What Is the Right to Religious Freedom?

The most fundamental right in the area of religion is that which should be attributed to God, what we owe to God. God is absolutely sovereign.


Catholics of the United States are more than ever asserting a right to religious freedom, given by God and guaranteed by the Constitution of our country. Still, there is a grave danger that we may end up harming our cause by promoting, or seeming to promote, a false notion of the right to religious freedom. Pope Leo XIII wrote, “The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.” 1 It is only in the context of the rights of God that the rights of man have any firm foundation, and it is only on the basis of God’s sovereign rights that we can truly understand or defend our rights. 2

In its most basic sense, “right” means a thing that is attributed to someone by virtue of a title. The right (the objective right) is the thing that is owed, as in, “This paycheck is my right.” Since a person’s right is owed to him, he can demand it. Others, in turn, are bound by justice either to respect his right if he possesses it (e.g., by not robbing him) or to render it to him if they have deprived him of it (e.g., by paying back a debt).

More often, it seems that we use “right” to refer to the power to demand what is owed (the subjective right), as in, “I have a right to my paycheck.” The power to demand what is owed, however, is logically subsequent to the fact of a thing’s being owed. Thus, the subjective right, the power to demand what is owed, derives from the objective right, the thing that is attributed, and therefore, owed to someone by virtue of a title. The distinction between the objective right (the object that is owed) and the subjective right (the subject’s power to demand what is owed) is important for understanding the relationship between rights and debts. 3

The most fundamental right in the area of religion is that which should be attributed to God, what we owe to God. God is absolutely sovereign. “Without our aid, he did us make” as the hymn says. 4 Our worship and other acts of religion are God’s right, since he is our creator and sustainer. Thus, we owe acts of religion to God, who, therefore, has the power to demand them from us. Such acts of religion, moreover, must, by their very nature, be free. We owe God the submission of our wills, which he himself created. We, as rational creatures, can never express our dependence on God without giving him our wills.

Because acts of religion from us are God’s right, the ability to practice these acts of religion is our right. We can claim the power to render to God free acts of religion because he can claim free acts of religion from us. We have the right to obey God’s command. Since human beings naturally live in society, we can consider our own right to religious freedom from two perspectives: before God and before society.

Before God, in the strictest sense, we have no rights. Since we have nothing that we have not received (1 Cor 4:7), we have no independent title upon which a right can be based. What can God owe, in strict justice, to a creature who depends upon him completely for its very existence? Nevertheless, we do have rights before God in a broader sense. Since God has promised certain benefits to us and since he must keep his promises, we can say truly that God owes us certain things in justice. It is not that we have a title independent of God upon which these rights are founded, but rather that God himself has freely chosen to grant us certain titles which he has bound himself to honor. Some of these titles are founded in human nature (e.g., the title to the immortality of our souls), and some are of the supernatural order (e.g., the title to graces which God has promised to confer through the sacraments).

Before God, therefore, we do not have a right to practice whatever religion we choose. God is not equally satisfied with our worship or lack of worship. Neither is he satisfied with a choice to worship him on our own terms rather than his. God commands our worship, and we cannot justly deprive him of what we owe to him. Our own right to fulfill God’s commandment is derived from the obligation imposed by the commandment itself. God does not command the impossible, so he must make it possible for us to follow his commands. Since, therefore, God has commanded all men to enter and to remain in his Church (the Catholic Church), 5 all men have a right to do so. 6 Before God, no one has a right to practice a different religion, since we owe God the practice of the religion that he has established. Our right to practice religion derives from God’s right to receive acts of religion from us and exists so that we can fulfill God’s commandments. No one has a right to break God’s commandments.

The fact that many people are not aware of their obligation to enter the Catholic Church does not make the obligation any less real. We are not speaking here of anyone’s subjective responsibility or culpability, but only about the objective command of God. Simply because an obligation is unknown does not mean it does not exist, but God judges justly and mercifully and will save those who follow the truth as best they can discern it, even if their knowledge of the truth is incomplete or is mixed with errors. 7 If those who, objectively, do not practice the fullness of the religion that God has commanded but sincerely desire to give to God the acts of religion which they believe he is due, by that very fact, they do submit their wills freely to God, and thus, can be saved.

If we consider our right to religious freedom before society, especially civil society, we must speak of a different kind of freedom. Here, we are considering not the freedom to fulfill God’s command, but rather freedom from coercion in fulfilling what conscience discerns to be God’s command. The Second Vatican Council, in its declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae, defines religious freedom with regard to society in this way:

This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. 8

Because God has commanded us to seek the truth and to embrace the truth we come to know, we have the right to do so. Since we naturally live in society, this also means that everyone has a right before the rest of society to be free from coercion, within due limits, in following the dictates of his conscience. When we affirm that everyone has a right to religious freedom in society, we are not, however, affirming that the government may make no laws which limit the exercise of any religion. Neither are we affirming that society may not legitimately endorse the true religion or that society should consider all religions equally good. Vatican II explicitly stated that “the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” remains untouched. 9

We must affirm that the Catholic religion is in a unique position in society, for it is commanded by God and not merely by subjective conscience. No society has the right to infringe on the rights of God. Thus, any limitation on an integral aspect of Catholic practice would necessarily be undue, since it would be contrary to the command of God. No other religion has been, in its integrity, commanded by God. Thus, the Catholic Church has a right in society which no other religion can have, namely, the right to be immune per se from limitations in any integral element whatsoever. Any human law which infringes on an integral aspect of Catholicism is no law at all, since, ipso facto, it violates the law of God.

Not every element of every religion, however, should be immune from government interference. For example, imagine a religion that mandates human sacrifice. When the government makes laws that do not permit followers of such a religion to kill the innocent, the government is not overstepping its bounds, even though it is outlawing a religious practice. Those who belong to the religion in question may sincerely and conscientiously believe that they must practice human sacrifice, but they do not really have a right to do so, because God does not really command it, and, in fact, forbids it. Someone who mistakenly believes that I owe him 20 dollars does not really have a right to 20 dollars from me, no matter how much he believes that he does. I do no injustice if I refuse to give him the money. 10

When, however, Catholics and others speak of our right to be free not to cooperate with government regulations which mandate the provision of abortion-causing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilizations, we are not speaking merely of the right to follow our consciences, but more fundamentally, of the right to follow the objective law of God. The government may place due limits on our ability to follow our consciences, but it can never override our right to obey God, since it can never override God’s right to be obeyed.

As we continue to engage secular society in a dialogue and, in many ways, a struggle for the protection of religious freedom, we must be clear in our own minds and in our speech about just what the right to religious freedom means. A false notion of the right to religious freedom, far from upholding our ability to serve God through acts of religion in the way he wishes to be served, easily leads to a kind of “live and let live” relativism. If we focus only on our own subjective beliefs and not on the truth, we misunderstand the very nature of our religion, and we can mislead others into thinking that we believe all religious beliefs to be equally valid and to have equal rights. The gravest problem with the Health and Human Services (HHS) Mandate, for example, is not that it violates our right to be immune from coercion in following our consciences, but rather that it infringes on God’s right as the giver of the moral law.

We, as Catholics, cannot allow our position, which in countries like the United States, tolerates a de facto religious pluralism, to be misunderstood as promoting a de iure religious pluralism. 11 God does not force us to worship him, but this does not mean that worship and lack of worship are equally good. God does not force us to eat, but starving ourselves is not as equally as good as nourishing ourselves. Our freedom exists for the good. In the area of religion, our freedom exists so that we can give our wills to God in the way that he wishes, not because we have to, but because we wish to. We owe it to God to use our freedom in obedience to his commands.

The HHS Mandate, clamor for the legal recognition of same-sex “marriages,” and other social movements, have thrust upon us the necessity of defending our religious freedom. More than ever, then, we must be careful not to be too subjective in our thinking. The fundamental right in the area of religion belongs to God. We owe to God the free acts of religion that he has commanded. From the right of God derives the right of every person to render these acts of religion. Within society, therefore, we must be immune from undue coercion in religious matters. This immunity does not exist so that we can practice whatever religion we choose, but so that we can seek and find the truth and freely embrace it.

  1. Leo XIII, Tametsi futura, 13.
  2. In this essay, I will not speak explicitly of the kingly rights of Jesus Christ as man over all societies and individuals, whether Catholic or not. Pius XI’s encyclical Quas primas will be illuminating in this respect.
  3. For a discussion of the relationship of objective and subjective right, see Javier Hervada, Critical Introduction to Natural Law, trans. Mindy Emmons, Collection Gratianus Series (Montreal: Wilson and Lafleur, 2006), 29–31; and Benedict Merkelbach, Summa theologiae moralis, vol. 2, third edition (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1942), nn. 149–150.
  4. All People That on Earth Do Dwell.
  5. Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 14. Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, 16 and 17.
  6. Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 13; Dignitatis humanae, 1. This means that God has promised to make possible the salvation of all, even if due to the contingencies of this world not all can enter the Church fully as members. How God fulfills this promise in individual cases is mysterious to us, but it means that everyone has the real possibility of salvation through Christ and his Church.
  7. Lumen gentium, 14–16.
  8. Dignitatis humanae, 2.
  9. Dignitatis humanae, 1.
  10. I am indebted to Father Francis J. Connell for the idea for the monetary example, adapted from one he gives in Freedom of Worship: The Catholic Position (New York: The Paulist Press, 1944), 7.
  11. Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus (2000), 4.
Fr. Dylan Schrader About Fr. Dylan Schrader

Fr. Dylan Schrader is a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, and a student of theology at Catholic University of America.


  1. Avatar Martin Drew says:

    Father Schrader, thank you for your review on rights. Yes, God is the source of the natural law and of all rights

    • Avatar Fr. Dylan Schrader says:

      Thank you very much. As the recent Popes have said, if the eclipse of God leads to the eclipse of human rights and dignity.

  2. Avatar Deacon Jerome Durnford says:

    Thank you Father Dylan. Our freedom to worship, to enter in to Eucharist, is rooted in keeping the Sabbath holy in order for us to “rest” in His love. In obedience to His commandments we find His Truth and the Truth will set us free. Peace

    • Avatar Fr. Dylan Schrader says:

      You’re welcome. Thank you for your comment.

      I like what you say. If I recall, St Thomas Aquinas says that the precept of the Sabbath rest and worship of God is rooted in the natural law, i.e., it is necessary that man should designate special times for worship, but that God determined the precept of the Sabbath more particularly by positive law. The Church, of course, continues to determine the precept of keeping the Lord’s Day. I am convinced that many of the problems within our parishes derive to some extent from not keeping the Lord’s Day.

  3. Your article had some particular aspects I never thought about. Being more God- centered is what we need to be. Thank you.


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