The First Freedom: Religious Liberty as the Foundation of Human Liberty


You may know the name of John Courtney Murray. He’s worth remembering. Father Murray was the American Jesuit who helped craft the Second Vatican Council’s landmark Declaration on Religious Liberty.

A year after World War II ended, with millions dead and Europe and Japan in ruins, Murray wrote that “those who deny the sovereignty of God over human society are the most dangerous enemies of human liberty.”

He wasn ‘t speaking about National Socialism or Communism. He was talking about European Liberalism. That’s Liberalism with a capital “L,” the system of ideas; the kind of secularism that preached individual freedom while pushing religion out of the public square.

Murray saw that religious freedom is humanity’s first and most basic freedom. Religious faith speaks to the purpose of life, the meaning of death and the nature of the human person. It’s a God-given right, inherent to human nature. It precedes the state. It is not dependent in any way on any human authority for its legitimacy. And any attempt to suppress the right of people to worship, preach, teach, practice, organize and peacefully engage society because of their belief in God is an attack on the cornerstone of human dignity.

In Canada and the United States we take religious freedom for granted. It’s basic to our identity as free peoples in free societies. It’s also guaranteed — at least in theory — by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the U.N. General Assembly.

Article 19 of the Declaration says that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed into American law the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission exists because, in the experience of the American people, religious freedom is a basic human right. It’s vital to sustaining a democratic society. And so the commission has the task of supporting religious freedom around the globe.

I served three years as a commissioner. The work took me to China and Turkey on fact-finding missions. It also immersed me in the experience of many other countries. I learned three things. First, most countries claim to respect religious liberty. Second, many of those countries don’t speak the truth. And third, wherever religious freedom is denied, other freedoms also suffer.

The commission’s 2010 annual report runs nearly 400 pages. It details very serious violations of religious freedom in 13 countries. It warns of growing abuses in a dozen more. And it lists another three countries that need closer monitoring for their interference with religious liberty.

Canadian and American Christians often have trouble understanding the brutality of anti-religious repression or serious religious discrimination. It’s not part of our national heritage. But many millions of Christians are now being persecuted or harassed for their faith around the world. We need to pray for them. And we also need to pray for ourselves. Because we’re not as securely free as we might like to think.


For decades now, we’ve been witnessing in our two countries — and throughout the democratic nations of the West — a campaign against Christian beliefs. The process clothes itself in the language of progress and secularization. But it has little to do with humanity’s moral development. It has a lot to do with kicking Christianity out of the public square.

In an open society, religion can be smothered simply by creating a climate in which religious believers are portrayed as buffoons and hypocrites, or as dangerous eccentrics. Or by setting ground rules of public debate that privilege a supposedly “scientific” outlook, and treat religious beliefs as irrelevant.

Inside the media cocoon of a modern society, popular opinion can be shaped in countless little ways until people come to think of their faith as something they should keep to themselves; and that it’s bad manners to interject their beliefs into the political process. They might also come to think that certain basic Christian teachings are in fact hateful, intolerant and repressive of other people’s freedoms.

And then one morning they find that their faith has compromised itself into apostasy — and they’re living in a society where people act as though God no longer exists.

I believe we’re getting closer to that morning in our own societies. So we need to get our thinking straight about religious freedom and what it demands of us. To help with that thinking, I want to suggest a few simple points. The first one is this:

For a Catholic, freedom of religion must always include freedom for the Church’s mission.

For Catholics, religious liberty begins with the individual. But it can never be an issue purely of private conscience. It’s vital for us to have the freedom to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And it’s vital that we have the freedom to practice and preach our Catholic beliefs about God and man, the Eucharist, the priesthood, marriage and the nature of human sexuality. Our relationship with Jesus Christ imposes duties that go well beyond any private choices we make about doctrine or worship.

By our baptism we’re joined to a visible and public faith community — the apostolic Church created by Jesus himself to carry on his mission in history.

The Church is more than a voluntary association of like-minded believers. She is the Bride of Christ, the Mother of Christians, the womb of the family of God. Our relationship with the Church is filial, not contractual. Each of us who is baptized becomes a son or daughter of God. And, as St. Augustine always said: “He who has not the Church for his mother cannot have God for his Father.”

This relationship shapes how we understand our religious freedom. As children of God and men and women of the Church, each of us shares in her mission.

Last month in London, Pope Benedict XVI beatified the great Cardinal John Henry Newman. Among his many other gifts, Newman had a great sense of our Christian vocation. He wrote:

God knows me and calls me by my name. God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission…. I have my part in this great work.

The “great work” Newman talked about is the mission that Jesus gave to his Church and to every Christian: to bear witness to his kingdom, to make disciples of all nations, and to teach all people — by word and example — to observe everything that Christ commanded.

When we talk about religious freedom, we’re talking about the freedom of the Church — and the freedom of her children, including every Catholic — to preach, teach and practice the lordship of Jesus Christ.


My second point is this:

The source of religious freedom for Catholics is not the laws of men, but the law of God.

The Second Vatican Council, in its Declaration on Religious Liberty, said: “The freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle governing relations between the Church and [state] authorities and the whole social order.”

The Church’s freedom, the council said, is a “sacred liberty,” with which the Church has been “endowed” by Jesus Christ for the sake of man’s salvation.

The council was pointing us back to Christ’s own words — “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” This Scripture passage teaches us two things:

First it tells us that politics is not all there is. There are two powers — the temporal and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred, Caesar and God. Ultimately the sacred has priority over the secular, because this world ends, and God is forever. But in humanity’s daily affairs, each of these two powers has a legitimate separate dignity, function and autonomy that must be respected. And they should never be confused.

The second thing Scripture tells us is that Caesar is not God. Earthly rulers answer to a higher authority. In fact, some of the ancient martyrs went to their deaths with exactly this testimony on their lips: “God is greater than the emperor.”

Of course, we have a duty to obey just laws and respect civil authorities. As the prophet Jeremiah said, we should always seek the welfare of the land where the Lord has placed us. But we should also remember that everything important about human life finally belongs not to Caesar, but to God.

Modern societies often treat religion like a lifestyle accessory. But that profoundly trivializes religion. It domesticates God and turns him into a creature of our own needs. And that’s not real religious faith. It’s self-deception and idolatry.

We’re called by God to love him with all our heart and soul, with all our strength and mind; and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is what faith means to a Catholic.


My third point is this:

The freedom to fulfill our duties to God is damaged by the widespread erosion of religion’s place in our societies.

Michael Sandel has argued that freedom of religion in modern, developed countries no longer means “respect for religion, but respect for the self whose religion it is.” That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but it marks a deep change in how our societies understand religion and its value for public life.

Our two nations were founded, at least in theory, on a recognition that the power of government is subordinate to the authority of God. In other words, God outranks Caesar.

As late as 1982, the framers of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms could still assert in its preamble that Canada is “founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”

America’s Declaration of Independence makes the same point: Human rights come from God, not from governments. Civil power is justified only so far as it secures those natural rights, promotes them and defends them.

In reducing religious faith to a personal idiosyncrasy, in denying any authority to religion beyond the private conscience of the individual, our societies undercut the rights we cherish.

What God endows, no human being — no judge, no court, no legislator and no executive — can take away. And when governments assume the power to define rights, repression always follows. In this regard, the increasing contempt we see aimed at the Catholic community in our mass media, academic, cultural and political leadership classes should be deeply sobering.


This brings me to my fourth and final point:

In the face of growing secular hostility, we need to preach and practice a Christianity of resistance.

In the early Church, Christians said: “The Church belongs to God; therefore, she ought not to be assigned to Caesar.” If those words are true — and they are — then we need to actively resist efforts by government to meddle in Church teaching and internal affairs, and to interfere with the life of her faithful. Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty claims the autonomy of the Church in uncompromising language:

As the spiritual authority appointed by Christ the Lord with the duty, imposed by divine command, of going into the whole world and preaching the Gospel to every creature, the Church claims freedom for herself in human society and before every public authority. The Church also claims freedom for herself as a society of men with the right to live in civil society in accordance with the demands of the Christian faith.

The Church’s freedom is never leased or bartered from Caesar. She takes part in the freedom of Jesus Christ himself. The council says that the relationship between the Church and Jesus is so intimate, that to restrict the Church’s freedom of action is “to oppose the will of God.”

John Courtney Murray often stressed that “the freedom of the Church” is one of the seminal ideas in Western history.

Large portions of human life exist outside the government’s competence, and government has no authority to intrude on them. By insisting on her divine liberty, Murray said, the Church laid the foundations for Western notions of limited government and freedom of conscience, and made possible the emergence of a “civil society” — a sphere of public life that mediates between the individual and the state.

The freedom of the Church is never a threat to good government. It is rather a hedge against the vanity of earthly rulers and their tendency to crowd out rival authorities.

You may remember from history that in 1075 Pope Gregory VII was forced to excommunicate the German King and Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Henry had seized for himself the power to appoint or “invest” bishops.

The drama of a chastened Henry traveling to Canossa where the Pope was staying, and then waiting in the snow for three days for forgiveness, is one of the key scenes in Western history.

Today Gregory’s words about the freedom of the Church sound prophetic:

We make it our business, under the inspiration of God, to provide weapons of humility for emperors, kings and other princes, so that they may be able to restrain the floods of their pride…. For we are aware that worldly glory and secular anxiety usually do draw into pride… those who rule; as a result, neglecting humility and pursuing their own glory, they perpetually yearn to dominate the brethren.


Let me close with a few simple observations.

First, don’t be afraid. God never abandons the people who love him. God created you for a purpose. Only you can accomplish it for him. He’ll never forget you, or stop loving you, or ignore the prayer of an honest heart. So claim the freedom that is already yours by right. Have the courage to preach Jesus Christ, and to teach the Catholic faith by the example of your lives.

Second, love the Church. No one can love an institution. No one can love a bureaucracy. The structures of Church life can’t be “loved” — and yet they’re unavoidable in doing ministry in the modern world. But the Church is vastly more than her structures. The soul of the Church is the soul of a mother; the heart of the Church is the heart of a mother — our mother, our teacher, our source of solace and strength.

Finally, remember that the Church is missionary by her nature. She cannot remain silent. She exists for just one purpose: to convert, renew and make holy the world; to carry out the mission that Jesus Christ gave her, one soul at a time. Catholics are a missionary people — engaged with the world, witnessing to the world, and struggling for the soul of the world without apologies — or our baptism means nothing at all.

The freedom of the Church must be claimed and reclaimed by Christians in each new generation. Our turn is right here, right now. So may God grant us the courage, intelligence, and energy to preach Jesus Christ and to claim our sacred liberties. And with God’s help, may we turn our nations away from creating the kind of world where those liberties are denied.


This article is adapted from remarks Bishop Chaput delivered on October 15, 2010, at a catechetical conference sponsored by the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.


Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Philadelphia. Before his appointment to Philadelphia by Pope Benedict in 2011, he served as bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota and archbishop of Denver. He is the author of three books: Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics (2001); Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (2008) and Strangers in a Strange Land (2017)

  • Don L

    Father Chaput has encapsuled the flaws of both the political left and the right in America – the left excoriates both the Church for denouncing its enchantment with sexual sin and the marketplace (instead of those merchants who do wrong) for its extremist evil while the right, keeps snarling through its teeth at those social conservatives and one issue voters in its midst, as if they were a loathesome cancer, interfering with their money concerns.

    The libertarians just want to be left alone, ignoring the natural law that the Creator instilled into them at birth, insisting that personal sin is not the business of government regardless of how many broken families cause piles of humans to be relegated to the public trash heaps or unborn humans ae slaughtered -as if such sin doesn’t affect the entire society.

    In all cases, it is free will gone astray – the right to sin without critcism (overt or covert)is the not so secret culprit.

    This is a marvelous bit of pastoral teaching at a time when the nation is seriously astray. It should be read widely -though most will discredit that meddlesome Church again.

  • David Ambuul

    Archbishop, you write so nicely that I’m not even going to comment. I’ll just have to bring the family up for Mass again one of these Sundays. We have three girls now but usually go to visit the comtemplatives in Pueblo. Please don’t stop bossing us around since we’re generally clueless on what type of fantasy literature to feed our kids!

  • Brennan

    It seems that the modern notion of religious liberty inevitably leads to the secularization we see today. If the state is agnostic towards religion, as the U.S. has been since its founding, then the various religions competing in the marketplace are nothing more than irrational opinions with no legitimate place vis a vis the public sphere. Because if otherwise, if we are talking about the possibility of there being a true religion, what then? In that case, is it not the duty of the state, just as it is with the individual, to recognize this and act accordingly?

  • David Ambuul

    It is true that the state has its rights and duties. It has the duty to provide freedom for religions that don’t harm the common good. Religions of the world, especially Christian ones, in my opinion, have the duty of freeing the state from forces that bind it against its duties. The relationship is symbiotic as I understand it with religions of good will taking precedence over the state when necessary.
    That being my opinion, does anyone notice the shackles the Federal Reserve and World Bank put on our country and the world? Now the Federal Reserve won’t exactly care if we audit them and find corruption because it would pave the way for the World Bank to bring about a 1 world currency. I mean, the Fed has done such a stellar job shackling our country with debt that now they want to extend those shackles to the whole world. This is not fantasy talk. It is already being discussed seriously by less than above the board politicians of varying nations. Such monetary devices as SDRs and other “basket currencies” prove the point. But why should we stand by and watch silently as these ideas are discussed? Our indebtedness began in 1913 and is now around 4 trillion $ to the Federal Reserve alone; but only a good Anglican from Texas talks openly about it. Where are our economists? Economists who understand subsidiarity in monetary matters? Will we just stand by as this economic tyranny continues on its present course? World peace could be increased if we wake up, because mega-international banks would lose their power to pit nations against nations, as they have successfully done in Europe for over 3 centuries!

  • Cavaliere

    Ahh yes the “great” Fr. J.C. Murray, the priest who gave the Kennedy’s and future Catholic politicians the pretext for promoting abortion while still considering themselves Catholics. Archbishop Chaput makes many fines points in his talk that remain valid without praising the man who must take responsibility for his involvement in the death of millions of unborn children.

  • david ambuul

    I heard a talk by Fr. Pacwa in which he stated that the uncle (a priest) of one of his students, got a visit from the FBI in Texas the night before Kennedy’s murder. They asked if it would be ok for the president to visit him on short notice. The priest said yes and was surprised to find that the nature of the call was for the priest to hear the president’s confession, which he did. The Kennedy’s certainly were not an exemplary Catholic family, no one really questions this. However, for all his weaknesses, JFK had some integrity. He was, as I understand it, more pro-life than Barry Goldwater. And on economic matters he had the good sense to print US Notes backed by silver, in opposition to Federal Reserve notes which are backed by virtually nothing. (Fiat my foot, the Federal Reserve is a private corporation.) I don’t think Kennedy went to confession often, which makes one wonder much about Fr. Pacwa’s story, which I have no reason to doubt. Kennedy may have been a weak, poorly raised person, but at least he tried to be a statesman. That’s more, on monetary matters, than we can say about any presidents after him. -Maybe they are just trying to keep their heads.
    Further, my reading of history bears that within a week of Johnson’s swearing in, those notes began to be pulled out of circulation. You can see them in museums today or buy them in numismatics shops; but don’t get too excited, neither the US Government nor the Federal Reserve Bank will give you any silver for them.

  • Aaron

    In hitching his wagon to Murray at the beginning of the address, His Excellency is holding up a theologian who goes beyond Vatican II, and in doing so he draws in baggage that has distorted the American understanding of religious liberty this past half-century.

    The Church does not teach – and has never taught – that human beings have a right to adhere to whatever religion their honest inquiry and conscience lead them to. The Church cannot teach this, because rights exists only to goods, and adherence to any religion but (Catholic) Christianity is an objective evil. When the Church supports a civil right to religious liberty, then, she does not support a positive right, the right of each individual to believe as he or she chooses, as a good for society. Rather, she supports a negative right, the right of individuals to be free from coercive interference in matters of religious belief. The latter is, in the minds of the fathers of Vatican II, conducive to the exercise of the true positive right to believe, profess, and practice the Catholic faith.

    It’s important to keep this in mind, not because I believe Abp. Chaput believes in some sort of right to error, but because if we lose track of this distinction it becomes all too easy to lose track of the obligations of society as a whole toward true religion. While Vatican II may grant that there exists no duty for a society to enshrine Catholicism as the official religion of state, societies nonetheless continue to have a duty to uphold – at the very least – the natural law by means of their civil laws (when, of course, this is possible to do without creating greater disorder). Thus while it is perfectly true that Church and state operate in separate spheres of human life, we must always make clear that this not only does not entail a divorce between private (religious) life and public life, but quite the contrary demands a unity of the individual wherein his public activity forwards the common good known not only through reason but also through faith. Abp. Chaput is in fact advocating this integration, and yet I worry that by using “religious freedom” in an unqualified way he simply concedes the discourse to those who believe in unrestricted, metaphysical freedom of belief that only an entirely value-neutral public policy can adequately secure.

  • David Ambuul

    The Dali Lahma porbably believes his is the true religion and I respect his belief; i disagree with him though. I lived in Chicago during the days of Bernadine and liked some of his ideas on finding common ground with people of differing beliefs, but I did not like the way he ran the Archdiocese. When I was a child I mixed up orange with red and, according to my mom, tried to convince her a couple times that red was orange. She laughed but engaged and taught me until my subjective understanding came into line with the real world order. I love my Mom and try to follow her on so many things these days!

  • Chris in Sykesville, MD

    Can any reader or writer way in here and respond to a question arising from the post by “Cavaliere”?

    i.e., Did Fr. Drinan et al twist Fr. Murray’s position, or simply carry it out?


  • Cavaliere

    Here is an excerpt from an article in Commonweal from Oct 1994 dealing with Fr. Murray and the issue of abortion. The writer is analyzing the case made by Mary Seger that Fr. Murray’s views on contraception would assume the same conclusion as to abortion. While not a direct answer to Chris’s question they do provide yet more troubling evidence against Fr. Murray. The Church’s position on artificial contraception is quite clear and was so even in 1965 prior to the publication of Humanae Vitae when Fr. Murray made these comments downplaying the evil of contraception which is truly the keystone to the whole abortion problem and yet still receives little mention from the pulpit.

    The scholarly literature has begun to address what might be said about abortion in the context of Murray’s social theory. One example is Mary Segers’s essay, “Murray, American Pluralism, and the Abortion Controversy” (in Robert P. Hunt and Kenneth L. Grasso, eds., John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation, Eerdmans, 1992). By analogy to Murray’s brief but to-the-point comments on contraception, she argues that abortion is a matter of privacy and therefore ought not to be restricted by law. The comments on contraception come primarily from a memo Murray wrote to Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston in 1964 or 1965 when Cushing was asked to respond to efforts to repeal laws against contraceptive use. Cushing looked to Murray for advice. In the memo and in passing comments elsewhere, Murray refers to the distinction between public and private morality, and argues that contraception is of the latter type. He also makes a distinction between morality and law. The two distinctions are related because matters of private morality are not to be translated into public law except in extreme cases where a grave evil is involved. Contraception may be immoral according to Catholic teaching, but because it is a private matter between two adults, and the gravity of the infraction is not severe, the sale and use of contraceptives ought not to be prohibited. Finally, Murray also appeals to religious liberty, citing the fact that a number of other religious denominations allow for contraception. He admits limits to religious liberty–violations “against public peace, against public morality, or against the rights of others” are to be prohibited by law–but the sale and use of contraceptives to and by married couples transgress none of them.

    Much of the foundation for Fr. Murray’s thought and influence on Church-State relations is historical relativism. At different times throughout history the Church’s position vis a vis the State was subjective to that historical era and the Church of the 60’s must needs a different approach then the Church of Leo II or Piux IX. The problem with that approach is that his views are relevant respective to the historical era that he lived and will one day change again and/or worse yet be manipulated by others who interpret those views in light of the current time in history.

    There is no de facto evidence on how Fr. Murray would have applied his thought to the question of abortion or euthanasia so we must rely on the testimony of those who met to advise Ted Kennedy in 1964. Even so is it unreasonable to assume that these several priests did not in some way discuss the question with Fr. Murray?

    The former Jesuit priest Albert Jonsen, emeritus professor of ethics at the University of Washington, recalls the meeting in his book “The Birth of Bioethics” (Oxford, 2003). He writes about how he joined with the Rev. Joseph Fuchs, a Catholic moral theologian; the Rev. Robert Drinan, then dean of Boston College Law School; and three academic theologians, the Revs. Giles Milhaven, Richard McCormick and Charles Curran, to enable the Kennedy family to redefine support for abortion.

    Mr. Jonsen writes that the Hyannisport colloquium was influenced by the position of another Jesuit, the Rev. John Courtney Murray, a position that “distinguished between the moral aspects of an issue and the feasibility of enacting legislation about that issue.” It was the consensus at the Hyannisport conclave that Catholic politicians “might tolerate legislation that would permit abortion under certain circumstances if political efforts to repress this moral error led to greater perils to social peace and order.”

    Father Milhaven later recalled the Hyannisport meeting during a 1984 breakfast briefing of Catholics for a Free Choice: “The theologians worked for a day and a half among ourselves at a nearby hotel. In the evening we answered questions from the Kennedys and the Shrivers. Though the theologians disagreed on many a point, they all concurred on certain basics . . . and that was that a Catholic politician could in good conscience vote in favor of abortion.”

    Fr. Murray died in Queens, NY in 1967 and I have no reason to doubt that Fr. Murray fully accepted the official Church teaching on any of these questions. The problem comes as to how the Church’s teaching relates to secular society. And if the past 45 years are any indication then the idealistic ideas of Fr. Murray are leading society and our culture on an expressway to destruction, whether he intended that or not. Perhaps Cardinal Ottaviani was right to silence Fr. Murray back in the 50’s.