Religious Freedom: Disputed Questions (Part II)
Religious Duties and Rights
An important theme that often arises is the question relative to religious duties and rights considered both from the subjective and objective points of view. We can gain some important insights into this question by looking at what St. Thomas teaches concerning the natural paternal rights for the religious education of children (S.T., ii-ii, 10, 12). Within the objective limits of the natural moral law, I maintain that all men have the duty and corresponding natural right to educate their children according to their religious convictions. Now this point raises some controversy. For example, Fr. Laisney (SSPX) has criticized this statement and affirms instead that “far from having a right to educate them in a wrong religion, they are in danger of eternal damnation if they deprive their children to the means of salvation!” The following letter in response to Fr. Laisney attempts to clarify matters.
Letter in Response to Fr. Laisney
Some aspects of Fr. Laisney’s letter in the October 31 issue of The Remnant left me feeling rather perplexed. To begin with I would like to give further clarity to my statement that “all men have the duty and corresponding natural right to educate their children according to their religious convictions”. I merely wish to assert here that, in the objective natural order of things, it is the duty of parents to educate their children in "matters relating to God" in accordance with the "parent's reason". This is something altogether different than a so-called right to teach error. That is why I followed up with the clarification that 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…for the sake of natural justice.” St. Thomas gives the following response to an objection (dealing with the religious education of children by non-Catholic parents):
“...it is the parents' duty to look after the salvation of their children, especially before they come to the use of reason…Hence a child before coming to the use of reason, in the natural order of things, is directed to God by its parents' reason, under whose care it lies by nature: and it is for them to dispose of the child in all matters relating to God” (S.T., ii-ii, 10, 12).
That is not to imply that such a natural right can be exercised in an unqualified manner. On the contrary, the “due limits” of the objective moral order always apply and remain in force. In other words, even though the unbaptized are not subject to the spiritual jurisdiction and coercive authority that the Church legitimately exercises over her members, the natural rights of unbelievers must be exercised in a manner that fully conforms to the objective natural moral law. (Cf. Ketteler who explains this concept in more detail by referencing the teaching of Suarez; Tract. de Fide Disp. 18 Sect. III, n. 4, 7, 9, 10)
According to Fr. Laisney, my problem is rooted in an erroneous notion of moral law and he goes on to say that the“moral law does NOT command to obey an erroneous conscience; it rather forbids that which is objectively wrong and forbids to act against one’s conscience”. The implication here is that the objective moral law itself contains both objective and subjective aspects insofar as it also commands obedience to conscience as the subjective norm of morality. The subjective aspect is necessarily part of the objective moral order since “man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience” (DH, 3). Therefore, the moral theologians have always held that one must be obedient to a certain conscience – and this holds true for the invincibly erroneous conscience.
“Everyone is obliged to follow his conscience whether it commands or forbids some action, not only when it is true but also when it is in invincible error”. (Cf. Prummer, Handbook of Moral Theology, 1957, n. 139)
Archbishop Lefebvre puts it very plainly: “To act against one's honestly erroneous conscience is to sin”. (Cf. Religious Liberty Questioned, Angelus Press, p. 10) In this context, I am simply asserting the corollary that one has a moral right, within the limits of the objective moral order, to avoid such a sin. In other words, the moral law confers the moral right to fulfill ones moral obligations. In this sense, the moral law cannot contradict itself by commanding and forbidding the same thing (principle of non-contradiction). Cardinal Newman puts it very simply: “conscience has rights because it has duties”. (Cf. Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk)
Fr. Laisney then goes on to say that an erroneous conscience is simply “perplexed” and that one “must NOT ACT, but rather educate one’s conscience, so as to correct it”. Aside from the fact that a perplexed conscience is something altogether different than a certain but invincibly erroneous conscience, such a notion presupposes that one always knows what one does not know. Obviously, this is absurd given the nature of an invincibly erroneous conscience. Fr. Austin Fagothey makes this point clear:
Hence a certain conscience must be obeyed, not only when it is correct, but even when it is invincibly erroneous. Conscience is the only guide a man has for the performance of concrete actions here and now. But an invincibly erroneous conscience cannot be distinguished from a correct conscience. Therefore if one were not obliged to follow a certain but invincibly erroneous conscience, one would not be obliged to follow a certain and correct conscience. But one is obliged to follow a certain and correct conscience. Therefore one is also obliged to follow a certain but invincibly erroneous conscience.1
Fr. Fagothey continues to explain why the interior will-act can be good (i.e., men of good-will) in spite of one’s objective error.
The basic reason for this conclusion is that the will depends on the intellect to present the good to it. The will act is good if it tends to the good presented by the intellect, bad if it tends to what the intellect judges evil. Invincible error in the intellect does not change the goodness or badness of the will-act, in which morality essentially consists. (Cf. Fr. Austin Fagothey, S.J., Right and Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice, 1953, TAN Reprint, 2000, p. 214)2
Fr. Laisney concludes that “the right to educate one’s children in religious matters never gives a right to educate in a wrong religion, but only in the true religion”. Again, we are not talking about a right to teach error, as such. I think it is important to highlight here that natural rights and the right to fulfill one’s moral obligations persist in spite of one’s honest religious error. Following St. Thomas, Pope Pius XI teaches that the paternal duty and corresponding right to educate, according to the spirit of one’s Faith, is rooted in the natural law:
“Parents who are earnest and conscious of their educative duties, have a primary right to the education of the children God has given them in the spirit of their Faith, and according to its prescriptions. Laws and measures which…fail to respect this freedom of the parents go against natural law, and are immoral.” (Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge, 1937)
Therefore, it seems to me dangerous to diminish the subjective aspect to the objective moral order by denying the natural right of non-Catholic parents to educate their children in accordance with their religious convictions, however, within the due limits of the objective moral order. Again, the right is not founded on error (i.e., error, per se, has no rights) with respect to positive divine law, but continues to exist in spite of it and can be legitimately exercised by non-Catholics within the limits of the objective natural moral law. In the final analysis, I am simply repeating what Archbishop Lefebvre indicated relative to this question: "To the natural duty of educating their children corresponds the right of the parents to raise their children according to their own religious conviction…You cannot take the children from the Islamic education of their parents against their will without, at the same time, depriving the parents of their natural objective right of educating their children". (Cf. Religious Liberty Questioned, pp. 12, 15) In other words, this “natural objective right” can only be exercised by man through the mediation of conscience and therefore it is legitimately fulfilled according to the parent’s reason and in the spirit of their Faith, however, within the limits of the objective moral order. [End of Letter]
Archbishop Lefebvre seems to provide some helpful criterion that can help opposing parties move toward convergence on this issue. For example, in Religious Liberty Questioned, he concedes that “followers of a religion which, without superstitions, renders some sort of natural worship to God as He can be known by the light of natural reason, ignoring without guilt the dogmas of the true religion – such people do benefit from a natural objective right to practice their religion” (op. cit., p. 15). We can identify three key elements to the criterion outlined by Archbishop Lefebvre for this positive natural objective right to practice one’s religion:
· Belief in a personal God (without superstition, idolatry or magical beliefs)
· Worship that conforms to natural reason (natural moral law)
· Honest error with respect to the supernatural truths of divine revelation (positive divine law)
"It appears as though the religious practices of the unbelievers, notably all of the unbaptized as, e.g., pagans and Mohammedans, may not be tolerated in Christian nations since they involve superstition and injury to the honor that is owed to the true God, whose honor Christian rulers have an obligation to uphold. St. Thomas, however, rightly distinguishes two kinds of religious practices: there are those which go against reason and against God insofar as he can be recognized through nature and through the natural powers of the soul, e.g., the worship of idols, etc. Others are contrary to the Christian religion and to its commands not because they are evil in themselves or contrary to reason as, for example, the practices of Jews and even many of the customs of Mohammedans and such unbelievers who believe in one true God”.
The religious practices of the first class of unbeliever should generally not be tolerated unless greater evils would ensue.
Regarding the first, the Church may not tolerate them on the part of her own unbelieving subjects. But that is merely the general principle. It may happen often that Christian rulers cannot prevent even such practices without causing greater harm to the nation and to the Christian inhabitants. In that case, the ruler may tolerate such evil with a clear conscience on the basis of what Christ said to the servant who asked the master whether they should remove the weeds from the field. He replied, 'No, or perhaps while you are gathering the tares you will root up the wheat with them.'
The religious practices of the second class, however, must be tolerated insofar as they conform to the natural moral law. This type of unbeliever, according to Archbishop Lefebvre’s criterion, enjoys the natural objective right to practice their religion.
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. St. Gregory addressed himself clearly to this problem regarding Jews, and he forbade anyone to deprive them of their synagogues or to prevent them from observing their religious practices therein. (Lib. I Epistol. 34) Elsewhere he reaffirmed that no one should prevent Jews from participating in their religious observances. (Lib. II. Ep. 15) 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, op.cit.)
1 Fr. Higgins puts it this way: "If a man is not obliged to follow an invincibly erroneous conscience; then he is not obliged to follow a correct conscience. Precisely because the error is invincible a man has no means of detecting it. Hence he cannot distinguish between a correct conscience and an invincibly erroneous conscience. Both are the same to him. Hence if he must obey in one case, he must obey in the other". (Higgins, Man as Man, The Science and Art of Ethics, 1958, TAN Reprint 1992, p. 135)
2 Therefore, one can perform a morally good action (i.e., a good interior will act) by doing something objectively evil or based on objective error. This does not make the "object" good in itself from the objective point of view. What is good in this sense is the morality of the interior will act. Fr. Higgins makes the same point as follows: "The same conclusion follows from a consideration of the will act. The will act becomes good or bad inasmuch as it embraces an object, not as the object is in itself, but as the object is presented by the intellect as good or bad". (Higgins, Man as Man, The Science and Art of Ethics, 1958, TAN Reprint 1992, p. 135)
3 Cf. S.T. i-ii, q.19, art.10; This is something of a paradox since there can be no contradiction in the laws of God. At the same time, however, we can recognize that man's participation in the eternal law by way of natural law is often analogical and proportional to the limitations of his natural reason. While faith and supernatural truth is above unaided natural reason they are related by an analogical connection - and it is in this sense that faith and reason are never opposed (Cf. DZ, 1796).
4 St. Thomas indicates that the divine positive law of the New Testament is a "law of faith written on the hearts of believers". While the natural law is written into the heart of all men according to their nature, the New Law is instilled in man and added to his nature by the gift of grace. (Cf. S.T. i-ii, 106, 1) In this sense, the unbaptized must conform their actions to the objective moral order insofar as they are subject to the natural moral law: "For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law; these, having not the law, are a law to themselves. Who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them: and their thoughts between themselves accusing or also defending one another..." (Rom. 2: 14-15)