FAQ's On Religious Freedom
1. Doesn’t religious freedom apply only to those professing the true religion since error has no rights?
It is true that error, per se, has no rights (CCC #2108; Pius XII, Ci Riesce). At the same time, however, persons retain natural rights in spite of their errors since error does not cancel a natural right. In other words, a person following the dictates of an honestly erroneous conscience acts in true moral freedom – in spite of his error. The reason is that the moral law commands us to obey a certain conscience under pain of sin – even when honestly erroneous. Furthermore, the moral law confers the corresponding moral right (the means) to fulfill ones moral obligations. Therefore, the moral law confers freedom of conscience in religious matters even when it is honestly erroneous. For example, all men have the duty and corresponding natural right to educate their children according to their religious convictions (S.T., ii-ii, 10, 12). Therefore, this duty and corresponding natural right is not cancelled merely by the fact that the parent adheres to objective religious error. The right is not founded on error, per se, but can continue to exist in spite of error for the sake of a superior good.
2. In what sense does religious freedom apply "even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it"?It is important to distinguish between "moral freedom" and its foundation -- "natural freedom" or self-determination (Cf. Leo XIII, Libertas, 1-3; this is also called ontological freedom). Ontological or natural freedom excludes interior necessity and exterior compulsion. In other words, it includes interior psychological freedom as well as [due] freedom of action or freedom [immunity] from coercion in the external forum (DH, 2). Therefore, one cannot deny natural freedom without undermining the foundation or necessary pre-condition required for moral freedom. It is this foundational natural liberty of self-determination that continues to exist even when we turn away from God. Bishop Ketteler puts it as follows: “Christianity accords to man his full right of self-determination and recognizes in this right his fullest dignity and nobility. In fact, Christianity by its doctrine of eternal damnation recognizes the ultimate consequence of this right, because this teaching implies that God will even permit men to eternally contradict Him rather than violate man's sacred right to self-determination." (Cf. Ketteler, Sermon on "The Christian Concept of Human Freedom", December 17, 1848)
3. But don’t we tolerate error only in those cases where it is not practical to repress it?
It is true that we sometimes have to tolerate that which can’t practically be repressed in order to avoid greater evils. On the other hand, sometimes we tolerate error or evil for the sake of a higher good or a superior right (e.g., toleration in order to respect the rightful domain of conscience or even to preserve the nature of man as man). Therefore, there is no inherent contradiction between toleration and rights as these can co-exist. For example, Suarez teaches that we have to tolerate the religious convictions of others insofar as they conform to the “objective moral order” (DH #7) as expressed by the natural moral law: “As regards the other religious practices of unbelievers which go contrary to Christian beliefs but not counter to natural reason, there is no doubt but that the unbelievers, even though they are subjects, may not be forced to abandon them. Rather the Church has to tolerate them…The reason is that such observances do not in themselves violate the natural law, and therefore, the temporal power of even a Christian ruler does not confer a right to forbid them. Such action would be based on the fact that what is being done goes contrary to the Christian Faith, but that is not enough to compel those who are not subject to the spiritual authority of the Church. This opinion is also supported by the fact that such a ban would involve, to some extent, forcing people to accept the Faith; and that is never permitted.” (Suarez, Tract. de Fide Disp. 18 Sect. III, n. 10)
4. Where do we draw the “due limits” to religious freedom?
On one hand, nobody has an absolute right to an error-free or even a sin-free environment. On the other hand, everyone has a right to a social and civil environment that enables him to tend towards his final end and transcendent goal. Therefore, the natural right to religious freedom is not unlimited and unqualified -- it has natural limits within the confines of the objective moral order as expressed by the natural moral law. Bishop Ketteler puts is as follows: “…religious freedom has its own natural limits as dictated by reason, by natural morality, and by the natural order of things. No reasonable moral freedom can go so far as to destroy moral order to which everyone has a right. Therefore, Christian as well as non-Christian rulers and those who hold temporal authority are obliged to oppose religious teachings and practices which are in latent violation of the laws of reason and morality.” (Cf. Ketteler, Freedom, Authority and the Church) The “due limits” inherent in religious freedom must also be applied analogically according to the requirements of a given context or social situation (CCC #2109). What this means is that the “due limits” will be applied differently in the context of a confessional (sacral) state than in the context of a “secular” state that is lacking true religious unity among the body politic. The sacral state, for example, will not permit the spread of heresy insofar as it militates against public order and the common good in a social context that is constituted on the very basis of unity in faith. The secular state, on the other hand, being constituted on the basis of affinities of nature, will not permit those religious practices in latent violation of the natural moral law.
5. Doesn’t religious freedom apply only in the privacy of the home and not in public?
Man is a social being according to his nature and therefore he has the duty and corresponding right to worship in private and in public. Furthermore, to ban the public expression of all false worship is to apply another form of coercion as Suarez noted: “…such a ban would involve, to some extent, forcing people to accept the Faith, and that is never permitted.” (Suarez, op. cit.)
6. How does religious freedom reconcile with the treatment of heresy as a civil crime during the Middle Ages?
It is important to distinguish punishable heresy from innocent error. The former has to do with baptized Catholics obstinately rejecting the authoritative teaching of the Church in matters of dogma. Therefore, the very notion of punishable heresy excludes those who are not visible members of the Catholic Church. Additionally, the legitimacy of treating heresy as a civil crime presupposes religious unity. If that essential religious unity is weakened or destroyed then treating heresy as a civil crime loses its basis and is no longer legitimate.
7. Isn’t religious freedom condemned by the Syllabus of Pope Pius IX?
The Syllabus of 1864 did not condemn religious freedom in its true and proper sense. Rather, it condemned the errors of religious indifferentism and moral license (Syllabus 15). In addition, it condemned those propositions (Syllabus 77-79) that would deny in principle the very right of existence of the Catholic sacral regime constituted on the basis of unity in faith. The prerequisite condition of unity in the faith must still exist, however, in order for a Catholic sacral regime to be a legitimate reality in law (de jure) and in fact (de facto). The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912), however, notes some important dynamics -- effects of "globalization" -- that have impacted the requisite conditions for such states since the time of the Syllabus:
“The mixture of races and peoples, the immigration into all lands, the adoption of international laws concerning colonization and choice of abode, the economic necessity of calling upon the workers of other lands, etc., have so largely changed the religious map of the world during the last fifty years that propositions 77-79 of the Syllabus published by Pius IX in 1864 (cf. Denzinger, op. cit., 1777-79), from which enemies of the Church are so fond of deducing her opposition to the granting of equal political rights to non-Catholics, do not now apply even to Spain or the South American republics to say nothing of countries which even then possessed a greatly mixed population (e.g. Germany). Since the requisite conditions for the erection of new theocratic states [ed. consecrational regimes], whether Catholic or Protestant, are lacking today and will probably not be realized in the future, it is evident on the basis of hard facts that religious liberty is the only possible, and thus the only reasonable, state principle.”
8. Didn’t the Second Vatican Council deny in principle the idea of the Catholic consecrational regime constituted on the basis of unity in the faith?
While the principle is nowhere denied, the decree on Religious Freedom (DH) does not seem to contemplate as a norm the possibility of such consecrational Catholic states in light of circumstances in the modern era that presuppose mixed populations in every region of the world -- notwithstanding individual cases where circumstances call for the "special civil recognition" of the Church (DH 6; CCC 2107). Charles Cardinal Journet illustrates this point by using the metaphor of the wheat and the tares that have providentially become increasingly co-mingled in our time:
"Consider the hypothesis of a civil society, a cultural world, whose aim it was to bind together politically a religiously disparate multitude, and in which the ruler, even were he Catholic, would represent only the political union of that multitude. None can doubt that such a union has become legitimate and necessary today. Since the days of the medieval Church, a field in which wheat alone was sown, but enclosed in the narrow limits of the West, Providence has prepared a new era in which tares are to be mixed with the wheat but the field is to cover all the earth. On this hypothesis, it is clear that heresy, no longer anti-constitutional simply as heresy, cannot be justly made the object of a constitutional repression, either on the initiative of the State or the injunction of the Church. This applies to any sort of repression whatever, and with all the more reason therefore to repression by the sword." (Cf. Journet,The Church of the Word Incarnate pp. 283-284)
9. Doesn’t religious freedom contradict the rights of the Church to a “privileged status” in society?
Let us distinguish here between rights and privileges. Temporal rulers must always respect the essential freedom and rightful autonomy of the Church in pursuit of her divine mission. Bishop Ketteler states: “Freedom of the Church means the right of the church to manage her own affairs according to her own principles and to be subject only to the general laws of the state. We distinguish between freedom of the Church and privileges. In earlier times, the Church enjoyed various privileges which developed spontaneously because unity of Faith prevailed. Those are virtually extinct in our time, but the Church is able to survive without them. Nevertheless, let us not confuse privileges with legitimate rights, as often happens nowadays. The Church is entitled to the protection of her legitimate rights, just as any other legal personality.” In his 1953 “Ci Riesce” Address to Catholic Jurists, Pope Pius XII stated that Concordats are an "expression of collaboration between the Church and State...The Concordats, therefore, must assure to the Church a stable condition in right and in fact in the State with which they are concluded, and must guarantee to her full independence in the fulfillment of her divine mission." In recent times, the Church in her concordats with states has even formally rejected certain “privileges” insofar as they no longer were considered helpful to her divine mission. This process of adaptation to modern circumstances seems to have begun already in the pontificate of Pius XII and was made manifest, for example, in the concordat of 1940 between the Holy See and Portugal. Cardinal Cerejeira, patriarch of Lisbon, commented on the new concordat as follows:
“Another aspect of the agreement instituted by the Concordat is the reciprocal autonomy of the Church and the State. Each one is independent and free in its respective sphere of competence. Neither does the State keep the Church under its tutelage, nor does the Church interfere with matters pertaining to the State. The advocates of the supremacy of the State would like to add: enslavement of the Church, and, by the same token, of Catholic conscience. But we say: according to the very doctrine of the Church, the State has full authority, but only in its own field. It was Christianity which introduced into the world that separation between the temporal and the spiritual, upon which rests the foundation of all Christian civilization. Here is the fountainhead of liberty of conscience...The Portugese State recognizes the Church as she is, and ensures her freedom; but it does not support or protect her as a State established religion...What the Church loses in official protection, she regains in virginal freedom of action. Free from any liability toward the political power, her voice gains greater authority upon consciences. She leaves Caesar a completely clear field, in order for herself better to attend to the things that are God's. She is the pure crystal from which the treasure of the Christian revelation is streaming forth.” (Cardinal Cerejeira, patriarch of Lisbon, November 18, 1941)
10. Doesn’t religious freedom violate the rights of Christ the King?
Religious freedom, properly understood, is a necessary prerequisite for the reign of Christ the King to be realized in society (CCC 2104-2109). The reason for this is that Christ does not impose His will by force. Rather, Christ chooses to reign by being freely accepted in individual hearts, families, social institutions, and civil society. Therefore, any “Christendom” imposed by force is a false and counterfeit social reign of Christ the King. Christendom will reemerge when Christian principles once again begin to inform all aspects of social life, however, it will reemerge in a form adapted to the requirements of our age. The implication here is that “Christendom” in our time does not simply call for a return to the “social and political institutions of a bygone era…we cannot tell beforehand what civil and social institutions the spirit of Christianity may give rise to when it has again permeated all of humanity…All of those first principles and laws are in themselves unchangeable. Only their application is remarkably adaptable in many different ways” (Cf. Ketteler, Freedom, Authority and the Church). Christendom, therefore, can be manifested according to a variety of forms. Journet distinguishes between two basic types of “Christendom” depending upon the existence of unity or plurality of religious belief among a people:
“Under the influence of the kingdom of grace, that is to say, in a Christian climate, we can envisage the flowering of two general types of political regime. Those of the first type—which are not to be dreamed of save in a region populated exclusively or mainly by Christians, indeed by visible members of the Church of Christ—seek to form a political unity of Christians alone, or visible members of the Church alone; granting civic rights to no others. Those of the second type would try to weld into a political unity all the inhabitants of a region, granting citizenship to all no matter what their religion, but directing them to temporal and political ends which Christianity would regard as legitimate and would not disavow. In the first case, Christian values permeate the whole political order; the notion of Christianity, of visible membership of the Church, enters into the very definition of the citizen. That is the Christian consecrational conception of the temporal regime. In the second case, Christian values affect the political order from without, to sustain, enlighten and sublimate it; the notion of Christianity, of visible membership of the Church, remains outside the definition of the citizen; it designates only a perfect way of being a citizen, distinguishing a spiritual family of citizens. That is the Christian secular conception of the temporal regime. We may use the word "Christendom" in a limited and recent sense, not directly of the Church nor yet of her successive stages of development and internal organization, but directly of a certain temporal regime of peoples who welcome her, a certain cultural complex which she maintains and inspires, a Christian civilization, a Christian world. In this sense there are two possible realizations—not univocal, but proportional and analogical—of the idea of Christendom, two specifically distinct types of Christendom: the consecrational and the secular.” (Cf. Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, Sheed and Ward, 1955, pp. 214-215)