Religious Liberty: Some Questions

The Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, under the direction of Mary Ann Glendon, had a conference on religious liberty last week. I have not had a chance to read the papers yet -and I'm not sure that it is even possible to do so. According to news reports, however, the thesis of the conference is that religious liberty is good--good for the stability of liberal democratic societies, among other things. Believers, according to Glendon and others, are leaven in political society.The event crystallized in my mind a question I've been grappling with for a while: does the"leavening" relationship of religious belief and liberal democratic values flow in one direction, or both directions?In the United States, religious believers have been very active in shaping the political and social direction of the country. In response to criticisms of this intervention, the response is essentially, "Believers are citizens too. We have a right to participate in the political process."But if believers are citizens, many citizens are also believers. What, in principle, is wrong with believers using the power of citizenship to prod their religious communities in a direction more consonant with their fundamental values as citizens, which they believe to be fundamental values of humanity as a whole? Does the leavening go both ways? Or not? Re-reading the news reports of the Vatican conference, it appears to me that the prevailing assumption is that any effort to intervene in a religious community's operations is assumed to be the work of secularists who hate religion. But suppose it is the work of believers who wish to see some practices of the religion they love reformed to better conform to the moral truth?Would it be wrong, for example, for Catholic citizens to join together with other citizens and make 501(c)(3) status--tax exempt status as a charitable corporation--dependent upon having effective child protection procedures in place? This requirement couldn't and shouldn't be targeted only against sex abuse in the clergy, either theoretically or practically. But it could be targeting at sex abusers in institutions more generally. If loyal citizens draw upon the resources of their faith communities to reshape the political context in accordance with fundamental values, why can't loyal believers draw upon the resources of the political community to reshape the religious culture in accordance with fundamental values?The Catholic Church does not condone sexual abuse, so the prior example would be using federal funding mechanisms to make it live up to its own values. More extremely, would it be wrong for reformers in religious communities to press for internal religious reform in line with the basic values of the society by using the tools of government financing? If so, why?What is the difference, after all, in saying that we will not send government money to organizations (religious or not) that are associated with performing abortions (despite the fact that it is a constitutionally protected right), and we will not send government money to organizations (religious or not) that discriminate on the basis of sex or race, or which practice internal censorship, or which advocate imposing religious law upon the whole country (despite the fact that it is a constitutionally protected right to advocate the overthrow of the First Amendment)?Is the argument about taking ultimate care to preserve the internal autonomy of religious institutions to engage in practices (racism, censorship, or sexism) that are widely held to violate this society's deeply held political values ultimately relativistic? If one is convinced that certain actions or omissions are objectively and seriously morally wrong, why should it matter that they are practiced by religious groups--one's own or others'?Moreover, we can distinguish between actively intervening to stop groups which perform a certain practice and deciding not to fund them. This is how pro-lifers want to deal with abortion. We can't outlaw it, but we don't have to fund it. Why not use this distinction to target other objective moral wrongs as well--whether or not they are practiced by religious institutions?The general answer is: well, we don't give federal funds to institutions that violate the principle of the equality of the races (the Bob Jones University case), but we leave more room on disputed questions (like sex discrimination). Is that response ultimately workable?

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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