In his recent essay, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” Joseph Bottum writes about how he regrets signing The Manhattan Declaration, a culture-wars manifesto “that equated abortion, same-sex manhattan-declarationmarriage, and intolerance of religion, and vowed to oppose any mainstream consensus that licensed them.”

Reading Bottum’s essay, I found myself nodding along, thinking, “yes, religious liberty is important, but it’s silly to put it on a par with abortion, for example, which has resulted in 57,000,000 deaths since Roe.” So I nearly spat out my tea when, a little further on, Bottum asserted that religious freedom was actually the most important part of the three-legged Manhattan stool:

The equating of these three concerns is a mistake; not only do the possible negative results of same-sex marriage fail to match the horrors of abortion, but religious freedom isn’t even the same kind of thing. It’s like equating a small weed to a giant sequoia – and then lumping them both together with an umbrella … If the document has to threaten civil disobedience, then it ought to be about freedom.

The specter of threats to religious liberty is raised frequently during debates over the redefinition of marriage. Matthew Franck takes it even further than Bottum. Addressing the question of whether “the only sound way to protect religious freedom is by defending traditional marriage,” Franck writes (my emphases):
One can imagine it is logically possible for same-sex marriage to be established, while those who believe it is not marriage are fully protected in their religious freedom to act on that belief. But there are scores of millions of Americans who would choose not to recognize same-sex “marriage” as the real thing, if they were fully free to choose, as employers, educators, landlords ... So far all signs are that those advocates will not tolerate such deviations from the “new normal” they wish to create. This is why robust religious freedom protections have regularly failed almost completely when state legislatures have enacted same-sex marriage laws. For same-sex marriage advocates, victory means a new moral consensus, which seems more important to them than other people’s consciences.

Franck is probably correct in his factual assertions about what advocates of gay marriage will not tolerate, and in his identification of this as problematic. But the way he conceives of religious freedom, and the relationship he envisages between the defense of religious freedom and the defense of marriage, is equally problematic.

It seems that, for Franck, and for many other conservatives, marriage is to be defended not as something good in itself, but only as a means to protecting their personal autonomy in religious matters. In turn, religious liberty itself is no longer conceived of as a right that safeguards the human person’s quest for religious truth. Rather, it is simply one among the smorgasbord of liberties that ensures that autonomous, post-modern man is “fully free to choose.”

Although it appears an attractive bargain for Christians (after all, it is our freedom Franck is trying to protect, and we should give him credit for that), this “erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty,” is, Paul VI warned us in Octogesima Adveniens (1971), the “very root of philosophical liberalism,” an ideology whose resurgence among Christians he lamented even forty years ago.

It is true that orthodox Christianity cannot accept a “new moral consensus” that divorces sexuality from responsible parenthood. But it is one thing to assert that this particular moral consensus is unacceptable, and quite another to assert that the social project of seeking moral consensus is per se less important than the project of defending liberal autonomy.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reverses these priorities. In its section on “the social duty of religion and the right to religious freedom,” the duty of religion is not only syntactically, but logically prior to liberty.

The section opens by quoting from the Second Vatican Council that “all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it” (2104). It then goes on to outline something that sounds a lot like a duty to seek “moral consensus”:

The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good. It requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church. Christians are called to be the light of the world. Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies (2105).

Only after this is it pointed out that no one should “be forced to act against his convictions” or “restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters.” This right to immunity from coercion is important, but it is grounded in the human capacity “to assent to the divine truth which transcends the temporal order,” not in liberal autonomy (2106).

Both Christian theology and philosophical liberalism, therefore, view religious liberty as important because it protects the human freedom necessary to make the supreme human act. But, in Christian theology, the supreme act is the act of faith, not the assertion of the autonomous self.

To abandon this view à la pop-conservatism is not only to abandon a genuinely Christian conception of religious liberty. It is also to abandon the classical view of democratic society as being a participative conversation about the good life, in favor of the sterile modern tendency to see the political life of the national community solely in terms of raw power relations: the power of the state being applied to protect the autonomous power of mutually irreconcilable individuals and interest groups.

It seems to me that it was precisely to avoid interpretations of religious liberty such as these that the Catechism warns against seeing religious liberty as either an “unlimited right,” or as a right “limited only by a ‘public order’ conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner” (2108).

For, also, if religious liberty exists solely to protect our personal freedom of choice, there is no reason why it should only protect the choices of Christians like Franck who oppose gay marriage. There are, after all, millions of people who define themselves as Christians who support same-sex marriage. Some of them support it simply because of their understanding of church-state separation. But many others support it for specifically religious reasons. For example, Justin Lee, a Southern Baptist and the executive director of the Gay Christian Network, argues:

If you're fortunate enough to know a Christ-centered gay couple, you'll notice something remarkably different. These relationships are actually bearing good fruit. The fruit [sic] of the Spirit are in abundance in such relationships – love, joy, peace, patience, and all the rest … I know monogamous, Christ-centered gay couples whose relationships are living proof of God's blessing on them.

I don’t agree with Lee that “God blesses same-sex marriages,” but it would be absurd to deny that his view is a religious one; just as the views of thousands of liberal Episcopalians who support gay marriage are based on their religious beliefs about equality. And, if the purpose of religious liberty is simply to make sure we are “fully free to choose,” it is unjust to only grant that freedom to people like Matthew Franck, and not people like Justin Lee, or Episcopalian clergy. Although I may profoundly disagree with these advocates of gay marriage, it is undeniable that some of them have correctly understood something many conservatives have not – marriage is an inherently social institution, and therefore it is of its essence that we reach a “moral consensus” about what it is. To vitiate marriage’s social dimension by turning it into just another matter of personal taste is to undermine its nature just as much as to vitiate its permanence, gender complementarity, or exclusivity.

Fortunately, Catholics at least do not have to remain entangled in the sorts of insoluble dilemmas created by the “conflict of rights” that ensues when we accept philosophical liberalism, simply because we don’t have to accept philosophical liberalism at all. This does not mean we have to reject the importance of democracy, human rights, and civil liberties. We merely reject the liberal view that these features of Western polity have no deeper root than amoral notions of procedural rightness, and no reference to the moral good for man. Catholics can look to theological reflection that situates civil liberties not at the apex of a liberal moral order that has replaced God with the autonomous human person, but in their correct location within a moral universe in which man—the social and rational animal—exists for God, who is himself a communion of persons.

At the very beginning of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, we find the following statement:

First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you" (Matt. 28: 19-20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.

For those Christians who—in their well-intentioned haste to protect our ability to live out the Faith—have capitulated to philosophical liberalism, it may seem incongruous that at the beginning of its Declaration on Religious Freedom, we find one of the council’s most blunt statements on the duty of individuals and societies toward the absolute claims of religious truth. This should not seem odd to the astute Catholic, who will recognize—as Pius XI taught in Quas Primas (1925)—that it is only when “men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King,” that “society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty.”