Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The religious liberty defense can, and probably will, obscure the truth.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 15, 2015

To build on Phil Lawler’s comments on the plight of the Little Sisters of the Poor (The Little Sisters case: being forced by government to act against one's principles), I’d like to take a brief but hard look at why religious liberty is such a weak basis for moral political action. In other words, I am raising this question: “What is wrong with religious liberty as a primary political defense?”

The Catholic Church teaches that all persons have a right to religious liberty “within due limits”. The Second Vatican Council, in Dignitatis humanae, taught the following:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. 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]

It is not hard to see what these “due limits” are. The most important limit is the moral limit of the natural law. Nobody has the right to act in an immoral manner, and government has a responsibility to protect the common good by restricting, in a prudent manner, those actions which are contrary to the natural moral law—whether they are religiously motivated or not. Thus, for example, those who adhere to a religion that demands human sacrifice would be restricted in a well-ordered state.

Other “due limits” depend mostly on particular situations. Thus, if tensions are such that a public religious observance will almost certainly lead to rioting and violence, a government would be justified in a suitable temporary restriction of that activity. But as far as permanent, principled restrictions, the natural law is the key. It is the natural law which imposes what the Council referred to as “due limits”.

The Law Turned Upside Down

Unfortunately, we live in a culture in which the natural law is not recognized as a basis for common morality. It has been replaced by a system of ever-changing rights as continuously redefined by the prevailing dictatorship of relativism. This means that government is no longer capable of making sound judgments about when it may or may not restrict the right to religious liberty.

Once again, religious liberty, like all genuine rights, is limited by both the natural law and our duties to our neighbors. If I claim, in the name of religion, that black people are inferior and must not be treated as well as white people, a well-ordered society will use both social pressure and political discipline to restrict my exercise of that religion. But when the constantly-changing dictates of the secular intelligentsia are mistaken for the natural law, then a disordered society will be absolutely certain that proper morality demands the restriction of those who, in the name of religion, work against any position that “all the right people” consider good.

This is the essence of political correctness. Thus, if people “feel” that the personal happiness of gays depends on their right to “marry” (these would, of course be people who do not have a natural understanding of marriage), then they will use social and political mechanisms to restrict others who deny and work against this “good” in the name of religion. What we must realize is this: In doing so, they will be mimicking a normal and even proper behavior pattern. They will be using government just as a Christian would to enforce those principles which appear to be perfectly “natural”—to enforce those decisions which are beyond legitimate debate.

Note that I said “mimicking”. A mimic is always lacking one essential ingredient: Reality. Such people go through all the right motions with one crucial flaw: Their judgment of what is natural and good is not true.

A Grave Danger

The danger, then, of over-emphasizing religious liberty is that to do so undervalues the truth. It is right and good to restrict some bizarre things that this or that alleged religion might come up with. And it is wrong to restrict religious liberty when religious exercise does not violate the natural law. Sadly, when facing a government which has no basis for its moral enactments, we may be tempted to stress religious liberty too much because we think it will play well among our neighbors, and so win a respite from persecution. But if we do this, we are very likely to obscure a more important personal, social and political principle: Our claims can be honored only so far because we believe them, but they must be honored completely if they are true.

Pragmatic strategies aside, the best reason to demand freedom from participation in things like contraception, abortion, and gay marriage is that these things are wrong. As such, nobody should be participating in them. But if our society and government are too dull and too debauched to restrict such practices, let our society and government at least avoid forcing those who are neither dull nor debauched to participate in the moral chaos.

Any port in a storm, I suppose, and in some cases religious liberty may serve as a port. But I warn everyone: Any sort of craven dependence on the religious liberty defense will, in the long run, obscure the truth. At some point, we must be willing to go to jail (or worse) not because we demand religious liberty, but because we are right about the moral principles which all are capable of knowing, and all are required to obey.

A Blast from the Past

Interestingly, this brings us back to a very old question about the State. Neither the natural law nor the Catholic Church has any claim to dictate specific policies, to architect the specific prudential arrangements that are chosen as most feasible and most likely to produce the desired impact on the common good. This is not the province of the clergy or the Church; it is the province of the laity, and therefore of secular government, or the State.

But the Church does have a claim to determine the moral ends of government, and the moral means government may use to attain those ends. It ought to be very clear by now that a government that has no way to inform itself about moral ends and moral means will inescapably be either whimsical or tyrannical. This is why, in the first few centuries after the dissolution of political societies which accepted (at least in theory) the Catholic Faith, the Church emphasized both the importance and, in fact, the justice of the recognition of the Church by the State as a great benefit to the common good.

In the modern era, we have shifted the emphasis toward religious liberty—which is also, within due limits, a benefit to the common good. But we are by no means permitted to forget the lessons of the earlier emphasis: (1) All reality is rooted firmly in God, Who communicates both supernaturally and naturally the great truths and moral principles by which we are to live; (2) While the natural law is accessible to all men and women of good will, the Church has particular authority to understand and expound it unerringly; (3) All societies and their governments are morally bound to accept and follow the natural law; and so (4) Moral deference to the Church is a great bulwark against moral error and the tyrannies that arise from it.


While it does not appear possible at the moment to develop a social order which broadly accepts these principles or anything close to them, we must never forget that these principles are in fact an accurate description of reality. Truth, of course, is merely the mind’s conformity with reality. So I will say it again: We do not want to be exempted from the politics of evil just because we deserve religious liberty. We want to be exempted because we are right, and the State is wrong.

Moreover, exemption is not our end; it is merely a beginning, one possible beginning of a much larger project. Whether by a singular exemption or by punishment and suffering, we are called to bear witness to the importance of that project. I mean to the grounding of social life and politics in 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: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 17, 2015 6:00 PM ET USA

    Randal Mandack: You raise an important point, but it is irrelevant to the responsibilities of civil society to respect religious liberty. This footnote simply clarifies what should be obvious but would certainly have been misunderstood, that the obligation of the state to respect religious liberty "within due limits" does not in any way affect the obligation each person and every society has to discern and respect the true religion. But as the teaching on religious liberty makes clear, this obligation does not in any way include the use of force by civil authority to compel people to join the Church or participate in its rituals. This, of course, would be a spiritual coercion utterly beyond the competence of the civil authority. The state can enforce the natural law, which is common to all men by nature; it cannot enforce Catholicism, which comes to some men supernaturally by faith.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 17, 2015 1:46 AM ET USA

    A bold statement, Jeff. The "due limits" cited in n. 2 of "Dignitatis humanae" are more expansive than the natural law alone. Cf n. 1: "So while the religious freedom which men demand in fulfilling their obligation to worship God has to do with freedom from coercion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ." Thus they include the natural law and the Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 15, 2015 10:35 PM ET USA

    There is a quote in the book "Hostage to the Devil" by Malachi Martin. He was speaking with an elderly exorcist about his experiences and the conversation was identified by Malachi Martin as one of the most profound of his life. (If memory serves) the exorcist asserted: "A bird doesn't fly because it has wings. It has wings because it flies." It would seem that the words are lost largely today in the churches, in the highest courts, in the media, in the culture, in society, and in families.