The Regensburg Forum is hosting a debate between Thomas Pink and Steven Wedgeworth (a Reformed Protestant) concerning the compatibility of Dignitatis Humanae with the historic teaching of the Church. Pink (famously) says it is compatible because it concerns only the coercive power of the state and Wedgeworth says it isn’t compatible. Pink’s opening argument is here. Wedgeworth’s reply is here. Wedgeworth’s argument is that DH is just too enthusiastic about religious liberty and the fact that it is a fruit of the Gospel for the Declaration to be merely a grudging concession that the state alone has no power to coerce in religious matters – but don’t you worry when we have our hands on the temporal power we will be burning heretics again by right of the spiritual power to coerce (via the temporal). DH does not, Wedgeworth contends, merely observe that modern secular states cannot coerce in religious matters in a neutral way as an interesting fact. No, it claims this as a gain for mankind derived from the Gospel. As such it clearly violates traditional Leonine teaching which sees the enforcement of the Church’s coercive religious authority by the temporal power as an ideal arrangement in Christian societies.

Undoubtedly, the tone of DH points in this direction and is consequently difficult to swallow for an orthodox theologian. Nevertheless, Wedgeworth’s critique fails. As Pink observes, religion now transcends the power of the state because of divine positive law not because of natural law. On its own the state would have the right and the duty to discover and then embrace and enforce the form of worship appointed by God. However, it so happens that God has appointed a form – Catholicism – which prohibits the exercise (in its own right) of religious coercion by the state. The true faith brings with it supernatural certainty. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church 157 teaches,

Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but “the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.” “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

Thus the freedom afforded to the non-beleiver to consider and embrace the true faith free from molestation by the temporal power – because coercive power over religion has been denied to the state in the order of the Gospel – is not taken from the believer. The believer’s conscience can never be violated by the enforcement of his duties as a Catholic because he knows with surpassing certainty the truth of the Catholic faith and consequently of his obligations under it. The Council is careful to make this distinction (whether by providence alone or human design I do not know),

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The formal heretic or apostate by definition acts in a manner contrary to his own beliefs and in Christendom the Church by means of the temporal power seeks to compel him to act in accordance with his own beliefs. Furthermore, the temporal power can never be employed to prevent a person repudiating or leaving (see: DH 6) the Catholic religion as it is utterly impossible to reverse the effects of baptism or erase the baptismal character and thus neither the temporal power nor the spiritual need exert themselves to prevent someone doing the impossible.

Religious liberty consists in the freedom of non-believers to discover and embrace the Catholic Faith without coercion and the freedom of believers to continue to profess the Catholic Faith in accordance with their supernaturally enlightened consciences. Should the believers in question be so blessed as to live in Christendom, they have the added blessing of being prevented from violating their consciences by the temporal sword duly subordinated to the spiritual power.

Then Jesus said to those Jews, who believed him: If you continue in my word, you shall be my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

Of course, if the social and civil consequences of the Gospel for the adherents of the true religion in society were so radically divergent from the conditions obtaining under the Old Testament (e.g. Deuteronomy 13:6-9) as Wedgeworth’s interpretation of DH (and perhaps his own private view) implies it would be hard to believe that it was the same God revealing Himself in both Testaments. But then that has always been a difficulty for Protestants. 

Advertisements