Religious Freedom is not Generic


Rick Garnett at Mirror of Justice offers an insightful, but incomplete, account of the religious freedom of Christians with respect to President Obama’s abortion-pill and contraception mandate.

The issue is what is the nature and scope of religious freedom for the laity, as distinct from “church institutions.” Garnett rightly disagrees with the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters, who had criticized Timothy Cardinal Dolan’s defense of the religous freedom of lay Catholics as “not a proper concern for the bishops.”

Garnett’s rebuttal was correct so far as it goes: that religious freedom is the purview of bishops because it is a human right and is affirmed in the Second Vatican Council. Garnett concludes that “religion-based exemptions from general laws should generally be extended, to the extent possible, consistent with public order and the common good.”

But Garnett and Winters both miss the central point made by Cardinal Dolan. The Cardinal’s statement was not a mere affirmation of a generic human right. It was the statement of a shepherd protecting his flock. Said the Cardinal: “In obedience to our Judeo-Christian heritage, we have consistently taught our people to live their lives during the week to reflect the same beliefs that they proclaim on the Sabbath. We cannot now abandon them to be forced to violate their morally well-informed consciences.”

The Cardinal is speaking not of humanity in general, but of “our people.” He is not speaking as a human rights theorist but as a shepherd. He is defending religious freedom of the faithful as such. The Cardinal’s concern flows from the teaching of Vatican II that the Church’s own religious freedom–that she “claims…for herself”–includes “her character as a society of men who have the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith.” Garnett cites this document but, apparently, only in reference to its discussion of religious freedom in general, not of the freedom of the Church. Winters rejects this idea of religious freedom altogether.

The bishops are not coming to the aid of impersonal “private for-profit employers.” These people are the Christian faithful in the pews–their own flock. The Church exhorts these people to live their faith Monday through Saturday, not just on Sunday morning. The Church’s schools of law and business teach them that they cannot divorce discipleship from their work. Winters himself claims to believe this when he praises Pope Benedict’s criticism of unbridled capitalism and environmental spoilation, and asks both to be bridled by the Gospel. Neither can be bridled by the Gospel if no one has the freedom to adhere to the Gospel except Catholic schools and hospitals and dioceses.

If the bishops surrender on the full freedom of the laity to follow Christ in business, the Catholic Left and Catholic educators alike will cut off the source of their own efforts. If Catholic laity have less freedom than Catholic schools to insist on the pervasive demand of discipleship throughout their lives, how can Catholic schools continue to teach the laity that they should be disciples 100% of the time? There is little point to preserving a church’s freedom to preach and teach and minister, if the church concedes that ordinary people may be commanded by law to not embrace its own teaching and ministry.

Cardinal Dolan’s insistence on the religious freedom of the Catholic faithful draws from the Second Vatican Council’s pervasive theme that the Church and the laity are not two things: the laity are the Church, the “People of God.” There is no basis in the Council to claim that the laity possess second-class religious freedom as compared to institutions run by dioceses. Instead, the Council deems the Church’s religious freedom to include the laity’s adherence to Christian morality, and insists that both stand “over and above” any “due limits” that the state can impose. The religious freedom of Church institutions and the laity as the Church cannot be separated.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Matt Bowman is a pro-life, religious liberties and constitutional law attorney in the Washington, DC area. He graduated from Ave Maria School of Law in 2003 and clerked for several federal judges thereafter. The Bowmans are involved in homeschooling and classical Catholic education and are rabid fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Matt is a member of the Knights of Columbus and his local parish.

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