In his speech on the South Lawn of the White House, Pope Francis spoke of members of the American Congress as being “called” to “fidelity to [the] founding principles [of the United States],” and praised the American tradition of religious liberty:
With countless other people of good will, [American Catholics] are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions. And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.
This is hardly surprising or new— several recent popes have praised the religious liberty assured by the American Constitution. Nevertheless, one can question the advisability of such words. It is scarcely necessary to remind our readers that the Catholic position on religious liberty was traditionally held to be quite different from that of the American founders. In Longinqua Oceani, Pope Leo XIII gave moderate praise to the liberty of the Church in America, but coupled that with a reminder that the American situation was far from the ideal held up by the Church:
thanks are due to the equity of the laws which obtain in America and to the customs of the well-ordered Republic. For the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and government of your nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance. Yet, though all this is true, it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced. The fact that Catholicity with you is in good condition, nay, is even enjoying a prosperous growth, is by all means to be attributed to the fecundity with which God has endowed His Church, in virtue of which unless men or circumstances interfere, she spontaneously expands and propagates herself; but she would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.
There are indeed two senses in which the Catholic Tradition does affirm religious liberty: first in the sense of liberty of the Church, the Church must be free from the interference of the secular authorities, and second in the sense that no one can be coerced into Baptism, the entry into the Church through the Sacrament of Baptism must be freely chosen. But Catholic Tradition does not affirm religious liberty in the sense in which it was affirmed by the American founders. To the American founders and the Enlightenment philosophers whom they followed, especially John Locke, religious liberty demanded the neutrality of the state towards different religions. But the Catholic Tradition has always taught that the state must recognize the truth of the Catholic Faith, and promote it through its laws.
In fact, the supposed neutrality of secular states such as the U.S.A. toward religion is an illusion. As Jeffrey Bond has shown in an insightful essay on Locke’s doctrine of toleration, the secular state can tolerate any religion which is willing to accept its own absolute principle of the dogmatic toleration, but it cannot tolerate religions which claim to be absolutely true, and which demand that the state recognize their truth. A striking example of the implications of this problem was recently offered by the Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. Carson says that he would be willing to have a Moslem as president of the United States only if the Moslem would give up Moslem teachings on the subordination of women and on theocracy:
If someone has a Muslim background and they’re willing to reject those tenets and to accept the way of life that we have and clearly will swear to place our Constitution above their religion, then, of course.
Carson’s words have caused controversy as being offensive to Moslems, but in reality they are just a consistent application of the Lockean idea of toleration. We might agree with Carson that Moslems should abandon their religion, but that is only because the Moslem religion is false. But Carson’s line of reasoning could just as well be applied to the true religion: Catholicism. And in fact American conservative pundit Ann Coulter has done just that on the social medium Twitter.
Sadly many American Catholics are thoroughly confused on the issue of religious liberty, and much more likely to agree with Locke and the American founders than with Catholic Tradition. We wish that the Holy Father would do something to clear up that confusion, but his words on the South Lawn of the White House are likely only to increase it.