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Religious Liberty in America Isn’t About Exemptions

Donkey Hotey

Mirko Testa - published on 04/23/14 - updated on 06/07/17

A very good outline of these links may be found in a document produced by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Pace, The Vocation of the Business Leader, in 2012. It’s probably the best single statement, from a Catholic viewpoint, on how business facilitates directly and indirectly to human flourishing. Especially striking was the Vocation’s insistence that business makes distinct contributions to the common good precisely through business activity. Put another way, their contribution is not primarily about how much they donate to this or that cause—even good causes. Instead their primary input to the common good occurs precisely by businesses doing what they are supposed to do as businesses.

As well as repeating themes articulated by John Paul II (the words “creativity” and “initiative” are repeated over and over again), the Vocation stresses the non-material goods that can flow from business activity. Business, it states, makes “an irreplaceable contribution to the material and even the spiritual well-being of humankind”. That is very powerful language. Not only is business the normal means by which many of our material needs and legitimate desires are satisfied. It is also a sphere in which people can participate in the basic moral goods that define our humanity.

You have often expressed lament regarding the slow compromise of identity among Christian associations that have taken government money, which then find themselves manipulated into a financial dependence that inhibits authentic fidelity to a Christian vision of morality and culture. How does this typically play out?

As the funds from state contracts begin constituting a significant part of Catholic organizations’ financial resources, their culture can easily change. Reliance on such support creates incentives to avoid potential confrontations with state authorities about how they do what they do and why they do it. It is not unknown for Catholic organizations in receipt of—or seeking—government contracts to subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) downplay their Catholic roots, mission and identity. They slowly cease to be institutions that partake of the libertas ecclesiae. Instead they start morphing into what George Weigel aptly describes as “mere vehicles for the delivery of state-defined and state approved ‘benefit’,” rather than seeking to live out Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor in ways consistent with the fullness of the truth revealed by Christ to His Church.

Then there’s the depressing fact that acceptance of state funding by Catholic bodies can encourage many people working in such organizations to begin viewing the government as their primary master. Again, this should not be surprising. If 80 percent of a Catholic charity’s income comes from government contracts, the government has effectively become their paymaster. Even more disturbing is the prospect of the leadership of some Catholic organizations using the fact of state funding to legitimate their own desire to dilute such institutions of any concrete Catholic commitments beyond vague appeals to social justice that are hard to distinguish from the programs of secular-progressivist social movements.

At Acton’s April 29th conference in Rome, you will speak about the practical and intellectual paradoxes of the religious and economic freedom. Can you tell us a few details of your upcoming talk?

While plenty of people understand how religious liberty facilitates political freedom, fewer grasp the ways in which religious liberty and economic freedom can reinforce each other. This is the issue that I’d like to explore. For one thing, those governments that want to limit religious liberty, usually for religious or ideological reasons, often strike at the economic freedom of the individuals and groups that they are targeting. This was part of the strategy used, with considerable success I might add, against English Catholics during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.

But when you allow people more economic freedom, it’s hard to stop the experience of liberty from spilling over into other spheres of life, including the religious realm. China is the classic example. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the millions of Chinese who have converted to Christianity in mainland China are to be found overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, in those provinces of China that have experienced some form of economic liberalization.

Generally, however, the connections between religious and economic liberty remain an area that hasn’t been explored particularly closely. One of the points of the April conference in Rome – and all the other conferences in this series – is to create space for a lasting conversation within the Catholic Church about these issues.

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Religious Freedom

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