‘Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the Easter Week statement by the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is the most developed statement on current religious-freedom controversies to emerge from the bishops’ deliberations.

It also, and just as urgently, defines with considerable precision a major issue in American public life: Will the robust networks of free and voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville admired as the sinews and musculature of American democracy continue to flourish? Or will the United States increasingly resemble Western Europe, where the associational instinct (and, with it, civil society) has atrophied under the heavy weight of the European nanny state?

The bishops, in other words, helpfully frame the religious-freedom issue in its broader context. To be sure, the bishops are very, very concerned about increasing governmental encroachments on religious freedom of recent years. Those encroachments include the HHS “contraceptive mandate” in the implementation of Obamacare, which brought the entire issue to the surface of public life; they also involve state laws that impede the Church’s service to immigrants, attempts by state legislatures to turn religious communities into bureaus of state government, discrimination against Christian students on university campuses, and restrictions on the Church’s capacity to draw on public funds in its service to orphans and victims of human trafficking.

This shrinkage in the sphere of religious freedom is bad enough in itself, and deserves to be fought. But as the Ad Hoc Committee points out (in explaining that religious freedom “is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home”), the issue beneath these issues is the advance of Leviathan, often in the name of imposing a beneficent relativism.

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