's religion.
In this country, we have freedom of belief and freedom of worship. Freedom of conscience, though, is bounded by the rules of our shared philosophy. You can have the freedom to do some things, which can be demonstrated not to hurt others -- refuse medical care, affirm instead of swearing on the bible, be a pacifist. And not to do other things -- things that might hurt others, like child marriage, female genital mutilation, or human sacrifice. No one cares if your religion requires it, that's tough luck because it contradicts our shared moral grounding.
Turns out most people in this country think that you have the right to use birth control (because it doesn't hurt others) and marry the person you like of whatever gender (because it doesn't hurt others) and that you don't have the right to discriminate or encourage violence (because on some level that does hurt others). If you disagree, you'll have to find an argument based on showing that following the majority will harm you, and that your opting out of the majority opinion will not harm others. "Religious freedom" isn't an excuse for doing what our shared philosophy believes to be immoral.
And that's why I think "religious freedom," defined otherwise than freedom of thought and worship, doesn't actually exist. You can't opt out of America's rights philosophy and still demand your own right to liberty.