Liberty of Religion and of Conscience

For the past quarter century there has been a partisan dimension to campaigns for religious liberty, first abroad and now at home. In part, at least, the critical issues involved have been misused by leading proponents in efforts to get the upper hand on whichever administration happens to occupy the White House. Others, however, have worked to protect religious liberty without a need to score points and with a less apocalyptic tone. 

The desire to occupy the unassailable moral high ground seems to be especially the case when the moral issues have become entangled in partisan culture wars, as in Rusty Reno’s Feb. 24 article for America “Our Secular Future.” (The article dates the International Religious Freedom Act (IFRA) to 1988. The actual date was 1998.*) The article pits “traditional religious people” against “a progressive consensus,” and it sets religious liberty at odds with a universalistic “libertarian” view of the rights of conscience for everyone.


Reno’s analysis, and even his negative prognostications about problems ahead, merit serious consideration. There is a long set of issues on which libertarian jurisprudence challenges religious defenders of traditional values. His assessment that the American legal establishment, save the current Supreme Court with its Catholic majority, is libertarian in its views of conscience is accurate. I have found that the same is true of the U.S. Foreign Service. 

As Reno argues, the Protestant consensus is over, and secularists show less tolerance for religiously held views than they did than in the pluralist age of “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” a half-century ago. I would add, countries like Belgium, which recently approved euthanasia for minor children, or Switzerland, which has become a mecca for assisted suicide, show us what can happen when our backs are turned. But as Reno himself writes, “There is no guarantee that our legal culture will follow the trajectories I have outlined.” 

From the perspective of Catholic social theology, Reno’s easy opposition between individual conscience and religious liberty entails worrisome dangers of its own. For centuries, the primacy of conscience has been at the center of the Catholic moral tradition, and Vatican II regarded it as foundational to the dignity of the human person. Gaudium et Spes declared, "For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man..." And it added as if to close a loophole for those who would return to the days of religious coercion, "Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity" (No. 16).

As much as correction of an erroneous conscience may be in order and opposition to its claims and proposals in the public order are warranted, not to respect individual conscience is to reject the dignity of the person. 

In that spirit, in a series of concordats and other documents, like the apostolic exhortation “Hope for Lebanon,” during the 1990s the Holy See under the leadership of Blessed John Paul II sought to protect the rights of the church by securing the rights of conscience of Catholics as citizens. There was no sense that the rights of conscience and religious liberty were at odds with one another. Diplomacy was guided by the doctrine of the Declaration on Religious Liberty and Gaudium et Spes.

Thus, universal respect for individual conscience in liberal jurisprudence finds a parallel both in Catholic social teaching and the church’s diplomatic practice. While there have been some voices in the Catholic community for overriding the rights of conscience in the favor of the church’s teaching on moral issues like abortion, that position is a minority opinion out of line with centuries of tradition. 

In addition, after the blunder of the Syllabus of Errors, the church learned from its opponents in the secular (liberal) political tradition to esteem the rights of conscience and value human rights. Drawing on the work of Jacques Maritain and Pietro Pavan, in Pacem in Terris Pope John XXIII made universal human rights the foundation of modern Catholic social teaching and of official Catholic political theology.

The Second Vatican Council acknowledged the help the church has received from “the various forms of human culture [where] the nature of man himself is more clearly revealed and new roads to truth are opened” (Gaudium et spes, No. 44). These forms of culture included liberal Western political and legal theory. The Council went further, admitting it gained even from its adversaries in the public sphere. “Indeed,” it confessed, “the Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or persecute her.” Can we do less?

In the midst of our current public policy struggles and continuing culture wars, American Catholics should not forget Blessed John Paul II’s confession of “sins committed in the service of the truth” during the Day of Pardon service of the Great Jubilee and the church’s prayerful resolve at that time "to seek and promote truth in the gentleness of charity, in the firm knowledge that truth can prevail only in virtue of truth itself" (Service for the Day of Pardon).

That prayer of course echoed the Declaration on Religious Liberty which itself rooted religious freedom in the freedom of the human person as essential to the search for truth as for assent to it. 

So, respect for the consciences of others, including nonbelievers, on something like the universal lines advanced by the liberal political tradition, is fundamental to the contemporary Catholic understanding of religious liberty. Responding to the host of questions that face the country on sexual, marital, reproductive and end-of-life issues, our endeavor should be to find solutions that show equal respect to the consciences of others even when we believe they are in error.

Drew Christiansen, S.J. is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Human Development at Georgetown University. He is the former editor in chief of America.

* Editors' note: This error was inadvertedly introduced during the editing process. It has been corrected in the online version of Professor Reno's article. 

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David Pasinski
5 years ago
I appreciate this opinion, but think you give to much credit to Reno's ideas and also too little appreciation of the lamentable history in Catholicism of the notion of freedom of religion and conscience. However, your last paragraph is one with which I heartily agree and appreciate your taking the risk of writing. I think that a predecessor of yours in the Editor's role may have suffered ecclessial rebuke and dismissal for similar thoughts.
Marie Rehbein
5 years ago
Given that in times past, the clergy were educated while the general populace was not and the settling of disputes was often laid at the feet of the clergy since there was essentially no secular government at the local level, it is not surprising that the Church has a tradition of setting forth what amounts to laws for behavior. However, most laws, both those coming from the Church and those developed in a purely secular environment, are the result of individual consciences determining what is just and reasonable.
David Pasinski
5 years ago
The news today of the slaughter/fire death of 29 boys in aschool in in Nigeria by Boko Haram continues the suffering. I don't know if this was primarily a Christian school or not, but either way the intolerance - and Uganda's presient signing the brutal anti=homosexual law yesterday- makes all of us cringe. The intolerance in the name of religion and morality is so devastating. I am currently reading "I Am Malala," and her story brings such emotion.... What do we in the US ddo? What does the Church -especially the growing Church in Africa and Pope DFrancis - do in the light of all of this? Pray...and what????
Jeanne Linconnue
5 years ago
The Boko Haram was officially designated as a terrorist organization by the US a couple of months ago. They have killed dozens and dozens of Christians (often in schools they run, so many victims are young students). They have also gone to mosques during services and massacred other Muslims because they are not Islamist extremists and have so far refused to join in Boko Haram's civil war against the government of Nigeria. The growing level of religious intolerance in the world has been documented and is a bit frightening. There have been many attacks against christians around the world, but we see it in this country too - attacks against Muslims, Jews, Sikhs etc, but also hate-actions such as the group from a "church" that pickets funerals because of their hate for homosexuals. It is more than just disappointing that the Catholic bishops in Africa have not condemned the anti-gay laws passed in those countries. This makes them complicit, and I hope that Rome steps up to the plate and demands that the bishops either speak out or resign.
Tim O'Leary
5 years ago
I welcome this well-argued defense of freedom of conscience. It includes the important point that one's conscience must be respected even when it errs, quoting the very important point from VC II "Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity." A corollary of the latter point, of course, is that conscience is not necessarily a good guide to the Truth. Hence, we need a Magisterium that is guided by the Holy Spirit to know True doctrine. Dr. Reno pointed out a practical difficulty with an absolute commitment to freedom of conscience, and I think this is a real difficulty inherent with the principle. Having watched a British documentary on the Westboro Baptist Church who protest at soldier's funerals (and think everyone outside their tiny denomination is going to hell), it does appear they are following their consciences to the fullest of their ability. So do many Muslim terrorists and suicide bombers, even to their deaths. Many Dutch doctors kill elderly people and say their consciences are clean. Many Nazis followed their orders with sufficient relish that their consciences were hardly bothered, if at all. Do all these consciences deserve the dignity that Drew Christiansen calls for or VC II referred to? Should governments also respect these consciences in the law? If yes, what would that mean for our laws? If no, then we have to conclude a limited view to freedom of conscience.


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