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.

More on the Jefferson, Onuf, Gordon-Reed, & the “Christian Nation” Brouhaha

This is probably the first of what will be at least a couple additional follow up remarks to my initial thoughts regarding the latest “Christian nation” controversy.

Let me begin by stating I’m actually a bit overwhelmed (in a good way) at the response those initial thoughts generated, because that’s all they were – thoughts. It wasn’t an essay or other more formal piece of writing. Just mere thoughts assembled into a somewhat cohesive fashion. As someone “scratching and clawing” to make a name for himself I truly appreciate the notice of individuals in the field, all the more so as I don’t possess a PhD nor am I formally published or affiliated with a college or university, though I hope one day to have these things come to pass….

I commented last time how Onuf, Gordon-Reed, and Fea affirmed Thomas Jefferson desired the “teachings” of Jesus, if not Christianity itself, to be inculcated within the United States in order to bring about a “Christian nation.” I wanted to explore this idea of Jesus’s “teachings” a bit more, because this is an area of inconsistency within Jefferson’s thought. Or perhaps a more accurate way to characterize it is remark that for an individual who valued logic and reason as much as Jefferson, there is a glaring flaw with both in this instance.

When Jefferson wrote of Jesus’s “teachings” he referred to a strictly human Jesus: no divinity, no miracles (including the Resurrection). By extension, as noted by John Fea in his commentary, Jefferson also denied Biblical inspiration and anything supernatural or inexplicable in the Bible. Contrary to David Barton, Jefferson rewrote the Bible and stripped it completely of the miraculous and the inexplicable, and fashioned it into a common ethical guidebook that could have been written by a Greek pagan as much as a divinely inspired Jew.

The flaw in the logic in this otherwise logical man is the “teachings” of Jesus include the inexplicable. This is basic apologetics for Catholics, the stuff learned in many Catholic households, most Catholic high schools, and even some Catholic middle schools. The reason(s) Jefferson was blind to it (whether by choice or ignorance) requires me to read further into the sources but speculation is still fun, so here goes.

Take the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist, for example. That’s a rather explicit teaching. In Matthew 26:26, Jesus says, “Take, eat; this is my body.” In Mark 14:22, Jesus says, “Take; this is my body.” In Luke 22:19 Jesus says, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” This is a teaching. Why not this teaching but others if you’re Jefferson? Jesus literally teaches to take bread, for it is his body (again, literal body – he never says “it represents,” or “it symbolizes” his body), and consume it, in remembrance of him.

Superficially I would guess this to be a reflection of Jefferson’s Enlightenment influence, and its general rejection of what we commonly associate with religion: the supernatural, the inexplicable, the divine – the very things Jefferson expunged from his Bible (admittedly this is a gross oversimplification of the Enlightenment and scholars like my former undergraduate professor Glenn Sunshine would object to my oversimplification even though they agree with my premise). However, Jefferson apparently did not feel he was rejecting religion, based on the research of Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed; he ardently felt he was a Christian. But by what authority did Jefferson claim his version of Christianity to be correct? It seems rather arbitrary. The so-called “moral teachings” of Jesus can be found in any number of pagan, other organized religious, or secular sources – why call oneself a “Christian” then? What distinguishes Christianity from these other sources are precisely the aspects Jefferson claimed not to accept, intellectually or as a matter of faith.

In the C-Span book discussion I linked in my previous post, Professor Onuf discussed how Jefferson desired to be rid of all the “interpreters” and the “intermediators” such as “priests.” Yet, was Jefferson himself not being hypercritical in his actions? Was he not acting as an “interpreter” for others? Onuf has demonstrated, I think convincingly, Jefferson was no hypocrite when it came to slavery, a frequent charge, but I find him to be one in this instance, and glaringly so. He is behaving as arbiter and pseudo-teaching authority to those who would listen to him. What is that but an “interpreter,” “intermediator,” or form of “priest”? All the more so since he distributed his Bible.

Onuf continues Jefferson further reasoned a “miracle violates nature,” and “wouldn’t it make sense to study God’s creation to better understand Him? Isn’t that a form of worship?” Onuf then says “this is the Deist position.” This very reasoning actually explains the origin of science. And this reasoning is unique to Catholicism. Unlike the Catholics, though, Jefferson simply couldn’t accept a god who intervened in human affairs and contradicted the laws of nature He set in motion. What I find personally fascinating is the juxtaposition: that two “individuals” could begin at the same starting point, yet diverge so widely at the end. This is perhaps where Jefferson most reveals his Enlightenment influence. (For the time being I am leaving the “Deism” comment be, but I suspect I will return to it whenever I get around to reading Carl Richard’s latest book.)

In arbitrarily expunging Jesus’s teachings down to that of “nice guy,” Jefferson fell into C. S. Lewis’s famous apologetic: either Jesus says who he says he is, or he’s a lunatic. And for such a rationally-oriented individual, it is remarkably odd, and contradictory, for Jefferson to opt for the “lunatic” Jesus. But then again, not for nothing is Jefferson known as the “American Sphinx” and a walking contradiction.

Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 8

Part 7

Part 6

Part 5

Part 4

Part 3

Part 2

Part 1

There is a perception that Hamilton and the Federalists were proponents of mass concentration of power, akin to the present-day Democratic Party. Yet, Hamilton articulated precise restrictions on federal power in his confutation of Jefferson’s Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank. “As Hamilton said more than once,” Holloway writes, “the federal government is sovereign only in relation to its proper objects(p. 93). Referring back to Max Edling’s thesis, the “proper objects” in question indicate the international and intraunion Constitutional mandate of an autonomous federal government complementary to the collective state governments. But, Holloway is swift to point to a critical understanding of Hamilton’s: in order for the federal government to fulfill “its objects,” it then requires the ability, or the means, of doing so. This did not signify, however, the federal government possessed unchecked authority to do as it desired, again as the Democratic Party favors; Hamilton argued for and outlined fixed limits on national power.

First, “the means chosen must be both ‘requisite’ and ‘fairly applicable’ to the ends of the powers delegated.” In other words, the means to a particular “object” must be both appropriate and relevant. Second, the Constitution unequivocally enumerates what the federal government can and cannot do and as such, is inhibited by ‘restrictions and exceptions’ that are ‘specified in the Constitution.’” Finally, once more demonstrating the Judeo-Christian influence displayed in Farmer Refuted, Hamilton makes clear there are unambiguous boundaries beyond which secular government cannot contravene. Specially, government is constrained, at the very least, by the boundaries of morality (p. 93) (Whether Hamilton trusted in the virtue, or morals, of people is immaterial; Hamilton would still contend government is constrained by such morality regardless).

There is a related query raised by this line of argumentation; namely, the nature of “sovereignty” itself. It is incredibly abstruse political theory and difficult to follow, but Hamilton’s thinking can essentially be summarized as power is divided in the United States under the Constitution. The states claim sovereignty over some matters, and the federal government sovereignty over other matters. The same logic that Jefferson proffered to place state sovereignty over federal sovereignty, as opposed to each enjoying their own “proper objects,” could as readily work in reverse, to subordinate state sovereignty to federal sovereignty (not to keep harping on current political concerns, but as we see today). Thus,

unacceptable and ultimately absurd consequences would follow from holding that sovereignty cannot be present where power is divided or limited. “To deny that the Government of the United States has sovereign power as to its declared purposes and trusts, because its power does not extend to all cases, would be equally to deny, that the state governments have sovereign power in any case; because their power does not extend to every case.” After all, the Constitution imposes limits not only on the federal government but also on the states…. If opponents of the bank were inclined to deny the sovereignty of the federal government, they would also have to deny the sovereignty of the states. Such a denial, however, resulted in an unacceptable absurdity. If division of power excludes sovereignty, then the United States would exhibit “the singular spectacle of a political society without sovereignty, or of a people governed without government” (p. 92).

Notice the distinction Hamilton makes. He is not insinuating anarchy, for anarchy is the absence of government and rule of law. No, Hamilton is communicating something so illogical it’s never occurred in history: a functioning government in that it exists and is recognized with its corresponding rule of law, yet lacking to any claim of legitimacy or right to operate over the people that recognize it as their government…. It is incomprehensible.

Therefore, so Hamilton’s response goes, Jefferson is wrong and the states cannot claim sovereignty over the federal government, or vice versa; nor are both equally illegitimate. Rather, within their respective “objects,” each has complete sovereignty. And as a result, just as “neither Jefferson nor other critics of the bank would have ventured to deny that states possess a sovereign power to erect corporations,” so too the federal government, because as was conveyed earlier, if a government possesses “proper objects,” then it follows government requires the means of ensuring those “objects” are met. Otherwise America is simply a “political society without sovereignty” or “a people governed without government.” Furthermore, it would be entirely hypocritical, self-serving, and inconsistent to apply this logic to the state governments at the exclusion of the federal government.

Fundamentally, when one considers the divide between Hamilton and Jefferson as it first fissured in earnest over the constitutionality of a national bank, perhaps the following analogy helps to clarify matters.

When Jesus commanded to perform the various corporal and spiritual works of mercy, He never prescribed a specific methodology to do so. Humanity was tasked to reconcile its rational faculties with the historical reality of Jesus, and act in each situation accordingly.

It can be argued this is not unlike how Alexander Hamilton viewed the Constitution. Hamilton concluded morality, reason, and what could be called “common sense” were to be reconciled by Americans to the guiding “teachings” contained within the Constitution, much as Catholics use the same to reconcile the teachings and historical reality of Jesus, as well as the inspired word of God contained in the Bible. The Constitution grants the federal government the power to tax, for instance, but it fails to prescribe an explicit means to facilitate taxation. On the other hand, it could be argued Thomas Jefferson was the Protestant, the sola Scriptura-ist – the “literalist.” Just as Protestants have to make an extra-sola Scriptura argument to justify sola Scriptura itself (among others), Jefferson had to make extra-Constitutional arguments to support the majority of his positions. As an example, Jefferson “sought to impose a particular understanding of the standards by which the president should decide whether to exercise the veto” (pp. 85-88 for a discussion of Jefferson and the presidential veto). Nowhere does the Constitution specify standards for a presidential veto, merely that he has the prerogative to do so; nevertheless, Jefferson attempted to make such a Constitutional argument just the same. In such instances Jefferson is operating more like Hamilton or, to stay with the analogy, a Catholic, than with what he claims to believe.


I’ve changed the title and ceased referring to these posts as “reviews” because they aren’t properly reviews. Instead, I am now calling them “Commentaries.” I will write up a more traditional, summative review once I’ve finished the book.