When I was consecrated a bishop in 2005, I was not fretting about religious freedom in Scotland or in the United Kingdom. Yet just six and a half years later, I can say with a concerned and fearful realism that the loss of religious freedom is now arguably the most serious threat that the Catholic Church and all people of faith in this country are facing. The way this issue unfolds will determine how the Church will present itself to society for the foreseeable future. Will the Catholic Church—and other religious bodies and groups—have the space to adhere to, express, and teach their beliefs in the public square? Or will these basic elements of religious freedom be denied, driving the Church and other religious bodies to the margins of society, if not actually underground?

How has the question of religious freedom arisen in this country?

The question of religious freedom has arisen stealthily and rapidly in the United Kingdom. In 2007 I warned the people of my diocese in a pastoral letter that religious liberty was under attack. The introduction of new regulations that aimed to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services prompted my letter. These regulations were based on the Equality Act of 2006. It was evident that Catholic adoption agencies would be forced to go against the teaching of the Church by placing children with same-sex couples, or else fall afoul of the law. Some agencies complied with this legislation and renounced their Catholic character. Others closed down. Only a few have done neither, skilfully arguing their case, continuing to operate as Catholic agencies facilitating adoption by suitable husbands and wives.

Subsequently, in two landmark cases, the courts in England ruled against the owners of a bed and breakfast facility who did not wish to accommodate homosexual couples under their roof, and then disallowed a Christian couple from fostering children because they could not guarantee that they would treat homosexuality as a positive life choice for children in their care. It was clear by then that, with the connivance of courts and the political establishment, religious freedom and freedom of conscience could be sacrificed on the altar of the homosexual agenda.

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With this history, the Scottish bishops are in no doubt that if the government recognizes same-sex relationships as marriages, we will have to fight to preach and teach the true nature of marriage both from the pulpit and in Catholic schools, and we fear that Catholic men and women will be discriminated against in the workplace and in society. The danger is that the Catholic community will be forced into pariah status by aggressive secularism.

The issues at stake are at least two: the notion of religious freedom, and the notion of the state.

The Notion of Religious Freedom

In October 2011, I wrote to Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, about government policies that impinged on religious freedom. One of the issues I raised was the question of same-sex marriage. In a subsequent conversation, Salmond assured me that a law introducing same-sex marriage would not restrict the freedom of Catholics to practice their faith. I am not sure if he understood the difference between freedom of worship and freedom of religion, or if he understood it only too well, and was hedging his bets, knowing full well that once legislation permitting same-sex marriage was on the statute books, zealots would call for sanctions against people who publicly expressed dissent from the new orthodoxy.

I was worried especially for Catholic teachers who had to deliver a religious education program in Catholic primary and secondary schools in which marriage is defined explicitly as a union between a man and a woman. If same-sex relationships are recognized as marriages, we will need to campaign for legislation to guarantee the religious freedom to dissent from the new orthodoxy in public and in private, in religious worship and preaching, in teaching, and in the upbringing of children. Given the way things are in the UK presently, I have no confidence that any such guarantees will be forthcoming.

In December 2011, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, gave an address in Oxford commemorating the King James Bible. He confirmed the place of Christianity in British history and life. I wrote to the PM to praise his Oxford comments on the essential place of Christianity in British life and culture. In that letter, I said this:

I was pleased to read news reports of a speech you gave recently in Oxford marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in which you acknowledged the fundamental contribution of Christianity to British society, called for a revival of Christian values, and acknowledged the importance of the Christian faith and of other religious faiths to the majority of people in Britain today. I welcome your words at a time when many of us are concerned that freedom of religion, understood not simply as freedom to worship, but also as freedom to express and teach our faith, is in danger of being eroded in the United Kingdom by illiberal limitations being placed on what Christians can say and do. I hope that your wise words will be reflected in the decisions reached by Parliaments and Assemblies, by the courts and by regulatory bodies up and down the land.

I received no reply to my letter either from the Prime Minister or from any of his departments or aides. But my recent experience of dealing with government on both sides of the border tells me that, while freedom of worship may not be in question, freedom of religion in its full sense is something they are not prepared to explicitly underwrite.

The Notion of the State

In February of this year, the Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party Vice Chairman, as a follow-up to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 visit to Britain, led a UK ministerial delegation to the Vatican for talks on matters of mutual concern. The Baroness, herself a Muslim, was quoted in the media expressing concerns that religion in Britain was being marginalized. One prominent response came from the Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief, Trevor Phillips, who said that religious beliefs end “at the door of the temple.”

This was a far cry from the Prime Minister’s praise of the positive and essential role of Christianity in public life. But how can Christianity have a positive role in public life, one wonders, if it begins and ends at the door of the temple? And if religious freedom is limited to the interior of the temple, how different will Britain be from places like Saudi Arabia where there is freedom of worship behind closed doors?

The modern theory of religious freedom forged in the Second Vatican Council advocates the compatibility of the Judeo-Christian tradition with democracy. This doctrine, while asserting the supremacy of God, advocates rendering unto Caesar what is rightfully Caesar’s, and has no ambition to replace the law of the land with a religious code that collapses the secular into the sacred. The secular autonomy of the state is safe with this Christian and Catholic view of the legitimate separation of church and state, in which the virtues generated by religious freedom will underpin and encourage democracy, while the democratic system will support and protect religious freedom.

So the view expressed by Trevor Phillips that religious faith should not be allowed to enter the public square raises huge questions about the nature of the state. Phillips appears to endorse the notion of a state that fills all civic space and reaches out to control other institutions present within the state. It is a notion of the state with a rather limited understanding of subsidiarity. It is Big Government at its worst. It appears to have no respect for institutions, such as the family and the Church, which pre-exist the state, which straddle the private-public domain, and which have their own internal constitution. This is a state moving toward a kind of soft totalitarianism.

As Cardinal George Pell of Sydney observed in a lecture at Oxford in 2009, modern liberalism has strong totalitarian tendencies. It tends to imply that institutions such as the family, the Church, and other agencies exist only with the permission of the state, and, to exist lawfully, must abide by the dictates or norms of the state. This totalitarian liberalism is quite different from traditional liberalism, which sees the individual, the family, and the association as prior to the state, with the state existing only to fulfill functions that are beyond the capabilities of individuals and families.

A state with a healthy understanding of subsidiarity will recognize and encourage free associations and institutions, especially the family, churches, and religious groups. These groups are goods in themselves, and encourage the development of the virtues that sustain a healthy democracy. A state that recognizes human associations that exist prior to the state, not just chronologically but in terms of the truths of the human condition, and recognizes the legitimate prerogatives of such associations within the civic space, recognizes the limits of its own competence and the boundaries of its authority. According to this proper understanding, the state would have no business changing the nature of marriage to accommodate same-sex relationships and no business imposing on the conscience of Catholic adoption agencies.

Pope Benedict XVI expressed this fundamental understanding in speaking to a group of American bishops in January of this year:

The Church’s witness, then, is of its nature public: she seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square. The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.

How can this vision of church-state relations be accommodated or respected if the dominant ideology decrees that the Church’s faith and principles must be left at the door of the temple? This looming question will not be resolved by the quintessentially saving British virtues of decency, fairness, and bumbling along. I sense that the Christian roots of these national “virtues” have been eradicated. The anti-religious agenda has a hard edge and is in no mood to compromise.

Human Autonomy Rightly Understood

Religious freedom is more than freedom to worship, but is also the freedom to express and teach religious truth. It must include the freedom to evangelize, catechize, and serve the needy according to a religious community’s own precepts. Religious freedom is thus intertwined with freedom of expression, thought, and conscience. Believers should not be treated by the government and the courts as a tolerated and divisive minority whose rights must always yield to the secular agenda.

As we have seen in the genesis of the threat to religious freedom in the UK, the great question that exercises modern culture is the meaning of human autonomy and especially sexual freedom. Cardinal Pell wisely remarks that this struggle is fundamentally over a religious question that revolves around the reality of a transcendent order. One way of putting it is: “Did God create us or did we create God?” The limited scope that secularism is prepared to concede to religious beliefs is based on the assumption that we created God. As long as the supremacy remains with man, then faith is understood as a private therapeutic pursuit and is permitted. But when people insist that faith is more than this, and that the supremacy is not ours, religion must be resisted, increasingly through the law.

The question of autonomy, of freedom and supremacy, plays itself out, among other places, in the contest between religious and sexual freedom. Absolute sexual freedom lies at the heart of the modern autonomy project. Beyond preferences about sexual practices or forms of relationship, it extends now to preferences about the method and manner of procreation, family formation, and the uses of human reproduction in medical research. Cardinal Pell hit the nail on the head when he observed that the message from the earliest days of the sexual revolution, always barely concealed behind the talk of “free love,” “live and let live,” and creating space for “different forms of loving,” was that limits on sexual autonomy will not be tolerated. This is generating the pressures against religion in public life.

It is difficult for Christians to know how to respond in this situation. We are in the midst of a cultural revolution that can be uncompromising and brutal. Christians have the more promising vision and more convincing arguments than secularists about the nature of human beings in their need of God, about the nature of the family, about the place of faith in public life, and about the relationship of faith to science and progress. However, the cultural mood is to dismiss these arguments and insights in summary fashion. Christians today are riding the tiger, and, if the present cultural trajectory goes unchecked, I fully expect to be prosecuted in the courts in the coming years. But Christians need to be patient and steadfast and always ready to engage. Evil may well have its time but eventually it consumes itself, and it will not have the last word. We may need to pick up the pieces of a shattered civilization, broken and exhausted by its extreme adventure with radical godlessness.

Whatever happens in the next few years, the Catholic Church has only one choice: to be herself by being true to Jesus Christ, whatever the cost. What kind of nation and what kind of democracy will we be? That is another question.

This essay is adapted from a keynote address the author delivered on April 11, 2012, at Magdalen College, University of Oxford, to a conference sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University.