‘Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the Easter Week statement by the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is the most developed statement on current religious-freedom controversies to emerge from the bishops’ deliberations. It also, and just as urgently, defines with considerable precision a major issue in American public life: Will the robust networks of free and voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville admired as the sinews and musculature of American democracy continue to flourish? Or will the United States increasingly resemble Western Europe, where the associational instinct (and, with it, civil society) has atrophied under the heavy weight of the European nanny state?
The bishops, in other words, helpfully frame the religious-freedom issue in its broader context. To be sure, the bishops are very, very concerned about increasing governmental encroachments on religious freedom of recent years. Those encroachments include the HHS “contraceptive mandate” in the implementation of Obamacare, which brought the entire issue to the surface of public life; they also involve state laws that impede the Church’s service to immigrants, attempts by state legislatures to turn religious communities into bureaus of state government, discrimination against Christian students on university campuses, and restrictions on the Church’s capacity to draw on public funds in its service to orphans and victims of human trafficking. This shrinkage in the sphere of religious freedom is bad enough in itself, and deserves to be fought. But as the Ad Hoc Committee points out (in explaining that religious freedom “is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home”), the issue beneath these issues is the advance of Leviathan, often in the name of imposing the dictatorship of relativism:
What is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free, creative, and robust civil society — or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it. Religious believers are part of American civil society, which includes neighbors helping each other, community associations, fraternal service clubs, sports leagues, and youth groups. All these Americans make their contribution to our common life, and they do not need the permission of the government to do so. Restrictions on religious liberty are an attack on civil society and the American genius for voluntary associations . . . [Thus this] is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue.
The Ad Hoc Committee’s statement also underscores that what the bishops are seeking to clarify for all Americans is a fundamental issue of social justice, and what they are determined to remedy is a fundamental injustice. The HHS “contraceptive mandate,” the bishops argue, is not a matter on which the Church seeks an accommodation for its own distinct (and, by implication, bizarre) views. Like the state immigration laws that forbid Catholic priests from offering the sacraments to illegal immigrants, the HHS mandate is an unjust law. And as the bishops note, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s exegesis of St. Augustine in King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, “An unjust law is no law at all.” Nor do the bishops hesitate to draw out the full implications of their analysis:
“It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.