Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Religious Liberty in Decline, Especially for Christians

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 15, 2014

According to the latest Pew study, the number of states which highly restrict religion increased from 20 to 24 from 2011 to 2012. Most of the restrictive nations are Muslim, Communist, or former Communist. But this does not come close to telling the whole story.

In the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), the Second Vatican Council explained that religious liberty is rooted in the dignity of the human person, which includes his duty to seek God. Governments are obliged to respect this duty in the form of a legally-honored freedom to seek God in one’s own way, consistent with the natural law and the common good (the key passage is in #2). In other words, religious liberty is vital to human flourishing but, like all liberties, it is not absolute. It operates within due limits.

These due limits vary somewhat with social conditions and religious claims. Any violation of the natural law under the claim of religious liberty can be justly restricted, but whether or not doing so would significantly disrupt the common good will obviously depend somewhat on the health of the social order in question. General conditions will necessarily affect the prudent selection of legal targets.

Therefore, this issue of “due limits” presents three very distinct problems. The first is faced by governments compatible with societies which recognize the fullness of religious truth as taught by the Catholic Church. For such clear-sighted governments, a wider range of activities might be correctly recognized as contrary to the natural law. And for such well-ordered peoples, the kinds of activities which could prove detrimental to the common good would seem to grow in number. This must be balanced against the need to leave people generally free religiously as a precondition for their heartfelt embrace of the truth. And of course any government which recognizes the natural law will have a healthy respect for its proper role and its inescapable limitations.

It is partly this dilemma which led Catholic thinkers to gradually enunciate the doctrine of the two swords, which holds that it belongs to the spiritual power (the Church) to teach religion and regulate the spiritual life according to Revelation, and it belongs to the temporal power (the State) to protect and enhance the common good within the limits of the natural law. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a government today which faces the problem of governing with a deep recognition of the fullness of religious truth.

Speaking of Our World

The second problem is faced by governments compatible with societies which are committed to some other religion, a religion based on natural perceptions alone or based on a claimed but inauthentic revelation. Many today would smile at this distinction concerning revelation. But we simply must acknowledge that those who really do grasp the basic truths about God and man are in a better position to make the decisions necessary to just governance, and that those who merely believe they know the truth (but do not) are likely to create problems in direct proportion to their errors.

Such is the case of one large group of the current countries that substantially restrict religious liberty, namely those dominated by Islam. Unfortunately, Islam does not have a political theory which distinguishes between faith in revelation and justice under the natural law. Islam is uncompromisingly theocratic. It rarely affords a political buffer zone for any sort of spiritual seeking. One could imagine legitimate temporary restrictions of some aspects of religious liberty to protect the common good (for example, where there is an acute danger of riots and murder). But in fact intense violations of religious liberty are innate to all theocratic governments, and are endemic to Islamic society.

Finally, the third problem is faced by secular governments which, for whatever set of reasons, regard all religions as false and detrimental to the human person, preferring a Godless vision, and insisting that the State is the primary catalyst and patron of human progress. This, of course, is the situation we face in the West. Our own culture is dominated by ideologies which portray religion as a threat and the Church as an evil competitor of the State.

Where this is overt, as in Communism, a harsh totalitarianism follows, creating a habitual fear of religion—especially religious diversity—which can remain for a time even after Communism has failed. Hence countries in this category form a significant segment of those which highly restrict religious expression today. But all secular states tend in the direction of diminishing religious liberty, tolerating only an ever-narrowing spectrum of religious commitments. For the modern State sees itself as the arbiter of all that is true and good, rather than as the servant of a pre-existing natural law—let alone of a Divine revelation. Such blinders go largely unacknowledged in the great Western democracies, where citizens are carefully taught that to follow the State is to be free of prejudice.

To summarize, then, religious liberty can be restricted properly, within due limits, in accordance with the natural law and the common good. But in today’s world, it is very hard to find restrictions made for legitimate reasons. Due limits are seldom observed. Though unjust restrictions are always imposed in the name of the common good, it is symptomatic of error that such restrictions will nearly always be imposed in direct proportion to each religion’s possession of the truth. Sadly, we are seldom self-aware enough to chart this in our own cultures. But it should be no surprise that truth is increasingly perceived as a threat, and so it is mostly the persecution of Christians in particular that is on the rise around the world.

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: feedback - Jul. 27, 2016 11:38 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Dr. Mirus. I really love how you exposed the profoundly sinful treachery that is sometimes so easily able to hide behind the most pious of slogans. Sadly, the reality of sinful deceit is as old as fallen humanity. I also keep thinking about one particular US prelate who, in the context of discussion about cohabitation and worthy reception of Holy Communion, broadly announced his "respect" for individual conscience.

  • Posted by: susana8577 - Jul. 27, 2016 1:03 PM ET USA

    Thank you!

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Jul. 27, 2016 12:04 PM ET USA

    "The Christian idea that we cannot judge the state of another's soul morphs into the secular notion that we cannot judge the difference between good and evil." Well put. The dictatorship of relativism poisons even mercy.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 16, 2014 10:09 AM ET USA

    If the Church becomes just another voice among many truth suffers. When the execution of choice becomes the higher priority the Gospel necessarily wanes. The logical outcome in the secular West is the ascendancy of the secular state. As Kenneth Caycraft points out religious freedom in America allows for all but the encumbered conscience. The cumbersome Catholic conscience is necessarily compromised and finds itself invariably excluded from among those considered legitimately free.