Freedom of Religion Isn’t Free

Freedom of Religion Isn’t Free May 24, 2016

(Goya, Friar Pedro shoots El Maragato as his horse runs off, 1806; Wikimedia, PD-Old-100).
(Goya, Friar Pedro shoots El Maragato as his horse runs off, 1806; Wikimedia, PD-Old-100).

You might think this post will be about how great a price Catholics will have to pay in order to gain back their God-given American “religious freedom.” Instead it is about how great a price there is to pay in being granted “religious freedom” in the way it is understood in modern-day America.

Freedom of religion isn’t free.

The conclusions I draw here grow out of some incisive questions Anne Carpenter of The Rule and the Raven posed to me after reading the post Big Win for Little Sisters is a Huge Loss for Catholicism.

First of all, she wanted to know what Cavanaugh means by religion and why he seems to reject it. He means several things by it. The word “religion” is a homonym, an Aristotelian concept I first encountered in Alexandre Leupin’s Fiction And Incarnation: Rhetoric, Theology, and Literature in the Middle Ages where he defines it as a situation where  “a single word designates different ideas and things in a conceptual reapportionment.”

In other words, one word identical word with at least two wildly different meanings. In practice: conceptual (and therefore practical) confusion.

Let’s start with what “religion” has meant in the United States courts since WW2 and increasingly for public debate shortly thereafter.

I will use Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict to put these local developments in the understanding of religion in a longer, much longer, historical trajectory. It turns out the American problems with “religious freedom” are a tiny blip on a much bigger radar screen:

51hzvERNyZL__SX327_BO1,204,203,200_In the medieval application of the term, religio was primarily used to differentiate clergy who were members of orders from diocesan clergy. Secondarily, religio named one relatively minor virtue in a complex of other practices that assumed the particular context of the Christian church and the Christian social order. With the dawn of modernity, however, a new concept with a much wider and different significance came to operate under the term religion. Religion in modernity indicates a universal genus of which the various religions are species; each religion comes to be demarcated by a system of propositions; religion is identified with an essentially interior, private impulse; and religion comes to be seen as essentially distinct from secular pursuits such as politics, economics, and the like. The rise of the concept of religion the myth of religious violence thus establishes Christianity’s proper sphere as the interior life, without direct access to the political. As Cantwell Smith remarks in The Meaning and End of Religion, “the rise of the concept of ‘religion’ is in some ways correlated with a decline in the practice of religion itself.” What he means is that the invention of the modern concept of religion accompanies the decline of the church as the public, communal practice of the virtue of religio. The rise of religion is accompanied by the rise of its twin, the secular realm, a pairing which will gradually remove the practice of Christian religio from a central place in the social order of the West.


Think of “essentially interior, private impulse . . .” as you read the following passage from Dignitatis Humanae. It is an exercise indirectly suggested to me by Anne as she asked me whether Cavanaugh rejects the teaching of the Council:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.


These pronouncements, if taken without any context whatsoever, sound like what the American courts and lawmakers mean by religion, don’t they?

However, let’s continue reading:

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature.

Not subjective? In keeping with nature? The demands of truth and moral obligations? Religious truth?

What could Catholicism have to do with the essentially irrational interior and private impulses of what the Americans usually define as religion?

Very little.

The contrast between the papist talk about freedom of religion and American freedom of religion sounds very much like we’re dealing with homonyms here.

The religion of Vatican II is different than the religion of the HHS Mandate and the Supreme Court (why does SCOTUS sounds so annoying an nominalist?). Unfortunately, identifying the Catholic and the American understandings of religion was the major, one wishes it wasn’t so influential, mistake of John Courtney Murray’s project [See especially: We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition].

By now I hope it is clear that Vatican II was talking about something drastically different than what religion means in the American public square. This is why Cavanaugh makes the following appeal in Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World:

 To resist the confinement of Christianity to concern with the otherworldly, we need a robust defense of the idea that our God is the God of all creation, and that the gospel is concerned with caring for the flourishing of the whole human person, body and soul. We need more than an appeal to freedom of belief and freedom of conscience; we need to question the modern terms under which Christianity is consigned to one side of the religious/secular dichotomy that has been constructed in liberal society. We need to ask, as Robert Shedinger puts it, “whether the concern so often expressed over the politicization of Islam in the contemporary world ought to be replaced by concern with the ‘religionization’ of Christianity.”

Freedom of religion isn’t free because even if it is granted to Catholicism (God forbid!) it will turn Catholicism into something that it isn’t. There is a price to pay for making Catholicism a private American religious affair.


I recognize there are still many threads to pick up, but I have to get up in the morning and drive nearly two hours to work. Among the hanging threads: a) the social nature of Catholicism b) how the state monopolizes (good) violence because it claims to save its citizens from (bad) religious violence c) how The Myth of American Religious Freedom was frequently used against Catholics d) any further questions, observations, and concerns from you, the reader.

All of this has to wait as I leave you with a well-known clip from The Princess Bride, because it is also about conceptual rigor:

Make sure you also take a look at the post that got me thinking about religion: Big Win for Little Sisters is a Huge Loss for Catholicism.

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