Helen Alvaré Draws Blueprint for Protecting Religious Freedom in America

COMMENTARY: In her new book ‘Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution,’ Alvaré recommends a bold, faith-centered strategy.

Law Professor Helen Alvare is shown in 2014 at the Humanum Conference at the Vatican.
Law Professor Helen Alvare is shown in 2014 at the Humanum Conference at the Vatican. (photo: Catholic News Agency)

The Supreme Court has vindicated religious freedom time and time again in recent years. Faithful Catholics have good reason to celebrate. So why, then, is Helen Alvaré, one of the country’s greatest Catholic legal scholars, not satisfied?

Professor Alvaré’s latest book, Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution: A Catholic Guide (256 pages; The Catholic University of America Press) urges Catholic institutions to take a radical step: In defending themselves in legal battles, they should evangelize. 

Alvaré is a treasure in the Church. She has the formidable title of associate dean for academic affairs and the Robert A. Levy Endowed Chair in Law and Liberty at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. She teaches family law, law and religion, and property law. She has written about marriage, parenting, nonmarital households and the First Amendment. Her work regularly appears in the Register. And, as if that were not enough, Alvaré is also a member of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, a board member of Catholic Relief Services, and represents the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations at conferences on women and the family. With Mary Rice Hasson, she founded the Catholic Women’s Forum, an “international network for Catholic women seeking to engage the culture, serve the Church, and collaborate for more effective evangelization.” And when it comes to sorting out Catholic sexual norms, hers is a voice of clarity at a time of great confusion.

Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution is a primer on religious freedom in America and how the Church’s understanding of sexual expression — “matters touching on sex, sexual identity, marriage, parenting, or abortion” — makes it a “preferred target” for governments and other powerful institutions that “increasingly insist that human freedom, dignity, equality, and health depend upon individuals’ realizing their subjective sexual interests, desires, and beliefs, often without reference to the well-being of others.”

More than simply surveying the legal and cultural landscape, Alvaré suggests that Catholic institutions pressured by this new sexual orthodoxy should “turn charges against them on their head.” 

Questions of sexual morality lie at the heart of the culture wars and are dividing Catholics from one another. Nonetheless, says Alvaré, the leaders of Catholic institutions must face up to their responsibility: “The need is great for an intelligent, compassionate voice on a subject currently preoccupying culture and law, and wreaking havoc in many lives,” she writes.

Militant interest groups that claim to represent sexual minorities tend to care little for Catholic institutions, whose claims to religious freedom they predictably dismiss as malevolent and oppressive. Unfortunately, more and more Americans are buying into this argument. They misunderstand two things: the nature of Catholic institutions and the substance of Christian love. To address these misunderstandings, Alvaré suggests a new strategy. 

The first step is to speak differently. In legal pleadings and in public statements, Catholic institutions need to “distinguish themselves from other service providers and describe what they are: communities responding in unity to the call of Christ; communities called to make the living Christ present in the world today; and communities whose practices manifest the inbreaking of the reign of God.” 

Let’s tease out what each element offers. First, unlike other secular institutions offering social assistance, Catholic institutions are (or should be) guided by their members’ encounter with Christ.

“Laws and regulations requiring Catholic institutions to facilitate relationships and practices that contradict Christian love therefore attack the very unity of the religious community and its ability to carry out its religious duties,” explains Alvaré. 

Second, if we assert that Catholic institutions are communities responding in unity to Christ’s call, then we can assert that “governmental demands to incorporate into the institution persons who openly reject the call … alter the religious character and operations of the institution.”

And, third, if institutions are founded to offer the world a glimpse of the “inbreaking of the Kingdom of God among us,” then the state’s insistence on transmitting a contradictory message “directly distorts the religious mission and internal affairs of the institution.” 

The next step for Catholic institutions is to show “how their observance of Catholic sexual responsibility norms is an integral part of their mission to love God and neighbor.” This second step should tap into the “empirically and experientially verified advantages of Catholic sexual expression teachings for human beings generally and the vulnerable specifically.” 

Catholic institutions, advises Alvaré, should strive to “inspire affection or respect” for their stances on religious freedom and sexual expression. And this, perhaps, is the greatest challenge because it hinges on conversion. “Before Catholic institutional leaders can speak in a more compelling way about their religious freedom to observe Catholic sexual expression norms, they must first believe that these are expressions of love.”

To this end, she compiles a vast number of resources — the work of theologians, popes, historians, sociologists, economists and others — to present a convincing explanation of how Catholic sexual norms best satisfy the goals of freedom, happiness, dignity, health and equality. 

So how is this going to play out? Catholic institutions working in three important areas — education, social services and health care — will face the biggest challenges to their autonomy in the face of expanded sexual-expression laws and regulations. Alvaré argues that while these organizations have enjoyed important legal victories recently, they should offer “thicker and more religiously specific arguments for retaining authority over their services, operations and personnel.” 

The danger is that we cannot see the wood for the trees. Catholic schools and institutions of higher education mustn’t water down their reason for existence. After all, as Alvaré points out, they are crucial in “keeping the faith alive, especially by transmitting it intergenerationally and forming persons who will witness the living Christ to the wider world.”

Catholic social-service institutions similarly must understand themselves as “a specific response to Jesus’ commands to love and to his exhortations to serve the poor.” They are much more than another talented NGO. And Catholic health care must intentionally reflect “the Church’s ancient and ongoing mission to heal both body and soul in imitation of Christ.” By unashamedly promoting their religious mission, these important institutions can “more credibly claim that their raisons d’etre, their personnel, their services and their internal operations are indispensable elements working together to realize the aims of their Catholic community.”

Winning in court is important, but it should not be our only consideration. “There is no path to the other side of the current storm over the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexual responsibility except ‘through,” says Alvaré in the final chapter of Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution. “Through” requires clear, positive and thorough explanations of what we hold to be true and how these teachings both respond to God’s love for us and invite us to love him and our neighbor. 

With her insight, expertise and sincerity, Helen Alvaré has charted a course for Catholic institutions and people of goodwill that not only can help safeguard the Church’s autonomy but also promote a countercultural understanding of the nature of love as God designed it.