Outvoted, Not Persecuted

Four Lessons about Religious Freedom

It has been fifty years since John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with a clear signal that the long era of what some call “Constantinianism”—in which the church could depend on civil authorities to help defend the faith—was over. Vatican II’s eventual declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, explicitly marked the transition away from that dependence. But right away, in his opening speech on October 11, 1962, Pope John announced that a central purpose of the entire council was to negotiate this tectonic shift in the hope that the church, “finally freed from so many obstacles of a profane nature such as trammeled her in the past,” could proclaim and live out the gospel with greater clarity.

Yet old habits die hard. A half-century later, the juxtaposition of two news stories suggests that the Catholic Church still has a ways to go to unlearn its Constantinian habits of the heart. In one case, Vatican negotiations with breakaway Lefebvrist bishops of the Society of St. Pius X focused on the question of whether Rome would acquiesce to the Lefebvrist refusal to recognize Dignitatis humanae. In the other, U.S. Catholic bishops sought to rally the faithful for their “Fortnight for Freedom” under a banner calling religious freedom “our first, most cherished liberty.” When religious liberty seems negotiable at one moment and a bedrock Catholic principle the next, cynics may be forgiven for thinking that the principle is only as strong as its ability to maintain the church’s own power and privilege within the social order.

As a Mennonite theologian who has entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church, I cannot concur with such cynics. Indeed, the ongoing and well-nigh miraculous period of ecumenical dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics would be unimaginable without Vatican II’s commitment to religious freedom. Mennonites and those in related churches tracing their origins to the Anabaptist movement could hardly have carried out an ecumenical “exchange of gifts” with Catholics if the Roman church had not emphatically distanced itself from resort to the coercive resources of the state. After all, we remember the bloody persecutions of the sixteenth century, by both Protestant Reformers and Catholics. Mennonites echo John XXIII’s judgment that even when “the princes of this world” sincerely thought they were protecting the church, such assistance “frequently” brought “spiritual damage and danger”—and they counsel that such damage comes not just to victims of ill-conceived policies, but to the church bodies that rely on those policies as well. Recourse to state-backed coercion serves as an addictive substitute for the church’s own Spirit-resourced practices of gospel proclamation, pastoral formation, catechesis, persuasion, and mutual admonition within the community of faith.

To help unlearn what remains of this Constantinian mindset, Catholics would do well to accept a few lessons from churches that have never been able to expect the state to support them. Their experience is one shared by many Christians—including Catholics in many times and places—who learn to live in the creative tension of diaspora.


Lesson 1: If we wish to frame our public advocacy in rights language, we will have to do the hard work of communion that allows us to advocate for communal as well as individual rights.

Churches in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition have a complex relationship with rights, one based in the practice of adult baptism. In making an uncoerced adult commitment to Christ, their members exercise individual rights even while turning over much of their autonomy to their church community. Religious liberty in this tradition arises from an ecclesiology that integrates individual rights through baptism and participatory decision-making with an implicit conception of communal rights. This pattern survives even among less rigorous modern Mennonites, whose baptismal vow includes a commitment “to give and receive counsel.” Mennonites who enter the cultural mainstream have been more careful than either Protestant denominations or Catholic bishops to delay speaking out unless and until broad participatory consultation has ensured that a solid consensus undergirds their public positions.

In recent months, facing a mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that almost all health insurance policies cover contraception and sterilization, U.S. Catholic bishops have attempted to articulate a case for their faith’s communal rights and values. They are doing so in the American dialect of individual rights—at best a clumsy idiom for articulating the communitarian nuances of Catholic convictions concerning the deeply social nature of the human person. This kind of public discourse can only take the church so far. Yes, American Catholics initially rallied in support of their bishops when the Obama administration announced the mandate; even Catholics unpersuaded by the church’s opposition to contraception intuited that the communal rights of the Catholic Church were being disrespected. But then the Obama administration announced its intention to modify the mandate to provide somewhat greater flexibility for Catholic institutions to opt out, while preserving the right of individual employees to benefit equally from contraceptive coverage. The broad consensus among American Catholics began to dissolve, and with it the solidity of their political support for the bishops’ stance.

Should American Catholics have fallen into line? The Anabaptist-Mennonite integration of individual and communal rights underscores that membership has its consequences. While conservative Catholics who urge liberal Catholics to obey church teachings or leave the church often express their message with a divisive harshness, their core claim is nonetheless correct: To be a member of the global Catholic community is to subject the exercise of one’s individual freedom to the claims of that community as articulated by the episcopacy that embodies the institutional unity of the church. My aim is not to dismiss this claim, but rather to point out that with every right comes responsibility. This includes the right of the bishops to articulate the faith and morals of the church. Communion names a two-way relationship, not one-way obedience. The magisterium must do far more than make pronouncements and expect the laity to fall into line; they must do the hard work of bringing the Catholic faithful with them through effective catechesis. And whenever they fail to convince vast sectors of the Catholic faithful of the truth of a teaching, they must listen carefully to reservations within the Catholic community, in order to learn what moral wisdom those reservations might disclose.

In other words, the first lesson to learn from churches with long experience as champions of religious liberty is this: No religious community can preserve its freedom in the public square without doing the hard work of building real consensus through participatory communal practices that solidify the community’s moral cohesion.


Lesson 2: If we as Catholics need to embrace a “remnant” ecclesiology in order to solidify a cohesive political witness, then we will have to recognize the full implications of life in diaspora—which means not confusing Catholic identity with American identity.

Taking a lead from Cardinal Ratzinger before he became pope, some Catholic commentators view shrinkage and consolidation of the church as a necessary consequence of upholding positions unpopular in the modern world. No one formed by Anabaptist-Mennonite sensibilities can object in principle to the claim that fashioning a more faithful church might mean accepting smaller numbers. The way U.S. bishops have framed their defense of religious freedom as a defense of “our first, most cherished liberty,” however, is puzzling and frankly suspect to non-Catholic Christians with a long track record of maintaining just this kind of countercultural posture within American society. Who is the we behind “our most cherished right”? The ad hoc committee of bishops who announced the Fortnight for Freedom—scheduled, significantly, to climax on July 4, 2012—defended their responsibility to speak both as Catholics and as Americans. Yet their red-white-and-blue discourse raises as many questions as it answers.

Certainly it was helpful that the bishops’ letter pointed to a range of issues, besides the HHS mandate, in which the church finds it increasingly difficult to carry out its ministries: to undocumented immigrants, to families seeking to adopt children, to the poor. But many of these ministries are vulnerable now because for decades their budgets have relied on considerable funding from U.S. government agencies—not exactly the position of a remnant church. If the bishops really were ready for a remnant ecclesiology, then in 2003 we would have been called to a fortnight campaign opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in accord with the Holy Father’s judgment that it constituted an unjust war. And what about defending the church’s own conscientious objectors over the past fifty years, who in accord with just-war teaching have objected to participating in some (though not all) wars?

Maybe it is indeed time for our bishops to lead us into life as a remnant church, and to use the Catholic issues listed in the call to a Fortnight for Freedom as a launching pad. It is hard to discern any such strategy, however, when the committee’s letter deploys the language of American exceptionalism, speaking of freedom as “our special heritage.” A remnant church would in fact condemn American exceptionalism as a heresy, one in which the Christian vision of a transnational people of God called by Jesus to be a city on a hill is replaced by America’s competing claim to be that city. It would mean teaching Catholics in this country not to conflate their Christian identity with their American one, but to distinguish it. Again, there is a way to do this by learning from minority churches long comfortable with a remnant ecclesiology. It does not even require abandoning the deeply Catholic both/and sensibility that affirms that we can be both Catholic and American, or Catholic and Nigerian, or Catholic and Malaysian. That way is to recognize, with St. Cyprian, that Christians can be at home anywhere because they know they will never be entirely at home in any nation. As Christians we always live in diaspora.


Lesson 3: If we expect to continue the Catholic tradition of engaging culture for the sake of the common good, we will have to accept the complexity that comes from living in overlapping moral communities.

Some readers by now may worry that citing lessons from Mennonites and toying with remnant ecclesiology means embracing a sectarianism alien to the broad consensus of Catholicism. For Catholics, unlearning Constantinian habits of the heart cannot and will not mean withdrawing from service and engagement within the larger world. Grace perfects nature, Catholics must ever insist, and grace does not abandon it.

Mennonites have never been as sectarian as detractors charge, and in the past century many have entered the U.S. cultural mainstream, working hard to follow Christ faithfully while cooperating with other communities’ institutions. Though at times they may have have worried overmuch about staying pure, their leaders have often been quite pragmatic as they navigated claims of conscience, church teaching, societal pressures, professional ethics, legal expectations, military conscription—the whole complex of competing obligations that comes with participation in overlapping moral communities. Yes, conflicts do arise. A few members of pacifist churches, for instance, resist the payment of what they call “war taxes.” But most accept such taxes as the price they must pay for participating in a larger society where they will almost inevitably be outvoted—and so they pay, against their wills, an exponentially greater portion of their incomes to the military-industrial complex than Catholics will ever contribute to contraceptive services and abortion by way of insurance pools.

Modern society is complex, in other words, and much as we might long to avoid being implicated in systemic sins, not even the Amish can do so entirely, much less average Catholics. Put aside the questions of military participation or health coverage. Are you carrying a cell phone at the moment? If so, are you familiar with the labor conditions that allow this device to be produced cheaply enough for you to afford it? And what about the coltran and other minerals that make it up? Such “conflict minerals” are often mined in virtually lawless regions of the world to the profit of warlords and corrupt governments.

My point is that in complex modern societies the longstanding Catholic moral category of “material cooperation in evil” may be impossible to avoid, except for casuists wielding the sharpest of razors. Sooner or later, even while advocating energetically for more just laws and policies, any church that wades into these waters must accept that it has gained all the deference it is going to get. Churches in minority traditions have known this for a long time. To be outvoted is not to be persecuted.


Lesson 4: If Catholics are going to successfully defend their own religious liberty, they must vigorously defend the religious liberty of others.

This final lesson really should not be too hard. In essence it is simply the Golden Rule. Jesus did not say “Do unto us as we want you to do to us.” The Catholic case in defense of religious liberty for Catholics would be stronger now if the Roman church had never been a persecuting church. It would be stronger if U.S. Catholic leaders had defended the rights of conscientious objectors—at all in World Wars I and II, and more strongly since Vietnam, which coincided with the church’s first modern recognition of the legitimacy of Christian pacifism. It would be stronger if the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty had denounced campaigns pedaling trumped-up fears that American Muslims will somehow impose sharia law. Without learning at least this fourth lesson, Catholic leaders will find it hard to forestall the cynics’ conclusion that they are merely defending a loss of privilege, rather than religious liberty for all.

In closing, a word about “diaspora.” No Mennonite theologian has influenced Roman Catholics more than the late John Howard Yoder, who over a long career attempted to answer the charge of the great Protestant thinker, Reinhold Niebuhr, that to be a Christian pacifist is to be politically irrelevant and socially irresponsible. Yoder turned for models to Diaspora Judaism, with biblical roots in the counsel of Jeremiah to Hebrew exiles in Babylon—namely, to be faithful to the Lord God even while seeking the peace of the very city that may have taken them captive in body, but could never capture their story of freedom from idolatry and oppression.

Diaspora is the model that can teach us how to live faithfully, knowing that our primary citizenship is as Catholic Christians in the transnational nation called church, while contributing to our host society—indeed, contributing all the more robustly precisely because we know that our American citizenship must always be secondary and tenuous. As a distinct nation within many nations, Yoder argued, Jews have sometimes been more Christian than Christians. They had no illusions that they could be in charge; and yet with their rich intellectual life, cultural productivity, and capacity for bi-cultural translation, the contributions of diaspora Jews to culture, to law, and to human rights have been proportionately greater, not less.

This above all is the lesson that Catholics wishing to defend religious liberty while working for the common good might learn from peoples who have sustained their identities by participating in culture and politics without controlling the reins of power. The church always has God-given resources of its own. It is freest when it depends first—and remains ready to depend only—on those gifts.


This article has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Related: Commonweal's coverage of "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty"
William Portier's review of Gerald W. Schlabach's Unlearning Protestantism

Published in the 2012-10-12 issue: 

Gerald W. Schlabach is professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and author of Just Policing, Not War: An Alternative Response to World Violence (Liturgical Press). 

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