Boundaries and Protections of Religious Freedom

1 Comment(s) | Posted | by William Mattison |

For this  issue of The FIRST, I  write about the topic of religious freedom given its importance in the recent U.S. election.  In this period after the November election and before Barack Obama’s second inauguration, the topic is fitting, even though it seems difficult to reflect on anything in the aftermath of the carnage at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people, 20 of them children, were killed in Newtown, CT.  Perhaps silence in this period of mourning is the only appropriate response at the moment (and so I pause). As my  colleague David Lantigua reminds us,

“Our initial response should be careful not to attempt to explain away the suffering by identifying some cause.  We are not prepared as a society to face such evil without first responding to the countless victims and their families. ... Only silence will enable us to weep and grieve with those who are weeping right now" (Joel Achenbach, "Amid Grim News of School Massaccre, Newtown, Conn., becomes Everytown, America," Washington Post, December 14, 2012).

As to religious freedom in the U.S., I offer three observations.   First, the topic must be contextualized within the global issue of religious freedom.  As National Catholic Reporter columnist John Allen notes, religious persecution across the globe is arguably at an all time high, even with the obvious difficulties of measuring such claims. As many as 150,000 Christians are martyred annually.  Any reflection on threats to religious freedom in the U.S. must recognize the relative scope of the issue in the U.S.. 

Second, despite efforts by American Catholics (including leadership from the U.S. Bishops) to make religious freedom a central issue in the 2012 election, that effort largely failed.  Religious freedom has been a front page issue in the U.S. in 2012 since the well-known Health and Human Services mandate required insurance companies of all

large organizations (except “religious institutions” defined narrowly enough to exclude Catholic hospitals and universities) to include contraceptive, sterilization, and implantation-prevention drug coverage.  Despite a majority of U.S. Catholics affirming that religious organizations should not have to pay for services they find morally objectionable, and affirming that the Obama administration has “gone too far in placing restrictions on religious freedom,” Obama won a majority of the Catholic vote. There is material here to encourage both sides of the HHS issue.  But it also suggests the need for a third and final point. 

Third, the Catholic intellectual tradition offers much-needed resources to sort through the proper scope of religious freedom.  Most agree that “religious freedom” should not be used as a basis to protect just any individual or group practice  What then does this freedom protect?  A distinction is required between religious practices per se, and engaging in some temporal activity with its own intelligible goals that are illuminated by religious beliefs.  The HHS case concerns the latter.  The activity is providing sound health care and, though that practice may be illuminated by religious beliefs, it is not solely a matter of religious beliefs.  To use a commonly misused term, the matter is one of natural law.  Catholics affirm that grace perfects rather than obliterates nature and have resources to explain how this dynamic occurs.  Hence Catholics should be able to describe why their vision of health care provision is intelligible not only on the basis of religious beliefs but also on the basis of its correspondence with the goals of health care.  Just because a treatment is medically administered does not make it health care. The moral status of contraception, sterilization, and abortion are important topics in themselves.  A distinct question is whether these activities fall within the purview of the immediate goals of health care, or whether the goals of health care as implied by the mandate’s required provisions extend beyond what can accurately be described as “health care provision.”  

The election is over, and perhaps removed from the public “noise” that accompanies U.S. politics, Catholics can continue to deploy our rich tradition to better illuminate the proper bounds of religious freedom. 

William C. Mattison III is an Associate Professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.  He is the author of Introducing Moral Theology:  True Happiness and the Virtues (Brazos, 2008) and co-founder of the New Wine, New Wineskins Symposium for Catholic Moral Theologians.  He is currently working on a book on moral theology and the Sermon on the Mount.


  1. Joseph Selling's avatar
    Joseph Selling
    | Permalink
    Prof. Mattison correctly asserts that Catholics affirm that grace perfects nature. Thus they are capable of forming an ethical judgement about whether reasonable means of regulating fertility, including the use of contraception, are ethically responsible. While Prof. Mattison observes that a majority of Catholics voted for the president who sought to implement a much needed health care plan that includes funding for contraception, he appears to ignore the strong indication that the majority of Catholics disagree with the bishops’ claim that such provision violates religious freedom in any way. In fact, there is strong evidence that the majority of Catholics do not consider using contraception to be a sin at all. For a possible explanation for this state of affairs, see my article, “Sin is not Simple” in The Tablet 7 July 2012, p. 10.

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