Monday, January 21, 2008

What does the Catholic Church teach regarding religious liberty?

Q: What does the Catholic Church teach about "religious liberty?"
When an American hears the phrase "religious liberty" they almost instinctively presume the kind of religious liberty as defined and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That's not what the Catholic Church meant in her Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

The Catholic Church teaches that people have been given free will from God and are certainly free to either willfully assent to or dissent from the truth. So strictly speaking, all men have such a freedom understood in this sense. They are not, however, free to willfully cling to religious error without sin. Thus, both men and societies have a moral duty to the one true religion and to the one Church of Christ. To willfully deny, doubt or neglect that duty is a sin.

So, if one is speaking of absolute freedom to either accept or reject the workings of the Holy Spirit, we certainly do have such a freedom of religion. However, if one means by this that such a choice of conscience does not matter, that as long as they are sincere in their choice, they are necessarily without guilt of sin in rejecting the obligations of the one true Catholic religion, then this is incorrect.

Let's look at an example to illustrate this point...

The late MSgr. Marcel Lefebvre (although he was among those who approvingly signed Dignitatis Humanae) and Fr. Charles Curran have both asserted that Dignitatis Humanae contradicted pre-Vatican II Catholic doctrine. This is strangely ironic, because Fr. Charles Curran and MSgr. Marcel Lefebvre represent two radically opposite ends of Catholic dissent. Yet both of these men exercised "freedom of conscience" and were censured (penalized) by the Roman Pontiff for the kind of "liberty" they chose to exercise. This should exemplify that a sincere yet erroneous conscience is not necessarily free from penalty according to the mind of the Church. Thus, it doesn't follow that "freedom to error" without consequences is the new doctrine of Vatican II, as some have claimed.

Consequently, if one means by "religious liberty" that one is "free to embrace" and promulgate error without refutation, ecclesiastical censure or punishment by legitimate ecclesial authority in accord with Catholic law, then nobody has such a freedom, not even Lefebvre or Curran.

If one means by "religious liberty," freedom from "the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ" (Dignitatis Humanae, 1), then nobody has this kind of religious liberty.

If one means by "religous liberty," that freedom which is "necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God," (DH, 1), then everybody has this kind of religious liberty, which requires "immunity from coercion in civil society" (DH, 1) so they may fulfill such obligations toward God.

The kind of religious liberty which Vatican II taught is that freedom which "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."

So, I cannot force my Lefebvrist friends, against their will, to go to a licit Mass. They can certainly be canonically censured for not abiding by canon law, but they cannot be forced to go to a licit Mass against their will.

Likewise, the government of the U.S. cannot force Sabbatarians to worship on Sunday as opposed to Saturday (despite E.G. White's "prophecies" to the contrary). Sabbatarians have the same "immunity from coercion in civil society" in the sense that they cannot be "forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs" as Catholics. Of course, this immunity is "within due limits." So, the U.S. government can licitly force the Aryan Nations Church in Idaho from infringing upon the human rights of Jews and other minorities under the cover of "religious liberty."

Yet, religious liberty is not to be understood as liberty from truth, as "all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth." (DH, 2). Nonetheless, so long as "just public order be observed," (DH, 2) humans have the gift of free will given to them by God, and other humans cannot coerce them to act contrary to such a gift by forcing them against their will in matters religious.

So, when China hinders public teaching and witness to the Catholic faith, they violate what the Church teaches regarding religious liberty. Likewise, so long as "just public order be observed," the U.S. Government may not outlaw the public worship of Muslims, as this too would be contrary to Catholic doctrine.

There are at least two truthful kinds of religious liberty that the Catholic Church professes as Catholic doctrine. There are other kinds that have been condemned by the Church as erroneous.

Catholic doctrine affirms: 1) freedom and obligation to worship God as God intends, and 2) immunity from being forced against one's will to worship in any religion--these two kinds of religious liberty are not condemned but are in fact professed as Catholic doctrine.

What is the consequence of willful adherence to false religion?

God DOES respond to those who embrace a false religion, but he does so mostly by grace and truth, but also sometimes by punishment. The mission of the Catholic Church can indeed justly include these same responses.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church ought to be cautious about the use of the "punishment" option, as we have a history of fallible judgments when responding to perceived heresy (e.g. St. Joan of Arc). So, for the most part, grace and truth are the most prudent response to erroneous views. Among Catholics, canonical censures (and other such admonishments) are also prudent at times.

Yet, when the "due limits" of religious freedom are breached, they endanger the faithful and society. The Church or civil government can at such times exercise their lawful authority to "protect and defend" the rights of others, but must do so in accordance with justice.

For more on Catholic teaching regarding religious obligations, religious liberty and freedom of conscience, see the following references:

Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae
Paul VI

Declaration on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, Dominus Iesus
John Paul II

Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2106
John Paul II

Donam Veritatis, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of Theologian
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith

Conscience and Truth
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Syllabus of Errors
Pius IX

Quanta Cura
Pius IX

Mirari Vos
Gregory XVI

Pius IX, Vatican II and Religious Liberty
Fr. Brian W. Harrison

Vatican II and Religious Liberty, Contradiction or Continuity?
Fr. Brian W. Harrison

Archbishop Lefebvre and the Declaration on Religious Liberty
Fr. William Most

Religious Liberty - Rights versus "tolerance"
by Fr. Brian Harrison

God bless,