Religious Freedom – ‘the priority of civil society over state’13 Jun

by Rev. Ronald M. Ketteler:  June 15, 2012

Fr. Ron Ketteler

Jesuit Father David Hollenbach contends that the writings of two towering figures in Catholic social thought in the 20th century United States revived the centrality of the distinction between civil society and the state.

At mid-20th century the treatises of Jacques Maritain (1872-1973) and Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) on the modern social-political order had cemented “a strong Catholic alliance with democratic principles.”

Father John Courtney Murray is regarded as a foremost seminal thinker among American Catholic theologians. His thought played a major role in the framing of Dignitatis Humanae (The Declaration on Religious Liberty, 1965) emanating from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Father Murray’s classic We Hold These Truths (1960) has exercised a singular influence on Catholic thought on the church and state issue, on pluralism, and on religious freedom as a civil right. It is a selected collection of his important articles on the compatibility of the “American Proposition” of a pluralist democracy with Catholicism.

 The Search for an American Public Philosophy: The Contribution of John Courtney Murray (1989), Bishop Robert W. McElroy’s study of John Courtney Murray’s theory of an American public philosophy, presents a concise overview of Father Murray’s development of the concept of the civil society. In a pluralistic, democratic society religious bodies exist as mediating institutions:

… the civil society enjoyed a common good which preceded the common good of the state and which was primarily achieved not through the labors of government, but through the action of the mediating institutions of society ….

Mediating institutions are the buffers between the citizen and the family and government. Government is not omnicompetent; it is constitutionally limited.

At the same time, the social nature of men and women bears an inherent relationship to the state:

But, if the notion of ‘the people’ logically preceded the notion of the state, it also logically entailed it. For there was a need in society to have a legitimate power to serve the common good through the maintenance of the public order, and that function could only be fulfilled by the state.

On the question of religion and government, the interrelationship between civil society and the state can simply be formulated in the principle, “the priority of (civil) society over the state.”

In Catholic social doctrine that interrelationship of society and state is guided by the principle of subsidiarity. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2005) defines civil society as a network of relationships wherein

all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (‘subsiduum’) – therefore of support, promotion, development – with respect to lower-order societies. (CSDC n. 186)

In other words, society is a broader and more inclusive reality than that of the state or government.

For example, Father Bryan Hehir views civil society as

the product of the full range of relationships – political, economic, cultural, and legal – that shape the social fabric of social life at the local, national, and international levels.

In contradistinction to society, the political community or the state constitutes a distinct component of a society that holds a unique role, for it is “the center of political authority.”

Again, Father Hollenbach offers a specific interpretation of this tenet of Church social teaching:

Civil society is the more encompassing reality, composed of numerous communities of small or intermediate size such as families, neighborhoods, churches, corporations, professional associations, credit unions, cooperatives, universities, and a host of other associations. Note that though these communities are not political in the sense of being a part of the government they are not private either. They are social realities and form the rich fabric of the body politic.

From the standpoint of subsidiarity, then, the Compendium synthesizes the distinction between civil society and the state:

The political community is essentially at the service of civil society … Civil society, therefore, cannot be considered an extension or a changing component of the political community; rather, it has a priority because it is in civil society itself that the political community finds its justification. (CSDC n. 418)

The Compendium emphasizes that the state “must be ready to intervene, when necessary and with respect for the principle of subsidiarity, so that the interplay between free associations and democratic life may be directed to the common good.”

Among his extensive writings, Father Murray’s The Problem of Religious Freedom (1965) probed the conceptual question on the meaning of religious freedom in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

In setting forth his thesis on religious freedom, Father Murray’s response to the question – “What is constitutional government?” – became integral for structuring the concept of religious freedom.

The moral principle of the priority of civil society over state was an indispensable interpretive key emerging from the larger context of Father Murray’s groundbreaking scholarship on the issue of church and state and religious freedom.

In particular, “the distinction between society and state” is a principle which validates a limited role of the constitutional state and narrows its competence to functions of “the coercive discipline of law and political power.”

Thus, the purposes of “society” are more expansive than those of “the state” inasmuch as society includes “an area of freedom, personal and corporate, whereas ‘state’ signifies the area in which the public powers may legitimately apply their coercive powers.”

After more than 60 years, Father Murray’s thought on religious freedom still reflects incisive and telling insights into the meaning of religious freedom, especially in the circumstances of the present controversies on religious freedom.

John Courtney Murray

We Hold These Truths regarded the revival of the distinction between society and state in the American tradition of religious freedom as being a foundation of the “concept of a free people under a limited government.” That premise undergirds “the principle of the incompetence of government in the field of opinion.”

Father Murray identified the religion clauses of the First Amendment not  “as articles of faith but articles of peace.” He noted that “these provisions are the work of lawyers, not of theologians or even of political theorists. They are not true dogma but only good law.”

Consequently, Father Murray emphasized that “the American Constitution does not presume to define the Church or in any way to supervise her exercise of authority in pursuit of her own distinct ends.”

In the same vein, religious freedom as a civil right is a juridical protection of the relationships among citizens in a pluralistic society:

… government is not a judge of religious truth; parliaments are not to play the theologian. In accord with this principle American government does not presume to discuss, much less rule upon, the objective truth or falsity of various religious confessions within society.

Father Murray reasoned that the Church in America has enjoyed positive benefits for her life in society, “namely, her freedom in the fulfillment of her spiritual mission to communicate divine truth and grace to the souls of men, and her equally spiritual mission of social justice and peace.”

At the level of social teaching, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church affirms the Church’s need for freedom to engage in her spiritual mission:

The Church is organized in ways that are suitable to meet the spiritual needs of the faithful, while the different political communities give rise to relationships and institutions that are at the service of everything that is part of the temporal common good.

In brief, the governmental obligation “to respect religious freedom requires that the political community guarantee the Church the space needed to carry out her mission.” (CSDC n. 424)

In Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, A Statement on Religious Liberty, the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops addresses the theme of religious freedom in civil society. The committee states:

Religious believers are part of American civil society, which includes neighbors helping each other, community associations, fraternal social 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.

The statement advocates the case for defending against threats to religious liberty:

Restrictions on religious liberty are an attack on civil society and the American genius for voluntary associations.

Photo: Pat Delahanty; Book Cover: courtesy, Berean Christian Stores


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