THE CATHOLIC CULTURALIST: The Battle for Religious Freedom: Conviction Points the Way Forward

Catholics are not winning any popularity contests. Not only do we still face fallout from the abuse crisis, but we also now regularly hear accusations of “hate” for our stances on life and sexual morality. We certainly have a long fight ahead of us to preserve religious freedom.

As one freedom among many, our arguments for why we need to be able to express our own beliefs within our own communities are becoming harder for outsiders to understand. Simply standing on the ground of freedom may entail a losing battle. We need a more compelling articulation of our message embodied in a joyfully countercultural witness.

The Equality Act, which passed the House in both 2019 and 2021, although not the Senate, would extend the Civil Liberties Act to include the categories of sex and gender. It follows a long line of Supreme Court decisions that created a right to contraception, abortion and homosexual marriage based on a “right to privacy,” which cannot be found explicitly in the Constitution. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court seems to have enshrined the nation’s belief in the absolute supremacy of freedom, described in the majority opinion of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), as the “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” On the other hand, recent rulings, such as Hosanna-Tabor (2012) and Guadalupe (2020), put forward the doctrine of “church autonomy” and a “ministerial exemption” that would allow religious organizations to operate according to their beliefs, including in their hiring and firing, even when in conflict with the rights established in the name of privacy.

Based on the latter rulings, Catholics may still have a chance of winning court cases. Is that enough, however, to preserve religious freedom in the long term? Helen Alvaré’s recent reflection, Religious Freedom after the Sexual Revolution: A Catholic Guide (CUA Press, 2022), offers an astute and elegant primer on navigating our next steps. More than a legal fight, she recommends getting our house in order and learning how to communicate more effectively what we believe and why we believe it. We are certainly losing badly on this level. Even when we defend ourselves, we tend to use arguments that fail to convince, claiming that we are simply following rules imposed on us from above (from the bishop or the Vatican). This train of thought does not stop anyone from pointing the finger at us, countering that we are unloving, are targeting others, and that our own people do not follow these rules anyway.

Rather than acting like we are defeated already, Alvaré points to the need for institutional revival. Catholic communities “should stop implying that ‘the bishop made me do it.’ Instead, they should communicate first a thicker and more integrated religious description of Catholic institutions as a community of ‘all-in’ service to Christ” (69). Our institutions carry a mission on behalf of Christ to manifest in words and actions the loving presence of Christ. Love is not a feeling; it does not arise from acting on our desires. Rather, it stems from a selfless gift of oneself to another, and the witness of our institutions should embody this genuine love. This requires, of course, hiring for mission and ensuring that all those who work in Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable organizations are willing to live and represent the faith and to communicate it to others.

Secondly, Alvaré encourages us to be clear and confident in how we communicate. Rather than being falsely pigeonholed as a people against love, we can offer an articulation of why we stand for life and the centrality of the family. Our positions are well-founded and even backed up empirically. Take contraception as an example (181-89). Often the rhetoric used against us is self-defeating if someone cared enough to look. Contraception has created more unwanted pregnancies, less marital happiness and stability, and women are more exploited, not less. Clear communication flows from a stronger Christian community: both need to be strongly Christ-centered.

Our individualist and materialist culture views Christian ethics as restricting freedom and, therefore, one’s happiness. Jesus points us to the true happiness that flows from sacrifice: giving oneself in love. Catholics view the body as a sacred gift entrusted to us by God, meant to serve as his temple and a means of sacrificially loving others. Christian ethics calls us to something higher: sacrificing fleeting happiness in order to participate in the life of God.

Conviction points the way forward — not simply digging in our heels but embracing the truth God has given us to live and share. We are accused of hate, even though we oppose things that are harmful to both bodily and spiritual integrity. We have the true message of love and cannot succumb to embarrassment before its truth. Instead of hiding or running from it, we can provide a transformative path of healing for our society, helping it recover a deeper freedom.

Jared Staudt, Ph.D., is associate superintendent for Mission and Formation at the Archdiocese of Denver and visiting associate professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver. He is author of “Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture” and “The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture, Yesterday & Today.”

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