Religious Liberty – A Catholic Viewpoint

By Bishop Anthony B. Taylor

In this short essay, I will give a brief overview of the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding religious liberty. As a follower of Jesus, I recall that he declared that we would be persecuted and would be blessed if we suffered persecution because of his name. He gave us no guarantee that our rights would be respected.

During the first 300 years of our existence, martyrdom was an essential part of Christian spirituality. We Catholics recall with pride that Peter the first Pope and Paul the great evangelist both gave their lives for the faith, as did thousands of others – religious liberty was not on the radar then, or indeed for most of history. Over the centuries we have persecuted others for their faith and been persecuted by others for ours. And while Catholic thought on this topic has developed over time, it is striking that our most comprehensive official teaching on religious liberty only goes back 50 years, to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). American Catholics recall with pride that this document of the universal Church was drafted largely by an American priest, John Courtney Murray, who pushed for an American understanding of religious freedom drawn from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Dignitatis Humanae seeks to address the challenge of spreading the Christian faith while respecting democratic societies and growing religious pluralism. It asserts three fundamental rights: 1) freedom of conscience, 2) freedom to live one’s faith individually and in community without interference; and 3) the autonomy of religious institutions. All of these rights are threatened in the world today.

Freedom of Conscience

Freedom of conscience means that no one may force us to do what conscience forbids or forbid us to do what conscience requires (which is not the same as what conscience “allows”0, within due limits. Examples of limits for common good to things which some consciences might allow include having a minimum age for marriage, prohibiting the marriage of siblings and first cousins, and prohibiting the marriage of people of the same gender. Conscience does not “require” underage, incestuous or same-sex unions, all of which are contrary to natural law.

The right and obligation to follow the requirements of our conscience are rooted in our inalienable, God-given dignity as a human person. This does not, however, mean that we can always do whatever we want. Objective truth determines what is right or wrong and decisions based on what is objectively false bring with them the natural consequences that are destructive on the human person and of society. And in this we have an obligation to protect the common good.

For example, the Church opposes so-called same-sex marriage not because it hates those who experience same-sex attraction or seeks to perpetuate sinful discrimination against them, but rather because natural law – God’s will for human behavior revealed in the very way in which he created our world (in this case the physical and sexual complementarity of the human person necessary for procreation) – dictates our position that marriage is a holy endeavor between one man and one woman. Now our government and society are abandoning this objective truth regarding marriage which has been held as self-evident by virtually all cultures from the very dawn of human existence. And despite our First Amendment rights, some who refuse to accept this truth attempt to discredit and silence us by stigmatizing unjustly Catholics and others who won’t bend to the direction of today’s winds as motivated by hate and intolerance.

The Church’s opposition to the contraceptive mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services is another application of this principle. That mandate intends to require us to participate in the provision of insurance for morally objectionable medical “services” (artificial contraception, non-medically indicated sterilizations and abortions in some circumstances) whether by providing this coverage directly or by an action that would serve to trigger their provision through a third party, forcing us to participate in what conscience forbids.

Freedom to live one’s faith individually and in community without interference.

The function of government is to provide for the common good, but when it presumed to direct or inhibit religions acts, it exceeds the limits of its authority. Our religious bodies have the right to govern themselves according to their own norms, to instruct members in their faith, to give corporate public witness to their faith without hindrance and to welcome new converts. Note that freedom of worship is only one element of religious freedom. Individuals and religious bodies have a God-given right to live our faith without hindrance in every area of life, including the manner in which believers conduct their business, the schools which our children attend and the way we operate our schools, and the way in which health care services are provided.

Here the historical record of the Catholic Church in some Catholic countries is not good, especially during the medieval period. In those days theologians held that charity required us to do all in our power to eradicate error, even enlisting government coercion, in order to save society from the infection of error and for the eternal welfare of those who were headed for perdition due to idolatry, heresy, or schism But sadly, history teaches us that we can justify about anything whenever we put ourselves in God’s place. “Deus Vult” – “God wills it” – was the rallying cry of the First Crusade. This mentality also gave us the Inquisition. And worse, this mentality also left an opening for the ongoing demonization of those who are different, leading to every form of marginalization and discrimination, and ultimately in Europe, to the Holocaust.

We Catholics have learned what is at stake when Religious Liberty is not protected. We know because not only have we been guilty historically of denying religious liberty to others, we have also been on the losing side of this dynamic in Protestant countries, and continue to lack full religious freedom in many non-Christian countries today – indeed, in some parts of Asia and the Middle East, Catholics still lack even the freedom to worship in public. The same is true for members of many other religious minorities. In much of Latin America during the 20th century the Church was a target of governmental persecution – Guatemala produced thousands of martyrs in the 1980s, including F. Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma priest whose canonization is now in Rome. Now the Church in Latin America is being attacked by drug cartels – three priests have been killed recently in southern Mexico – so governments are not the only threat. Here in the United States, the Church is not yet a target of overt persecution, but the secular climate is becoming more hostile and here the threat comes not from rival religious groups as in the past, but rather from an aggressive secularism that seeks to discredit and undermine faith of any sort.

The autonomy of religious institutions

Religious freedom is exercised in a pluralistic world and so is subject to certain regulatory norms designed to assist in the exercise of our rights and to protect the rights of others. Therefore the autonomy of religious institutions is not absolute, for instance when there is proof of some violation of the rights of others, or of public peace, or of public morality – as in the case of our scandalous clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Apart from this necessary restriction of religious liberty in order to meet the requirements of justice and to safeguard the rights and freedoms of others, in all other matters, people should be free to act on their own judgment so long as they do not use that freedom as a pretext for refusing to submit to legitimate authority in matters relating to the common good. Dignitatis Humanae insists: “Religious freedom, therefore, ought to have this further purpose and aim, namely, that men may come to act with greater responsibility in fulfilling their duties in community life.”

Conclusion

My basic message and that of the Catholic Church on the topic of religious liberty is inescapable: 1) no one may licitly force us to do what conscience forbids or forbid us to do what conscience requires, 2) we should be free to live our faith in every area of life without undue interference – not just while at worship, and 3) religious institutions should enjoy full autonomy, limited only as needed to protect the rights of others.

But one major thing is missing from this presentation, namely Jesus’ even more fundamental invitation “to love others as I have loved you,” meaning completely, selflessly, to the point of laying down our lives for others. That is where human freedom resides most fully. And so while we recall with pride that religious liberty is our first and greatest freedom as Americans, it is also important to remember that Jesus warned us not to expect the world to change to accommodate us. Indeed, he warns us that the world will hate us when we speak a truth that people don’t want to hear and should this result in persecution, we should feel blessed and not be surprised. It has happened before and as we see from current events, it may well happen again.


Bishop Anthony B. Taylor was ordained bishop on June 5, 2008 and is the seventh bishop for the Dioceses of Little Rock.  He has a Bachelor’s degree in History from St. Meinrad Seminary College and a Ph.d. from Fordham University.  He was ordained a priest on August 2, 1980.