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Religious Liberty and Conscience Rights: A Caution

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 17, 2012

Both religious liberty and freedom of conscience still have considerable traction in Western culture, and that is not a bad thing. As a political strategy, for example, it is smarter for the American bishops to promote conscience rights than for them to fight the HHS mandate on the basis of the immorality of contraception. Moreover, it is still fairly clear to a great many people that there is a fundamental difference between permitting elective practices like contraception and sterilization and requiring one’s neighbors to pay for them. We are glad we have at least this much to work with, and we’ll take it.

But these thoughts represent a paltry understanding of the issue, and—as with most political strategies—an incompletely articulated approach involves risk.

In fact, the Catholic Church has never taught that religious liberty or conscience rights are absolute. She has simply emphasized the obvious: In order to arrive at an understanding of the truth, the human person requires freedom to make his own inquiries. In particular, the assent of faith must be voluntary, but this is also true with the assent to all truth, including moral imperatives. Therefore, the duty to seek truth and conform one’s mind to reality through a set of fundamental convictions requires the corresponding right to intellectual freedom, which necessarily includes the freedom to make mistakes.

But please note, in Catholic thought, that this emphasis on religious liberty and conscience rights always includes two restrictions, which are forgotten at our peril. The first is the more obvious of the two:

  • Conscience is not mere preference or choice. It is grounded in reality and arrives at proper conclusions only through the person’s apprehension of the truth.

Again, this does not suddenly create a blanket right for some superior intelligence, organization or political entity to enforce what people must believe in order that error might be avoided. I have already referred to the need for freedom in forming one’s convictions. And there are also important distinctions to be made in any discussion of conscience rights. To take just one example, even if my conscience erroneously permits me to engage in some evil, this does not imply that my conscience also insists that I force others to participate in the same evil. A conscientious permission is not the same as a conscientious requirement.

Such reasoning about conscience simply reinforces the main point here, which is that conscience is not a law unto itself but depends on our right apprehension of moral reality. Therefore, it is somewhat dangerous to engage in even admittedly political strategies as if conscience is a law unto itself. Such a strategy contributes at least somewhat to the separation of the human person from his natural concourse with reality, and also at least somewhat to the breakdown of the common values which are essential to the flourishing of human communities.

But if conscience is not a law unto itself, then clearly religious liberty is not divorced from larger reality either. Indeed, the Church’s teaching on this point is equally clear, and it provides our second restriction:

  • Religious liberty is to be protected by the civil authority within the requirements of public order or the common good.

For example, even the famous teaching on religious liberty in Dignitatis Humanae at Vatican II states:

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. (2)

In the same paragraph, the Council specifies that, whatever else the phrase “due limits” may mean, it at least includes the requirement “that just public order be observed”. Let us take an obvious case. There have been religions which require human sacrifice. (That this could happen again is not such a stretch; our own “worship” of sexual convenience requires the very same thing.) Let us posit the emergence of a religion which seeks to bind the consciences of its adherents to require human sacrifice. Must the civil authority honor “religious liberty” and “conscience rights” in this case?

The answer is “no”, for in fact the public authority must, if it can reasonably accomplish the task, prevent these sacrifices as being beyond the “due limits” of religious liberty. They are beyond “due limits” because they seriously undermine the requirements of the common good with respect to public order by permitting one person to murder another. But how do we draw these lines? How do we know when the civil authority may override conscience rights and when it may not?

The answer is found in the natural law. Our recognition of and assent to Revelation, being a gift of God’s mercy which works itself out individually in each soul, requires the free response of love. But the natural law is accessible to all in the same way, and even inescapable, by virtue of our common human nature. It speaks to us not about matters of faith but about what we may or may not do to ourselves and others in this natural life which we all share. Thus the natural law poses not a problem of love but of justice. Moreover, it is not wrong to force people to behave justly, even if they happen to be ignorant of the law.

In every question faced by civil authority, the ultimate guide is the natural law. Every person, no matter what his upbringing, cultural background, education, condition or religion may be bound by the civil authority to obey the natural law, and may not be bound by civil authority to obey any law which contradicts it. Because the essential natural parameters of the common good are set by the natural law, it is the natural law which determines when and under what conditions the civil authority may set limits on the freedom of religion and the rights of conscience. That this must be done with prudence goes without saying, in order to ensure that the civil authority does more good than harm. But the basic fact remains: A just civil resolution of all of these tensions is obligatory within the natural law, and impossible outside of it.

And the final point is this: While we pursue the strategy of conscience rights and religious liberty because it happens to provide a fairly effective slogan in our sound-bite culture, we need to be careful to understand the issues more thoroughly—and to elucidate them more completely—in all of our more serious discussions. We may, certainly, act politically, but we must not confuse politics with philosophy. If absolutized on their own, separately, apart from the whole of reality, then even these rights—like so many others in our own lifetimes—will come back to haunt us in the end.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 22, 2012 5:11 PM ET USA

    Our Lord never said that He would provide us with religious liberty. In fact, He was pretty specific about what would happen to us as the cost of being His disciple, none of it pretty. Look at how this same issue is being played out in China. Unfortunately, our teachers have weenied out when we were reasonably assured of religious liberty in America. Now, backs are against the wall, but "in season, out of season" is still the command.

  • Posted by: impossible - Feb. 21, 2012 11:15 AM ET USA

    Hey Bishops, "it's the constitutional freedom" _ _ _ _ _ _. Instead of "pork" perhaps Bishop Lori might have used the burka as an example; would Obama even consider signing a law forbidding the wearing of burkas? Not a chance. I realize that too is a flawed example, not being contrary to the natural law, but so much fun to ponder.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 20, 2012 10:31 PM ET USA

    Nice traditional flavor. Rush Limbaugh- no paragon of Catholic thought but one who has something worthwhile to say from time to time- consistently admonishes the political right not to allow the terms of the discussion to be dictated to them. Neither should we. The bishops are tasked with teaching, governing and sanctifying. Let the bishops teach the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The rest will fall into place quite nicely.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 18, 2012 11:03 AM ET USA

    This principle has been known within the Church for some time and has been championed greatly by the Jesuits. However, it does not preclude or excuse the reasonable discipline of militant rebels within the Church. We in fact are now experiencing the "fall-out" from that catastrophic sin of omission. To disguise the repercussions of THAT SIN under the cloak of a "violation of religious liberty" is disingenuine.

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Feb. 18, 2012 7:22 AM ET USA

    Thank you for going down this path. My optimism about the Bishops' stance on first amendment and conscience rights was that it allows the casting of a larger net of issues. Those issues are already coming into focus so we need to have a method for separating the wheat from the chaff. This turn of events can hopefully unlock the Catholic teachings for the new evangelization. I pray the bishops are prepared to deal with a better formed laity in a collaborative way.

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Feb. 17, 2012 9:46 PM ET USA

    Here is a different angle to chew on, also. The exemption applying to religious institutions that only serve those of the same faith could be seen as an effort by the government to encourage discrimination between religious faiths. The reasoning is, if you can only follow your faith by being discriminatory and serving 'your kind', the government is encouraging the faithful to discriminate where they formerly would not have. This, too, could be a different angle of Constitutional violation.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Feb. 17, 2012 5:51 PM ET USA

    Yes, and the strategy of the Obama flaks is twofold: 1) ignore the abortifacient drugs they are mandating and reduce the issue to 'contraception' alone, and 2) depict access to free contraception as so integral to the common good as to justify the circumsciption of religious liberty. Contraception becomes required by the natural law. Not paying for contraception becomes the equivalent of human sacrifice. Whether the American people buys this remains to be seen.

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