Religious Liberty


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. 

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The Ecumenical Councils of Trent and Vatican I and the Creed of Pius IV all require us to:

…accept the Holy Scripture according to that sense which holy mother the Church hath held, and doth hold, and to whom it belongeth to judge the true sense and interpretations of the Scriptures [and] never take and interpret them otherwise than according to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.

If is often said that the Church has, in fact, only very rarely defined the precise meaning of a biblical passage. Whether or not that is true one clear instance of such a definition is the Bull Unam Sanctam which has very precise teaching concerning Luke 22:35-38 and John 18:11. In ordering the disciples to buy a sword if they had not one already, and in telling them that two swords are enough, and in ordering Peter to sheath his sword Our Lord laid out the precise nature of the jurisdiction of the sacramental hierarchy and  the Supreme Pontiff over the temporal power.

Both the temporal and the spiritual power are intrinsic to the Church. The spiritual sword is to be exercised for the specific ends for which the Church was instituted and by the members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In contrast, the temporal sword must be exercised by members of the Church but cannot be wielded by the members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (although they may confiscate it if it is misused and assign it to another) because it is not a means by which the specific ends of the Church may be advanced.

What rarely seems to attract much notice is the reason Our Lord gave for this arrangement:

And he said to them: When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, did you want anything? But they said: Nothing. Then said he unto them: But now he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a scrip; and he that hath not, let him sell his coat, and buy a sword. For I say to you, that this that is written must yet be fulfilled in me: And with the wicked was he reckoned. For the things concerning me have an end. But they said: Lord, behold here are two swords. And he said to them, It is enough.

The apostles are told to obtain a sword because Christ will be treated as a criminal. As Our Lord also said at the Last Supper “the servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you: if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also.” The opposition between the Church and the world is such that the Apostles (and their successors) need to have the protection of force in order to function. Yet, a short time later when Peter uses his sword to try to defend the Lord he is rebuked. “Put up thy sword into thy scabbard”. The Apostles have two swords but they are permitted to wield only one. The word of God is in the power of the clergy the state is to be in the power of the laity.

How does this fit with the prohibition on coercive conversion? The temporal sword of Christendom is essentially defensive. It is not ‘for’ the Church as Boniface VIII insists, it is wielded ‘by’ the Church (the lay faithful). The essential purposes of the Church cannot be advanced by violence but the non-ordained members of the Church can use the temporal sword to defend the Church from external persecution. Once the state is no longer in the hands of the Church this is not possible. So long as the state is non-Christian the Church’s business lies in buying the sword (bringing the temporal order by consent into the possession of the Church). Once it is purchased the sword may be drawn – but only by the laity – to stave off temporal impediments to the operation of the spiritual sword. We do not live by the sword. The life of Christendom is established and maintained by the peaceful spreading of the Gospel. However, once that life has reached the highest temporal level of social organisation the temporal sword can and should be drawn in its defence.

As St Cyril of Alexandria teaches:

He says sell his cloak, and buy a sword: for henceforth the question with all those who continue in the land will not be whether they possess anything or not, but whether they can exist and preserve their lives. For war shall befall them with such unendurable impetuosity, that nothing shall be able to stand against it.

At the beginning of the Song of Roland Charlemagne (in deference to his council) seeks to negotiate a temporal peace with Islam. He seeks to keep his cloak instead of buying a sword. He forgets the truth that he remembers later in the midst of battle with the Emir of Babylon: “Never to Paynims may I show love or peace.” The Lord tells us “the things concerning me have an end” there is no new revelation to dispense us from the unremitting opposition of the world. As Leo XIII teaches “Christians are born for combat”. The faithful must sell their cloaks and buy a sword because the state cannot simply be left in the hands of the pagans if the Church is to survive. This is why the Song ends with a weary Emperor roused from his bed by St Gabriel to carry on the war. He sought not first the Kingdom of God and His justice and so earthly peace is taken from him until he learns his lesson.

Following my discussion with Aelianus in the com-box of a recent post, I am inclining toward the view that a more liberal reading of Dignitatis Humanae may perhaps be in harmony with tradition, having previously inclined to the view that the right mentioned in that conciliar declaration could only be claimed by those who belong to the true religion. Let us imagine a Catholic who is instructed in the Church’s teachings up to and including Dignitatis Humanae, and consider how he would govern a non-confessional and religiously diverse state. To avoid one complication, I suppose that there are no other Catholics in the state. It might look something like this:

It was the afternoon of September 26th, the feast of Blessed Paul VI, which as all the world knows is a high holiday on the Island of Eleutheria. Delegates from the island’s many religions had come to pay their respects to the new governor, Eusebius, and to ask him to guarantee their traditional freedoms. He received them graciously and allowed each delegate to address him in turn.

A man in bright, loose-fitting garments spoke first. “I represent the Hindus of Eleutheria”, he said, “and I ask your Excellency to guarantee us our freedom to worship in our temples and to hold processions in the street.”

“I’m afraid not, my friend. You are idolaters.”

Next came a man with a shaven head wearing a saffron robe. “I represent the Buddhists of our island. I too ask for full liberty for our religion.”

“What religion?”, said the governor. “You are atheists. Next.”

A bearded man with a white cap then spoke. “I am a Muslim, and I claim the right for my people to build mosques; and the right for all Muslims working in the government to have their own prayer-rooms and washrooms. Also for our food to be prepared in separate kitchens. Also such other inviolable requirements of our religion as may occur to me in the future.”

“I’m afraid history shows to an unprejudiced observer that your religion is intrinsically violent and incapable of respecting the rights of others. So I can’t grant your requests. Also, I suspect some of you at least of worshipping an imaginary being. Next please.”

There was a slight pause. The remaining delegates seemed to be attempting to ascertain the order of precedence among themselves. Finally a tall man in a beautifully-tailored cassock came to the front of the group and addressed the governor in a friendly manner. “Excellency, on behalf of the Anglicans of Eleutheria, or rather, on behalf of all the inhabitants, I’m delighted to welcome you to our island. As you know, I am the Archbishop and Primate of the Church here. I must say I’m very much looking forward to our working together. This is my wife, Penelope. You must come to our palace for cocktails some time soon. Do you know, I think you’ll be the first Romanist we’ve ever had here as governor. I’m afraid it would have been very difficult in the past, but all that’s changed now, of course, what with Dignitatis Humanae and aggiornamento.” He pronounced the last word in a fine Italian accent.

Eusebius looked at him sternly. “You are a doubtfully baptized layman”, he said. “If the pope sends the Swiss guards here to arrest you for heresy I shall give him my full co-operation. Meanwhile, you may continue to gather in your conventicles, provided that they do not excel other public buildings in size and splendour, lest you use your wealth to attract the pagans. However, if I hear that you are promoting unnatural vice, you will of course not escape the rigour of the law.”

The Primate of all Eleutheria turned on his heel angrily. “Come, Penelope”, he said. “I told you that the Papists could never change their spots.”

A man with a fine beard and a pectoral cross spoke next in a deep voice. “I am the patriarch of the autocephalous and apostolic patriarchate of Eleutheropolis”, he announced. “My people have celebrated the divine liturgy here without interruption, ever since the island was evangelised by the the holy bean-eating brothers of Phrygia in the 2nd century.”

“I am honoured to make your Beatitude’s acquaintance”, the governor replied. “But I’m afraid that what I told our friend here about the Swiss guards would apply to you as well. Still, as far as I’m concerned you can carry on as you are, and please pray for the needs of the island when you celebrate the liturgy.” Then looking at the patriarch more closely, he exclaimed: “Just a moment, I know you, don’t I? You’re Paddy O’Brien, surely? Good heavens – we were at school together. When on earth did you become a schismatic?”

“It is true”, the other replied, “that I was formerly in communion with the western patriarch. But when I began the study of the history of the Church and discovered how grievously he had violated the holy canons of the first ecumenical council by allowing his subjects to kneel during Paschal time, it became impossible for me to remain under that yoke.”

“In that case”, said Eusebius, “you lose your right to religious freedom. You were properly taught, so you violated your conscience by going into schism. The apostolic patriarchate will have to choose another head for itself, that’s all. Right, is there anyone else?”

A short man in dazzling robes came to the front of the group. “I am a worshipper of the Great Thumb. In the name, then, of Dignitatis Humanae, I claim the right to – ”

“You must be joking”, interrupted the governor.

“Not at all. After all, His late Holiness John Paul II invited us to come to pray at Assi – ”

“Yes, yes”, said Eusebius hastily. “John Paul II was a fine man. But he isn’t the governor of Eleutheria. I am. You get nothing.”

A group of animists looked at each other moodily but did not speak. Then a man in a turban who had hitherto remained silent addressed the governor. “Your Excellency, I request religious liberty for the Sikhs of this island.”

Eusebius paused. “Hmmm. Well, I don’t know any evil of your people. But then I don’t know very much about you at all.”

A younger Sikh broke in enthusiastically: “Think of us as like Protestant Hindus.” His co-religionist discreetly kicked him. “Quiet”, he hissed, “that is not the way to win his Excellency’s favour.” Then turning back to the governor the older man continued: “We believe in one eternal God who created all things, who rules over and sustains them all. We seek union with Him through prayer and an honest life, avoiding empty rituals and serving our country.”

“Hmmm. Well, it sounds alright. Subject to further instructions, you can have your meeting places provided they’re not too big. And don’t call them temples, as that sounds too much like the Hindus. Also, if you publish any books teaching reincarnation, they will be burned.”

The Sikh bowed his acceptance of these terms and stood aside. A deep silence reigned for some minutes in the room. Finally an elderly man with a placid smile addressed the governor. “Your Excellency, I am a Quaker.” “And what do you people do?” “Mostly nothing. We sit in silence for long periods of time. May we carry on?” “By all means”, said the governor. “You have every right not to be prevented by me from doing nothing.”

A renewed silence followed these last words. “Well, gentlemen”, said His Excellency. “Thank you all for coming. I think I have been pretty liberal, but then of course this is not a confessional state. If I were governing a Catholic state then I should have to be more strict. My secretary will show you out. Please accept one of these miraculous medals, with my compliments.”

They all left the room. The governor sat back in his chair with his hands in his pockets, in the contented manner of one who has truly and indifferently administered justice. “God bless Eleutheria”, he murmured to himself, “let freedom ring.”

I recently heard some lectures on religious liberty aimed at showing that there was no contradiction between the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae and earlier magisterial documents. They were learned and plausible. But they seemed to me to have a defect. They appeared to assume that it would be enough to demonstrate the absence of any such formal contradiction, in order to affirm that Dignitatis Humanae, taken to be declaring a right not previously taught by the Church, was a legitimate “development of doctrine”.

But such absence of contradiction is not enough. If I were to say, for example, that it is more virtuous to sit on the epistle side of church than on the gospel side, or more important for an island nation to have a good army than a good navy, then neither of these statements would contradict earlier magisterial teaching, as far as I know. Yet neither of them could therefore become objects of later magisterial teaching. Why not? Because they are not part of the revealed deposit that was complete with the death of the last apostle.

Since the revealed deposit cannot grow, development of doctrine can only mean expressing more clearly something which was found really, but less clearly, in the earlier tradition of the Church. One has to imagine someone at an earlier stage in the Church hearing the later formulation, for example St Ignatius of Antioch reading the Tome of Leo. If the earlier person would have said, “Yes, that’s just what I meant, only I never put it so well”, then we have a legitimate development. But if the earlier person would have said, “Well, I never heard anything like that before”, or “what on earth are you talking about?”, then it is no legitimate development, even if it is not in contradiction with what came before, and even if it is true.

Those who want to want to maintain that the earlier and later teachings on Church and State are both true and both authentic magisterial teachings, but that the later teaching is nevertheless importantly new, are faced with a problem. If it is new, how can it be the object of a magisterium whose sole duty is to expound the revealed deposit given once for all to the saints? They sometimes seek to resolve this problem by appealing to the notion of human dignity. The thought seems to be this. “Human dignity is part of the revealed deposit, and has always been upheld by the Church. In more recent times, the Church has become more conscious of the demands of human dignity. So at Vatican II she was able for the first time to teach the right to religious liberty. So the teaching is new, but we do not thereby fall into the error of continuing revelation, since the notion of human dignity, from which the teaching comes, was there from the beginning.”

There are two problems with this. First, there is the rule-of-thumb already mentioned. If the Fathers of the Church would have said “I never heard anything like that before”, then it is not a legitimate development. But if Vatican II was saying, as many people think, that pagans and heretics have a God-given right to be allowed to meet together for their worship and to be allowed to encourage others to join them, albeit a right that in some cases may be trumped by other rights, then I think the Fathers of the Church might well have said “where on earth do you get that idea from?” At least I know of nothing in them to think that they would have said, “yes, that’s just what I think, but I had never expressed it so clearly.”

Secondly, how, precisely, are we supposed to go from the notion of “human dignity” to the notion of religious liberty just outlined? Human beings have three modi sciendi, as far as I know: that is, three ways of going from less clear to more clear knowledge. These are traditionally called definition, division (e.g. triangles are isosceles, scalene or equilateral) and inference. Which one of these three is employed in going from “human dignity” to “right to religious liberty”? Is this right a part of the definition of human dignity? But people have had a concept of human dignity for centuries without grasping it by means of this right; and people today can still have the concept without accepting the right; so it does not look like part of the definition of an idea that was already generally accepted as belonging the revealed deposit. Again, “division” seems to have no place here. In what sense would one divide the notion of “human dignity” into “the right to religious liberty”, and what would the other members of the division be?

That leaves only the last modus sciendi, inference. Inference is either induction or deduction. But induction belongs to the world of experimental, empirical science, which is out of place here. So it must be deduction. But in that case, what are the two premises, certainly contained in the deposit of faith, from which the right to religious liberty is deduced?

It seems in reality as if the proponents of this kind of development of doctrine are imagining a kind of angelic intuition, whereby one would contemplate an essence (“human dignity”) and behold in it a property (“right to religious liberty”). But that is not given to mortals to do.

Fr Martin Rhonheimer, who teaches at the Opus Dei university in Rome, and who is known for defending various other indefensible things, such as the use of prophylactics and (so I’m told) the crushing of the heads of unborn children, both of course only in unusual circumstances, has renewed his attack on the Church’s teaching on the duties of the State. In a recent article in Nova et Vetera he argues that the pope and bishops should never have called upon Catholic civil magistrates to repress heresy. The civil power has no duty to submit to the authority of the Church, he says, because it is substantially secular. We used to think it did have such a duty, but we were wrong; Vatican II has changed all that.

He makes some strange claims. At one point he says that the view that the secular arm was subject to the spiritual arm has no roots in patristic tradition. Then a couple of pages later, he says that it comes from St Gregory the Great and St Isidore of Seville! When does he think the patristic period was? He also says that the two swords’ doctrine is ‘heterodox Augustinianism’ –  a misinterpretation of St Augustine’s ‘City of God’. But St Augustine warmly applauded the intervention of the Roman civil authority which helped to suppress Donatism in north Africa (the saint had been opposed originally, as he had thought it would be counter-productive; but when he saw that it led to sincere conversions, he changed his mind and said so.) I am surprised that Nova et Vetera would let such claims get through.

So, should the secular arm be subject to the spiritual one?

Now Eliseus was sick of the illness whereof he died: and Joas king of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, and said: O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the guider thereof. And Eliseus said to him: Bring a bow and arrows. And when he had brought him a bow, and arrows, He said to the king of Israel: Put thy hand upon the bow. And when he had put his hand, Eliseus put his hands over the king’s hands, And said: Open the window to the east. And when he had opened it, Eliseus said: Shoot an arrow. And he shot. And Eliseus said: The arrow of the Lord’s deliverance (4 Kings 13).

What is the arrow that flies toward the East, if not the intention of man hastening towards Christ and Heaven, with undeviating aim? And whose hands direct him thither, if not the king’s, held firm by the prophet’s?