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The First Freedom: Religious Liberty as the Foundation of Human Liberty


The freedom of the Church must be claimed and reclaimed by Christians in each new generation.


Some of you here tonight will know the name of John Courtney Murray. He's worth remembering. Father Murray was the American Jesuit who helped craft the Second Vatican Council's landmark Declaration on Religious Liberty.

A year after World War II ended, with millions dead and Europe and Japan in ruins, Murray wrote that "those who deny the sovereignty of God over human society are the most dangerous enemies of human liberty."[1]

He wasn't speaking about National Socialism or Communism. He was talking about European Liberalism. That's Liberalism with a capital "L," the system of ideas; the kind of secularism that preached individual freedom while pushing religion out of the public square.

Murray saw that religious freedom is humanity's first and most basic freedom. Religious faith speaks to the purpose of life, the meaning of death and the nature of the human person. It's a God-given right, inherent to human nature. It precedes the state. It is not dependent in any way on any human authority for its legitimacy. And any attempt to suppress the right of people to worship, preach, teach, practice, organize and peacefully engage society because of their belief in God is an attack on the cornerstone of human dignity.

My talk tonight has a simple purpose. I want you to leave here thinking about religious freedom. In Canada and the United States we take this freedom for granted. It's basic to our identity as free peoples in free societies. It's also guaranteed – at least in theory – by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the U.N. General Assembly.

Article 19 of the Declaration says that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed into American law the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission exists because, in the experience of the American people, religious freedom is a basic human right. It's vital to sustaining a democratic society. And so the commission has the task of supporting religious freedom around the globe.

I served three years as a commissioner. The work took me to China and Turkey on fact-finding missions. It also immersed me in the experience of many other countries. I learned three things. First, most countries claim to respect religious liberty. Second, many of those countries don't speak the truth. And third, wherever religious freedom is denied, other freedoms also suffer.

The commission's 2010 annual report runs nearly 400 pages. It details very serious violations of religious freedom in 13 countries. It warns of growing abuses in a dozen more. And it lists another three countries that need closer monitoring for their interference with religious liberty.

Canadian and American Christians often have trouble understanding the brutality of anti-religious repression or serious religious discrimination. It's not part of our national heritage. But many millions of Christians are now being persecuted or harassed for their faith around the world. We need to pray for them. And we also need to pray for ourselves. Because we're not as securely free as we might like to think.

In an open society, religion can be smothered simply by creating a climate in which religious believers are portrayed as buffoons and hypocrites, or as dangerous eccentrics.

For decades now, we've been witnessing in our two countries – and throughout the democratic nations of the West – a campaign against Christian beliefs. The process clothes itself in the language of progress and secularization. But it has little to do with humanity's moral development. It has a lot to do with kicking Christianity out of the public square.

In an open society, religion can be smothered simply by creating a climate in which religious believers are portrayed as buffoons and hypocrites, or as dangerous eccentrics. Or by setting ground rules of public debate that privilege a supposedly "scientific" outlook, and treat religious beliefs as irrelevant.

Inside the media cocoon of a modern society, popular opinion can be shaped in countless little ways until people come to think of their faith as something they should keep to themselves; and that it's bad manners to interject their beliefs into the political process. They might also come to think that certain basic Christian teachings are in fact hateful, intolerant and repressive of other people's freedoms.

And then one morning they find that their faith has compromised itself into apostasy – and they're living in a society where people act as though God no longer exists.

I believe we're getting closer to that morning in our own societies. So we need to get our thinking straight about religious freedom and what it demands of us. To help with that thinking, I want to suggest a few simple points.

The first one is this:

1. For a Catholic, freedom of religion must always include freedom for the Church's mission.

For Catholics, religious liberty begins with the individual. But it can never be an issue purely of private conscience. It's vital for us to have the freedom to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And it's vital that we have the freedom to practice and preach our Catholic beliefs about God and man, the Eucharist, the priesthood, marriage and the nature of human sexuality. Our relationship with Jesus Christ imposes duties that go well beyond any private choices we make about doctrine or worship.

By our baptism we're joined to a visible and public faith community – the apostolic Church created by Jesus himself to carry on his mission in history.

Modern societies often treat religion like a lifestyle accessory. But that profoundly trivializes religion. It domesticates God and turns him into a creature of our own needs. And that's not real religious faith. It's self-deception and idolatry.

The Church is more than a voluntary association of like-minded believers. She is the Bride of Christ, the Mother of Christians, the womb of the family of God. Our relationship with the Church is filial, not contractual. Each of us who is baptized becomes a son or daughter of God. And, as St. Augustine always said: "He who has not the Church for his mother cannot have God for his Father."[2]

This relationship shapes how we understand our religious freedom. As children of God and men and women of the Church, each of us shares in her mission.

Last month in London, Pope Benedict XVI beatified the great Cardinal John Henry Newman. Among his many other gifts, Newman had a great sense of our Christian vocation. He wrote:

God knows me and calls me by my name. God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission. … I have my part in this great work.[3]

The "great work" Newman talked about is the mission that Jesus gave to his Church and to every Christian: to bear witness to his kingdom, to make disciples of all nations, and to teach all people – by word and example – to observe everything that Christ commanded.

When we talk about religious freedom, we're talking about the freedom of the Church – and the freedom of her children, including every Catholic – to preach, teach and practice the lordship of Jesus Christ.

My second point is this:

2. The source of religious freedom for Catholics is not the laws of men, but the law of God.

The Second Vatican Council, in its Declaration on Religious Liberty, said: "The freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle governing relations between the Church and [state] authorities and the whole social order."

The Church's freedom, the council said, is a "sacred liberty," with which the Church has been "endowed" by Jesus Christ for the sake of man's salvation.[4]

The council was pointing us back to Christ's own words  – "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."[5] This Scripture passage teaches us two things:

First it tells us that politics is not all there is. There are two powers – the temporal and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred, Caesar and God. Ultimately the sacred has priority over the secular, because this world ends, and God is forever. But in humanity's daily affairs, each of these two powers has a legitimate separate dignity, function and autonomy that must be respected. And they should never be confused.

The second thing Scripture tells us is that Caesar is not God. Earthly rulers answer to a higher authority. In fact, some of the ancient martyrs went to their deaths with exactly this testimony on their lips: "God is greater than the emperor."[6]

Of course, we have a duty to obey just laws and respect civil authorities. As the prophet Jeremiah said, we should always seek the welfare of the land where the Lord has placed us.[7] But we should also remember that everything important about human life finally belongs not to Caesar, but to God.

Modern societies often treat religion like a lifestyle accessory. But that profoundly trivializes religion. It domesticates God and turns him into a creature of our own needs. And that's not real religious faith. It's self-deception and idolatry.

We're called by God to love him with all our heart and soul, with all our strength and mind; and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is what faith means to a Catholic.

My third point is this:

3. The freedom to fulfill our duties to God is damaged by the widespread erosion of religion's place in our societies.

Michael Sandel has argued that freedom of religion in modern, developed countries no longer means "respect for religion, but respect for the self whose religion it is."[8] That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but it marks a deep change in how our societies understand religion and its value for public life.

Our two nations were founded, at least in theory, on a recognition that the power of government is subordinate to the authority of God. In other words, God outranks Caesar.

As late as 1982, the framers of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms could still assert in its preamble that Canada is "founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law."

America's Declaration of Independence makes the same point: Human rights come from God, not from governments. Civil power is justified only so far as it secures those natural rights, promotes them and defends them.

In reducing religious faith to a personal idiosyncrasy, in denying any authority to religion beyond the private conscience of the individual, our societies undercut the rights we cherish.

What God endows, no human being – no judge, no court, no legislator and no executive – can take away. And when governments assume the power to define rights, repression always follows. In this regard, the increasing contempt we see aimed at the Catholic community in our mass media, academic, cultural and political leadership classes should be deeply sobering.

This brings me to my fourth and final point:

4. In the face of growing secular hostility, we need to preach and practice a Christianity of resistance.

In the early Church, Christians said: "The Church belongs to God; therefore, she ought not to be assigned to Caesar."[9] If those words are true – and they are – then we need to actively resist efforts by government to meddle in Church teaching and internal affairs, and to interfere with the life of her faithful. Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty claims the autonomy of the Church in uncompromising language:

As the spiritual authority appointed by Christ the Lord with the duty, imposed by divine command, of going into the whole world and preaching the Gospel to every creature, the Church claims freedom for herself in human society and before every public authority. The Church also claims freedom for herself as a society of men with the right to live in civil society in accordance with the demands of the Christian faith.

The Church's freedom is never leased or bartered from Caesar. She takes part in the freedom of Jesus Christ himself. The council says that the relationship between the Church and Jesus is so intimate, that to restrict the Church's freedom of action is "to oppose the will of God."[10]

The freedom of the Church must be claimed and reclaimed by Christians in each new generation.

John Courtney Murray often stressed that "the freedom of the Church" is one of the seminal ideas in Western history.[11]

Large portions of human life exist outside the government's competence, and government has no authority to intrude on them. By insisting on her divine liberty, Murray said, the Church laid the foundations for Western notions of limited government and freedom of conscience, and made possible the emergence of a "civil society" – a sphere of public life that mediates between the individual and the state.

The freedom of the Church is never a threat to good government. It is rather a hedge against the vanity of earthly rulers and their tendency to crowd out rival authorities.

Some of you will remember from history that in 1075 Pope Gregory VII was forced to excommunicate the German King and Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Henry had seized for himself the power to appoint or "invest" bishops.

The drama of a chastened Henry traveling to Canossa where the Pope was staying, and then waiting in the snow for three days for forgiveness, is one of the key scenes in Western history.

Today Gregory's words about the freedom of the Church sound prophetic:

We make it our business, under the inspiration of God, to provide weapons of humility for emperors, kings and other princes, so that they may be able to restrain the floods of their pride. … For we are aware that worldly glory and secular anxiety usually do draw into pride … those who rule; as a result, neglecting humility and pursuing their own glory, they perpetually yearn to dominate the brethren.[12]

Let me close with a few simple observations.

First, don't be afraid. God never abandons the people who love him. God created each of you for a purpose. Only you can accomplish it for him. He'll never forget you, or stop loving you, or ignore the prayer of an honest heart. So claim the freedom that is already yours by right. Have the courage to preach Jesus Christ, and to teach the Catholic faith by the example of your lives.

Second, love the Church. No one can love an institution. No one can love a bureaucracy. The structures of Church life can't be "loved" – and yet they're unavoidable in doing ministry in the modern world. But the Church is vastly more than her structures. The soul of the Church is the soul of a mother; the heart of the Church is the heart of a mother – our mother, our teacher, our source of solace and strength.

Finally, remember that the Church is missionary by her nature. She cannot remain silent. She exists for just one purpose: to convert, renew and make holy the world; to carry out the mission that Jesus Christ gave her, one soul at a time. Catholics are a missionary people – engaged with the world, witnessing to the world, and struggling for the soul of the world without apologies – or our baptism means nothing at all.

The freedom of the Church must be claimed and reclaimed by Christians in each new generation. Our turn is right here, right now, tonight. So may God grant us the courage, intelligence, and energy to preach Jesus Christ and to claim our sacred liberties. And with God's help, may we turn our nations away from creating the kind of world where those liberties are denied.


  1. John Courtney Murray, S.J, "How Liberal is Liberalism?," America 75, 6-7, 1946; collected at
  2. Quoted in Henri De Lubac, The Splendor of the Church (Sheed & Ward, 1956), 197.
  3. John Henry Newman, "Meditations on Christian Doctrine," in Meditations and Devotions (Roman Catholic Books, n.d.), 6.
  4. Dignitatis Humanae, 13.
  5. Mark 12:17.
  6. Quoted in Hugo Rahner, Church and State in Early Christianity (Ignatius, 1992 [1961]), xii.
  7. Jer 29:5–7.
  8. Sandel, "Freedom of Conscience," 86.
  9. Quoted in Rahner, Church and State, 113.
  10. Dignitatis Humanae, 13.
  11. Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Image, 1964), 196–199.
  12. Quoted in Anne Fremantle, The Papal Encyclicals in the Historical Context (Mentor, 1956), 65.

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Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. "The First Freedom: Religious Liberty as the Foundation of Human Liberty." Diocese of Victoria, B.C. (October 15, 2010).

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivered these remarks on October 15, 2010 at a catechetical conference sponsored by the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia.

Reprinted by permission of The Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

The Author

chaput65chaput2smCharles J. Chaput is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia. He is author of Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth LivingStrangers in a Strange Land: Living the Christian Faith in a Post-Christian WorldA Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next AmericaRender Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, and Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics.

Copyright © 2010 Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

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