Religious Liberty, a thorn in the flesh

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

How did the Catholic Church go from rejecting Religious Liberty to accepting it? This is the subject of a book by François Huguenin, La grande conversion. L’Église et la liberté, de la Révolution à nos jours[1], a brilliant explication, in five hundred pages, of this change of direction. His focus on Liberty, except for the passage on the evolution of the question on salvation, gives perhaps the impression that the turnaround of Vatican II concerned only this liberty issue. In reality, the adoption of religious liberty is part of an overall diminution of ecclesiology which consisted in finding outside the Catholic Church secondary supernatural communities, in a way. Hence ecumenism which grants an “imperfect communion” to separated Christians, inter-religious dialog which is founded on “sincere respect” for other religions, and Religious Liberty which renders obsolete the idea of a State defender of the one and only Church. This anti-exclusivism is clearly right out of a liberal agenda, through the spectrum of protestantism, where each Church considers itself as the most perfect one without yet pretending to identify itself totally to the one and only Church of Christ.

Vatican II and the Catholic State

First, let us say that the virulence of the debates over Religious Liberty during Vatican II can be explained by the fact that the subverted doctrine was then known by all and that it was still, as much as it could, part of several political, State, or activist entities. To revive these debates today seems, on the other hand, outlandish because it appears now quite clear that, in conciliar Catholicism, the relations between the politic and the religious can only take place within the secularism of national and international bodies.

To address the topic of Religious Liberty which comes under Church public law, it is right to remember what the Church said of the “Christian constitution of the States” (Immortale Dei of Leo XIII, 1 November 1885). Her traditional discourse on political Societies according to the natural right was a two tier doctrine: it dealt with these States which, even before having a knowledge of the Revelation, had or have a full legitimacy as long as they tend toward the “well being” of the citizens, but for which adhering to the Gospel confers a “baptism” that underlines the sacred character of the power of their magistrates (doctrine of Christ the King), and in return compels them to some obligations toward the truth of the Revelation.

Certainly, the antique city-states have rarely resemble Salente, in The Adventures of Telemachus, and the princes or heads of Christian States have seldom been in the imitation of saint Louis, military leaders been in the imitation of saint Johan of Arc, and finance ministers in the imitation of Saint Eligius. Yet, in this world marked by sin, the principles elaborated by Aristotle’s tradition, and more largely in Greek philosophy, taken on by saint Thomas and all the subsequent theology, notably from the XVII and XVIII centuries, relates no more to utopia than does the utterance of the beatitudes. Governing wisely is the ideal any leaders should adopt as their own which, in the world that has received the Revelation, means to govern according to Christian inspiration, trying at a larger scale to organize the peace of God between “baptized” nations.

This evaded ideal of Christendom whose void is filled today by a humanist globalism, can be compared to the elevation of the natural institution of marriage to the dignity of sacrament. The analogy is imperfect, for Christian Societies do not come to exist from a sacramental act like matrimony. But just like a family becomes Christian, these societies which ontologically come first for men, political animal, were baptized through the profession of faith of their people and of their magistrates. Each of them, though not marked by a character, is like refounded by this profession of faith, which from now on becomes what defines it. France, our motherland and spiritual home, land of saints, covered with a mantel of Churches and cathedrals, still Eldest Daughter of the Church, as disfigured as she might be by the secular mask she has been forced to wear, will remain Christian no matter what.

Against this, in an apparent incidental way but in reality one that is fundamental, came n.2 of the Vatican II declaration Dignitatis humanæ: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

The fact that no one may be forced to act against his conscience in religious matter poses no issue. Nothing, indeed, gives the right to compel consciences to accept the faith divinely revealed, simply because an act of faith can only be an act proper to a soul elevated by grace. The Church has always taught that no one can be “compelled to embracing the Catholic faith against his will.”[2] And obviously this poses no problem at all, to the contrary, the affirmation that no one be prevented from expressing the Christian truth: this falls under the liberty of the Church, to which each Catholic takes part.

What represents a difficulty is the right to act in public according to one’s conscience when one is expressing error. In other words, the right to spread error in the same way one would rightly spread truth. Without a doubt, well before the internet, moral deviations, errors, heresies, lies spread in all of Christian societies. But they were sanctioned, in one way or an other, censure, coaction, seal of illegitimacy. Furthermore, for the error to be known at the same time it is contradicted and fought is surely a good and necessary thing: philosophy and theology have always seen indispensable controversies. But, no more than Christian parents would let their children be exposed equally to erroneous doctrines and the doctrine carrying the bread of truth, no more would the magistrates of a society professing Catholicism should allow citizens placed in their care to be exposed to truth and error equally. They fulfill this responsibility in the best way by developing their critical capacity to fight errors. This is an honest way to address them, in an adult manner free and strong, in opposition to a laissez faire approach.

What is the purpose of the affirmation n.2 of Dignitatis humanæ which orders that in all eventuality men can never be prevented by a human power – and thus especially the sovereign power of the State – to express publicly a religious error dictated by their erroneous conscience. The conciliar declaration makes clear that this expression must be within “due limits” (the state would decide when these due limits have been crossed, for example, in the Western world, crossed by polygamy, in Africa crossed by sodomy, etc), which doesn’t change the assumption: a State that does profession of the Catholic faith can no longer forbid – call unlawful – public worship, the public expression and the spreading of errors against faith or against moral.

The obligation to allow (not to prevent) equally the peaceful spread of what is true and what is false, which now weights on the State, comes down to a consecration of its intrinsic religious neutrality. According to Dignitatis humanæ, even if the State would call itself Catholic, it would still have to give equal rights to all religions. This is confirmed in n.6 of the Declaration which makes the Catholic State, the same as an Anglican State, a Lutherian State, Muslim, etc., a sort of outdated singularity: “If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society, it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice.”

As such, Vatican II has ruled as obsolete this doctrine recalled by the pontifical magisterium since the Revolution with a strength that is only found in despair: the civil power cannot be indifferent vis a vis the true religion. For, as in the family, as in any natural society, atheism is not an option. Society therefore must honor and venerate God which, since the predication of the Gospel, for the people who have received it, is done according to the way the cult is rendered in and by the Church of Christ.[3]  In fact, the civil power must guarantee the Church a complete liberty to fulfill its mission, a liberty which is nothing else but the one of Christ and of the Gospel.

Such is the principle, even better understood through its exception, civil tolerance. We take the word tolerance in the classical sense and not in the sense defined by Locke[4]: to tolerate is to suffer an evil because one cannot prevent or does not want to prevent because its repression would create great upheavals, but which never, even by prescription, would become a good. Civil tolerance is thus the fact of the State vis a vis a variety of evils which can spread publicly among citizens, especially in matter of religious or moral doctrine. The address Ci riesce of Pius XII, of 6 December 1953 (quite relatively surreal, since it deals with international communities, like those of the UN, UNESCO type, supposedly able to conform to natural law) contains a precise formulation: “ ‘let the cockle grow in the field of the world together with the good seed in view of the harvest (Matt. 13:24-30). The duty of repressing moral and religious error cannot therefore be an ultimate norm of action. It must be subordinated to higher and more general norms which, in some circumstances, allow and even indicate the best option, one that would tolerate error in order to promote a greater good. [… which can be summed up in two principles:] First: that which does not correspond to the truth or to the norm of morality objectively has no right to exist, be spread or put into action. Secondly: failure to impede this with civil laws and coercive measures can nevertheless be justified in the interests of a higher and more general good.”[5]

A battling pontifical magisterium

François Huguenin describes and comments on the principal acts of the Magisterium, from the Revolution, that are opposed to Liberty, at least according to his point of view (he admits that Libertas of Leo XIII affirms to the contrary that this magisterium is serving the true Liberty). The congenital violence of the Revolution, even before the Reign of Terror, would largely explain the vehemence of the condemnations, as for example with Gregory XVI: “This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it.”[6] Can we consider this excessive? It is clear that the text of this address describes what we have under our very own eyes, right now, two hundred years later, that is to say the criminal and pro-unnatural legislation elaborated by liberal societies in their ultimate state of decomposition. In fact, the radical revolutionary violence, destroyer of the natural and Christian Society, has been included in Human Rights, where power no longer comes from God, as saint Paul said (Rm 13, 1), because “the principle of all sovereignty essentially resides in the nation” (art. 3 of the Declaration), and that the law, “expression of the general will” (art. 6), is de facto cut from its reference to divine law.

It is actually very rightly that Huguenin insists on the fact that the pontifical texts on the condemnation of liberty, those of Pius IX for example, did not target liberals outside the Church, but Catholic liberals or those close to Catholicism, moderate men, like Montalembert or Tocqueville, whose words, however moderate they were, were no less than a defense of the modern Liberty.

On the other hand what Huguenin and these liberal Catholics (paradoxically not even the pre-Vatican II popes in their conciliatory diplomacy which sometimes seemed ready to anything to obtain liberty of worship, from Napoleon’s coronation to the directives of the Ralliement), it is the nature of the new State founded on what Leo XIII characterized in Immortale Dei as “new right”, where  “public authority is only the will of the people, who, depending only on itself, is also the only one to command itself.” This “new right” is so subversive of natural law that the classic category of tyranny, which characterizes the government that substitutes a particular good for the common good, is not really adapted to this completely new situation created by the Revolution, where the notions of “common good” and of “legitimacy” in their classical sense are no longer adequate.

The change is even more so obvious that the State, which was replaced by this new form of government of the people, was Christian. As a result the new State abandons as much of the reference to natural law as it does of the Christian faith which supported and sacralized this reference. A Catholic faith exclusive, in principle, of all publicity given to error, even if the principle admitted a wide tolerance. The original mark of the modern State, even when tolerant vis a vis Catholicism and professing a “positive secularism”, even in some instance still integrating in its legislation a certain respect of the natural order because of the state of public opinion, is the rejection on principle of the supreme sovereignty of Christ: “We will not have this man to reign over us” (Lk 19, 14). A rejection especially strong as ultra modernity has brought a second wave of secularization which has, so to speak, secularized modernity itself by attacking the natural realities it had still kept but by reinterpreting in its own way, State, nation, and even nature and reason.

The doctrine of Christ the King

Huguenin briefly discusses the encyclical Quas Primas of Pius XI, of 11 December 1925, on the political and institutional kingship of Christ, though without giving it the considerable importance it has had. In the twentieth century, it served as a reference in the resistance against the modern State and as an object of in-depth theological study for the last generations of the disciples of the Roman counter-revolutionary doctrine.

Quas primas essentially developed a Christocentric political theology: those who govern hold their power from God (Rm. 13, 1), who has restored everything in Christ (1 Co 15, 27), to the extent that, as far as civil life is concerned, they are the representatives of Jesus Christ, like  the bishops and the pope are for the religious. As long as, of course, they serve the common good. The power of Christ in his humanity over all men and all human societies, explains the encyclical, is the consequence of the union of the human and divine nature of Christ in the Person of the Verb, the hypostatic union, and is also the consequence of his conquest, by his death on the Cross, of the souls of all men. In this way, princes and magistrates, whose authority comes from Christ’s Man-God and Redeemer, are clothed with a Christic Character which gives its full meaning to divine right.

This clarifies the fact that there is a certain analogy between the notion of natural common good and the notion of the supernatural order which unfolds in the communion of the Mystical Body. Ernst Kantorowicz, in Les deux corps du Roi[7] points out that reciprocal relations between Church and State during the Middle Age allowed for symbols of one or the other of the two powers, giving to the sacerdotium an imperial flare and the regnum a religious aspect. So much that all of the citizens were also designated as Corpus mysticum. Indeed, even if the community forming a State – even if it were the Christian empire – does not have the universal dimension of the Church, it is at its scale and in its order, a body wounded by civil misdemeanors, injustices, citizens’ rebellions, as much as it is enriched also by their virtue. The friendship that unites the citizens (like charity which brings together the members of the Church), foundation of patriotism, has its highest manifestation in the sacrifice of one’s own life for the body of the State entire.

Yet, it happened often and it can happen, even after the spreading of the Gospel, that the major part of the citizens and leaders do not profess the Catholic faith, or are not aware of the fact of the Revelation. It remains for this non-catholic civil power to conform to the precepts of natural law, ideally and possibly reminded by the Church, a Church which the civil power was to give full and complete freedom. We are referring to the attitude of a certain number of pagan powers vis a vis Catholicism.

It is in fact in this context Fr. Louis-Marie de Blignières positions himself in an article: “Le Christ-roi et la liberté religieuse. La royauté social du Christ, doctrine périmée ou pérenne?”[8]. In this article Fr. de Blignières explains that “if divine law requires the principle of a social and community recognition of the true religion, it does not require a particular expression of this recognition (for example in written constitutions or concordats). In a society which does not enjoy the unity of belief in the Catholic faith, divine law requires Christians (and men of goodwill) care about working to bring civil society to honor natural law and give the Church the possibility to preach the supernatural order.” Unfortunately we have to consider that we are not today in a “classic” pagan society, but in a secular society actually able eventually to still respect some precepts of natural law[9].

The Doctrinal note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of 24 November 2002, represents faithfully the Post Vatican II Roman way of thinking about modern democracy, which neglects the fact it is a society that is apostate. First of all, it present the secularism and “non-confessionalism” nature of the State as a given: “Promoting the common good of society, according to one’s conscience, has nothing to do with «confessionalism»or religious intolerance.” (n.6). Yet, and what’s more, the note affirms that the democratic State should respect natural moral teaching: « For Catholic moral doctrine, the rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the Church – but not from that of morality – is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church and belongs to inheritance of contemporary civilization.” This is like putting down as a given that modern democracy is made for submitting itself to natural law (in fact just to a part of natural law, because the duty for the State to give to God is of natural right), something precisely modern democracy only does accidentally. The postconciliar political teaching, at least until Pope Francis, finds its place in the well-known project of correcting the effect (fight against bad moral laws) without ever looking for its cause (an other type of legitimacy that ignores God’s law), just as the instructions Leo XIII gave to French Catholics encouraging them to accept the new regime (the Republic) so to correct its laws from within.[10]

The inefficient attempt of the hermeneutic of reform in the continuity

Fr. de Blignières quite rightly sums up the social kingship of Christ, as “the worldwide spread of the Incarnation”. But in doing so, he takes a perilous very Ratzinguerian position. According to de Blignières the conciliar declaration on Religious Liberty does not contradict at all the doctrine of Christ the King. Yet the exclusive character in the principle – with reserve, once again, of all possible tolerances –  of the right to freely proclaim the truth and the moral good publicly is contradicted by the affirmation that no man can be prevented, within due limits, from acting according to his conscience.

In his well-known address to the Curia of 22 December 2005, Benedict XVI made a distinction, as we know, presenting two interpretations of the conciliar reform, “the hermeneutic of the reform or the renewal in the continuity”, which he made his. Benedict XVI defended his interpretation of the Council on two fronts: against the “progressive interpretation, but also against the opponents to the Council (the conciliar minority and the traditionalists).

And he gave as an example Dignitatis humanæ: “the council had to determine in a new way the relationship between the Church and the modern era”, which was done by adopting “the Decree on Religious Freedom, an essential principle of the modern State.” The pope mentioned the radical condemnation of liberalism by the popes who had preceded Vatican II, but, he explained, this liberalism had changed. It wasn’t necessarily anti religious, because modern science had become more modest in the affirmation of its capacity to explain the world. As a result, the secularity of the modern State, in a way more neutral than hostile, on the model of the American State, had become more acceptable. Some Catholic state-men [understand the German and Italian Christian democrats of the 1950’s and 1970’s] had shown there could be a lay State, respectful of natural ethic. Except that, once again, it includes for the State to acknowledge God and the worship due to Him[11].

From there we can either emphasize the aspect of “reform” of the “hermeneutic of reform in the continuity”, or emphasize its aspect of “continuity”. François Huguenin chose the first option, underlining that if Benedict XVI, in this address to the Curia, affirms that Dignitatis humanæ does not contradict the faith of the Church (the conciliar declaration, in his n.1, reminds us that in fact “traditional Catholic doctrine in regard to the subject of man’s and societies’ moral duty in regard to true religion and the one and only Church of Christ”), he well admits that some of the « historical decisions of former Roman pontiffs have been corrected.”

Fr. Basile Valuet, on the contrary, insists on the continuity of this hermeneutic with a summary of his thesis in: Le droit à la liberté religieuse dans la tradition de l’Église[12]. Huguenin lambasts Fr. Valuet who explains the fact we have been from a tolerance toward the spreading of error to a right of spreading error by affirming that religious liberty is a “right to tolerance.” But isn’t Huguenin himself performing sleight of hand by affirming that the religious liberty is a rupture without being one: not a doctrinal rupture, but a political rupture? For, according to Huguenin it must be distinguished “between what falls under faith and what falls under the ethos, which is the character, the way of being, the ensemble of regular behaviour of an individual or a group.” Dignitatis humanæ “blames not the faith of the Church, identical and immutable, but Her relation to politics, its way of being vis a vis the civil power, its way of considering relations between the civil power and individuals[13]. A solution which may seem like an artifice but which takes, essentially, on a new mode more or less stackable, the distinction of John XXIII and then of Vatican II itself between dogmatic and pastoral teaching.

To the exception that the previous popes would expressly talk in a doctrinal way of the connections between the politic and the religious. In this way, Leo XIII in Immortale Dei: “The first of all [the help the State ought to provide to the citizens to work toward their end] consist in ensuring the holy and inviolable observance of religion which duties united men to God, be respected […] In his Encyclical letter Mirari vos, of 15 August 1832, Gregory XVI, with a great doctrinal authority, fought back what was then making headway that, in regard to religion, there’s no choice to be made: everyone should rest on its conscience alone and can publish any writings whatever.”

* * *

The fact is that Christian Society has disappeared from the surface of the earth and all consideration on its restoration, however far in time it may be, appears as pure utopia. Especially since Catholicism itself has become estranged to the modern world.

But, isn’t it utopian to want to subject the modern State to the supernatural order? We will agree on the fact that if this society is an institutionalized disorder, the Christian man who lives in this society and tries to hold on to a religious and family life, and pass it on, can seek with prudence to weight on some social or political levers. But we would also agree on the fact that to want to end this disorder requires a change of nature and not only of degree in the order of things.

As a matter of fact, a destabilization of the established disorder can very well happen faster than we think, only because the disintegration of the natural order, but also economic, social, family order to which the modern political society systematically encourages is in itself suicidal. This does not mean that a still possible general collapse will miraculously lead to the end of modern regimes. If the divine Church needs men, in particular shepherds worthy of the name, how much more Society needs men to lift it up and lead. Maybe, what Society actually needs, first, are bishops who will bring society back from the long deep sleep it is in, like at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, but in a totally different way. To this end, shouldn’t we hope against all odds?

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] [The Great Conversion: Church and Liberty, from the Revolution to now], Cerf, 2023.

[2] Pius XII, Mystici Corporis.

[3] “This duty [worship to the One True God] is incumbent, first of all, on men as individuals. But it also binds the whole community of human beings, grouped together by mutual social ties: mankind, too, depends on the sovereign authority of God (Pius XII, Mediator Dei).

[4] In his Letter on tolerance, John Locke clears the State from all religious duty, except the duty to ensure freedom to all religions, and also to reprove atheism (and Catholicism!). This conception of tolerance has widely been adopted by American Catholicism. Its influence, represented at Vatican II by the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, has been considerable.

[5] In all that is said here of the State, we could provide numerous references in the pontifical magisterium from Pius VI to Pius XII. It is on purposely that we mentioned the most recents testimonies on this doctrine.

[6] Gregory XVI, Mirari vos, 15 August 1832.

[7] Gallimard, 1989.

[8] [Christ the King and religious liberty: The social kingship of Christ, a relevant or an out-dated doctrine?], Claves, 24 December 2023,  Le Christ roi et la liberté religieuse – Claves.

[9] Eventually even forced to it by street demonstrations which is extremely rare, like in the case of the Savary law in 1984, in France. This law restraining Catholic schools liberties was eventually retracted.

[10] Leo XIII, Au milieu des sollicitudes, of 16 February 1892.

[11] Catechism of the Catholic Church, au n. 2105, speaks of the duty for men and societies to offer God “genuine worship” toward “the true religion and the one Church of Christ” (DH 1). But the content in the bottle does not match the label. The CCC calls “worship” the evangelization by which a permeation of Christian spirit in the institutions can take place: By constantly evangelizing men, the Church works toward enabling them “to infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives » (Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 13). The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good. It requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church. (cf. DH 1). […] Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies.”

[12] [The right to religious liberty in the tradition of the Church], Éditions Sainte-Madeleine, 2005.

[13] La grande conversion, op. cit., pp. 377 and 378.