Want Religious Liberty? Live Your Faith

From the standpoint of Catholicism there is no more important right than religious liberty. It is the first of our freedoms.

As Catholics, we cherish religious liberty because we have been made by God and for God—our hearts are restless, as Saint Augustine wrote, until they rest in Him. God gave us freedom so that we might pursue him ardently. We have a right to religious liberty because we first have the duty to know, love, and serve Him. We have the solemn responsibility to order our intellects, our wills, our actions and indeed our very person toward God who is Love and Truth. Religious liberty allows us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and any curtailment of religious liberty is not only a radical affront to our rights, but more importantly, to our ability to be faithful Catholics in pursuit of eternal life.

Within the context of considering the redemption of man, Blessed John Paul II wrote in his first encyclical that “the curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is…a painful experience…an attack on man’s very dignity…a radical injustice with regard to what is particularly deep within man, what is authentically human” (17).

Sadly, these attacks seem to grow exponentially. The most immediate cause of consternation is the HHS mandate: the requirement that individuals and institutions opposed to contraception and abortion-inducing drugs cooperate in providing them to others. On June 28 the mandate’s final language was published. As Archbishop Lori notes in a jointly signed letter, “HHS continues to deny many Americans the freedom to manifest their beliefs through practice and observance in their daily lives.”

But as great a threat as this is to religious liberty, there is no current and impending threat that is graver than what is happening in the realm of homosexuality and the redefinition of marriage.

The Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage is described as “hateful” and “draconian,” and Catholics who proclaim it are increasingly ostracized as “bigots” and “haters.” This sort of description does not come only from overly-ambitious advocates of redefining marriage, but from Justice Kennedy’s words in the majority opinion overturning a key statute of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Kennedy indicated the traditional understanding of marriage is invalid because it “demeans the couple,” “humiliates tens of thousands of children,” and “for no legitimate purpose [has] the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect.”

Catholic teaching, rooted in God’s law, the words of Jesus, natural law, and common sense serves “no legitimate purpose” than to unjustly demean, humiliate, disparage, and injure. Here, in an opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States, we have the actuation of John Paul’s words from 1979: “believers are, as though by principle, barely tolerated or are treated as second-class citizens” (17). Joseph Ratzinger echoed this very concern specifically when he warned in his book, Crisis of Cultures that “[v]ery soon, it will no longer be possible to affirm that homosexuality (as the Catholic Church teaches) constitutes an objective disordering in the structure of human existence.” We have good reason to fear further efforts to deprive Catholics of the rights we possess by virtue of our citizenship or even our humanity.

If we want to protect religious liberty we must first live our faith. When religion goes untried, religious liberty is merely a token. What purpose does it serve, and why should the State protect religious liberty, if religion is ignored in the personal lives of citizens? Archbishop Chaput recently noted that religious liberty “has political force only to the degree that ordinary people believe and practice their faith—and refuse to tolerate anyone or anything interfering with faith.”

To be frank: If you want religious liberty, then act like it. And remember John Paul’s rejoinder that “[n]o privilege is asked for, but only respect for an elementary right. Actuation of this right is one of the fundamental tests of man’s authentic progress in any regime, in any society, system or milieu.” A society that is hostile to religious liberty creates a cultural milieu in which religion is increasingly difficult to embrace and live. Conversely, when people of faith fail to know, live and defend their faith a militant secularism is enabled and empowered so that religion is easily confined to a private affair or worship alone. Catholics must love their faith and have the courage to pursue God and His truth with their whole heart, mind, and soul. Only then will religious liberty have meaning and merit protection.

Arland K. Nichols


Arland K. Nichols is the founding President of the John Paul II Foundation for Life and Family.

  • Latin Responder

    If Mr. Nichols is referring to an undifferentiated Americanist religious liberty for all, regardless of peoples’ errors, evils, and disbelief, then the claim that it is the most important right in our Catholic faith is a grave error, as is assessing this situation by leapfrogging from Augustine to Pope John Paul II.
    For more than 1,000 years, the Church was quite clear that Catholicism alone enjoys special rights, privileges, and recourse to licit claims of liberty, not schism, heresy and lack of belief. I would call upon Mr. Nichols to demonstrate continuity and reconciliation between Pope John Paul II’s words and the beliefs of the medieval scholastics, not to mention the magisterial teaching of Popes Leo X, Pius VII, Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Pius XI, and even Pius XII.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      The Doctor of Grace is not alone in his teaching on freedom. You may read the same in Lactantius and St Ambrose and in the letters of St Gregory the Great.

      As Pascal says, “If the ancient Church was in error, the Church is fallen. If she should be in error to-day, it is not the same thing; for she has always the superior maxim of tradition from the hand of the ancient Church; and so this submission and this conformity to the ancient Church prevail and correct all. But the ancient Church did not assume the future Church and did not consider her, as we assume and consider the ancient.”

      • Latin Responder

        So where would you say this leaves us on the subject of religious liberty, Mr. Paterson-Seymour?

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          Tertullian born around 200 and Lactantius being born in 240 are to be preferred, as closer in time to the font of Apostolic teaching.

          Now, Lactantius teaches, ““It is a matter which, above all others, is voluntary, and cannot be imposed by necessity on any man, so that he should be forced to worship that which he does not wish to worship” (The Epitome of the Divine Institutes, 54).

          And Tertullian says, ““It is one thing to undertake the contest for immortality voluntarily, another to compel others to do it likewise through fear of punishment.”

          St Augustine, two centuries later, says, ” “I do not intend that anyone should be forced into the Catholic communion against his will. On the contrary, it is my aim that the truth may be revealed to all who are in error and that… with the help of God, it may be made manifest so as to induce all to follow and embrace it of their own accord.”

          This is the clear and united testimony of the first ages and prevails against later error.

          • BM

            You would have an excellent point if the apparent problem with the continuity of the teaching on religious liberty was whether or not the state should force people to become and worship as Catholics. But it isn’t.

            I believe there is no contradiction, personally. It simply requires an exceptionally strained reading of certain vague texts and loopholes to not fall into discontinuity and incoherence.

    • Arland Nichols

      I recognize there is debate about religious liberty. “Latin Responder”, you would like me to demonstrate continuity and reconciliation between Blessed John Paul II and his predecessors. However, that was not the point of my article and would have been a never-ending excursion into an interesting topic that was irrelevant for the primary points being made. An article of any length, much less some 800 words cannot accomplish everything.

      Ultimately I hold what John Paul II and Dignitatis humanae taught. Is the latter a perfect document? Of course not but I readily embrace the substance of what is taught. I’m not sure what “Americanist religious liberty for all” means so it is difficult to respond to this term. But, I am happy to affirm at the very least that error has no rights and people do because people have duties.

      I prefer to speak of duties instead of rights. Religious liberty is most important in terms
      of the purpose and goal of man. Because no other duty is more important that to
      know love and serve God, no other concomitant right is more important than to be
      able to do so (religious liberty). This is my meaning. I believe it to be sound.

      • Latin Responder

        Mr. Nichols,

        The Church has classically held and taught – apart from whatever is said by Second Vatican Council or Pope John Paul II – that all states have an obligation to recognize Catholicism as the one true faith, and to accord it special recognition, support and protection, apart from all other religions, which are false religions and theological evils by definition. As part of this obligation, the state has the right to restrict any public propagation of error in faith and morals that contravenes Catholic truth. Other religions have no intrinsic right to public worship or the spreading of their errors, which are an offense against God.

        I fail to see how what you have written is predicated upon these truths, takes them in account, and is reconcilable with them. If you are saying that it is, I am interested in hearing how.

        • Arland Nichols

          Mr. Responder, (You really should use your real name – Anonymity is not conducive to genuine discussion) I embrace the Magisterium of Paul VI and John Paul II. It appears that you do not?

          Again, the point of my essay was not the development (It seems that you would prefer, “intrusion”?) of religious liberty in the Church’s thought and teaching.

          Is there anything that I wrote that you disagree with? There are many fine essays regarding religious liberty and it’s development in Catholic thought. Perhaps it is those essays and thinkers that you wish to debate?

          • Latin Responder

            Mr. Nichols,

            While I do not reject the Magisterium of our most recent popes, I withhold assent from any teaching of theirs that contradicts the traditional classical teachings of the Catholic Church, as well as decline to affirm any action of theirs whose implications contradict traditional teaching.

            If your position is that Catholicism consists of nothing more than whatever our most recent several popes have believed, done, taught, and proclaimed, then I think it’s safe to say that’s a very flawed conception of Catholicism, If that is not your position, then it seems you should be able to explain how your article’s thesis that religious liberty is the chief right championed by the Church is true in light of the fact that religious liberty is wholly absent from the classical teachings of the Catholic Church, and that scores of popes throughout the ages have taught and upheld doctrinal teachings, as well as a raft of ecclesial laws and concordats, that run contrary to the standard conception of religious liberty.
            Yes, we should be opposing the aggressions against the Church and faith and morals, but that should be done so based on normative Catholic teaching and the special privileges that the Catholic Church and her faith are solely entitled to.

            Please excuse my anonymity.

      • BM

        I don’t want this thread to devolve more than it is tending to, but I would like to point out two things. Anyone who “readily embraces” what Dignitatis Humanae taught, readily embraces the traditional teaching, since Dignitatis Humanae explicitly states that they are in harmony and the prior teaching is intact:

        1. “To this end, it searches into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church-the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.” (Last sentence of paragraph 1.)

        2. “Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” (Paragraph 4)

        Hence, anyone who denies a part of the “traditional Catholic doctrine” as expressed in earlier documents or who interprets D.H. against them, would in fact be denying D.H. itself. Like I always say: if someone doesn’t like what earlier Popes taught about religious freedom, take it up with Dignitatis Humanae. 😉

        Second, I think you are correct in your comment here. You say, “no other duty is more important that to know love and serve God, no other concomitant right is more important than to be able to do so (religious liberty).” If this is the extent of your meaning, then it is quite right; this is what religious liberty is about. But that only means, as the traditional teaching claims, that “religious liberty” is the “freedom to practice the Catholic faith”, since that is how we know, love and serve God. Not “freedom to do whatever we think ‘religion’ means.” I bring up this equivocation because I fear the latter meaning (or something like it) is what most people have in mind, including Catholics, when they go on about “our most cherished freedom.” For this phrase is typically uttered in reference to the First amendment to the US Constitution, and I doubt the Founding Fathers had the former, restricted-to-the-true-faith-ie-Catholicism, meaning in mind when they framed it. 😉

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    I am always free to practice my faith, irrespective of any laws and even at the gallows, the moment of death.

    If I merely ‘acted as if’ I was free, I’d be in a state of deep self-deception. I’d be assuming Freedom is merely liberty or a bit of therapeutic legerdemain, not a fact of life. It is a political slogan, not the Truth, and it has no place in Christianity.

    I find it a pernicious lie that Catholics are ‘prevented’ from practising their faith by any laws whatsoever. Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan wasn’t prevented from practising his faith at all, despite being in solitary confinement, for example. if he’d been discovered he could have been executed, but he would still have been completely free.

    No. It’s simply a convenient rationalisation Catholics use for avoiding suffering or prison.

    Freedom just is: you use it wisely and faithfully but possibly risk prison or death – or you capitulate to the state for an easy life as an apostate.

    • Arland Nichols

      Catholics are frequently prevented from practicing their faith in a robust manner. Religious liberty – or freedom generally – can be constrained. Strictly speaking, and by definition, every human act remains free. I happily grant that. The martyrs are happy witness to this reality. You mention Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan who could not be forced to deny his faith, yes. But he could not live his faith freely and robustly because he was denied this basic liberty to do so by his confinement.

      My concluding sentences are very important for understanding one of the key points being made: “A society that is hostile to religious liberty creates a cultural milieu in which religion is increasingly difficult to embrace and live. Conversely, when people of faith fail to know, live and defend their faith a militant secularism is enabled and empowered so that religion is easily confined to a private affair or worship alone.” I don’t believe this can be denied?

  • Dr. Dom Pedulla

    Excellent Arland!!

  • Aunt Gardiner

    Mr. Arland- Firstly, thank you for calling Catholics to live their faith. Secondly, the issue that some of the commentators are concerned about is the definition of ‘liberty’ and how one speaks about this as a ‘right’. I have been fortunate to teach several university courses on this topic and I find it helpful to remember that the natural right to liberty we have as humans made in the image of God is the liberty to be virtuous (the freedom to be be as we were meant to be). We have no liberty/freedom to be un-virtuous. This is usually termed ‘slavery’ (a perversion of our liberty and end). Likewise, we have no liberty to believe falsehoods or propagate them. Given the nature of man and his end, we find that any attempt to argue for the ‘liberty of religion/freedom of religion’ (if this is understood as the freedom to choose any religion or none) contradicts man’s end and cannot be understood as a right grounded in nature at all, but a denial of our nature and an insistence on overthrowing our creatureliness. In them modern period, this has usually been accomplished by positive law (like in contemporary society) or by positing a new human nature (like many Enlightenment thinkers, French, British, and American.) It seems the sticky bit comes in regarding what ‘liberty of religion’ actually means in American circles. Most mean the enlightened notion of the freedom to choose any religion or none/ ‘all religions are equal.’ We know this is contrary to nature as well as a noted heresy. However, we can talk about a ‘liberty of religion’ if by that we mean, the freedom to live the virtue of religion (piety)–qualified by the fact that we have no freedom to not live the virtue of religion. In this case, of course, religion meaning, the one true Catholic and apostolic religion. My apologies if this is repetitive! Just hoping to clarify and happily converse.

  • M.D. Watson

    Mr. Nichols,
    Your prophetic sense of urgency is much needed. If the Church presents to the culture at large as merely a nebulous, debatable tradition devoid of objective truth claims then it is not clear why its members require protection. When we begin to truly practice our faith, it becomes clear that it is our liberty to love, to love in truth, that is endangered by the tightening noose of legal precedents. Too many Catholics are drowsing through a fundamental shift in American political culture that may soon awaken us all with a jolt.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Bret John Ramsey

    Well said Arland.

  • BM

    Thomas Storck wrote a good article over at Ethika Politika on religious liberty and the problems Catholics face today in this regard. Check it out.

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  • Facile1

    “Freedom of Religion” is a secular value, not a religious one.

    “Freedom of Religion” places constitutional limits on the powers of the State to persecute evangelicals (who otherwise may be killed, imprisoned or fined by the State). As such, it is of critical importance to the religions that evangelize (ie, whose adherents practice their religion publicly as well as privately). But to countries where there is an established State religion, evangelization by opposing religions can only present a threat to the existing theocratic State.

    The separation of church and State is a relatively new phenomenon. Many modern nations still remain theocracies — Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, just to name two. The more theocratic the State is, the less freedom there will be to practice one’s religion publicly. For example, under Shari’ah law in Islamic nations, the penalty for apostasy is death. For some religions, this is NOT a problem because these religions do NOT evangelize. But for Christian churches, our Lord Himself told us to spread the good news and bear witness.

    So while the Roman Catholic Church teaches the separation of Church and State, she values evangelization — NOT the “Freedom of Religion”. And the lack of this constitutional protection CANNOT be used by Catholics as an excuse to disregard the Church’s call to evangelize nonbelievers.

    As a Catholic, I cannot imagine taking to the streets for the cause of religious freedom.

  • Stilbelieve

    I think Catholics, including the clergy, are interested in practicing freedom of their political beliefs more than their professed religious beliefs because they still are the
    largest single group of people endorsing with their names and support the only
    political organization responsible for continuing the attack on God’s gifts of
    life and marriage, and now freedom of religion, itself, which is the cause
    for Mr. Nichols’ article in the first place.

    Until Catholics take seriously what they SAY they believe and pray for, and ACT on it, the most dominant religion in the last 100 years – “Leftism”- will continue to place
    obstacles in the path of the Church interfering with her freedom to operate
    openly in society while secular government and society discriminates against Catholics with slanderous name calling as illustrated by Supreme Court Justice Anthony
    Kennedy, a Catholic at that, in his majority opinion in the DOMA ruling. Catholics gave the ELECTORAL POWER to that leftist organization to keep abortion-on-demand the law-of-the-land, and to open up a front attacking the institution of marriage as well as the constitutionality of freedom of religion.

    All that is needed to return to our common-sensical past in protecting the unborn and honoring the sanctity of marriage and freedom of religion is for those Catholics to remove their names and support from that leftist, anti-God organization. It is as simple as that. You would have thought that would have occurred by now after some 40 years wandering in the desert of Roe v Wade and 56,000,000 murdered babies later.