In this essay, I investigate religious liberty and its relationship to the common good within a specifically Catholic framework. But note well: the cogency of what I say does not depend upon accepting the contents of revelation or actually having religious faith or believing in the authority of the Church. What follows could be taken without remainder as a philosophical reflection that just happens to be suffused with Catholic illustrations.

Our exploration is blessed by a remarkable stability of the key coordinates: even today, the Church’s pastors rely on the Second Vatican Council’s articulation of both the “common good” and “religious liberty.” Gaudium et spes (GS) defines the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life that allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough access to their own fulfillment,” while Dignitatas humanae (DH) describes it as “the entirety of those conditions of social life under which men enjoy the possibility of achieving their own perfection in a certain fullness and also with some relative ease.” This way of understanding the “common good” has been evident in the teachings of the Popes going back to Leo XIII. It shaped the authoritative Catechism and the official but non-authoritative Vatican Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It is now—thankfully—woven into the sinews of Catholic thought about political matters.

The unsurpassably important truth captured in these formulations is this: any political community must create and maintain vast and complex enterprises—highways, defenses, markets, courts, schools—all possessing an internal logic of their own and aimed at overriding purposes, such as safe and speedy transport or protection from attack. But that immense ensemble of “external conditions” is not an end in itself. Instead, all of these enterprises must be dedicated to giving persons a realistic opportunity to direct their lives by and through moral and religious truth—and thus to “perfect” or “fulfill” themselves as human beings.

This is the central meaning of the profound truth that society is for the individual, and not the other way around. The state and its law and all its exertions exist for the sake of the person, not the reverse.

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Culture, Religious Liberty, and the Common Good

Although the use of terms like “external conditions” seems to suggest that the common good consists of material things and concrete opportunities, this is a dangerous misunderstanding. In fact, the condition most important to the real flourishing of persons is more intangible: culture—the mentality, the thoughts, habits, beliefs, values of the people. We must also take care that the concept of the common good not be reduced to what the government does or can do. It is true that public authorities greatly affect culture, for good or for ill. But nowhere does government monopolize culture, and there are severe limits—both normative and practical—to what the state and its law can do about culture.

The common good is more than a mere ensemble of conditions. Its scope extends well beyond the state’s proper competence. Everyone has responsibilities to promote the common good and therefore create and maintain an environment conducive to living in accord with the truth.

What about religious liberty? DH describes religious liberty as “immunity from coercion in matters religious.” Because morally justified coercion is generally limited to public authority, it is understandable to think of religious liberty as a civil right—a constraint on the exercise of government’s power. Yet the liberty affirmed in DH is not only a civil right. It is a natural right, and it affirms a duty not only on all public authorities, but on every person. DH says:

[This] freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of any human individuals or of social groups and of any human power. . .

Everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy.

A key pillar of the common good as it pertains to religious liberty, then, is a strict duty to respect by each person of every other person’s freedom in religious matters. Another is the softer—affirmative, circumstantially qualified—obligation to do what one can to protect others from coercion, pressure, manipulation, and unworthy persuasion.

Culture and the Search for Truth

Described in this way, freedom of religion might sound like a strikingly negative liberty. And indeed, freedom from force and manipulation is essential to religious liberty. But it is not the whole of it. Not nearly.

Unless it is suffused with the right cultural stuff, a scheme overridingly committed to each person’s free quest for religious truth is likely to derail into an enabler of individual self-invention and individuality for its own sake. Where it happens (and I think it is happening in America right now) this devolution into subjectivity is acidic. It corrodes the undercarriage of genuine religious liberty, especially the essential notion that religion is about objective truth. Plainly put, a culture that has lost its belief that religion is about the truth of reality has decapitated religious liberty.

Indeed, recent popes make clear that culture is fundamentally the religious question writ large. Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical letter Centesimus annus: “At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.” Or, as he once said to Francis Cardinal George: “Faith creates culture.” Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI told visiting American bishops in 2012, “At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality.”

In other words: culture is—or should be—organized around the quest for truth about divine reality.

In his 2011 message on the World Day of Peace, titled “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace,” Pope Benedict spoke of “the religious dimension of culture, built up over the centuries thanks to the social and especially ethical contributions of religion” and of “religion’s ethical contribution in the political sphere.” And in his September 12, 2008 speech in Paris, Pope Benedict said: “Religious freedom is . . . an achievement of a sound political and juridical culture.”

In other words: religious liberty is a cultural achievement. It is not a natural fruit of the earth or something so obviously conducive to human happiness that no society could fail to promote it. Religious liberty is a cultural achievement that history and current events show to be both uncommon and fragile.

Three Cultural Requirements for Religious Liberty

A culture that is able to achieve genuine religious liberty is characterized by a high degree of commitment to at least three propositions. First, that religion is a zone of truth, not an enclave of tradition, custom, identity, projections, emotions, and edifying fables. Second, that there is an important, inalienable personal moral duty to seek out and to embrace religious truth. Third, that religious liberty has to be securely distinguished from other sorts of liberty, even from the right of conscience with which it partly overlaps. Without these three cultural anchors—and no matter how much freedom from external interference characterizes a society—there will not be religious liberty. At best there will be something like what we have, or are surely heading toward: a broad liberty to create one’s own mental universe (recall the “Mystery Passage” of the Supreme Court’s Casey decision), within which some people will find a place for spirituality and what they might call “god.”

Let me explain.

Religious liberty depends on acceptance of the proposition that religion is the kind of thing that is either objectively true or objectively false. Anyone’s religious beliefs could be an admixture of (mostly) true propositions and (some) false ones—or vice versa. But my religion cannot be “true” for me because it corresponds to my experiences and feelings while your religion is “true” for you, even though they are contradictory.

Any society’s culture and law includes manifold and innumerable opportunities to register its understanding of religion as making objective truth claims about reality. Churches, religious groups, and leaders must witness to this way of understanding religion. If they do not, who will?

Here it is perhaps most urgent to retrieve and promote some of Pope Benedict’s searing comments to Latin American bishops assembled in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. He told his listeners, many of whom were still in thrall to liberation theology, that all such political ideologies “falsify the notion of reality by detaching it from the foundational and decisive reality which is God.” He explained that “only those who recognize God know reality,” and that one “who excludes God from his horizons falsifies the notion of ‘reality’ and, in consequence, can only end up in blind alleys or with recipes for destruction.”

If religion is about truth, then, DH tells us, this comes with certain obligations: “All men are impelled by nature and also by moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.”

Speaking on behalf of the entire Polish bishops’ conference, a young bishop (and future pope) asserted at the council that the liberty protected was so large because the corresponding moral duty was so large and so pressing. Karol Wojtyla maintained that a person’s relationship to God is of “maximal” and everlasting importance. Because this duty is preeminent in each person’s moral life, so should religious liberty be in social life—at least if, or rather because the polity is for persons and their perfection.

Getting people to take this moral duty seriously is a difficult task in modern culture. It is not a norm of justice, as if we owe it to other people to seek the truth and wrong them if we do not. It is not quite a duty to God; even if it were, modern societies do not much care about such matters. It is not quite a duty to oneself either; even if it were, ignoring it would be what we call now a “victimless immorality,” which most today see as not immoral at all. In any event, there is no basis for legally punishing anyone for failing to conscientiously investigate divine matters. And trying to force anyone by less drastic means to perform this moral duty is self-defeating. One cannot make another honestly believe in the truth of any proposition. Trying to do so can only result (at most) in feigned or half-hearted assent.

The only possibly fruitful social input here has to be a set of demanding social and cultural expectations, whereby everyone who values the esteem of others and wishes to be involved with his culture’s most urgent subjects, will naturally want to engage that culture’s ongoing critical theological conversation. Of course, to launch and sustain such a discourse, the culture will have to uncouple religious conviction from personal identity, sufficiently to allow criticism of the former as false to survive intact against accusations that it is denigration of the latter.

The third cultural requirement for religious liberty—that it must be distinguished from other sorts of liberties—is perhaps just an implication of the first two. To detach religious liberty from truth is to decapitate it. This is the danger in today’s post-Christian societies, and the peril is often abetted by treating “religious liberty” as a synonym for “rights of conscience.”

Respecting “conscience” is indeed a good thing. But it has nothing necessarily to do with religion; respecting and making room (within limits) for all to deliberate, choose, and act according to internal guidance and thus to function as morally integrated persons, is a great good. Religious liberty includes all this, and more: The believer acts not only with reference to internal cohesion. He or she also acts in relationship to God. Christians act as cooperators with Jesus in redeeming the world. “Conscience” rights pertain to the inner harmony of any acting person. “Religious liberty” refers to that as well as to harmony between the acting person and the transcendent God. Besides, and as the recent popes taught, the social and political role of genuine religious conviction goes well beyond the importance of respect for conscience alone.

In his 2010 Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict also noted: “In modern thinking, the word ‘conscience’ signifies that for moral and religious questions, it is the subjective dimension, the individual that constitutes the final authority for decision.” He observed further that the modern world is “divided into the realms of the objective and the subjective.” Religion and morals, the pope continued, “lie within the subjective realm. Here, it is said, there are in the final analysis no objective criteria.” Each person must be guided by and indeed governed by his “intuitions and experiences,” not objective truth.

Pope Benedict argued that a truer understanding of conscience is as “both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart.” The path of “conversion is a path of conscience—not a path of self-asserting subjectivity but, on the contrary, a path of obedience to truth.” This “conscience” is not and cannot be turned in upon itself, as if the point of any “right” of conscience was to make way for persons to express their most authentic selves. Conscience and respect for it—both rightly understood—are subsumed within and also prolegomena to genuine religious freedom.