Religious Freedom (Part I)
By Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler
[Note: "Religious Freedom and the Catholic Church" by Ketteler is taken from chapter XXIII of his work "Freedom, Authority and the Church" originally published in 1862 with seven subsequent editions. All excerpts are taken from "The Social Teachings of Willhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler", University Press of America, 1981, Translation by Rupert J. Ederer. Biographical note, emphasis and comments between brackets mine.]
Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (1811-1877), Bishop of Mainz, is widely recognized as the pioneer of modern Catholic social teaching and his thought has found expression in the great social encyclicals since his time. Pope Pius IX had a high regard for Bishop Ketteler calling him “everything that a Bishop should be” while Pope Leo XIII would later refer to him as “our great predecessor from whom I have learned.” (op. cit., xi; xiv)
The State of the Question
We come now to the all important question whether religious freedom...is opposed to the principles of the Catholic Church. May Catholics who wish to remain true to the principles of their church concede to those of other religions such a position in the state? May Catholic rulers legally permit to their subjects such freedom of conscience without violating their own consciences? Can there be situations in which rulers are even bound in conscience to grant such freedom? Would not such a position be completely opposed to the way the Church operated in the Middle Ages?
Before we proceed to answer these questions, we have to come to grips with an ambiguity that exists here and make clear precisely what is meant. Moral freedom is not a right to do evil, but simply the free and inner self-determination towards what is good; it involves free choice which includes the possibility of choosing what is evil without external compulsion. [Ed: Moral freedom, in this sense, presupposes the inner self-determination required for “voluntary” action of the will and it therefore excludes external compulsion or internal necessity. In this sense, Pope Leo XIII opens LIBERTAS with the concept of “natural liberty” as follows: "Liberty, the highest of natural endowments, being the portion only of intellectual or rational natures, confers on man this dignity -- that he is 'in the hand of his counsel' and has power over his actions....natural freedom is the fountainhead from which liberty of whatsoever kind flows...The unanimous consent and judgement of men, which is the trusty voice of nature, recognizes this natural liberty in those only who are endowed with intelligence of reason; and it is by his use of this that man is rightly regarded as responsible for his actions."] The freedom to make up one's own mind is, in itself, no right to choose error and to lie. It is the free inner self-determination towards what is truth without external compulsion. [Ed: Moral freedom also presupposes the freedom to recognize truth through a process of conviction and without external compulsion or internal necessity: “Just as the Catholic Church holds with reference to moral freedom that what goes against a man's conscience is sinful, so she also teaches as the Apostle Paul did about freedom of conviction, the necessity of following one's convictions - rationabile obsequium - in the area of religious beliefs. That too is a freedom of the human spirit at the second level of man's spiritual nature, namely, in the recognition of truth. As the Catholic Church makes a moral good the object of inner free choice, so too she requires that the acceptance of any truth which is worthy of man's recognition must be the object of free inner conviction in human reason. The motivations for accepting what is good and what is true must not be merely external, but they must stem from an interior disposition as is worthy of man's proper dignity. A man cannot build his house on someone else's foundation. This means that he cannot establish true moral behavior on someone else's will, or genuine conviction of what is true on someone else's intellectual grasp of the truth. No matter how proper another person's will may be and no matter how correct another person's grasp of the truth may be, a man has to reconcile his own free will and his own intellect, in other words - his own soul - to what is good and what is true, before his own judgments and actions become morally valid. God instilled this truly frightening freedom as an essential quality of human dignity; and perilous though it may be, He expects us to use it not only in our relationship to other men but even in our relationship to God Himself. The Church applies the self-same principle to man's religious beliefs…” (Ketteler, op. cit., p. 121)] The choice of what is good and what is true is at the same time our bounden duty, in fact, the highest obligation that a man has. The choice of what is evil and untrue, on the other hand, is the wonton abuse of our legitimate liberty. Only in this sense can we speak of freedom of religion. The right to adopt a false religion, to organize it, to propagate it does not exist, as such. On the contrary man's first and highest obligation is to seek out the true religion and to give all of his devotion to it. For that reason, the Catholic Church cannot cease to regard the existence of all false religions as the gravest abuse of freedom that it must fight against with all of its might. As opposed to this we are faced with the question whether the Catholic Church can remain loyal to her principles and waive the exercise of external force in the area of religious freedom, or in the area of moral freedom; whether she may leave to the individual freedom of choice in this matter of choice of religion, as she does regarding his freedom to choose between good and evil; and finally, whether, since she possesses no means of external compulsion, she must demand the exercise of such compulsion by public authorities or at the very least by Catholic rulers? That is the real nub of the problem.
We intend to consider this matter in three parts: First, the position of the Catholic Church towards the unbaptized unbelievers; Secondly, the position of the Catholic Church and the secular authorities in earlier ages toward those who were baptized but who fell into erroneous beliefs; Thirdly, the conclusions which we have to draw from these positions for pertinent situations in our own time.
Table of Contents:
Religious Freedom (Part II)
Religious Freedom (Part III)
Religious Freedom (Part IV)