Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Main violators of religious liberty? State…and Church!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 21, 2022

For some time now, I’ve wanted to emphasize some important distinctions concerning religious liberty. The reason is that there is so much confusion on this subject—in the Church, in civil society, in discussions of Catholic teaching, and even often in the family. To sort this out, some important distinctions need to be made.

When the Second Vatican Council upheld religious liberty in its Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), it asserted a very common-sense overview of the subject, without going into all the practical variations on the theme that were possible in various societies and situations. Essentially the Council declared that the human person is obliged to seek God and so must be free to do exactly that, within the limits of the common good. (If you don’t believe me, simply read the three short paragraphs in section 2.)

It is not my purpose here to argue that this is perfectly consistent with prior Catholic teaching on the subject (if not always with prior Catholic practice); that point has long been settled. For one fairly early essay demonstrating the compatibility against critics, see the analysis by Dr. William Marshner which I published in the academic journal Faith & Reason way back in 1983, Dignitatis humanae and Traditional Teaching on Church and State.

Rather I wish to point out that the Vatican II Declaration upholds religious liberty with respect to civil government, that is, in what we now refer to as “the State”. But religious liberty has very different implications in the context of other kinds of “societies”, such as the society of the Church or of a school or of the family itself. The most serious abuses of religious liberty properly understood seem to me currently to occur not only in the State but in the Church, the former through what we might call positive overreach, the latter through negative underreach.

In the State

In some parts of the world, the State fails to uphold religious liberty by actively punishing its exercise. This is generally true, as everyone is aware, under Communist, Islamic and sometimes Hindu regimes, where the State typically arrogates to itself the non-existent right and non-existent power to create its own believers by force. But the threat to religious liberty most of my readers will experience is the threat by today’s ideologically secular states in North America, Europe, and some other places—the states we typically associate with “the West”. Under these regimes religious liberty is consistently “upheld” only privately; the public manifestation of religious beliefs and values derived from religion—especially Christianity—is increasingly restricted or altogether prohibited.

The Church’s teaching on religious liberty was intended to apply specifically to the denial of that liberty by the sorts of States identified in the previous paragraph. The Council noted that religious liberty must, to the contrary, always be upheld within the limits of the common good. To assert, as many Western states do now, that religious liberty can be allowed only privately, without broad public expression, is in fact to deny religious liberty nearly altogether. On this view, religious liberty is properly upheld as long as a person can hold a religious view in his mind and heart without expressing it, which makes nonsense of both the word “religious” and the word “liberty”.

Rather, the State ought not to prohibit the normal exercise of religious worship in appropriate venues or the expression of religious beliefs in what we might call the socio-political-economic-educational-cultural order. And this restriction applies uniquely to the State precisely because the State is a territorial governmental entity. As a general rule, people do not voluntarily associate themselves with a particular State, nor can they opt out of that association. They are, for this reason, effectively “under the State’s thumb” or “at the State’s mercy”. Therefore, the State (and all who govern it) have a serious moral obligation to honor the natural rights of citizens and promote their common good.

On the other hand, it is precisely in the consideration of the common good that these liberties can at particular times and in particular ways be limited. I do not mean that the State can decide according to some ideology that it is always harmful to society for people to express a religious belief. Rather, I mean that when elements vital to the common good are threatened by particular religious activities, the State can morally restrict these activities. For example, all law must be consonant with the Natural Law, and if a particular religion advocates something contrary to the natural law (such as child sacrifice), the practice of that religion can (and ought to) be banned by the State, in order to uphold another right (in this case the right to life) and, more generally, the common good.

There may also be times when certain forms of religious expression could be morally curtailed by the State, such as when a particular public event might cause a riot and endanger lives. Thus religious liberty is to be upheld, as Vatican II taught, “within due limits”, and “provided that just public order be observed.” Religious liberty cannot be a warrant to do evil in the name of God or to act recklessly with respect to the consequences for one’s neighbors. In these situations, the State plays its role in defense of the common good (as properly understood in the light of that Natural Law which is accessible to all).

There is also nothing to prevent a State from privileging a particular religion in its constitution or in its governmental influence as long as the religious liberty of others is not denied. It is not wrong to so constitute a State such that the Catholic Church is designated as the arbiter of the natural law, for example, or to designate chaplains in government from one religion and not another. At the same time, however, any State which significantly violates the Natural Law in the treatment of its citizens becomes unjust. Given the right conditions, including the reasonable possibilities, rebellion against such a fundamentally unjust State is morally legitimate.

The Church

But it would be a great mistake to impose the same responsibility to protect religious liberty on private associations or on the Church, neither of which exercise the State’s coercive power. People choose to belong to a private association or to identify with a church, and when they no longer accept the purposes of an association or of a church (or of the Church), they have the freedom to disassociate themselves—something that they cannot do with respect to the temporal power of the State. In other words, the moral obligation of the State is to promote the common good and protect the genuine liberties of all in a particular region; but the moral obligation of a private association, and above all of the Church, is—again, within the limits of the Natural Law—to effectively pursue its own ends.

In saying this, I am not intending to classify the Church as a “private association”. It is something far greater and fundamentally different than that. But it is not a State; it does not, except sometimes as a very limited convenience, exercise temporal government over a territory. The Church does not claim political sovereignty over the lands in which the Church’s members happen to live. And, above all, a person is typically free to “leave the Church” or “renounce faith in the Church” without any ecclesiastical penalties beyond future exclusion from the fold and the predictable spiritual problems consequent upon such a rejection.

For this reason, we might well ask why there is so much injustice in the Church today precisely through the toleration and even encouragement of beliefs and actions which clearly undermine or defy the Church’s own mission. Why is there so little ecclesiastical discipline exercised with respect to priests, religious, and even bishops who no longer uphold the Faith; Catholic politicians who openly defy Catholic moral teaching; scholars and teachers who undermine faith and morals while claiming to be Catholic and even working for Catholic institutions; priests who convey doctrinal and moral error from the pulpit or in the confessional; parish organizations dominated by lay people who do not adhere to Catholic faith and morals? In short, why are there so many who are allowed to claim to be Catholics in good standing while they deliberately and openly work against the truths and principles which the Catholic Church was established by God Himself to teach and uphold?

For here is the reverse of the situation with the State. If the State must not violate religious liberty, as a general rule, by penalizing those who maintain religious ideas (including religious errors), the Church must in fact exclude from her membership those who seek to undermine her own teachings and moral principles, the beliefs and principles it is her special mission to propagate throughout the world. Her current members are free to go elsewhere if they refuse the Catholic faith. Therefore, in many situations they ought to be refused the right to call themselves “Catholic”. This is precisely so that the Church’s mission will remain clear and attractive to those who would like to effectively receive that mission, if only they could discern it clearly.

It should go without saying that I am not here advocating the exclusion of all those who are mistaken or all who have trouble accepting a particular Catholic teaching or all who are sinners. That would be to exclude everyone. Ideally, every member of the Church would, in effect, be loved into a greater perfection of truth and grace. No, here I am talking not of those who struggle with the Catholic understanding of perfection but of those who make much of their Catholicism even as they publicly reject and work against the the Church’s faith, her morals, her teachings, and the source of her fruitfulness, which is Jesus Christ.


This is what I meant when I said that the two greatest violators of the principles of religious liberty are the modern secular State and the contemporary Church herself. The former seeks to drive Christ out of what we call the public square, and even increasingly out of essentially private activities. The latter avoids the responsibility of strengthening Catholicism internally so that others may have a greater possibility of uniting themselves to “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).

The State must protect, within the limits of the common good, the fundamental liberty to seek the truth by those over whom the State exercises a non-voluntary authority. The Church must exclude from her Communion, within the limits of the good of souls, those over whom she exercises a voluntary authority, when they actively deny that authority and so undermine the Church’s own proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. As far as Our Lord is concerned, the Church violates the religious liberty He has intended from all eternity for others, when she fails to be true to her own mission. I mean the liberty for which He allowed Himself to be crucified—the liberty, once again as St. Paul said, to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: susanw - Jan. 22, 2022 2:30 PM ET USA

    Some really good points. I am going to save this to assist me when the Synod on Synodality discussions come up at my church. My fear is that they are not really looking for ways to direct the church in the faith of Christ. I pray I am wrong. Thanks for the insights and honesty.