Abp. Chaput: “Those who deny the sovereignty of God over human society are the most dangerous enemies of human liberty”

Good things here for the Orthodox too.

Roman Catholic Apb. Chaput

Roman Catholic Apb. Chaput

You may 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.”

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.

In Canada and the United States we take religious 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.

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:

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.

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.”

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.

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:

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.

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.” 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.”

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. 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:

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.” 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:

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.” 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.”

John Courtney Murray often stressed that “the freedom of the Church” is one of the seminal ideas in Western history.

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.

You may 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.

Let me close with a few simple observations.

First, don’t be afraid. God never abandons the people who love him. God created 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. 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.

This article is adapted from remarks Bishop Chaput delivered on October 15, 2010 at a catechetical conference sponsored by the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia.


  1. cynthia curran :

    True, we now have a liberal politican who was schooled by a marxists as a child. Our president was mentor by Frank William Davis a card carrying member of the communists party. Actually, why we are in the mess we are is the hard left rid the Democratic Party of the old cold war liberals. This mean’t that in the Scoop Jackson days that not only conservatives would opposed them. Only Joe Liberaman is the last of this group in the Democratic Party.

  2. cynthia curran :

    Another thing is the left- particulary liberalism is sucessful because conseratives focus on economics-classical liberalism William Gladstone politican or the social issues instead of the destrucaton of their civilzation, Ronald Reagan and in earlier times big government conservatives like Bismarck. The end of the cold war may it difficult for the conservatives to focus on the destrucation of their civlization but there is still the left, whether the ideagogue communists or socialist in the west or China which uses state Capitailism as well as radical Islam.

  3. As of today, we are still awaiting a verdict from the Supreme Court on Snyder v Phelps which will decide whether the church of Westboro has a right to demonstrate near funerals. As clear as it is to me that this clan (cult?) enjoys inflicting suffering on people, it is also clear that their beliefs are sincere and derived from a thoroughly (hyper) Calvinist theology. As such, I’ve been somewhat surprised by the insistence of some within the religious community that freedom of religious expression is not absolute and that there are other considerations that might take precedence.

    The theology of Westboro is deemed hostile and offensive by many, but isn’t the Gospel itself a “scandal” to the world? My concern is that stifling them could set a precedent of saying that the public expression of religious faith (even such as done by open-air preachers) could be deemed unprotected speech if it makes some people “uncomfortable”.

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

      Sincere or not, if the Supreme Court deems their protests unlawful, then we enter that slippery slope of “hate crime” legislation, where crimes are adjudicated on thoughts rather than actions. The criminal code will follow the dictates of political correctness and yes, preaching the Gospel might be criminalized because in many cases it is offensive especially to secularized sensibilities (as we have seen in Canada already).

      As offensive as the actions of the Phelps cult are, their right to free speech should not be abridged based on their offensiveness alone. I’m not sure why the Court chose to hear it at all. The right to free speech and assembly in situations like this has already been established (the Nazis in Skokie for example). I hope they are not up to mischief.

      This could have easily been handled by local codes.

      • It appears I misunderstood what was actually on trial here (from the SCOTUS site):

        (1) Whether the prohibition of awarding damages to public figures to compensate for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, under the Supreme Court’s First Amendment precedents, applies to a case involving two private persons regarding a private matter; (2) whether the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment trumps its freedom of religion and peaceful assembly; and (3) whether an individual attending a family member’s funeral constitutes a “captive audience” who is entitled to state protection from unwanted communication.

        So, unless I’m misreading this, it seems that what’s at stake is not whether people can publicly express their religious views but whether they can be sued for emotional distress by non-public entities for expressing them. Also interesting is that some feel that ruling for the Phelps will actually be a negative for churches that may wish to bar certain groups from attendance (such as Catholics whose services have been interrupted by activists).

  4. Wesley J. Smith :

    This is why it is so alarming when political leaders speak of “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion.” That is a distinction with a huge difference when it comes to individual liberty. The former is limited to what happens during the time of services at a synagogue, church, temple, or mosque, and has nothing to do with the way one lives in the larger world. The latter recognizes that faith and religion also influence the living of individual lives, which, barring a compelling state interest (e.g., preventing human sacrifice, slavery, polygamy etc.), should not be impinged. I think it is the latter–freedom of religion–that is truly threatened by the trends to which the bishop is referring.

    • George Michalopulos :

      Wesley, this is precisely what SecState Clinton spoke about a couple of months ago. For her, it was all about “freedom of worship,” not “freedom of religion.”

      • Wesley J. Smith :

        And here’s an irony, George: We often hear complaints about people who go to church/synagogue/temple one day a week but don’t live it the other six. This “freedom of worship” thing could be the beginning of a move to make sure that they can’t.

  5. 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.

    The campaign against Christian belief was much longer…. It is about 2000 years old.
    Nicodemus was a religious ruler, teacher, and Pharisee who believed in Jesus; he was a secret Christian. He came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
    John 3:1-2

    Nicodemus defended the apostles, saying that if Christianity “be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.
    Two thousands years later, after hundreds of thousands were martyred, those who love the darkness are still fighting to overthrow Christianity.

  6. I can’t feel completely negative about Archbishop Chaput because in the ’90s he personally replied to a (politely) challenging email of mine! 😉

    But all I see in his column is campaigning for old privileges. Hell, Christianity invented campaigning for your beliefs and against others’, vs. accepting those handed down from time immemorial. When others do the same today, they learned it from Christianity. Christianity attained privileges, such as a certain expectation of access to “the public square” even governmentally-financed, because it earned it through evangelization, not because it came in without reason and just demanded privileges of pagan princes, chieftains, etc. Now that Christianity has a serious challenge, we fall back on privileges? Don’t we have the Good News anymore? Religion in the USA is still, for now, legally a “free market” (in sociological terms); in fact, the USA has the most religious population in the free world, supposedly because of the religious free market. (Northern Ireland is up there, but the religious situation there isn’t comparable to here IMHO: I believe they’re so religious because of the 500 years of wholesale, violent or oppressive “sectarian” conflict.) The “secularism” said to be advancing in Western European nations with traditions of sectarian Establishments — Latin or Protestant — is sociologically not comparable to here; research suggests Establishment actually has hurt religion there, in contrast to the USA.

    Look: Even Pope and Patriarch John Paul II of Old Rome, someone with whom I had many disagreements as a Catholic, said what Western Europe needed was “re-evangelization.” Supposedly he said Russia would do it: Orthodoxy. Not re-privileged Latinism, not re-privileged Protestantism, but us! Why or when he said that, I haven’t been able to find out. But my kneejerk reaction to getting back in bed with them when they’ve supposedly been rejected by the populace is something like, “Haven’t Europeans already been inoculated enough against The Truth? Do we have to collaborate in giving them a booster shot, instead of The Real Thing? Sure, we say certain things are wrong or undesirable or even spiritually risky. But IIUC we have different, older, better, TRUE reasons why, and better ways of putting it, which Europeans won’t hear as long as we’re agreeing public statements with partisan, reactionary, “philosophizing” Latins or partisan, reactionary, “philosophizing” Protestants. Hell, I’VE rejected Latinism and Protestantism TOO!!!”

    I’d retitle Chaput’s — or a better — piece, “Those who arrogate the sovereignty of God over human society are the most dangerous enemies, period!”

    “Ecumenism of the right” may be an even greater temptation to Holy o/Orthodoxy than “ecumenism of the left.” Especially if we think it’s “the end of civilization” (yet again). But “there’s nothing new under the sun” as Scripture says. The last time civilization ended, Augustine of Hippo made costly errors that are now bringing down this civilization. We must be wary of planting the seeds of destruction (though not of the destruction of the Body of Christ, against Which death will not prevail since His Bodily Resurrection).

    Leo Peter

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