our-lady-american-flagThe Fortnight for Freedom is now drawing to a close in Catholic dioceses. I doubt anyone can find a more tasteless example of how it has been celebrated than Robert Christian over at Millennial, who highlights the Diocese of Brooklyn’s garish display of the Virgin Mary, crucifix in hand, draped in Old Glory. “I’m incredibly patriotic,” says Christian, but seeing “the Mother of God draped in the US flag like she just scored the game-winning goal in the Women’s World Cup is just a bit much for me.”

Recently, George Weigel wrote an interesting column entitled The Last Laugh of Alfredo Ottaviani. Ottaviani famously opposed Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious liberty, on the assumption that “error has no rights.” Weigel suggests that Ottaviani may be enjoying a last laugh from beyond the grave, since the maxim that error has no rights is once again popular in the West. The only difference this time is that Christians are the ones in error and therefore devoid of rights. “An idea long associated with the farther reaches of Catholic traditionalism has thus migrated to the opposite end of the political spectrum, where it’s become a rallying point for the lifestyle left.” Weigel notes that:

Ottaviani’s fear was that religious freedom would result in religious indifference and then a collapse of religious conviction, which would in turn lead to state hostility toward religious believers and religious institutions.

Despite the fact that Ottaviani’s predictions seem to have proven correct, Weigel and others continue to insist that the answer to the West’s predicament is simply more of the same – more full-frontal Catholic defenses of religious liberty.

Catholic cheerleaders for American-style religious freedom tend to offer us a stark choice between absolute religious liberty (though very rarely is “religion” defined) and full-scale legal persecution of dissenters, complete with torture racks. No doubt the former is preferable, but this characterization ignores the many shades of grey that have existed in between these extremes during the course of history. George Weigel’s latest column on the Edict of Milan, for example, confuses the proposition that a political community should adhere to a religion as a political community with the proposition that the state must therefore persecute all other religions. For Weigel and many others, “state establishments of religion” (that is, public recognitions of a religion as true) are synonymous with “coercion.”

The problem with this is that law comes in many different forms (criminal, civil, constitutional, customary, and so on), and influences people in different ways, not all of them coercive. For example, in England the Head of State functions as Supreme Governor of the established church, which is granted a number of privileges in public life. But public recognition of religion is not coercive. England produces many of the world’s most renowned atheist thinkers, and has had Jewish and Agnostic Prime Ministers. Yet it is undeniable that, until very recently, the pride of place given to Anglican Protestantism within public life performed a significant gerundive function, directing citizens toward a good designated by law as desirable. Secularist campaigners in England still regularly complain that by publicly honoring the Christian religion, English law infringes not on the right of non-Christians to religious freedom as such, but on their alleged right to “religious equality”.

I am not, of course, arguing that America (or any other country) should be like England. I am merely pointing out that a particular form of religious freedom established in America cannot be confused with Catholic doctrine on religious freedom, and that Catholic doctrine cannot be confused with the amorphous idea of religious equality. Sadly, both confusions are all too common.

Such mistakes are understandable, since even John Courtney Murray, the well-known American theologian who drafted Dignitatis Humanae, ended up blurring the lines between Catholic Faith and American constitutionalism. In We Hold These Truths Murray makes a famous distinction between “articles of faith” and “articles of peace.” He criticizes Protestant theologians who argued that the religion clauses of the First Amendment were theological statements about the primacy of personal conscience in religious matters, pointing out that if the First Amendment was teaching theological truths whilst purporting not to establish religion it would be self-contradictory. In We Hold These Truths Murray defends the claim that the religion clauses are “articles of peace,” adopted by the Founding Fathers simply because they were the most practical means of governing a religiously plural society.

Yet, as Brian Harrison points out in an illuminating article on Murray’s thought, he increasingly moved away from this position. By 1964 he was effectively arguing not only that the American settlement was the most practical means of governing America, but that it was a moral ideal for all countries. Like Weigel, Murray (even in his earlier writings) frequently confuses the principle that “the Catholic faith has an exclusive divine right to be the public religion of men and societies,” with the claim that “error ought to be suppressed whenever and wherever it is possible,” because, just like Weigel, Murray sees law almost solely as a coercive instrument. Conflating public recognition of religion X with state-sanctioned persecution of religions Y and Z, means that, in correctly steering clear of the latter, Murray avoids any intelligent discussion of the former.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were more nuanced in their claims, teaching that if “special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society,” at the same time “the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized.” This is categorically different to Murray’s claim that public recognition, if it occurs, can be no more than an acknowledgement of the fact that a religion prevails in a particular country. It must be so benign as to have no real consequences whatsoever. Again, this is because Murray sees the law as only a coercive instrument, without reference to its possible gerundive or pedagogical functions. Murray therefore equates any practical effect of public recognition with the wholesale “‘extermination’ from public existence of confessional groups who would say that the religious and social witness given by the government did not represent their convictions.” It hardly needs to be pointed out that this is nothing but a caricature, and Murray and his latter-day defenders have yet to prove their case.

American Catholics rightly celebrate the Fortnight for Freedom by giving thanks for the flourishing of the Catholic Faith in America which – as has so often been pointed out – occurred because of, and not despite, the First Amendment religion clauses. As Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore famously said in 1887, it was in “the genial atmosphere of liberty” in America that the Church blossomed “like a rose.”

But while it is just to celebrate the providence of God shown by means of the First Amendment, it is an error to celebrate the First Amendment as if it were itself an article of the Catholic Faith. While there is nothing wrong as such with the USCCB’s Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, I am skeptical that blurring the lines between “the landmark teaching of the Second Vatican Council” and the “American experience” helps Catholics to make the necessary theological distinction between that experience and those teachings, between “articles of faith” and “articles of peace,” as Murray’s early work highlighted. It would be a shame if a period of time set aside by the bishops to reflect on the teachings of the Church on religious liberty became an occasion for further entrenching popular misinterpretations of those teachings.

The first freedom that the Gospel proclaims isn’t the freedom to worship false gods. Nor is it the freedom of the US Air Force to spend $80,000 of taxpayers’ money on “Falcon Circle” – a Stonehenge-like structure built to facilitate wiccan and pagan worship by USAF cadets because it’s just “the right thing to do,” apparently. The freedom the Gospel proclaims is freedom from sin, from religious error, and from false ideas about the human person. Among the religious truths that Catholics are called to defend in the public square, of course, is the truth taught by the Second Vatican Council that all people have a civil right to religious liberty within just limits. But, just as all other rights correlate with duties, the right of religious freedom has the purpose of allowing people the space to fulfill their duties to God in a manner that befits their nature as free creatures.

Loud proclamations of our belief in religious liberty may help to endear Catholics to non-Catholic Americans, but they make little sense within a Catholic theological framework unless we are proclaiming religious truth even more loudly. The real problem of our times is not (at least in the West) a lack of religious liberty. The “real problem at this moment of our history,” as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out several years ago, “is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.” The real priority for Catholics at this moment in history is surely the defense of truth. “In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel,” Benedict reminds us, “the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God.”