Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution
By Helen M. Alvaré
(The Catholic University of America Press, 256 pages, $25)
Increasingly, governmental agencies at all levels are targeting religious believers and Church institutions for transgressing contemporary beliefs about sexual expressionism and personal autonomy. Whether it be Yeshiva University, a Christian baker in Colorado, or a Catholic hospital refusing to engage in physical mutilation for reasons of sexual “identity,” believers are fair game these days. A website designer is now before the U.S. Supreme Court defending her refusal to endorse gay marriage against her deeply held beliefs.
So it is essential that religious leaders think deeply about why their institutions exist, differentiating them from their secular counterparts and considering how their mission follows from their theological and Scriptural roots as well as from rational principles. This is important for defending themselves in the courts of law and public opinion.
It isn’t often that one reads a work by one writer so well versed in such disparate disciplines as law, theology, early Church history, and social and empirical science. Helen M. Alvaré’s Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution attempts to overcome an insufficiency in the way religious institutions’ leaders and lawyers, specifically Catholic ones, articulate the basis of their resistance to new laws of sexual expression. She provides a guide to defending Christian and Catholic sexual norms grounded in the love of God and neighbor, faith and reason.
Alvaré is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and the Robert A. Levy Endowed Chair in Law and Liberty at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University. She writes as a Catholic Christian, but her methodology is ecumenical, and her arguments apply to all Christian denominations and, by analogy, to all faiths.
Alvaré outlines three models of “theological self-understandings” on which she seeks to distinguish Catholic schools, social service agencies, and hospitals from their secular counterparts.
What exactly is a Christian or Catholic school, hospital, or social service agency, and how does it differ from secular versions of these organizations? The powers that be desire to conform religious institutions to the federal and state governments’ new sexual orthodoxies on cohabitation, contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and transgenderism. Against this onslaught, just asserting that it is against the Bible or Church law or saying that “The bishop made me do it” is hardly adequate to representing the richness and humanity of Christian norms in a court of law or public opinion.
This is why Alvaré presents her well-sourced and scholarly treatment of human sexuality, religious freedom, and role of the Church in the public square. Sexual expression is not necessarily the main focus of the Christianity, but it has become so for Western culture. Thus, the argument has been thrust upon most Church institutions’ services, operations, and personnel.
Alvaré offers an in-depth yet succinct synopsis of the law on privacy rights, religious freedom, marriage, and sexual expression of all varieties. She focuses on the doctrine of “church autonomy,” which can provide significant protection for religious institutions, and which requires a more robust explanation, grounded in sound theology and empirical science, of how unity of belief and practice is at the heart of these institutions’ mission.
Drawing on her understanding of the rich deposit of Church teaching, Alvaré outlines three models of “theological self-understandings” on which she seeks to distinguish Catholic schools, social service agencies, and hospitals from their secular counterparts. These are “first, that Catholic institutions are communities of persons gathered in response to God’s invitation and a shared conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.… They are communities in which members understand themselves to be charged to witness by their lives that He is a living presence in the world and not just a beautiful figure in history…. And, finally, they are communities whose way of living should provide the world a glimpse of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God among us, that is, Jesus Himself and his reign.”
Every member of a Church institution, not just “ministers” but also teachers, administrators, janitors, and the like, is essential to living out these theological self-understandings of the institution. Alvaré provides an illuminating discussion of Social Influence Theory, indicating that “Beliefs and norms are more successfully maintained and transmitted in group settings in the presence of a majority — or at least some critical, influential mass — of knowledgeable, confident, expert, relatable individuals who speak in favor of, and role-model the desired beliefs and norms.” This does not imply launching witch hunts to determine private thoughts and views, but it does mean acting on public actions of employees that contradict a religion’s basic beliefs and norms.
Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution does a masterly job outlining the ample empirical evidence of the damage done by the various permutations of sexual expressionism across the land and linking those findings to the Great Commandment, love of God and neighbor, all in defense of Catholic sexual norms and true human flourishing. Harm to children is a primary concern. For instance, data indicate that children born outside of marriage have a higher likelihood of being subjected to violence. Indeed, Alvaré writes, “the rates of physical abuse in cohabiting households are over ten times higher than in married households, the rates of sexual abuse are about thirteen times higher, and the rates of emotional abuse more than seven times higher.”
So it matters, profoundly, to another “whether we have sex with them with or without any intention of maintaining a future relationship, whether we cohabit nonmaritally with them or not, whether together we welcome a child or not, whether we undergo an abortion or allow a child to be born, whether a child is born within or outside of a marriage, and whether we have a same- or opposite-sex sexual encounter. These choices also have spillover and even intergenerational effects within a family.”
Thus, it is necessary, first, to communicate “a thicker and more integrated religious description of a Catholic institution as a community ‘all-in’ in service to Christ.” A Church institution, therefore, “cannot deploy its personnel, services, or operations toward ends contradicting the faith, but might also inspire greater respect for religious freedom as necessary protection for organizations displaying such integrity, which are a light to a world in sore need of it.”
Beyond her recommendations for legal strategies and public communication of Catholic institutional goals and mission, Helen Alvaré offers the reader an inspiring sense of what an authentic renewal of Catholic belief and practice can mean for Catholics and society at large even while shouldering the cross of persecution in a hostile culture. She offers wise counsel that will benefit all religious people of goodwill and sincere belief.
G. Tracy Mehan, III is an adjunct professor at Scalia Law School, George Mason University, and served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in both Bush administrations.
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