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

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On Rights, Error and the Erring

Editor, The Remnant:
I appreciate Fr. Laisney taking the time to refute a position (mine) that apparently perpetuates “one of the errors of Vatican II” (Cf. The Remnant, March 31, 2010), however, I must say that his arguments seem to raise more questions than they attempt to resolve.  Specifically, I would like to defend myself against the charge that I am somehow promoting a so-called “right to teach error”, however, in order to adequately do so it will be necessary to take a closer look at some key concepts.       
Ignorance and Error

While Fr. Laisney accepts the possibility of invincible ignorance in religious matters – he appears to deny the possibility of invincible error – considering all religious conviction comingled with error as ultimately voluntary and culpable: “Yes, there can be invincible ignorance, i.e. it is possible to ignore without sin; but there cannot without sin be ignorance that claims to know…one cannot be certain of error without sin.”  Yet it remains unclear how Fr. Laisney defines and differentiates one from the other.  (Presumably we are to understand by this that one can hypothetically live in ignorance of the Catholic Faith – or at least important aspects of Catholic Faith – without ever thinking or acting in any way contrary to the Catholic Faith.)  On this point Fr. Laisney apparently departs from the teaching of Saint Thomas, the moral theologians and Archbishop Lefebvre who all recognize the existence of “invincible error” or “honest error” with respect to religious conviction and conscience (Cf. S.T., i-ii, 19, 5-6; Prummer, n. 139; Lefebvre, Religious Liberty Questioned, p. 10). 

Therefore, one can be in a state of honest error in religious matters – practically certain of its truth – even after performing the necessary due diligence in pursuit of truth and the formation of conscience.  Yet honest error with respect to religious truth does not imply error that is contrary to reason and natural law insofar as he is bound to know what God has written on his heart.1  In other words, involuntary and honest religious error includes any material conflict or discrepancy between (a) religious conviction in accordance with reason and natural law and (b) revealed religious truth beyond the grasp of unaided natural reason (Cf. Ketteler who cites Suarez on this material “conflict” between (a) reason and natural law and (b) positive divine law; Tract. de Fide Disp. 18 Sect. III, n. 4, 7, 9, 10.).  But this apparent conflict between natural law and positive divine law does not add up to a formal conflict or contradiction within the eternal law.  In this sense, it is possible to act in formal conformity (analogical conformity) with the divine will even if there is lacking a material conformity (univocal conformity) resulting from involuntary ignorance (Cf. S.T. i-ii, 19, 10).  This is consistent with the distinction of moral theologians between formal sin and material sin (Cf. Prummer, n. 159).   

Binding Conscience

The fundamental denial of honest error in connection with religious conviction naturally leads to the denial of the binding character of a certain but honestly erroneous conscience: “…there can be no obligation to teach objective error…one ought to learn the truth first!”  Of course, this objection is founded on the notion that religious error is always voluntary and culpable.  Again, Fr. Laisney departs from the same writers (mentioned above) who all affirm the binding character or moral obligation – under pain of sin – to obey the dictates of an honestly erroneous conscience.  Archbishop Lefebvre says it very plainly: “To act against one’s honestly erroneous conscience is to sin” (Lefebvre, p. 10).

Corresponding Right

After denying the existence and binding character of honest religious error Fr. Laisney has no need to consider any corresponding and complimentary moral right to fulfill the moral duty associated with an honestly erroneous conscience: “Mr. Gurries pretends again…that ‘all men have the duty and corresponding natural right to educate their children according to their religious convictions.’”  However, once we correctly recognize the binding character of an honestly erroneous conscience we must also take into account the principle that moral law confers the corresponding right to fulfill a moral duty: “We cannot be obliged to keep the moral law and at the same time be deprived of the means necessary to this end.  This obligation requires that we have the power both to do the things necessary for keeping the moral law ourselves and to restrain others from interfering with our observance of the moral law.  No one can be obliged to the impossible; hence, if it is a fact that we are obliged, we must be empowered to fulfill our obligation…If I have a duty, I have also a right to fulfill that duty and do all the things necessary for its fulfillment; otherwise it could not be a genuine duty” (Cf. Fr. Fagothey, S.J., Right and Reason, TAN, 1959, 2000, p. 239, 254).  In this context, Archbishop Lefebvre affirms the very principle that I am criticized for affirming: “To the natural duty of educating their children corresponds the right of the parents to raise their children according to their own religious conviction” (Lefebvre, p. 12).  Indeed, Archbishop Lefebvre affirms that this “subjective right is inalienable” because it is “based on a corresponding duty to be fulfilled…on the transcendental relation between faculty (e.g., the will) and its object (e.g., to worship God or to educate one’s children).  That relation and that duty remain no matter what happens” (Cf. Lefebvre, p. 13).  Again, Fr. Laisney avoids this necessary and logical conclusion by simply denying altogether the existence and binding character of an honestly erroneous conscience.   

Positive and Negative

As discussed above, duties and rights are correlative and complementary.  This means that positive rights give rise to negative duties – or the duty to honor the right of the other: “If I have a right, everyone else has the duty to respect my right; thus the term of a right becomes the subject of a duty” (Cf. Fagothey).2  According to this principle, if there is no authentic positive right then one concludes that there can be no corresponding negative right (i.e., the right to immunity from religious coercion): “We cannot, in the absence of a positive right, proclaim the existence of a negative right…in any realm whatsoever…without, by the same token, falling victim of a sophism” (Lefebvre, p. 18).  As we have seen, Fr. Laisney clearly does not concede any positive right that directly or indirectly involves religious error insofar as he ultimately considers it to be voluntary and culpable.  Having denied the existence of a positive right in this context – one concludes that there can be no correlative and complementary duty for others to respect the right.  Therefore, Fr. Laisney does not feel compelled to recognize any “negative right” to immunity from coercion in connection with an erroneous conscience: “When I write that the parents in error do not have the right to teach error to their children – even if they are of ‘good faith’ – I do not mean that they should be punished: it is then a prudential decision of those in authority to decide what to do.”  According to Fr. Laisney this prudential decision could lead either to the practical toleration or restriction of parental rights in the religious education of their children. 

Subjective and Objective

But now we seem to be confronted with a serious problem – an apparent contradiction between the subjective and objective aspects of morality.  As we have seen, we must recognize the corresponding right to fulfill an authentic moral duty.  On the other hand, we must recognize, following Pius XII, that objectively speaking “error has no rights”.  The subjective and objective aspects of morality here seem to be in irreconcilable conflict. 

One solution to the problem seeks to create an absolute separation between the subjective and objective aspects of morality – giving rise to a particular conception of “objective rights” in contradistinction to “subjective rights”.3  In this way we can seemingly recognize the “subjective duty” and corresponding inalienable “subjective right” to fulfill a duty – while denying the subject the “objective right” to fulfill his duty when it involves some objective error or evil.  “So, the solution is very simple: the objective right is alienable and the subjective right is inalienable…Consequently, man looses all his objective natural rights when they are applied to error” (Cf. Lefebvre, pp. 13-14).   

It seems to me that this particular solution presents other difficulties.  First, it risks undermining the fundamental unity of the moral order in both its subjective and objective aspects (Cf. Fagothey, p. 113) by creating a hopeless contradiction – where the acting subject simultaneously has the duty to do X under pain of sin and the duty not to do X under pain of sin.  In fact, the moral law cannot both command and forbid the same thing!  Second, it does not seem to take sufficient account of a metaphysical reality – that duties and rights are fundamentally rooted in acting subjects.  In other words, duties and rights ultimately inhere in persons rather than abstract categories.  Third, many objects of natural right are inalienable (e.g., the right to life) and are not automatically cancelled merely because there is some admixture of error or evil on the part of the acting subject.  Fourth, it does not appear coherent with the recognized fact that a natural right is not cancelled simply because it indirectly involves objective religious error with respect to revealed truth.  For example, one “cannot take 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. Lefebvre, p. 15).  Fifth, it risks diminishing due respect for the dignity of the erring person since it considers there to be “no dignity outside of truth…if he adheres to error or evil he loses his dignity…even if not necessarily a formal sin…” (Lefebvre, pp. 20-21).  In this sense, the notion that “error has no rights” risks becoming “erring persons have no rights.”  Finally, it creates the risk of diminishing the sphere of personal responsibility paving the way for authoritarianism and tyranny.         

The better approach to resolve this dilemma, it seems to me, is to properly identify the object and foundation of a given right in contradistinction to any indirect admixture of error or evil that may possibly be involved in the exercise of a right by an acting subject.  The moral law confers rights that have their object and foundation only in that which is good in itself.  At the same time rights with a good object and founded upon a good intention may involve the possibility of error and evil.  But in order to understand this better we will need to take a closer look at the nature of evil. 

Evil and Tolerance

We can get a better sense of this by looking at the principle of tolerance in connection with the doctrine on the permission of evil.  This is not a question about the toleration of pure evil.  Rather, we tolerate acts with an admixture of error or evil for the sake of (a) a greater good that should not be forfeit or (b) the avoidance of greater evils.  Bishop Ketteler comments on this Thomistic principle (ST. ii-ii, 10, 11) as follows: 

The greater benefits which St. Thomas had in mind here are not hard to determine.  God would have to deprive a man of his liberty which is the highest endowment that man has, if He were to deny a man every possibility of abusing that liberty.  Applying that principle to temporal governments, St. Thomas concluded that they too must tolerate certain evils, and he stated finally: "Even though the non-believers sin because of their religious practices, these must nevertheless be tolerated, either because of the good that they still have in them, or because of the greater evil that would result."

In this sense, the principle of tolerance is closely linked to the doctrine on the permission of evil - God wills to permit evil – for the sake of some greater benefit.  In this sense St. Thomas says: “God therefore neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills to permit evil to be done; and this is a good (ST. I, 19, 9).    

Evils of Nature and Sin

As we have seen, not all error is formally sinful – but can be an innocent and honest error.  The possibility of error, however, is unfortunately part of the human condition and equivalent to the evil of nature.  How are we to understand God’s permission or “tolerance” relative to evils of nature?

The evil of nature is permitted in the sense that it is in itself inseparably connected with a good which is intended and directly willed by God.  It is tolerated and accepted by God, willed but not intended – it is in spite of, not because of, the element of nothingness which it irremediably contains that a created being is willed and intended by God – and it can be said of the evil of nature that it is willed indirectly and by accident. (Cf. Journet, The Meaning of Evil, G. Chapman, 1963, p.147) 

What this means is that God tolerates (inseparably connected) error or evil – for the sake of a good which He intends and directly wills.  The “good” intended and directly willed by God is precisely the object and foundation of a right – in spite of the admixture of error or evil that He permits or tolerates.  That is why the erring person does not lose all his rights – in spite of his error.  Furthermore, all of this helps to clarify the fact that right and tolerance are not contradicted but often peacefully coexist.4

On the other hand, not all error is innocent but often is culpable and sinful.  This is the evil of sin that “is permitted, tolerated and suffered in a completely different sense from the evil of nature; it is permitted as a rebellion, an offence, which God cannot will in any way…which he could certainly suppress by force and eradicate completely, but which also, he can, if he decides to respect even the resistance of our wills5, allow to happen and bear fruit indirectly in other things.” (ibid.)    


In conclusion I would like to once again affirm the principles at the heart of this debate.  In the first place is the principle that error has no rights and therefore no true right can have an object or foundation that is in itself erroneous or evil.  Secondly, we may recall that the exercise of authentic rights often are “inseparably connected” with honest error.  The honest error does not automatically cancel a right since it is inseparably connected with a good intended and directly willed by God.  Therefore, to deny such a right is to frustrate the will of God.6  In this sense, we ought to tolerate the “inseparably connected” error to the extent that God wills to tolerate it – for the sake of the good that He directly wills.  Finally, based on all of this, we must distinguish between (a) the so-called “right to teach error” and (b) “…the right of the parents to raise their children according to their own religious conviction.”  I am accused by Fr. Laisney of promoting (a) when in reality I am only affirming (b).


1 In this respect there can be no honest error contrary to synderesis or anemnesis -- because man-as-man is always bound to know it in his heart.

2 This distinction does not amount to a separation.  In this sense, both positive and negative aspects are complimentary.  Indeed, Bishop de Smedt had identified both the positive and negative aspects of the right to religious freedom in his first relatio: "Positively, religious liberty is the right of the human person to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.  Negatively, it is immunity from all external force in his personal relations with God, which the conscience of man vindicates to itself." (Cf. Bishop de Smedt, Relatio on Religious Freedom, November 19, 1963) 

3 It is possible to distinguish -- but not separate -- the "subjective" and "objective" aspects of morality: "Christian moral tradition has always maintained the distinction -- not the separation much less the contra-position -- between the objective order and subjective guilt"  (Cf. CDF Doctrinal Note, February 16, 1989, no. 3).  In this sense, the root error behind "situation ethics" is to diminish the objective aspect of morality while the opposite reactionary error diminishes the subjective aspect by means of the depersonalization of morality (Cf. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Morality and Situation Ethics, Franciscan Herald Press, 1966, p. 90).     
Fr. Fagothey distinguishes three senses of the term "right" as (1) moral power, (2) an object of right and (3) law:
1. Right is defined as moral power over what is one's own, or more expressly, moral power to do, hold or exact something.  To do here is to be taken both affirmatively and negatively; it means either to perform or omit some action, for one may have a right to keep silent as well as to speak.  To hold means to own, keep, or use something, and includes metaphorical meanings, such as to hold an office or a job.  To exact means to demand that someone else perform or omit some action; thus a teacher exacts attention and silence from his pupils.  Right as thus defined is right in the primary sense.
2. By a figure of speech we transfer the word right from the person who has the right and apply it to the thing over which he has the right.  We say: "I will get my rights," meaning some object rightfully his.  If a man were deprived of his right in the sense of moral power, he would have no right to the thing at all and could not legitimately claim it; what we mean is that he is deprived of some object to which he retains a right.
3. Right is founded on law.  Right puts an obligation on others to respect the right.  Since all obligation comes from law, and ultimately from the natural and eternal law, all right comes from law.  Because of this fact, law itself is sometimes called right, a usage common in other languages, but infrequent in English.  Since all right comes from law, rights are natural or positive, divine or human, ecclesiastical or civil, according to the kind of law which confers the right. (Cf. Fagothey, op. cit., p. 240)
Other writers similarly distinguish between "subjective" and "objective" rights where the former is understood as moral power and the latter referring to the object.  For example, "'mine' and 'his' appertain to us and are made sacred to us by a subjective element called a right.  By metonomy, 'mine' and 'his,' as the objects of rights, are also called rights or, better, objective rights.  Thus, a man has a right to life, to a watch, to a walk in the public park.  Life, a watch, a walk in the park are called rights because they are objects of subjective rights."  We can define subjective right as "a legitimate and inviolable power whereby one vindicates something for himself as his own.  It is a power or capacity in virtue of which a person can do something...Right vindicates something for a man as his own by setting up a bond of legitimacy and immunity between a man and some object in virtue of which this object falls under his exclusive control...Hence it is a capacity not merely of doing or not doing, of having or holding something, but also of exacting from others.  What may be done, omitted, held, or exacted because of right constitutes an objective right." (Cf. Fr. Thomas J. Higgins, S.J., Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics, TAN Publishers, 1958, 1992, pp. 224-225)    

4 In other words, "right" and "tolerance" each have a distinct object.  The object of the right is the good whereas the object of tolerance is the error that is inseparably connected.  At the same time, not every kind of evil ought to be tolerated -- and this corresponds to the "due limits" inherent in religous freedom.

5 “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)  

6 This is consistent with the principle that man's rights are ultimately rooted in God's rights.


Anonymous Mike Ryan said...

Kudos, Mr. Gurries, for that succinct yet thorough explication.

You are doing an excellent job of lifting the fog surrounding religious freedom, and the so-called “error” of VCII.

Keep up the good work.

April 21, 2010 5:09 PM  
Anonymous Ben G said...

I personally found this article very difficult to understand and a bit unclear.

I think I might have to read it again another couple of times.

June 07, 2011 11:13 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home