Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution
by Helen M. Alvaré.
The Catholic University of America Press, 2022.
Paperback, 256 pages, $24.95.

Reviewed by Jennie Bradley Lichter.

The core conviction and the raison d’être of Helen Alvaré’s excellent book is that leaders of Catholic institutions must get better at articulating why they cannot comply with certain laws regarding what she terms “sexual expression”—that is, contraception, abortion, same-sex relationships, and gender transition. Readers might be forgiven for initially responding, “Sure, easier said than done!” But Alvaré, a law professor and longtime Catholic lay leader, does not just pose this challenge to Church institutions and then figuratively walk away. She instead shoulders the task herself, offering a detailed road map for conveying more compellingly the truth of Church teaching about difficult matters of human sexuality and why it requires Church institutions to behave differently. Her book is a great service to the Church, and it ought to be studied carefully by leaders of Catholic institutions and anyone else who wants to become a more effective defender of traditional sexual norms.

From the beginning, Alvaré stresses repeatedly that the Church does not actually want to be talking about sex all of the time. Sexual expression is the world’s particular obsession, not the Church’s, and “[i]t is insulting to have the world’s disproportionate preoccupation with sex laid at the Church’s door, on the grounds that she has had the temerity to respond to the continual, formidable pressure created by this preoccupation.” Nonetheless, explaining Church teaching regarding human sexuality and its implications for Church institutions “is an important part of the contemporary vocation of Catholics” because the world has a great need “for an intelligent, compassionate voice on a subject currently preoccupying culture and law, and wreaking havoc in many lives.” Religious Freedom After the Sexual Revolution is devoted to assisting Catholic leaders in developing that intelligent, compassionate voice.  

Alvaré lays important groundwork for her project by identifying key legal and cultural factors that have contributed to the ever-widening chasm between prevailing norms of sexual expression and the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Major factors include the cultural turn towards individualism, by which individuals unlink themselves from other persons and also from the transcendent, and the widespread obsession with happiness, understood in part as freedom from constraints. Underlying both of these factors is the notion that sexual expression and sexual pleasure are core elements of the authentic self and are crucial for obtaining happiness.  

Changes in the law both contributed and responded to these cultural shifts. Starting in the 1960s, “lawmakers [here including judges, legislators, and regulators] incrementally but ultimately concluded that the state has no interest in preserving any links between sex, marriage, and children, that fulfilling one’s sexual desires is nearly a human right, and that an individual’s sexual identity is self-created.” More recently, lawmakers have begun to go even further than protecting individuals’ “rights” to unfettered sexual expression. In the guise of nondiscrimination law, institutions are ever-more frequently required to permit, or in some cases even to facilitate, the sexual expression of the institution’s employees, clients, or students. Religious protections in the Constitution and elsewhere in federal and state law provide some relief to religious institutions that decline to do so. But the availability of these protections in any given case turns at least in part on the interpretations of particular judges or regulators, leaving religious institutions vulnerable.

Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that the Catholic Church—“one of the last pockets of resistance to the new norms”—comes under unceasing fire for insisting on proclaiming the truth about marriage, the family, and human sexuality, and that its institutions face a seemingly endless parade of legal challenges that arise from operating in accordance with that truth.  

In the face of such entrenched and widespread opposition, Alvaré posits, Catholic institutions’ standard articulations of why they operate the way they do are (to put it mildly) insufficient. Church institutions must provide a more formidable account of their own identity and why they should be permitted to operate in accordance with their beliefs about human sexuality—even to the point of refusing to cooperate with certain sexual expression laws. And they must do so always mindful of the multiple relevant audiences: judges, yes, but also fellow Catholics, and the public writ large.  

Alvaré offers three such accounts that she believes will be more palatable to all possible audiences. “Courts are not in the business of ‘doing theology,’” she advises, “and neither courts nor the public will be convinced by descriptions lacking language that also engages reason and common sense.” Catholic institutions, she suggests, should present themselves as:

  1. “Communities of persons gathered in response to God’s invitation and a shared conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.”
  2. “Communities in which members understand themselves to be charged to witness by their lives that He is a living presence in the world.”
  3. “Communities whose way of living should provide the world a glimpse of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God among us.”

She marshals theological and historical material to flesh out each one of these models, and briefly discusses how each undergirds an argument that religious institutions should be free to conduct their business in accordance with their beliefs.  

Alvaré next offers a fascinating chapter on Social Influence Theory, which holds that the presence of public dissenters—or even a single, compelling dissenter—on a mission-driven institution’s staff can seriously undermine the institution’s success. This analysis powerfully shores up arguments for the freedom of religious institutions to hire and manage staff consistent with their beliefs. Alvaré’s facility with using empirical social-science material in service of religious freedom arguments is a particular specialty of hers and sets her work apart from that of most other lawyers who till the same soil. The Social Influence Theory material she presents here demonstrates convincingly that a religious institution managing its workforce with an eye towards conveying a clear and strong Gospel message is acting precisely as any savvy mission-driven organization should.

The book culminates with detailed concrete advice, including draft scripts, for responding to legal and communications challenges involving the hardest issues with which Church institutions must grapple, particularly (although not only) in their role as employers: cohabitation/premarital sex, contraception, abortion, same-sex behavior, and gender transition. Here, as throughout, Alvaré emphasizes the critical importance of rebutting the charge that Church teachings about sexual responsibility are unloving. And with piercing honesty, she acknowledges that this can be very hard to do—particularly when addressing same-sex relations—and that success is far from certain. “Our speaking about [God’s] design will almost certainly cause offense,” she says, “even when we express ourselves with the utmost delicacy, positivity, and respect for every person involved.” But delicacy, positivity, respect, and above all, charity must be the watchwords of these crucial communications efforts, as victory will be merely pyrrhic if Church institutions “win the battle but lose the war”—i.e. win a lawsuit, perhaps, but lose along the way “respect and affection for both religious freedom and Catholic sexual expression norms.”   

There is a latent question here that is worth lingering over: is there any real possibility of Catholic sexual expression norms winning the respect—let alone the affection—of the American public anytime soon? Alvaré reiterates this goal of “respect and affection” at least three times; it is clearly a top priority for her. But query whether changing the language used to talk about Catholic teaching on human sexuality will move the public opinion needle when the teachings themselves do not change, teachings that a great many of our fellow citizens not only personally reject but find so offensive as to not deserve an airing. Of late, the days when speaking the truth with charity won the respect, however grudging, of one’s fellows seem, perhaps, to be gone. Now, speaking the truth with charity seems just as likely to get a person fired or an institution firebombed as it is to win hearts and minds.

But setting aside the prospects for success of Alvaré’s project from a public-relations perspective, she is exactly right that putting in the effort of “fixing our sexual expression expression,” as one chapter title suggests, is nonetheless worth doing. A famous exhortation often attributed, however accurately, to St. Francis of Assisi holds that Christians ought to “preach the Gospel at all times, and use words when necessary.” A Church institution facing a lawsuit or a media storm over a difficult situation with an employee or over its inability to comply with yet another government-imposed insurance mandate must necessarily use words, and choosing those words carefully is of paramount importance. The Church’s teaching mission does not terminate when the audience ceases to be receptive. To the contrary, the Church and its institutions are called to continue to preach the Gospel in and out of season—through loving actions and, yes, using words—and to leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.

In the end, Alvaré is clear-eyed and sober minded about the challenges facing Church institutions, even if they do get better at making the case for Catholic teaching on sexual expression and the need for institutional religious freedom to operate in accordance with it. “There is no path to the other side of the current storm over the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexual responsibility except ‘through,’” she says. “No matter how tired we are of the world’s obsession and our need to respond. No matter that sexual responsibility is not the Church’s preoccupation. No matter that the cost to us could be significant. . . . Catholics have no idea what lies on the other side of the storm—whether greater acceptance of our ideas or even more vehement rejection followed by legal and reputational punishment. That is not in our control. We can only control our response to the challenge.”

Institutional leaders will be much better prepared to respond effectively to the challenges of the present day if they study Alvaré’s deeply thoughtful book and take its lessons to heart.

Jennie Bradley Lichter is Deputy General Counsel of The Catholic University of America and Senior Legal Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated