(Catholic University of America Press, 2022, paperback, 248 pages, $24.95)
Reviewed by Edward Mechmann
Battles over religious liberty are in the news daily. These take place not just in courts and legislatures, but in the forum of public opinion. The main conflict is between post-modern sexual orthodoxy and traditional religious beliefs on the nature, purpose, and meaning of sex.
Helen Alvaré’s new book, Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution, offers an approach to this conflict that is likely not only to help win victories in courts and legislatures, but also to convert people’s hearts. The book couldn’t have come at a more propitious moment.
Alvaré is uniquely qualified to address this problem. She has worked for decades at the intersection of law, religion, and public communication. She is deeply respected in the Catholic Church and in other faith communities. She has written extensively and thoughtfully on empirical studies of the sexual revolution and its negative impact on individuals and families.
Her premise is that, while religious organizations and individuals are winning many of the legal battles, they are not presenting robust and convincing arguments about why they should win. In that sense, these legal victories are nevertheless failures. They are not convincing people of the reasons behind traditional religious beliefs and why they should be protected by law.
This book provides a way not only to win legal cases but also to “shore up respect and affection for religious freedom and for Catholic teachings on sexual expression.”
The author begins with an excellent diagnosis of the factors that define the dominant ethos of “sexual expressionism.” This ethos is rooted in individualism and subjectivism, and imbued with the sense that sex is the most important element defining a person’s identity. It rejects and inverts traditional values—among them, the value of children. All of this is in service to a completely subjective notion of happiness that individuals define for themselves, and in the pursuit of which sex is just another commodity to be used.
The legal manifestations of sexual expressionism are well-known—the Supreme Court’s creation of a “right to privacy,” the legalization of abortion and ultimately the redefinition of marriage and sex, and the advance of gender ideology. The operative legal theory is summarized in the infamous nonsense expounded in the Court’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision—that the Constitution protects “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
All this is preparation, however, for Alvaré’s blunt and incisive critique of the way the Church presents Catholic teachings in public and in court. While technical and rule-based arguments may satisfy legal requirements in court, they are ultimately “insufficient and ineffective.” They fail to offer a robust and inspiring explanation of the nature of Church institutions and why her teachings on sex make sense.
To overcome this failure, the Church must emphasize that her institutions are communities “gathered in response to God’s invitation and a shared conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior,” that all the Church’s policies are an expression of authentic love for neighbor, and that employees of these institutions are personally committed to this mission.
What a contrast to the sterile and boring “mission statements” of too many Church agencies!
This means that Church agencies must ensure that their staff are fully on board with the mission and cannot tolerate employees who undermine it. To prove her point, Alvaré lays out the substantial social science evidence (known as “Social Influence Theory”) that the conduct and attitudes of individuals affect whether the institution can accomplish its mission.
This is the book’s most important contribution—an empirical explanation for why integrity of mission is indispensable. If dissent is permitted, it necessarily metastasizes and undermines that mission. At the same time, as long as integrity of mission is maintained, authentic and enthusiastic personal Christian witnesses will convert others and enhance the mission. This provides powerful evidence that Church institutions must retain control over whom they employ, even against the requirements of anti-discrimination laws.
But for this striving for mission integrity to be effective, “Catholic identity” must mean more than having crucifixes on the wall. Church institutions must become “integrated communities of witness to Christ” that are ready to oppose sexual expressionism through a compelling presentation of God’s vision of sex as a radical way of loving our neighbors and the path to true happiness. Alvaré’s chapters on these interrelated topics are clear and challenging. Leaders of all Church institutions need to be much better formed in these principles, and this book is an excellent guide.
Having laid this foundation, Alvaré next provides a road map for effective Church communication on all the major contemporary challenges, from same-sex marriage to abortion to gender identity. She weaves together the themes from the earlier chapters into compelling arguments for religious freedom. Readers may be tempted to consult just this chapter, because it is so obviously practical. But these arguments will only be effective if they rest on a solid understanding of what has gone before.
To be sure, such arguments will still cause offense to people in the grip of the ideology of sexual expressionism. But Alvaré is absolutely correct that the Church must be a countercultural witness against the fallacy this ethos propagates. In the end, error can only be successfully countered by the truth. This book should be required reading for Catholic bishops, as well as their lawyers, communication directors, and anyone in a leadership position. While it is explicitly aimed at Catholics, it can easily be adapted to and applied by other religious communities. All the book’s arguments are presented clearly and cogently. Some subjects, particularly the legal ones, are complex and difficult, but the author succeeds in making them accessible to non-experts, thereby achieving an eminently practical book.
Alvaré is optimistic about what would happen if her advice were heeded. One can only hope that she is correct. But it is certain that if the Church continues to use the same old arguments she has employed in our era to fight for religious liberty, she may win more legal battles, yet continue to lose the war.