Catholics and Religious Liberty

2012-01-16 00:20:03

The twentieth century witnessed a remarkable realignment of the Roman Catholic Church with the cause of religious liberty. The widespread embrace of individual rights among Western democracies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had been met with skepticism by the Church, which traditionally favored a confessional state and insisted that freedom must rest on truth. This relationship between freedom and truth was understood to require that the state recognize and defend the Church’s unique status among religions.

In his 1832 encyclical Mirari vos, for example, Pope Gregory XVI lamented the ‘‘absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone.’’ Pope Pius IX, in his 1864 encyclical Quanta cura, warned that ‘‘if human arguments are always allowed free room for discussion, there will never be wanting men who will dare to resist truth.’’ The encyclical’s accompanying Syllabus of Errors listed among ‘‘the principal errors of our times’’ the increasingly popular beliefs that ‘‘every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true,’’ that ‘‘it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship,’’ and the broader notion that ‘‘[t]he Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.’’ These sentiments were prompted, at least in part, by the era’s persistent and violent anticlericalism, particularly in Europe; nevertheless, their breadth seemed to sweep in America’s more conciliatory experiment in church–state separation.

An Evolving Embrace

The tone and substance of the Vatican’s pronouncements on religious liberty had changed dramatically by the mid-twentieth century. The shift was part of a broader reconception of the Church’s relationship with the modern world. Modern liberalism’s individualist presumptions forced the Church to think more deeply and articulate more carefully the scope and relevance of natural rights. This exercise was not aimed simply at solidifying a defensive posture against individualism; rather, the Church sought to address the more pressing dangers of materialism, fascism, and communism. In other words, the overlap between the Church’s world view and modern liberalism became more obvious as other, more foreboding, threats loomed.

First, as market economies spawned great disparities in wealth along with an increased emphasis on material consumption, the Church broadened and deepened its teaching on social justice, effectively linking itself with a broader progressive movement, initially focusing on the economic sphere, especially labor rights, but eventually extending to a variety of issues, including race. These causes facilitated the Church’s friendlier stance toward individual rights generally, including religious liberty.

Second, in the wake of World War II, the Church was reminded that liberalism and fascism could not be considered moral equivalents. The Church could not be neutral, at least ideologically, on the contest that left Europe physically and spiritually devastated. More practically, World War II shaped the debate over religious liberty by forcing many European Catholic intellectuals to flee to the United States. A generation of influential thinkers was able to make firsthand comparisons between the American and European approaches to church–state separation. Given their divergent national histories, Americans saw liberalism as grounded in religion, whereas Europeans thought it necessary to escape religion to realize liberalism’s promise. As a consequence, religion maintained its public relevance and vitality in the United States; this was not lost on observers.

Third, in the postwar climate, communism emerged as an even more overtly hostile threat, becoming the first political force of global reach founded on Atheism. Not only did Western liberalism’s emphasis on individual rights offer a preferred aspirational ideal, the rights-based system also offered the only realistic means by which to counter communism’s expanding threat.

In addition to these sociopolitical factors, the Church’s teaching on religious liberty was influenced by development in its theological stance toward other religions. The twentieth century saw renewed debate regarding the presence of truth and potential for salvation in other faith traditions. In this vein, the Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et spes (1965), asserted the possibility of salvation ‘‘not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way.’’ The Council also declared, in Nostra aetate (1965), that the Church ‘‘rejects nothing that is true and holy’’ in other religions and ‘‘regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.’’ Even more significantly, the Council warned that ‘‘[w]e cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God.’’ For purposes of religious liberty, this led to the essential recognition that ‘‘[n]o foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.’’

The Church’s evolving embrace of religious liberty was also shaped by the work of several key Catholic intellectuals. Philosopher Jacques Maritain emphasized natural rights and played a key role in the development of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The theology of Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Karl Rahner displayed an increasing openness to much of modern human experience. Bernard Lonergan sought to reframe the conception of understanding in light of modernity. John Henry Newman made the provocative claim that the experience of the faithful has a role in the development of doctrine. These figures loom large in a story that proceeded, in significant part, as a theory-driven conversation.

But no figure looms as large as that of John Courtney Murray, the American theologian who insisted that state-sponsored religion need not be the Catholic ideal, that separate church and state spheres did not threaten—and indeed could enhance—the vitality of religion in society, and that economic and religious individualism must be distinguished from the political individualism of a rights-based democracy. Reflecting how stark his challenge was, he was forbidden by the Vatican from writing on church–state issues during the mid-1950s. (Indeed, virtually all of these key intellectual figures experienced significant institutional opposition from the Church at some point in their careers.) By the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), however, Murray managed to play an active role in drafting the key documents on which the Church’s support for religious liberty would be based for years to come.

The Second Vatican Council

All of these contributing factors culminated in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae (1965), in which the Church plainly declared that ‘‘the human person has a right to religious freedom.’’ The key theoretical development was the Council’s recognition of the civil sphere/religious sphere distinction, which facilitated in turn a distinction between moral or religious freedom and civil freedom. The Council stated that ‘‘ [t]he truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth,’’ and thus a person’s ‘‘duty to worship God’’ demands ‘‘immunity from coercion in civil society.’’ This left ‘‘untouched,’’ in the Council’s estimation, ‘‘traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.’’

The perceived necessity of articulating a civil freedom of religion emanated from the nature of the human person. As ‘‘beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility,’’ the Council explained that the human person must exercise his or her moral obligation to seek and adhere to truth, but that he or she can only do so if immune from external coercion. Thus, religious liberty ‘‘has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the human person, but in his very nature,’’ and immunity from external coercion ‘‘continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it.’’ The dignity of the human person on which the Church’s conception of religious liberty is founded is known not only through divine revelation—in particular, the ‘‘respect which Christ showed toward the freedom with which man is to fulfill his duty of belief in the word of God’’—but also is knowable through the human reason developed over the course of human experience, and so is accessible universally.

The Second Vatican Council denied any suggestion that its declaration amounted to an about-face on religious liberty.While the Council acknowledged that ‘‘in the life of the People of God, as it has made its pilgrim way through the vicissitudes of human history, there has at times appeared a way of acting that was hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel or even opposed to it,’’ it insisted that ‘‘the doctrine of the Church that no one is to be coerced into faith has always stood firm.’’ Subsequently, Pope John Paul II has recognized that the Church’s approach to human rights has been dynamic. In 1980, he observed that ‘‘[d]uring these last decades the Catholic Church has reflected deeply on the theme of human rights, especially on freedom of conscience and of religion,’’ and that ‘‘in so doing, she has been stimulated by the daily life experience of the Church herself and of the faithful of all areas and social groups.’’

Championing the Cause

In the post–Vatican II era, John Paul II’s contributions to the theme of religious liberty stand out, as they reflect his own experience with fascism and communism. His voice deepened the Church’s commitment to the civil sphere/religious sphere distinction, as explored in a 1980 letter:

On the basis of his personal convictions, man is led to recognize and follow a religious or metaphysical concept involving his entire life with regard to fundamental choices and attitudes. This inner reflection, even if it does not result in an explicit and positive assertion of faith in God, cannot but be respected in the name of the dignity of each one’s conscience, whose hidden searching may not be judged by others. Thus, on the one hand, each individual has the right and duty to seek the truth, and, on the other hand, other persons as well as civil society have the corresponding duty to respect the free spiritual development of each person.

Indeed, in John Paul II’s estimation, religious liberty is foundational of all other liberties ‘‘insofar as it touches the innermost sphere of the spirit.’’ His unwavering commitment to religious liberty became especially noteworthy as he used the Church’s moral authority as a leading rallying point of efforts to liberate Soviet bloc countries.

All of this is not to suggest that the Church’s vision of religious liberty has simply melded into the vision embodied in mainstream secular liberalism. The Church has long understood religious liberty not just as an individual right, but is a bulwark against state interference with society’s religious institutions. And at the individual level, the Church stakes out positions requiring a more robust conception of religious liberty than many modern liberals will grant. For example, the Church expects authentic religious liberty to encompass parents’ choice of schooling options for their children. As stated in Dignitatis Humanae, the Church expects the government to ‘‘acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and of other means of education, and the use of this freedom of choice is not to be made a reason for imposing unjust burdens on parents, whether directly or indirectly.’’ Religious liberty also cannot be equated, in the Church’s view, with privatized religion. On this front, the Vatican expressed its concern to the United Nations that ‘‘[t]he greater exercise of individual freedoms may result in greater intolerance and greater legal constraints on the public expressions of people’s beliefs,’’ and that ‘‘what is being challenged, in effect, is the right of religious communities to participate in public, democratic debate in the way that other social forces are allowed to do.’’

On the core concept of religious liberty, however, civil libertarians have a stalwart ally in the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, by grounding the case for liberty in the very nature of the human person, the Church’s approach may offer a more compelling, less transient justification than the necessarily contingent defense of liberty emerging from the majoritarian and pragmatic foundations used in modern liberal dialogue.


References and Further Reading

  • Bruce, Douglass, R., and David Hollenbach, eds. Catholicism and Liberalism: Contributions to American Public Philosophy. Cambridge: University Press, 1994
  • McGreevey, John T. Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003
  • Murray, John Courtney. Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles With Pluralism. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993
  • Steinfels, Margaret O’Brien, ed. American Catholics and Civil Engagement: A Distinctive Voice. New York: Rowan & Littlefield, 2004.