The Legal Origins of Catholic Conscientious Objection

68 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2023

See all articles by Jeremy Kessler

Jeremy Kessler

Columbia University - Law School

Date Written: January 13, 2023


This Article traces the origins of Catholic conscientious objection as a theory and practice of American constitutionalism. It argues that Catholic conscientious objection emerged during the 1960s from a confluence of left-wing and right-wing Catholic efforts to participate in American democratic culture more fully. The refusal of the American government to accommodate Catholic conscientious objection to the Vietnam War became a cause célèbre for clerical and lay leaders and provided a blueprint for Catholic legal critiques of other forms of federal regulation in the late 1960s and early 1970s—most especially regulations concerning the provision of contraception and abortion.

Over the past two decades, legal scholars have worked to unearth the social movements and constitutional arguments that paved the way for Roe v. Wade, as well as post-Roe law and politics. These efforts will likely intensify in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This Article contributes to the existing literature by reconstructing some of the institutional and ideological terrain that shaped the Catholic legal reception of Roe as an affront to the Catholic conscience—both coercive of the religious liberty of Catholics and a blow to their equal status as citizens. This history, in turn, helps to clarify the connection between the Roberts Court’s religious liberty and reproductive rights jurisprudence.

Keywords: legal history, constitutional law, First Amendment, law & religion

Suggested Citation

Kessler, Jeremy, The Legal Origins of Catholic Conscientious Objection (January 13, 2023). William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 31, No. 2, 2022, Available at SSRN:

Jeremy Kessler (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States
9175486610 (Phone)

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