The Declaratio​n of Religious Independen​ce

If a decree like the HHS contraception mandate was issued during the Medieval era, Archbishop Dolan would probably have declared Secretary Kathleen Sebelius “anathema” and excommunicated her from the Church (see this famous scene from the movie Becket for an example). If President Obama was a tyrannical monarch in that era, he would be muttering the same words as King Henry II when challenged by the Catholic hierarchy, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

The church’s relationship with government has changed since the 12th century; nevertheless, the Catholic Church is again facing off with civil authority over their encroachment on religious freedoms.

When faced with these problems in 21st century America, the United Council of Catholic Bishops have answered these threats with a uniquely American response with their recent Statement on Religious Liberty.

“We have been staunch defenders of religious liberty in the past. We have a solemn duty to discharge that duty today,” reads the lengthy document which patiently examines the principal of religious liberty.

The bishops list recent government intrusions on the Catholics ability tend to their fellow man, whether through providing basic care to illegal immigrants, placing children in adoptive services, and aiding victims of sex trafficking.

It’s a reminder for Americans that it’s not ‘just about contraception’ anymore, in spite of the political hubbub over the HHS mandate.

The thorough document features the rich history of the Catholic Church’s contribution to the idea of religious freedom in America beginning with Cardinal James Gibbons the archbishop of Baltimore’s statement,”in the genial atmosphere of liberty [the Church] blossoms like a rose.”

Recent media reports seemed startled that the Bishops dared cite Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in their defense.

But what they didn’t report, was that King was quoting St.Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas by name to explain the philosophy of just law theory.

Like King, the Bishops declare, they will not obey an unjust law.

“An unjust law is ‘no law at all.’ It cannot be obeyed, and therefore one does not seek relief from it, but rather its repeal,” the statement reads.

As Americans struggle with the concept of an ever-intrusive government, they have turned to the founding documents of our country and our strong political heritage.

Likewise, the Bishop’s statement places a special emphasis on the pope’s call for an “engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity,” in America to defend religious liberty.

“As bishops we seek to bring the light of the Gospel to our public life, but the work of politics is properly that of committed and courageous lay Catholics,” declare the Bishops.

Charged by Pope Benedict to defend the “most cherished of American freedoms,” the new declaration of religious freedom is among the strongest and comprehensive documents issued by the conference in years.

It rings true to the significant historical and philosophical traditions of our founding fathers and is an important contribution to the preservation of the American way of life.

Charlie Spiering


Charlie Spiering writes in Washington D.C. for the Washington Examiner. He previously wrote for the Rappahannock News and worked as a reporter for columnist Robert Novak.

  • Marchmaine

    Archbishops Gibbons, Ireland and their confreres gambled and lost on this proposition 125 years ago.

    Doubling down on Americanism using the language of liberalism is a losing proposition now.

    It is true that liberalism is the only game in town, but it is still a game we are going to lose to the competing freedom of individual autonomy.  In the hierarchy of freedoms (as defined in present political discourse), institutional freedoms cannot infringe upon the autonomous freedom of the individual.

    Both sides are appealing to liberty; and the American bishops have squandered their collective political capital over the past century; therefore their appeals will fall well short of the mark.

    The best they can do is attempt to learn from Gibbons’ miscalculations and perhaps rebuild their institutional capital (most likely from Jail).  Or, more likely, they will accept the fig-leaf proposal on the table with some sort of face-saving turn of phrase, and go back to trumpeting how the Church flowers under the liberal hand of it’s tolerant host state.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      I agree

      Too many Catholics have embraced a false notion of the relationship between religion and politics. Basing themselves on Suarez’s interpretation of St Thomas, they have talked of a “natural order,” governed by Natural Law, consisting of truths accessible to unaided human reason, as something that can be kept separate from the supernatural truths revealed in the Gospel. “Under such circumstances, the supernatural is no longer properly speaking another order, something unprecedented, overwhelming and transfiguring” (Henri de Lubac)

      It was this that led Laberthonnière, a hundred years ago now, to accuse the Neo-Thomists of his day of ““a false theological notion of some state of pure nature and therefore imagined the state could be self-sufficient in the sense that it could be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice.” It led his friend and contemporary, Maurice Blondel, to insist that we must never forget “that one cannot think or act anywhere as if we do not all have a supernatural destiny. Because, since it concerns the human being such as he is, in concreto, in his living and total reality, not in a simple state of hypothetical nature, nothing is truly complete (boucle), even in the sheerly natural order”

      Jacques Maritain, too, declared that “the knowledge of human actions and of the good conduct of the human State in particular can exist as an integral science, as a complete body of doctrine, only if related to the ultimate end of the human being. . . the rule of conduct governing individual and social life cannot therefore leave the supernatural order out of account”

      Unless we insist, in Blondel’s words, that we can “find only in the spirit of the gospel the supreme and decisive guarantee of justice and of the moral conditions of peace, stability, and social prosperity,” we shall inevitable acquiesce in practice in the Liberal privatisation of religion.

  • J G

    A few excommunications might not hurt. We still have a code of canon law. Let’s use it.

  • Guest

    No, of course it’s not “just about contraception.” It’s also about blood transfusions, which health insurance must cover, even if employers are Jehovah’s witnesses, and surgeries, which health insurance must cover, even if employers are Christian Scientists. All of this furor about stepping on religious toes might be taken a bit more seriously, if those complaining were concerned about all religious toes. 

    • J G

      Actually we are interested in everyones freedom. But you want to step on everyones toes. Contraception normally does not treat a medical problem. Pregnancy is not a disease. That demolishes your argument easily enough.

  • hombre111

    It would have been a discussion about religious freedom if the bishops had not moved the goal posts far past religious hospitals and other institutions to include the right of the owner of your local grocery store to decide what he will or will not pay for.

    So, it’s still about contraception.  And the majority of Catholics reject the teaching.  The “mind of the Faithful” has spoken.  The bishops are trying to give artificial respiration to a dead jackass. 

    • JG

      So the position you are stating is that it would be religious freedom if “religious institutions” are exempt but the individual must be coerced because obviously that is not counted under religious freedom 

      As to your second statement, faithful to what? Obviously not faithful to church teaching. 

      • hombre111

        The mind of the faithful plays an important role because they also listen to the Holy Spirit.  Over the centuries, the hierarchy has sometimes been spectacularly off course, while the faithful Catholic forged on.  I think of the infidelity of the popes during the Renaissance at the same time that saints like Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and Ignatius of Loyola were appearing.   Or, further back, when the majority of the hierarchy went for Arianism, it was the ordinary Catholics who resisted. 

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