If you ask a random sampling of young people what they believe conscience is, they will give you a relative response that divulges a myriad of opinions and viewpoints. Add to the question the meaning of freedom, and the same happens. Put the two together, and you will find yourself in a jungle of confusion with no compass or linear exit strategy.
So what is freedom of conscience? The idea that some would hold beliefs so strongly, and such strong beliefs, opens the door to a new battleground of ideas that is simply that, a battle on ideas.
It is consistent that in our society, perhaps the most pluralistic of modern societies, we wage such strong ideological wars. This is a sign that religion and the primacy of the right to hold on to personal dictates of conscience is not dead, but actually fighting for life.
The sign of life is its willingness to survive. In the normal course of human development it is a sign of health to retain the will to live, to flourish, to develop, to believe. When weakness, illness, or aging set in, the body’s own defenses, physical and mental, weaken.
It seems the same holds true on the cultural level. No battles are more often fought than those dealing with ethical issues. Most of those battles revolve around lines of strongly held convictions. The sum of this is that the more ethical issues surface in public debate, the more heated and contentious the debates will be.
Belief is a sign of life, a sign of a healthy society, a sign that some things are so precious, so important, that by necessity they require a response: a cohesive and strong advocacy, a persistent, insistent, and definitive defense.
Freedom of conscience is the paramount issue at the heart of current debates on marriage, freedom of religion, insurance coverage of abortion inducing drugs by religious institutions, and a plethora of other contentious issues.
To defend the freedom of individuals to profess and exercise their own religious convictions is a paramount priority if our society is to be truly free.
After all, it is doubtful we will ever reach the point where no one cares. And by contrary analysis, insofar as we care, we are free.
By Maria Grizzetti, Director of Development at World Youth Alliance.