The campaign for religious liberty has defined the bishops’ disposition to political power during the past decade. Now there are signs that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has ushered in a new phase of its fight for religious liberty. Not only did it recently submit a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court declaring that President Trump’s ban on migration from five Muslim countries was “blatant religious discrimination”; a few days later it announced that its annual “Fortnight for Freedom,” launched in 2012, will become “Religious Freedom Week”—lasting half as long as before.
It will be interesting to see if and how the U.S. bishops’ interpretation of the conciliar declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae (1965), will develop. The foundational statement of the USCCB’s religious-liberty mobilization—Our First, Most Cherished Liberty (2012)—proudly claimed that “the landmark teaching of the Second Vatican Council on religious liberty was influenced by the American experience. It is among the proudest boasts of the Church on these shores. We have been staunch defenders of religious liberty in the past. We have a solemn duty to discharge that duty today.”
But the approach to religious liberty in Our First, Most Cherished Liberty is more legal than theological. This was partly because of the bishops’ decision to fight the Obama administration in court, but it is also typical of the minimalist reception of Vatican II embraced by many prelates in the United States. There remains a certain discomfort with the theology of religious liberty because it underscores discontinuities in the tradition that many bishops would like to minimize or deny altogether. But the obvious theological differences between Dignitatis humanae and, for example, Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864) or the Holy Office’s silencing of John Courtney Murray, SJ, in 1954 and 1955 constitute a problem for those who insist that there were no doctrinal changes at Vatican II.
There has also been an important change of political context in the years since Our First, Most Cherished Liberty was issued. Not just the jarring change from Obama to Trump, but also the related rise of anti-liberalism, from which Catholics in this country and elsewhere have not been immune. Anti-liberalism often goes together with a rejection of the idea that historical development in religion can be a good thing. Catholic anti-liberals would still deny, in the early twenty-first century, that on some issues—for example, religious liberty—Catholics have made theological progress during the past century, a progress reflected in changes of doctrine.
The bishops can no longer afford to ignore the theological dimension of religious liberty, since it is precisely this dimension that has lately been thrown into doubt. There are some indications that the change from “Fortnight for Freedom” to “Religious Freedom Week” might reflect a change of emphasis in the initiative. In an interview with Crux’s John Allen, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the USCCB from 2013 to 2016 and now the head of the bishops’ permanent Committee for Religious Liberty, explained that the change is not just in the duration of the mobilization effort. Kurtz said Religious Freedom Week will be less exclusively focused on the domestic scene and more aware of religious liberty as a global issue. This is an important point because it addresses, albeit indirectly, the relationship between the church’s commitment to religious freedom and its global reach. Kurtz pointed out that young people tend to take for granted the right to religious liberty. It is an open question whether they understand this right in the context of other modern rights, about which they may also be complacent. There are worrying signs of “democratic indifference” and disengagement among millennials.