It is certainly no secret that that Catholic Church has taken it on the chin from Obamacare and the Health and Human Services Administration (HHS).  The HHS has mandated that Roman Catholic employers must provide insurance which pays for abortifacient drugs for the people they employ.  But the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to abortion, at least the modern Roman Catholic Church is.[i]  That has caused the RCC in the United States to complain that its religious liberty has been infringed.  And that infringement was the occasion for a recent address by the Most Reverend Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia to a group in Greensburg, PA.  What I found fascinating about the Archbishop’s address is that he while he admonishes his audience to remain true to their Catholic heritage he does so on a Protestant foundation.  In other words, he had to abandon Catholic teaching and Tradition on the issue of religious liberty and build his case on the work of the Protestant Founders of America.

His Excellency encouraged his audience not to “dilute our zeal as Catholics” and reminded them that they cannot “achieve good ends with impure means”.[ii]   He reminded his hearers of his work on the United States Commission on International Freedom which taught him “importance of religious liberty both abroad and in our own country.”  The Archbishop then stated that the (charitable) work of the Catholic Church must be ordered by certain principles, the first of which is this:

First, all Catholic social work should be faithful to the mission and structures of the local diocese, with special respect for the role of the bishop. It should be true to Scripture, Church teaching and the Code of Canon Law.[iii]

And that this liberty to practice one’s own religion is one of the “cornerstones of the American experience.”  The Archbishop then cites “James Madison, John Adams, Charles Carroll, John Jay, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson” as examples of men who shared his view on religious liberty.  It is interesting to me that all of these men, with the exception of Charles Carroll were Protestants.

But if we are to take the Archbishop’s admonition to remain “true” to “Church teaching” we must ask what was the Catholic Church’s teaching during the period of America’s founding down to modern times.  And that is where things become very interesting because the Roman Church has historically been against the very same “religious liberty” that the Archbishop now sees as so important to his cause.

Official “Church Teaching” on Religious Liberty: 1776-1958

Because the Archbishop ties his understanding of religious liberty to America in the eighteenth century it seems only fair that we examine what the Roman Church taught during the period.  At the time of the American Revolution of 1776 and through the period where the U.S. Constitution was drafted, ratified and implemented, the pope of Rome was Pius VI.  Here is an example of Pius VI’s idea of “religious liberty” in the Papal States over which he presided:

…at the time of Pius VI came to St. Peter’s throne in 1775 and issued his order reinstating all the old restrictions, Jews lived in eight ghettoes, locked in each night behind high walls and heavy gates. Everyone was able to tell who was a Jew, because, in another sixteenth-century papal provision reiterated in the 1775 edict, Jews were required to wear a special badge on their clothes…Jews were not allowed to keep shops or warehouses outside the ghetto and their social isolation was to be strictly enforced.[iv]

If you were a Jew living in Rome at the time of the American Revolution, “religious liberty” meant being imprisoned, giving up your possessions and being harassed by the Catholic Church.

The pontificate of the next pope, Pius VII was marked by the struggle with Napoleon.  It is interesting that Napoleon freed the Jews imprisoned by the Catholic Church after he invaded Rome at the beginning of the 19th century.  Unfortunately the Jews were re-imprisoned by the next pope, Leo XII in 1826.  One notable Catholic historian describes Leo this way:

Leo XII’s pontificate was an extremely conservative one:  he condemned religious toleration, reinforced the Index of Forbidden Books and the Holy Office (formerly the Inquisition), reestablished the feudal aristocracy in the Papal States, and confined the Jews once again to ghettos.[v]

Leo was followed by Pius VIII who lasted only twenty months who was in turn followed by Gregory XVI.  And Gregory was no fan of “religious liberty”.  Fr. McBrien once again:

Gregory XVI was as rigid in dealing with theological issues as he was in dealing with political ones.   In his encyclical “Mirari vos” (August 15, 1832)…he denounced the concepts of freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, and separation of Church and state, particularly the liberal views associate with the French priest Félicité Robert de Lamennais…(Lamennais favored religious liberty and the separation of Church and state….[vi]

The last pope of the 19th century was Pius IX.  Pius was famous for, among other things, his Syllabus of Errors.  That document listed a variety of doctrines or viewpoints that, if applied to the Roman Catholic Church would be considered errors.  And religious liberty would be included in that list of errors.  Here is the way Pius IX phrased it:

That in the present day, it is no longer necessary that the Catholic Church be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other modes of worship: whence it has been wisely provided by the law, in some countries nominally Catholic, that persons coming to reside therein shall enjoy the free exercise of their own worship…That the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself to, and agree with, progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.[vii]

The next pope was Leo XIII.  And the irony of Leo’s papacy in light of Archbishop Chaput’s presentation is that Leo disliked the American system so vehemently that he created the heresy of “Americanism”!  In his encyclical “Longiqua Oceani” the pope put the matter this way:

…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.[viii]

You see, according to the Pope, the type of system the Archbishop thinks is fundamental to defend the religious liberty of Catholics is actually heretical.  If the Archbishop were true to his own dictate to remain true to “Church teaching” he would give up this talk of liberty.

And the next pontiff – the “pastoral” Pius X – was no different.  It seems that this pope was so set against “religious liberty” that he refused to see the American President Teddy Roosevelt simply because the President was scheduled to speak at a Methodist Church in Rome.  I have a hard time finding the “liberty” in that story, don’t you?

Benedict XV’s pontificate seems to have been preoccupied with internecine quarrels as well as with the events of the First World War.   But his successor, Pius XI renewed Rome’s march against religious liberty with the encyclical “Martalium animos” which “forbade any Catholic involvement in ecumenical conferences.”[ix]

The last pope that I will mention brings us past the mid-point of the twentieth century; Pius XII.  And I have to note him with a truly great sense of irony.  You see, Pius XII instigated a “persecution” of leading Catholic scholars of the day including Henri de Lubac, who Archbishop Chaput quotes from to begin his speech!  And while it is true that John Paul II later raised de Lubac to the episcopate, the fact remains that he was first an example of the sort of religious intolerance which is the true legacy of Rome.


The Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church is to deny religious liberty.  That case has been made by a review of centuries of official Catholic documents promulgated by every pope from America’s founding until the mid-twentieth century. It is beyond question that Rome’s official position is one in opposition to “liberty”.  And that the American system of which Archbishop Chaput thinks is so instructive has actually been declared a heresy by Rome.

In order for this not to be true, it will be necessary for Roman Catholics to show where, when and by whom these many papal pronouncements have been rescinded, reformed or replaced.  A feat that cannot be accomplished given the nature of papal writings.

Therefore we must conclude that either the Tradition of Rome is dead or that the venerable Archbishop of Philadelphia is a heretic.  As harsh as that may sound, what other choice is there?

Soli Deo Gloria.

[i] It is an interesting fact of history that the Roman Catholic Church has not been opposed to abortion until recent times.  You can read more about that here .

[ii] It seems to this writer that God Himself has achieved good ends almost entirely through “impure means” if the Scriptures are any testimony.  The only exception I can recall are the ends that God achieved through Christ who is, of course, pure.

[iv] Kertzer, David I.  The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.  Pgs. 28-29.

[v] McBrien, Richard P.  Lives of the Popes.  San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.  Page 333.

[vi] Ibid. p. 338

[ix] McBrien, p. 360.