A collection of personal reflections. Copyright © 2005-2011 K. Gurries

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Religious Freedom: Disputed Questions (Part VI)

Natural Law: A Compromise Confessional State?

We now proceed to analyze another objection to Bishop Ketteler raised by Chris Ferrara in the second installment of his three-part Remnant series.  As we have seen, Bishop Ketteler follows the common teaching of Suarez and St. Thomas in placing the [absolute] limits to religious freedom in the juridical order within the confines of the natural moral law (See Part II of this series).  On the other hand, those due limits to the full public and civic manifestation of religious freedom can be more restrictive within the context of a confessional state freely constituted on the basis of unity of faith (See Parts I and III of this series).  This [absolute] limit to civic religious freedom is also clearly taught in Dignitatis Humanae (DH, 7).  Therefore, Mr. Ferrara must concede that the official interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae is consistent with the common teaching expressed by Bishop Ketteler:

Von Ketteler would reply that his criterion for restricting the legal existence of certain sects is, as he puts it, “reason… natural morality, and… the natural order of things.  No reasonable moral freedom can go so far as to destroy moral order to which everyone has a right.” As Father Harrison has pointed out, according to the relator at Vatican II (but not the infallible Magisterium) this is essentially the limitation DH would impose on “the right to religious freedom.”  (Cf. Chris Ferrara, The Remnant, October 15, 2009, p. 15)

In the next breath, however, Mr. Ferrara sets himself in opposition to this traditional teaching (inclusive of St. Thomas and Suarez) concerning the absolute limit to religious freedom.  The basis for this opposition to the common teaching is twofold: (1) it creates a kind of detachment or separation between morality and religious truth; (2) it equates to a compromise or “lowest common denominator” approach to religion and morality.

So, according to von Ketteler, and one reading of DH, the State has the right to repress the public activity of sects only when their tenets attack the moral order, but not when they simply preach heresy—an argument that presumes without demonstration that morality can be detached from the integrity of religious truth, which it clearly cannot be. At least seven obvious objections present themselves to this attempt at a “lowest common denominator” distinction between tolerable and intolerable religious errors.  (Cf. Ferrara)

Mr. Ferrara then attempts to defend his position against the common teaching with a series of arguments: 

First, according to von Ketteler’s own criterion Protestant sects ought to be restrained from propagating their errors in Catholic countries, since the inevitable tendency of Protestantism is precisely to degrade “reason, morality and the natural order of things.” (ibid)

This is certainly a false representation of Bishop Ketteler’s teaching since (as discussed previously) the spread of heresy would be forbidden in the context of a true confessional state that is freely constituted on the basis of unity in the Catholic faith (See parts I, III and V of this series).  In such a religiously united context the due limits to religious freedom corresponds to ecclesiastical law.  Additionally, Mr. Ferrara does not explain how the common errors of Protestantism constitute punishable violations of natural law while, as Suarez noted, the practices of Judaism and Islam do not constitute such a violation.  In this sense, St. Paul indicates that pagans – not having the law of faith – are a “law to themselves” insofar as they conscientiously conform their actions to the natural moral law that is “written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15).  Finally, being illogical regarding supernatural aspects to religious truth is not necessarily a punishable civil offense.

Second, von Ketteler contradicts the Magisterium by limiting the authority of the State in this area to defending the bare existence of some kind of personal God, such as the Masonic Architect of the Universe, and the preservation of “natural morality,” as he calls it. (Cf. Ferrara)   

Again, this is a false representation of Bishop Ketteler’s teaching since he clearly affirms the duty of Catholic rulers to give cooperation and positive support to the Church and her spiritual mission.  In addition, Bishop Ketteler denounces any indifferentism on the part of civil rulers towards religious and moral truth.  At the same time, however, the civil power, as such, does not have an unlimited scope of authority to apply coercive force in all matters pertaining to religious and supernatural truth – as this properly belongs to the domain of the Church. (See part IV of this series)

Third, natural law needs the support of divine law, the revealed will of God in Sacred Scripture and Tradition as enunciated by an infallible teaching authority, if the commands of the natural law are not to be drowned out in a welter of dissenting opinions advanced by fallen men whose reason is darkened by Original Sin…The divine law cannot be separated from the moral life of the rightly ordered State any more than it can from the life of the rightly ordered individual soul. To transgress the divine law is to undermine morality… In short, the State must defend divine law for the sake of morality itself. (Cf. Ferrara)

Certainly Bishop Ketteler nowhere denies the necessity of supernatural grace, divine revelation and the Magisterium of the Church as a divinely constituted teaching authority.  The point is that the civil power, as such, does not have the legitimate authority to use coercive power in any of these areas.  The state must cooperate and support the Church in these areas as stated above.  Therefore, the civil authorities should do all in their power to favor morality and religious truth without violating the limits and legitimate use of their coercive power.  Here it is necessary to reflect on the teaching of Pope Pius XII concerning the limits to human authority and coercive power in religious matters: "Could God, although it would be possible and easy for Him to repress error and moral deviation, in some cases choose the "non impedire" without contradicting His infinite perfection? Could it be that in certain circumstances He would not give men any mandate, would not impose any duty, and would not even communicate the right to impede or to repress what is erroneous and false? A look at things as they are gives an affirmative answer…Moreover, God has not given even to human authority such an absolute and universal command in matters of faith and morality.  Such a command is unknown to the common convictions of mankind, to Christian conscience, to the sources of Revelation and to the practice of the Church.” (Pope Pius XII, Address to Catholic Jurists, 1953)     

Fourth, the minimalist natural religion and “natural morality” von Ketteler would have the State defend by restraining its violators does not actually exist: it has no dogmas, no church to preach it, no Magisterium to define it. (Cf. Ferrara)

On the contrary, the natural moral law is a reality that God has inscribed onto all hearts.1  In addition, the state has the duty and corresponding right to uphold these laws for the sake of the common good.  Can fallen man become confused about the moral law giving rise to the necessity of positive revelation and a divinely constituted teaching authority?  Absolutely!  Again, the state must favor religious truth and Catholic rulers should support and defend the mission of the Church, however, without going beyond the natural limits that God has imposed on the civil power.  In other words, the moral duty to favor the true religion does not imply the native right to the use of coercive power in this domain -- even if such a coercive power can legitimately extend to religious matters, per accidens.2  Additionally, Bishop Ketteler notes that the scope of civil authority, as such, does not extend to "supernatural truths of revelation".  The Bishop then adds that authority "can be extended if the Church chooses to confer more powers, as the Church did grant additional rights to the ancient Christian rulers – powers which they then exercised in the name of the Church."3 (Cf. Religious Freedom Part II)  

Fifth, how would von Ketteler propose that the State defend belief in “a personal God” against sects alleged to attack it?  Will the “personal God” whose existence the State defends be a Trinity, a Father, a Great Spirit, a generic Creator or all of the above?  (Cf. Ferrara)

Here we must once again recall that the natural moral law dictates the [absolute] limit to religious freedom.  The questions posed by Ferrara above presupposes that the objective criterion of the natural moral law is beyond the grasp of man – lacking the common grammar necessary to pursue the natural end of the state (Cf. Rom. 2:14-15).  Fr. Higgins notes that the “natural law indicates only the broadest outline of the mode of worshiping God.  But there is a vast array of systems by which the one true God is worshiped” (Cf. Higgins, Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics, TAN Publishers, p. 185).  At the same time, however, the natural law indicates those vices opposed to true religion including: indifference, relativism, irreligion, blasphemy, sacrilege, simony, perjury, superstition, idolatry, divination and magic (Cf. Higgins, op cit., pp. 186-189; Fr. Fagothey, Right and Reason, TAN, pp. 271-272).  These vices against religion can be known by the light of natural reason and the natural law and are objectively harmful to the state.  Therefore, the civil power has the duty to favor and promote true religious virtue and the legitimate authority to apply coercion when necessary against such vices in view of the common good.    

Sixth, when disputes arise over whether a sect is really guilty of professing one of von Ketteler’s repressible errors—“denial of a personal God,” “foster[ing] crass materialism,” or teachings “which jeopardize morality”—to what authority would the State have recourse in determining the impermissible variations of the “personal God” tenet, the forbidden “crass materialism,” or the unacceptable moral opinions?  If not the Catholic Church, then who?  And if the Church, have we not returned to the concept of the Catholic confessional state? (Cf. Ferrara)

It is unclear whether Ferrara is referring to the context of a true confessional Catholic state, an absolutist regime, or a secular state with a mixed population.  In the former case, doctrinal “disputes” are settled by the authority of the Church.  Within the context of an absolutist regime religious and moral questions are settled by the will of the ruler -- following the principle of the so-called "divine right of kings" or adopting the principle of Louis XIV: L’Etat c’est moi (I am the state).  Within the context of a pluralist or mixed secular state, however, the “disputes” concerning the objective criterion of the moral law must be resolved by reasoned public debate.  This has nothing to do with positivistic convention based on artificial "consensus".  Rather, it involes a natural and necessary process of reasoning and discernment regarding the objective content of the natural moral law and its prudential application to concrete circumstances.  Taparelli expressed a similar view as noted by Dr. John Rao: “What happens if a society suffers an obvious, severe division of opinion regarding religious truth, as in any modern pluralist society?  Every Catholic in such circumstances, the Civiltà argued, should strive to re-Catholicize the society in question with the greatest possible vigor.  Nevertheless, the Catholic living under these conditions of disunity could demand from the State only those restrictions on error that were commonly accepted by everyone as being rational and natural” (Cf. Rao, Theology of the Mystical Body, Ch. 4).  The Church plays a crucial role in this process by making her voice heard and by enlightening the consciences of Catholics and all men of good will.  For their part, the Catholic laity has its own crucial role to play including the duty and right to engage in the “apostolate in the social milieu, that is, the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives…so that they attract all to the love of the true and the good and finally to the Church and to Christ” (AA, 13). (See also part IV of this series)

Seventh, today an enormous variety of religious sects fall into the category even von Ketteler would deem intolerable and deserving of repression. But since modern society, having rejected the organic union of Church and State, is no longer united concerning the existence, nature or attributes of God or the moral principles from which the sects have long since defected in condoning divorce, contraception, abortion, adultery, premarital sex, homosexual relations, etc., on what ground would von Ketteler stand, were he were alive in 2009, to insist that the State must restrain the propagation of the errors he deemed intolerable in 1862 as threats to “reason, natural morality, and the natural order of things”? (Cf. Ferrara)       

As we have seen, Bishop Ketteler laments the disunity of the faith and its consequences to the state and civil society.  Furthermore, having recognized the de facto disunity it is no longer legitimate to employ a mode of coercion that is proper to true confessional states.  Were Bishop Ketteler alive today he would no doubt speak as he did within the context of a mixed Germany.  He would speak out in defense of the Church and religious and moral truth.  He would encourage the Catholic faithful to take up their crucial role in the apostolate in the social milieu.  In summary, Bishop Ketteler would continue to do now what he had done then.

Back to Part V            Forward to Part VII


1 We can also note here that the natural law, properly understood, is necessarily open to the transcendent and the truths given by way of positive divine revelation.

2 The implication here is that religious and spiritual matters can accidentally and temporarily assume a temporal character.  In such special cases of necessity, the civil power may be justified - by virtue of its own unique title - to the use coercive power in religious matters -- but never exercised contrary to the objective moral order. 

3 This corresponds to the temporal power acting as "secular arm" to the Church within the context of of confessional or sacral state.


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