A man holds a large U.S. flag before an Oct. 14 Mass and Pilgrimage for Life and Liberty at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS photo/Leslie E. Kossoff)
In a previous article, “The Puzzle of Religious Liberty,” I brought before
readers a rather vexing quandary. Somehow our hearty affirmation of religious
libertywhich would seem to be a good thingends up producing a secular state
that uses its powers to enforce a secular agenda that contradicts our religious
How does it happen? In order to limit
governmental interference in our religion, we declare that we each have a right
to define our own particular view about God and how we shouldor if we
shouldworship Him. Or Her. Or It.
But the practical result of our each individually
exercising this right is, as would be expected, to multiply religious
diversity. Catholics make up about a quarter of the US population, and
Protestants about double that, but Protestantism itself is divided into myriad
significantly distinct denominations. If you doubt that, go to the Pew
Forum on Religion and Public Life, and start clicking through the divisions
and subdivisions of Evangelical Protestant Churches or Mainline Protestant
The greater the diversity, the greater the need
for particular religious believers or groups of like-minded believers to be
protected from the imposition of others’ beliefs upon them. Add to the
Christian mix Jews, Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, and the
substantial differences in core beliefs become even greater.
In legal terms, the greater the religious
diversity, the greater the desire to keep any one religious view from becoming established, i.e., from using the powers of the state to
impose its particular doctrines. Hence, the greater power given to the
government to ensure that no one’s
religious beliefs are represented by the government. In America, the result has
been the use of government power to subtract
particular religious beliefs from public, political view.
The state-sponsored subtraction began in earnest
after the landmark Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education (1947), which
declared that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause demanded the erection
of “a wall of separation between church and state.” This wall, so it was claimed, is necessary to
keep any one church from commandeering the state, so that all may enjoy
Here comes the puzzle of religious liberty, at
least as it has played out for us. The subtraction of beliefs leaves, as a
remainder, “no one’s religious beliefs,” or more accurately, non-belief. Non-belief thereby becomes the established state
worldview. Secularism takes the place of an established religion.
Secularism is not neutral. It is a quite definite
worldview, with its own version of the cosmos and the place of human beings in
it, one in which God has been subtracted. The state-sponsored subtraction of
religious beliefs in the name of religious freedom ends up establishing a
worldview based upon the subtraction of God from the cosmos.
Freedom of religion
ends up yielding a state defined by secularists bent on imposing freedom from religion. The state turns against religion, and
becomes, increasingly, a violator of religious freedom rather than its protector.
Crosses are taken down. Bibles are banned from schools. Public prayers are
forbidden. Crèches are removed from public places. Marriage is forcibly
redefined. Mandates are issued (such as the HHS mandate requiring Catholic
entities to provide contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization in their
insurance coverage). The public square is secularized, and secular morality is
imposed from above.
Pope Benedict’s warning about secularism
Pope Benedict, in his address to the American
bishops in their ad limina pilgrimage to Rome in
2012, warned of the very real dangers of radical secularism, noting its
increasing tendency to violate religious liberty:
is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to
realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a
radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and
cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly
appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain
attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the
freedom of religion.
In a way, Pope Benedict’s remarks capture the
puzzle of religious liberty. The state’s forcible subtraction of any definite
belief ends up creating a secular state hostile to religion.
For radical secularists, this is a boon. Religion
is either eliminated or privatized. In either case, it is rendered politically
and culturally inconsequential. But for Christians, this is very serious
problem, and requires of us a rethinking of what we meanand even more, what we
should meanby religious liberty.
The Church’s Declaration of Religious
As a Catholic, I cannot attempt to rethink
religious liberty without consulting the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae, subtitled (if we might call it that) “On
the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in
But “consult” is the wrong word. The Council’s
statements are binding on me as a Catholic. As Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium makes clear, “Bishops, teaching in communion
with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic
truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ
and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious
assent” (LG, 25).
Whatever this Declaration of Religious
Freedom might mean, it cannot mean my freedom to dissent from the
Council’s pronouncements about religious freedom. And this is what Dignitatis Humanae has to say:
This Vatican Council declares that
the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all
men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social
groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act
in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether
alone or in association with others, within due limits.
The council further declares that the
right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human
person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason
itself. This right of the human person
to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby
society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.
But here’s the tricky part: “the right to
religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as
this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason.”
Freedom’s ultimate roots
According to the Catechism,
“The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and
likeness of God,” an obvious reference to Genesis 1:26-27. Moreover, “The divine image is present in
every man” (CCC, 1700-1702). Human reason is able to grasp this truth insofar
as it affirms that we are endowed with a “spiritual and immortal soul,” which
is the source of man’s capacity to reason. “By his reason, he is capable of
understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he
is capable of directing himself toward his true good.”
So it is that “[b]y virtue of his soul and his
spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an ‘outstanding
manifestation of the divine image’” (CCC, 1702-1705). That’s where we ultimately get our freedom.
In sum, the Church’s assertion of the right to
religious freedom is rooted in, has its foundation in, the dignity of the human
person. This dignity is itself defined in terms of a very specific
anthropology: one which assumes that human beings are distinct creatures
endowed with immaterial, immortal souls who, by virtue of their souls, are
capable of reason and free will.
The freedom to deny the roots of freedom?
But radical secularism has its own anthropology,
one rooted in reductionist materialism that denies the existence God, the
immaterial soul, and all too often the power of reason and the existence of
That raises the obvious but generally overlooked
question. Does the right to religious liberty include the freedom to believe in
a worldview (religious, quasi-religious, or otherwise) that undermines the
dignity of the person, upon which the right to religious freedom rests?
Does the right include the right to think that
religion is bunk, and harmful bunk at that, and should be eliminated by force,
and failing that, walled out of the public square? Does it include the right to
believe that human beings are no different, in dignity, from a rabbit, squirrel,
or amoeba? The right to believe that human beings have no immortal soul, and
hence no free will, but are, in fact, material epiphenomena of their genes? The
right to believe that morality is completely relative, and should be defined
solely by each person’s goal of maximizing physical pleasure and avoiding
In short, do we have a right to believe in a
secular worldview, the worldview espoused by radical secularism which, as Pope
Benedict has warned, is increasingly engaged in attacking religious liberty? Is
that what Dignitatis Humanae meant by declaring
the right to religious liberty?
The right to define the universe?
It’s more difficult to answer that question than
one might suppose, and goes beyond the scope of this article to deal with
adequately. Perhaps we can make a good beginning by seeing what it might mean
to affirm that we have the right to believe anything.
In Planned Parenthood v.
Casey, the Catholic justice Anthony Kennedy uttered the infamous
declaration, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept
of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were
they formed under compulsion of the State.”
That is the ultimate
declaration of liberty, and hence the most expansive definition of the right to
believein this case, the right to believe anything. It is
no accident that this account of “liberty,” “right,” and “belief” was uttered
in the name of the protection of the right to abortion. The right to believe
anything means the right to believe anything morally.
Kennedy, a Catholic, get liberty right? Is that what Kennedy thought was
intended by Dignitatis Humanae?
question is directly relevant to our attempt to rethink religious liberty. In
Kennedy’s version of liberty, the most expansive view of liberty imaginable,
the right to believe whatever you want about God, about religion, is a kind of
subset of “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of
the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
we have such a right, or if the state thinks we have
such a right, then the powers of the state must be harnessed to protect it.
That makes the state the protector and enforcer of the most radical kind of
The dictatorship of relativism
that brings forth the possibility of what Pope Benedict aptly called a
“dictatorship of relativism.” In his
opening remarks to the conclave in 2005 that would end up electing him to the
papacy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger warned, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of
relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as
its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
dictatorship of relativism is, as the Pope rightly noted, not neutral toward
Christianity, but actively in opposition. It is also opposed to religious
freedom because it destroys the spiritual, intellectual, and moral truths that
form the foundation of religious freedom.
put, relativism cannot be the defining view of any society without destroying
it. As Pope Benedict said to the American bishops in the ad limina address
I’ve already quoted,
the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the
nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human
flourishing. In America, that consensus, as enshrined in your nation’s founding
documents, was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a
commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God.
Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new
cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings
of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as
other words, radical secularism destroys religious liberty by eroding “ethical
principles deriving from nature and nature’s God.” The inherent relativism also
leads to the destruction of the human person, as Pope Benedict made clear in
the address to the conclave:
a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close
the doors to transcendent truth, it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls
prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionist and
totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.
will not pretend that, in this short article, I’ve provided the last word in
rethinking religious liberty, but perhaps it is a worthy beginning, a very
short “101 Course”maybe just the first lecture.
we have seen, I hope, is what religious liberty cannot meanat least for
Catholics. It cannot mean the right to believe whatever you want. Religious
liberty as a right is, by the Church’s account, rooted in a definite
understanding of the human person, one that, if denied, actually undermines
religious liberty, and all too easily leads to a dictatorship of relativism or
even to political totalitarianism.
if radical secularism is so inclined to turn against Christianityespecially if
it gains privileged access to state powerthen somehow the right to believe
anything, including to hold the tenets of radical secularism, must be
questioned rather than assumed.
Pope Benedict warned in his Light of the World
radical secularism has become a kind of “abstract, negative religion” which “is
being made into a tyrannical standard that everyone must follow.” To this we
may add, that negative religion of radical secularism should not be the
established religion of the state, i.e., the established worldview that polices
the public square. That would spell the end of religious liberty.