Almost 40 years ago, in June 1979, Pope John Paul II traveled to his homeland of Poland and within nine days ignited a human rights revolution that continues to shape the church and the world today.
Against an atheist humanism that dictated that man is no more than matter and that his life has no cosmic significance, Pope John Paul II reminded his fellow Poles of their great dignity as made in the image and likeness of God.
The lessons from those “Nine Days in June” continue to be relevant as the church in the United States observes Religious Freedom Week from June 22-29 against the backdrop of a renewed atheist humanism that imposes its own creed, has its own rituals and demands conformity — all in the name of freedom, of course.
Atheist humanism today
The communism that John Paul II fought against, and the prevailing form of liberalism today about which he warned us, are both variants of atheist humanism — the project of fostering individual liberation (autonomy) and mastery over nature to relieve pain and suffering.
Though communism seems to be undergoing a rehabilitation in the West, especially among the young, it is liberalism that poses the bigger threat to religious liberty and constructive freedom.
The liberal project of fostering individual autonomy and overcoming the limitations of nature (death, illness, pain, etc.) through scientific mastery are undoubtedly the highest cultural and political values today.
Our culture promotes creative self-expression (particularly in the realm of gender and sexuality), consumerism, convenience and every form of physical and psychological therapy in order to improve one’s life and ease pain.
This false humanism is perpetrated through legal means behind the veil of neutrality and pluralism, giving it an air of irreproachability. Yet it is anything but neutral. It is an imposition of a new orthodoxy, namely, that man lives by bread alone — or, in today’s terms, by the newest food fad, sex, on-demand entertainment and technology that allows you to swipe right or add a filter to create your own reality.
Matter is all that matters, and it is yours to shape as you will. You can supposedly make your own happiness — your own truth.
The church and her members propose a deeper freedom not attainable on Amazon.com. Like Pope John Paul II in Poland, the church today proposes constructive freedom, which is the ability to respond to God’s call consistent with one’s conscience formed by moral truth.
The church promotes political, religious and economic liberty so that people can live the constructive freedom to which they are called by God.
Atheist humanism, based as it is on a false understanding of human fulfillment, cannot tolerate alternative accounts that reveal true liberation. Therefore, it suppresses alternatives, particularly that which is proposed by the Catholic Church. The church reminds all persons of their dignity as sons and daughters of God, and of the higher calling to constructive freedom that goes along with that dignity.
Those who do not embrace atheist humanism’s worldview, however, are publicly shamed, trolled and even forced to choose between the truth and their livelihoods.
Hence, religious sisters are forced to provide contraception to employees, Christian adoption agencies cannot operate according to their convictions about marriage, Christian ministries are sometimes forbidden to serve the homeless or immigrants, and pregnancy resource centers must refer people for abortions.
These coercive forces of atheist humanism must be confronted — confronted with the truth about God and man, along with a better proposal to foster the flourishing of all persons (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) that is consistent with their dignity and spiritual destiny.
Though liberty in all its forms is important, religious freedom is at the cornerstone today of the church’s proposal for the good of society (aka Catholic social doctrine), as it provides the space for constructive freedom.
If we take secular, liberal regimes and their defenders at their word — that they prize pluralism, social peace, justice and the common good — then they should be continually exhorted and reminded of the cornerstone importance of religious liberty.
Religious liberty is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. It is the freedom to do as we ought, not to do as we want — a freedom that fosters the common good.
If secular states are what they claim to be, then they should protect and promote constructive freedom in the name of pluralism and the common good, not use secularity as a mask of neutrality to impose atheist humanism.
Otherwise, as Pope John Paul II noted, politics and democracy devolve into “thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference. He currently serves as a lay consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Religious Liberty.