During his Feb. 21 lecture in St. Paul Parish, Princeton, Professor Robert George gave an historical overview on the Catholic Church’s perspective on religious freedom. Patrick Brown photo

During his Feb. 21 lecture in St. Paul Parish, Princeton, Professor Robert George gave an historical overview on the Catholic Church’s perspective on religious freedom. Patrick Brown photo

By Patrick T. Brown | Correspondent

The American experience helped shift the trajectory of the Catholic Church’s thinking on religious freedom, Professor Robert George told an audience in St. Paul Parish, Princeton, Feb. 21.

That understanding is now carried forth most fully by the Church while religious liberty is under assault from secular progressivism, said George, J.D., D.Phil., D.C.L., a member of St. Paul Parish and McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

“Today, especially after the pontificate of St. John Paul II, the Catholic Church is the champion of democracy and religious freedom across the globe,” George told the crowd of about 150 that filled the parish’s spiritual center.

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His lecture outlined the philosophical and theological developments that shaped the Church’s embrace of democracy and religious freedom at the Second Vatican Council. He argued that contemporary religious liberty battles, such as the Hobby Lobby case, hinge on how one understands the concept of human dignity.

“In its most robust sense, religion is being in right relation to the divine, if there be such,” said George, who is vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Anyone can see that a truly human life is a life that should ought to be lived with authenticity and integrity,” George said.

“We would be superficial people if we went through life not reflecting on its fundamental mysteries. What that suggests is that human beings are by nature religious beings, or at least religious questers, askers of the great questions…Where did we come from? Where are we going? Is there a more than merely human source of the realities that we experience?”

Before the Second Vatican Council, the Church was traditionally skeptical of democracy and religious freedom, on the grounds that “only the truth has rights.”

But “respect for a person’s well-being...demands respect for a person’s flourishing as a seeker of religious truth,” George said. “Faith of any type cannot be authentic, it cannot be faith, unless it is free.”

Religious liberty protects the “right of the individual to live authentically, with integrity, in line with their answers to the great questions.

“The answer is not to use the state to shut down the competition; the answer is to evangelize our fellow Catholics better.”

In contrast to the French Revolution’s concept of laïcité, or extreme secularism, “the American constitutional doctrine of religious freedom” provided space for the Church to live out its mission free from governmental interference.

It “revealed to everybody, including the leadership of the Church, the possibility of an understanding of religious freedom that the Church could heartily and enthusiastically affirm,” George said.

That shift in emphasis is seen in the Council documents Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate, as well as in the papacy of St. John Paul II, George said. The intellectual groundwork was laid by writers like the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, who convincingly argued “the American practice of religious freedom really did represent a credible alternative…and made it possible for the Church to become what it has become, a powerful defender of religious freedom in the world.”

‘Arrows Aimed at the Heart’

In a question-and-answer session following the 55-minute address, George pointed out that understanding of religious liberty has been under recent assault.

Through the HHS mandate on preventive services, the federal government sought to force employers to cover medical procedures to which they held religious objections. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court decided for the Greene Family, owners of Hobby Lobby, but that victory was slim – a 5-4 vote.

If they had lost at the Supreme Court, George said, “They would have closed their stores…under no circumstances were they going to implicate themselves in providing abortifacient drugs. They were not going to compromise.”

Likewise, in the battle over religious employers’ insurance coverage of contraceptives, the Obama administration’s determination to fight legal challenges demonstrated that “liberal secularism really is a competing faith, and doggone it, they were going to force that faith on the Little Sisters no matter what,” George said.

George, who opposed President Trump in the Republican primary and did not support him in the general election, said that threats to religious liberty are not necessarily going away in the new administration.

Regulations related to transgender bathroom accommodations and sexual orientation and gender identity laws are “arrows aimed at the heart of our Catholic institutions,” George said, pointing to the example of Catholic Charities in Illinois, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia, which ceased providing adoption services after gay marriage laws passed.

 “We should try to enact in every state a [state-level] Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” George recommended, as well as “a First Amendment Defense Act, which would require that no one can be denied an opportunity or displaced from a job or discriminated against in anyway because of their belief in the definition of marriage as a husband and a wife.”

 George, who joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1985, was called “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker” in a 2009 New York Times magazine article. In addition to serving as the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, he is the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, serves on numerous advisory boards, and previously served as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

“If there is a top 10 list of Catholic intellectuals, Professor George is on that list,” said Claire Gmachl, who coordinates the adult faith formation series at St. Paul. “We are lucky to have him here.”

“I wouldn’t miss this,” said Terry Atwood, who lives in neighboring Kingston. “You never want to miss an opportunity to hear a world-renowned Ivy League professor like Professor George.”