Catholicism & Religious Freedom

In a recent post, historian John Fea has asked if religious freedom in the United States extends to non-Christians. His answer? “Of course.” His deeper question, though, is whether “the Bible teach[es] the kind of Jeffersonian [religious] liberty” enshrined in our country. He inquires of his readers for “a Biblical defense of religious liberty.”

Religious liberty, it seems, is a relatively new idea in Western Civilization.  For example, what should we make of all the so-called Christian nations throughout history that did not separate church and state or promote the religious liberty of their people?  Did these states fail to conform to biblical ideas about religious liberty?

While there are strong arguments to be made for religious liberty based on Enlightenment ideals, natural law or reason, or even Catholic social teaching about the dignity of all human beings, I am interested in learning more about those who have made a robust theological and biblical defense of this belief and how such a defense relates to the fact that there were moments in Christian history when the church thrived in cultures where there was little or no religious liberty.

I commented on Professor Fea’s post (as of this post it is awaiting moderation), but desired to expound a bit more on what I wrote.

From the perspective of a Catholic and Catholicism, Vatican II’s pronouncement on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae, is aligned with clear theological and historical precedent, contrary to the claims of “liberals” or “arch-conservatives.” (Both see Dignitatis as new doctrine and a break with Tradition, when in fact it is impossible for the Church to contradict or repudiate itself and promulgate new doctrine.) The Church has always opposed forced coercion of religious beliefs for those who aren’t baptized (forced coercion is not the same as evangelization); however, the Church argues it retains the right to address baptized Catholics (heretics, apostates, and the like). This goes far in elucidating for Fea about the Church’s former interconnectedness with secular state governments in medieval Europe.

Westerners initially converted by being witnesses to the lives of Christians, as well as the recipients of Christian love and charity (I recommend reading Rodney Stark, who walks through this process sociologically and historically). Once the Western Roman Empire fell, only the Church possessed any sort of institutional structure left standing and, as a result, was the only one in a position to pick up the pieces and rebuild a shattered civilization. Consequently, the Church became inevitably involved in the secular, because it had to.

Now if we bring it back to Fea’s point about a non-separation of church and state that allegedly failed to promote the religious liberty of its people, this historical context is what explains it. Europeans were almost universally Christian. The Church never forced conversion to Christianity, but maintained (and does so to this day), that all baptized Christians were spiritually answerable to the Church. As such, the Church is invested with certain prerogatives to ensure everyone “tows the line,” so to speak. An analogy:

I’m a citizen of the United States. I’m also a citizen of Pennsylvania, and a specific town in Pennsylvania, and formerly a citizen of Connecticut, and a specific town in Connecticut. As a resident of the United States, as a resident of Pennsylvania, and so on and so forth, there are(/were) certain behavioral and civic expectations of me. When those expectations aren’t met, there are negative consequences. Likewise, Professor Fea teaches at a college. His college has certain conduct policies in place the violation of which, while not “illegal” according to the “State,” nevertheless would land Fea in trouble, perhaps even termination. So too the Catholic Church. Now, Protestants don’t accept the analogy, but as an intellectual exercise I’m sure, if they’re being intellectually honest, would admit to the analogy’s aptness.

If we use the footnotes of Dignitatis as a frame of reference, the theology, in any “formal” sense, extends at least as far back as far as such individuals as Lactantius (died c. 320), Saint Ambrose of Milan (died 397), and his pupil Saint Augustine of Hippo (died 430), and includes Church councils like the Fourth Council of Toledo (633). Now I must stress, the footnotes are not a comprehensive list of the full spectrum of the theological development of religious liberty within Catholicism; as I indicated, it’s merely a “frame of reference.” For example, neither Saint Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) nor Saint Robert Bellarmine (died 1621) are cited.

The written context within which all of this is stated, properly in Dignitatis, is, “It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will.(8) This doctrine is contained in the word of God and it was constantly proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church.(7) The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.” In other words, the Church has always proclaimed it cannot force others to “embrace the Christian faith” essentially because of the Catholic acknowledgment of free will. That’s an incredibly crude oversimplification, but this is a mere blog post and not part of my graduate thesis/book project, so such oversimplification suffices.

In the time leading up to the creation of the United States, we see evidence of this affirmation coming from the Catholic Church concretely. Francisco Suarez’s Defensio Fidei Catholicae (1613) was commissioned by Pope Paul V and directed at James I of England. It maintained the State cannot coerce religion, insisting the State could only punish the citizenry with respect to religion “in so far as those crimes are contrary to political ends, public peace, and human justice; but coercion with respect to those deeds which are opposed to religion and to the salvation of the soul is essentially a function of spiritual power” – i.e., the Church. But again, the Church is only referring to its authority to “coerce” those who have been baptized (meaning, engaging heretics and apostates), as well as the right to “coerce” the unbaptized through evangelization.

Whether this all would meet Jefferson’s definition of religious freedom is a different matter. Yet, the vigorous and centuries-old theological position of the Catholic Church not to force someone to Christianity seems in step with his litmus test. I suspect Jefferson would be uncomfortable with notions of “heresy” and “apostasy,” but then again maybe not, given his feelings toward the Federalists. Nor for that matter would Jefferson be at odds with the Church’s concept of “coercion” via evangelization because, as Peter Onuf noted in the C-Span book discussion, Jefferson distributed his Bible.


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