The Philosophical Basis for Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty has been on our minds a lot lately. The HHS mandate, same-sex marriage initiatives, and recently, the Duck Dynasty controversy with television network A&E, have put the issue squarely before us. In late December, CNA published an article about Camille Paglia, a 1960’s generation “feminist lesbian professor” who is reported to have “harshly criticized” A&E’s decision to suspend Phil Robertson because it violates the right of free speech.

What has occasioned this brief note on religious liberty is Paglia’s denunciation that some gay activists in this country have fallen into “fanaticism.” She also states, “that this intolerance … toward the full spectrum of human beliefs is a sign of immaturity, juvenility.” Her reason for these indictments is striking: “in a democratic country, people have the right to be homophobic as well as they have the right to support homosexuality [emphasis mine].” In other words, a democracy should tolerate every moral conviction, even if it is wrong, as she evidently condemns homophobia to be. Such a claim goes well beyond the issue of free speech, touching more upon the rights of religiously informed moral beliefs within the public square, which is actually a question of religious liberty.

One may ask, however, why CNA reported on Paglia’s public outcry in the first place? Was it to demonstrate that even a self-acclaimed libertarian-styled feminist stands with us in protecting our right to believe as we do? It’s hard to say. What seems clear is that the CNA article could lead unwitting Catholics to conclude that the basis upon which the Church defends religious liberty (or freedom of speech for that matter) is the moral equivalency, within a democratic order, of every conviction. In today’s American context of “tolerance in the name of moral relativism,” it is easy to mistake the Catholic understanding of the right to religious liberty (i.e. freedom of conscience and speech in matters of faith) for Paglia’s position. This is a confusion many Catholics have today—as is evident by the widespread sympathy among self-described Catholics for the cause of same-sex marriage and the HHS mandate.

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This confusion is easy to understand given the cultural climate in which we live. This is why a clarification is in order. Let’s begin with the HHS mandate. Against this the Church is defending her right on the grounds that the state has no authority to force anyone—individually or institutionally—to act against religious conviction (conscience) by cooperating in the morally illicit acts of sterilization, contraception, and abortion. With same sex-marriage, the Church does not recognize the authority of government to change the definition of marriage, even within a democracy. The Church has no official stance on the Duck Dynasty/A&E controversy, but presumably the Church would support Phil Robertson’s right to voice publicly the truth of Christian ethics, his awkward and crass articulation of this truth not withstanding. In all three situations, the right of religious liberty proceeds from the prior obligation to live according to the truth about the human good.

There are two principles that situate the Church’s understanding of religious liberty. The first and most important is that all people, as God’s creatures, are “bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it” (Dignitatis humanae, 1.2). This prior obligation originates in humanity’s nature as a truth seeker and in God who is the author of that nature. This is what grounds the subsequent right of conscience. Conscience cannot be violated because the human person is obligated to live according to the truth. This first principle grounds the Church’s stance toward same-sex marriage and the freedom of speech.

The second principle, which follows from the first, is that the dignity of the human person, as such, requires that, “[n]obody … be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters … within due limits. This right is based in the very nature of the human person” (Dignitatis humanae, 2.2). Due limits—what justice requires—pertains to those situations wherein we simply cannot be tolerant of what is being defended (in the name of conscience) because the matter in question is too harmful to society. The condition of due limits presupposes that conscience is in conformity with the basic requirements of natural law. This principle grounds the Church’s position toward the HHS mandate.

But here’s the problem with the language of religious liberty in our cultural context: if defended on the basis of moral relativism, it is easy to conclude that individual predilection becomes the rule and measure of law. This is what Benedict XVI meant when he spoke about the “dictatorship of relativism.” To return to Paglia’s approach, we ought to advocate tolerance for “homophobes” on the grounds that we are all entitled to our own moral perspective, and thus all ought to be treated equally before the law, even if a given stance is felt to be wrong by other parties.  Would Paglia support the Neo-Nazis’ right to publicly express their views? I’m doubtful. Libertarians of her ilk tend to defend consensual forms of behavior more than those inclined toward violence, which in the end only shows that relativism is ultimately a weak foundation for defending any form of human liberty.

We should be careful in the present public discourse around religious liberty. If we employ relativism to defend this right, we can be assured that this same rationale will come back to bite us.  The Catholic position on religious liberty is not based on the principle of “neutrality” or indifference toward every point of view. The HHS mandate, same-sex marriage, and the Duck Dynasty controversy are all quite different issues, but the Catholic stance on them proceeds from the same principled obligation to truth. In the case of the HHS mandate, the state cannot command us to violate the divine law. In the case of same-sex marriage, the state cannot redefine the meaning of marriage. In the Duck Dynasty controversy, people have the right to give public expression to moral truth.

All this might lead one to wonder, does the Catholic Church believe in tolerance? The answer is yes, but not on the grounds of moral relativism. Tolerance is rooted in the prudence to know which socially significant evils can co-exist with civility and the common good (due limits), and which cannot, lest they profoundly undermine the commonwealth. We tolerate evil as evil, not as “just one perspective among many.” We also recognize that some evils cannot be tolerated.


  • Michel Therrien

    Michel Therrien is the President and CEO of Preambula Group, a nonprofit lay apostolate dedicated to the work of the new evangelization. He has taught at Saint Vincent Seminary and the Augustine Institute and served as president of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

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