Saturday, August 06, 2011

Religious Liberty: a fresh approach

Over on Rorate Caeli there is a fascinating and truly important article by Dr Thomas Pink on the question of religious liberty. Please read it.

Just to give you a taste, rather than substitute for reading the article (which is not terribly long) in full Dr Pink explains that the debate about religious liberty since Vatican II has been based largely on a misunderstanding. Most liberals and Traditionalists seem to agree that before Vatican II the doctrine or policy of the Church was based on the idea that states had the right and sometimes the duty to suppress the outward manifestation of religious error (this would include for example stopping evangelisation by Protestant sects, not allowing public processions by Satanists, policies which were uncontroversial in Catholic countries up to the 1960s). They saw this as encapsulated in many pre-Vatican II documents.

The Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae says that the role of the state is the 'natural end of man': justice and peace. So the state has no right to get involved in religious questions.

So both liberals and traditionalists further agreed that there had been a change; the question was whether it was a change of policy, or whether the old documents had dogmatic authority. If the latter was the case, then Vatican II was in error.

What Dr Pink points out that a more careful reading of the pre-Vatican II documents reveals that they never said that the state had a right to limit religious liberty. They did say that the Church has the right, over baptised Christians, to hold them to their baptismal obligations (and to protect them from attack by non-baptised zealots), using coercion. An equally careful reading of Dignitatis Humanae reveals that this proposition is not denied there.

What was happening in Catholic states up to the 1960s is that the State was acting on behalf of the Church: the state was not exercising its own rights. The State was both an instrument of the Church, and also leaders of the State were themselves baptized Christians and members of the Church, and were acting in that capacity.

It is true that Dignitatis Humanae recommends a new policy: a policy in which the Church's use of coercion (directly, or through the State) is very limited. But it is not abolished: the Church still uses temporal penalties against those who deny the Faith, under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, such as depriving heretical teachers in Catholic insitutions of their jobs.

In short, the liberals who denied that coercion can ever be used in defence of the Faith are wrong: in fact this position is infallibly ruled out by the Council of Trent. They are also wrong that Vatican II supports them. But their error has been entrenched by the mis-statement of the doctrine by Traditionalists: it is not a question of the teaching of the Church on the State, but the teaching on the Church herself, which is at issue.

This point is completely missed by, for example, Michael Davies' 'The Second Vatican Council on Religious Liberty', which is an admirably detailed and clear explanation of the debate as Traditionalists have usually understood it. Davies ends his book saying that there is a problem which can only be resolved by a further, and authoritative, act of the Magisterium. This impasse now looks at though it was based on a misreading of the key texts - not just by Davies, but by pretty well everyone, on both sides of the debate.

Dr Pink is to be congratulated on coming up with a solution to the apparantly insoluble problem of Vatican II vs. Trent, Lateran IV and a string of papal documents. This solution ought to be helpful not only to the SSPX in their doctrinal discussions with the Vatican, but to all faithful Catholics who have struggled to read Dignitatis Humanae in the light of Tradition: with the hermeneutic of continuity. Let me give the last word to that document:

Indeed, since people's demand for religious liberty in carrying out their duty to worship God concerns freedom from compulsion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional catholic teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ.

More very interesting commentary can be found on The Sensible Bond.


  1. Sean Wright4:27 am

    Gosh, this is interesting. It seems like a very elegant and simple solution to the problem. It all slots into place. Will it be taken up though?

  2. Michael Petek8:46 am

    Interesting article by Thomas Pink. However, his appeal to Canon 14 on baptism (Council of Trent) is misconceived. The canon provides that, where a penal law is in force to hold the baptised to the Catholic faith, there is no limitation of liability for a person by reason only of the fact that he, having been baptised in infancy, refuses to ratify the baptismal promises made for him by his sponsors.

  3. Joseph Shaw9:54 am

    That is exactly what Dr Pink is saying. The canon rejects Erasmus' idea that people should be allowed to opt in or out of the Church as young adults. Instead, all Catholics are liable to coercion to enforce baptismal promises, even if they were baptized as infants.

  4. Michael Petek12:42 pm

    That's just my point. On the face of the canon, its purpose is to reprove any relief from liability to such punishment as may be provided by the general criminal law for violation of baptismal obligations, by reason only of the fact that a person baptised as an infant has not ratified his baptismal promises on reaching adulthood. It assumes, but does not require, that there should be any such general criminal law. Canon 14 does not support Dr Pink's argument. He has to look elsewhere for support.

    What Dr Pink has not taken into account is that the Church's assertion of the right of coercion conflicts with the greater right of the State to a monopoly of coercive force within its own territory, so that the State alone may establish and maintain armed forces, police, immigration and prison officers, bailiffs and executioners. It could not effectively maintain public order and create the common good if it lacked this monopoly.

    What remains of the Church's right of coercion is the theoretical standing to make an extradition request, though in view of the principle of double criminality the State might conduct criminal proceedings in its own right. Alternatively, if an act criminal under the law of the Church is also criminal (however described) under the law of the State, an officer of the Church could always make a citizen's complaint to the police.

  5. Joseph Shaw1:58 pm

    I'm not following this. Dr Pink is not saying that there must be coercion - only, as Trent says, there can be.
    The state does not, never has, and could not, have a monopoly on 'coercion' in the relevant sense. The Church does not need the state's help in using coercion in the way sanctioned by canon law today, such as deprivation of office. Voluntary associations, like the Church, and the family, can have the power to coerce from themselves.

  6. Sean Wright6:59 pm

    I suppose this whole argument hinges on whether or not the Church has ever taught that the State itself, independent of the Church has any authority to coerce in matters religious. I don't know if it has, do you?

  7. Joseph Shaw7:15 pm

    You have to make some distinctions.
    For example the State can supress idolatry because that is against Natural Law: see John Lamont's comment on Rorate Caeli,
    The State should recognise the Church and give God the honour due to Him.
    But as for keeping Catholics (including former Catholics) up to the mark, I don't think the Church has ever said that's the State's job - Aquinas for example makes it clear that's the role of the Church.

  8. Michael Petek8:31 pm

    <span>Interesting it is. But if you propose to coerce the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury into Catholic obedience, are you prepared to first brand them as public criminals?</span>

  9. Michael Petek9:14 pm

    If you think the State could survive for any length of time without a monopoly on the use of force, it wouldn't last long. Aside from the exceptional right of citizen's arrest and self-defence in extreme emergency, only the State may raise and maintain a standing army and other permanent forces with a settled power to coerce.

    If a French police officer were, on French authority alone, to arrest a person in England there would be a violation of international law and comity. Likewise the Church, as a jurisdiction which is foreign in relation to any State, would violate international morality if it usurped the police and penal power of the State on its own territory.

    The power of coercion is absolutely necessary to the mission of the State. It is not so necessary to the mission of the Church, which before the time of Augustine was able to get on quite well without it.

  10. Sean Wright4:33 am

    I don't really understand your response, it seems like a non-sequitur.

  11. Joseph Shaw9:12 am

    You seem to be ignoring my replies, so I won't bother to write any more. Coercion needn't use force in your sense.

  12. The problem is: why hasn't the post-conciliar Magisterium explained this distinction before? It's interesting as the theory of one scholar, but if the Church doesn't actually teach this distinction, that's all it is. When Archbishop Lefebvre was publicly rejecting this teaching as contrary to Quanta Cura, etc., and using it as a basis for his disobedience, why didn't Pope Paul VI simply explain that the Church has coercive authority in religious matters, but a natural state doesn't? The same with John Paul II and Ecclesia Dei, and Benedict XVI; they tell us the pre and post-conciliar teachings shoudn't be read in contradiction, but make no effort to show this compatibility with such an argument as the one that Dr. Pink is offering.

    Again, if Catholic laymen in a Catholic State have a right to protect the faithful from the spread of error (based on the authority of the Church), why were Catholic constitutions and concordats with the Holy See changed to allow the free spread of this error? A noteable example is Spain. Surely, religious error is every bit as much dangerous today as 100 years ago. You might say, that is a mere change in policy, and I'll respond: it's a very dangerous change in policy! Thus, the Traditionalist objection stands.

    God bless.

  13. Joseph Shaw10:17 am

    'The tradditionalist objection stands': not quite. It is now a different objection. Not that Rome has fallen into heresy, but that certain Popes have adopted unwise policies.
    As to 'why didn't they simply explain the distinction?' A good question, but there are many possible answers which don't inpinge on the indepfectability of the Church. Perhaps they didn't want to public perception that the 'Church has changed' by explaining how limited and superficial that change was.