New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spoke on religious liberty debate that has evolved since early 1960s

The frequently discussed and debated concept of religious liberty has become a focal point of political discourse in the modern era.  Ross Douthat—the youngest opinion editorial writer in the history of the New York Times—has devoted numerous columns to this topic, and he gave a keynote address as part of Notre Dame’s 2015-2016 “Faith, Freedom, and the Modern World” forum last Wednesday.

Entitled “Catholic Freedom and Secular Power: How the Religious Liberty Debate Has Changed Since Vatican II,” Douthat’s talk explored how the Catholic Church made its peace with liberal democracy during America’s founding and how it has faced numerous challenges since those early days.  Discussions of religious liberty are particularly timely, Douthat noted, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, in which the Catholic Church spells out its intention to protect religious liberty.  Most importantly, this document of the Second Vatican Council outlined the way in which the Church could exist, and flourish, within secular states.

Dignitatis Humanae places the responsibility of protecting religious freedom in the hands of the state.  It reads: “The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man ranks among the essential duties of government.  Therefore government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appropriate means.”

Douthat noted that during the time of this document’s drafting, the Catholic Church was thriving in America, as the ranks of the church were expanding and the number of vocations was growing.  The document has different resonance today, however, because we are confronted with a much different reality of church-state relations.  Douthat asserted, “[I]t is more difficult to be Catholic today in America, especially for youths, than in the mid-twentieth century.”

The decline of the Catholic Church—illustrated by the fact that those identifying as “ex-Catholics” are one of the largest religious groups in modern America—has been further aggravated by Pope Francis’ condemnation of the American world order and capitalist economy.  Additionally, court challenges and statements from political podiums portray Church institutions as stubborn defiers of governmental mandates.  Douthat named a few key examples, such as the American Civil Liberty Union’s lawsuit against Catholic hospitals, the numerous lawsuits against the Health and Human Services department’s contraceptive mandate, and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.  This ruling is already manifesting itself as a threat to Catholic adoption agencies, colleges, and the tax-exempt status of parochial schools.

According to Douthat, these challenges to Catholic institutions are dangerous to the faith’s existence in our modern liberal democracy because they draw a sharp divide between liberty as an individual right and as a group right.  As an individual right, religious liberty means that persons can worship on specific days in certain sanctuaries.  As a group right, religious liberty entails the flourishing of Catholicism as what Douthat calls an “organizing identity”—the teachings of the Church manifest themselves in Catholic charities, schools, and numerous other beneficent works.

Douthat then considered the impetus behind these challenges to the Church and the steps that might be taken to ensure that Catholics will continue to have a place in America, or any other modern, liberal, and increasingly secularized democracy.

He believes that those who oppose the Church’s institutions because of Church teachings—whether they be liberal Catholics or opponents of religion more generally—see themselves as operating within the framework of constructive criticism.  Their belief is that the Church will eventually “get with the program of modernity.”  Against these arguments, Douthat stated, appeals to religious liberty will only go so far.  The disagreement here is not about religious liberty, but rather about the evolving regulatory norms of society and desire for everyone, religious institutions included, to align themselves with these changes.

Douthat suggested that arguments for religious pluralism, rather than religious liberty, may hold more weight in the current milieu.  Religious pluralism would protect both “individuals’ freedom of worship and the ability of their institutions to govern by their own norms in accordance with their religious principles,” Douthat said.  Associational freedom has always been central to the American experiment, he explained, making religious pluralism a complement to our nation’s framework.

After his lecture, Douthat responded to a student’s inquiry, stating “secularism is a weak thing that runs contrary to human aspirations and expectations.  It is in human nature that these trends might be reversed.”

Catholics, and Christians more broadly, Douthat said, may not have permanent political homes.  Christians historically have had a comfortable place in America, but this may not last indefinitely.  Much like Jesus’ assurance that “Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away,” liberal democracy is time-bound, while the Church is eternal. Douthat concluded that when Jesus told us His words will never pass away, he was not talking about the U.S. Constitution.

Kate Hardiman is a junior living in Breen-Phillips Hall majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in Philosophy, Political Science, and Economics.  Contact her at