Monday, January 30, 2012

Freedom? Conscience? Truth!

There’s lots of talk, of course, about the current issue of the HHS contraception mandate, and the affront to “religious freedom” in this country. This is as it should be, I think, and I am very glad that the bishops are at least using strong language and urging people to take action by contacting their representatives and senators. 

Still, it seems to me that there is an even greater foundational issue to consider. Spurred on by a couple of comments on my post “War on Conscience, or War on Truth?” I have spent the last couple of days thinking and reading about these concepts:

Freedom of religion
Freedom of the Church

These concepts “legislated” and considered in our Constitution, and if our bishops end up in court over the HHS mandate, the issue will be resolved (sort of) on a short term legal basis. I hope that’s not the end of it, though; there are questions here that the Church really must address with the faithful on a long-term spiritual basis.

First, let’s back to the legal part: what’s the difference between freedom of religion and freedom of the church?  

This is apparently a question that’s been tossed around in constitutional law circles for a long, long time. (Who knew?!)  Dr. Steven D. Smith has written:

The embarrassments of modern religion clause jurisprudence are no secret. …[T]he most serious embarrassments can be traced back to a common misconception: we have supposed that the First Amendment’s religion clauses are about religion. They are not. They are about the church. ("Freedom of Religion or Freedom of the Church", August 2011)

In a nutshell, “freedom of the church” means that the institution of the church, the organization itself, if you will, should be free of coercion and/or interference from secular governmental forces so that it can pursue its divine mission of saving souls.

This concept has its roots in the struggle in the “Investiture Controversy” of the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Church sought relief from the control and manipulation of kings and emperors who dictated the appointment of clerics; and the struggle went on for centuries.

However, the word used in the Constitution is “religion”, not “church”, so we need to ask what that meant for the founding fathers. First of all, as far as I know, the founding fathers were all Protestants, and so I imagine that if you said “the Church” to them, - you know, Church with a capital C – they’d be thinking, “those darn Papists!” Protestants don’t have a Church in the same sense Catholics do; there’s no one source of authoritative doctrine, and that’s why there are so many Protestant sects. Dr. Smith notes:

Thus, in Protestant thinking, some of the central functions previously performed by the church were transferred to the individual conscience. Earlier, the laity had depended on priests to read the scriptures, teach the Gospel, and perform the sacraments; in the Protestant “priesthood of all believers,” by contrast, anyone could read the Bible for himself or herself, and could commune with God directly without the intercession of priests, saints, or sacraments… ("Freedom of Religion or Freedom of the Church", August 2011)

The “church” then, for Protestants, becomes more “internal” than “external”, and this leads to the reliance on the term “conscience”. “Conscience” becomes the voice of God within us, and “conscience” supplies the “authoritative doctrine” for Protestants that the magisterium of the Church supplies to Catholics. So, for the founding fathers, it seems likely that “religion” was, in a sense, another word for “church”, but with a more Protestant connotation.

Even in Church teaching we see muddying of the waters. Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II document on religious freedom, further conflated the concepts of “freedom of religion” and “freedom of the Church” and “conscience” for our day and age. The document begins by stating that the Council professes the one true Catholic faith, and then goes on to discuss “religious freedom” (my emphases):

2. This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means 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 right to religious freedom …continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

These words sound good, but there’s some muddying going on here, especially if one considers what’s going on in our society today in the name of conscience and religious freedom! The document insists on “freedom of religion” as a universal right, even for those who are following a false religion, “within due limits” and “provided that just public order be observed”; and it also seems to insist on “freedom of the Church”, since it is the Church which presents us with truth and the means to define “limits” and “just public order”.

But who really determines “due limits” and “just public order” in our society? The Church? Obama and Sebelius? The individual? Obviously, we are going to have vastly different definitions from each of those quarters! And of course the notion of “conscience rights” follows from this – which for most people today simply means “what I think is right”. That is not a useful construct (and it is not what the Church means by “conscience”)! It can only lead to anarchy, as individuals with opposing views of right and wrong demand that they be allowed to follow their own consciences. The law cannot recognize the myriad differences in individuals’ “morality” and remain effective in any sense of the word.

And that’s why the choice of words is important. Are we talking about freedom of religion, or freedom of the Church?

The recently-decided Supreme Court case of Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was hailed as a victory for freedom of religion, but really it seems more like a victory for freedom of the church – the freedom of the institution to govern itself (hire and fire teachers and ministers, for example), rather than being forced to comply with state or federal laws concerning discrimination in employment issues.  It seems that it would be very good to make it about “freedom of the church”; that’s a much more clear-cut distinction. (See this article: Libertas Ecclesiae versus Libertas Religionis)

When we make it all about freedom of religion, though, we open another can of worms…not that the can isn’t already open. We open the door to all kinds of “religions” whose adherents then demand certain rights and recognitions – like homosexual “marriage” and the “right” not to have to view a Nativity scene on public property during the Christmas season and the right to abortion and contraception. Again, Dignitatis Humanae does address this problem by calling for religious freedom “within due limits”, and “as long as the just requirements of public order are observed”. But it’s pretty clear that these limits have gone by the wayside in our society; they are not being observed.

So why is this important for the Church?

This is important for the Church because one reason why “due limits” are not being observed in our society today is that the Church is not observing them – or teaching them. The Church is not speaking up for the truth – and this includes bishops, priests, and laity. We have succumbed to the “conscience rights” of moral relativists, and to “tolerance” of morally evil behaviors and actions. We as Catholics don’t follow our own consciences, and in that failure we are complicit in the ills of society.

Why don’t we speak up for the truth? Let me count the ways:

  •  political correctness fostered by “ecumenism”
  • poor catechesis of the faithful
  • abandonment of Church teaching on some issues
  • bad liturgy. Seriously. 
And what will be the cost of not speaking up for the truth in our current problem with the HHS contraception mandate? It may mean that, despite their bishops’ exhortations,  many Catholics will fail to take action because they don’t know (or believe) the truth about the evil of contraception, and the vast majority of Catholics use some sort of contraception. On this last point, I asked two law professors whether they thought the court would be influenced by the facts of Catholic contraception use; both said that many judges probably would be swayed by that fact…even if they shouldn’t.
So, if the bishops take the case to court on the basis of religious freedom and conscience rights, it may be that the judge won’t take the bishops’ complaint seriously. After all, how can the Catholic Church maintain that this is an issue of “conscience” when Catholics use artificial contraception in the same proportions as the general population? The conscience of the Church is not reflected in the individual consciences of Catholics throughout the US, apparently!

And, by the way, aren’t those Catholics who deviate from Church teaching on the use of contraception just exercising their “freedom of religion”? Aren’t they following their consciences?

You see? The words are important.

And the most important word, I think, is “truth”. We must teach the truth. We must argue for the truth. The truth in this situation is that artificial contraception is sinful, that some contraceptives have abortifacient effects, and that sterilization is wrong. That’s why they should not be paid for by insurance companies – regardless of the religious affiliation of the various employers.

We can only argue for these truths if we believe them.  

Learn your faith. Know your faith. Teach your faith.

See also:

Stacy's cute cartoon on conscience, for comic relief


  1. Thank you Jay for another excellent post! Now if only we Catholics can get it through our thick skulls that "The TRUTH will set us free" (Jn. 8:32) We, and especially our pastors and bishops, should heed Our Lord's admonition from yesterday's Gospel (1962 Missal) "Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?" (Mt. 8:26). We have the perennial teachings of the Faith and the guidance of the Holy Spirit on our side; there is no need to "succumb to the moral relativists"!

  2. What an incredibly brave, beautiful, necessary post.


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