Sunday, 27 February 2011

A nineteenth century Catholic theologian on freedom of conscience

I have translated the following sections on freedom of conscience from the Summa Philosophica of Cardinal Tommaso Maria Zigliara, a widely used theological textbook first published in 1876, at the tail end of the conservative pontificate of Blessed Pius IX.

Zigliara sets out the orthodox teachings of Counter-Enlightenment Catholicism on the erroneous nature of freedom of conscience, while granting that religions other than Catholicism could be tolerated even if not approved.  The overall context was the policy of the 19th century papacy of resisting the political liberalisation of European states that followed the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, a policy that weakened over time and was eventually reversed in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council's decree Dignitatis Humanae (though there are some conservative Catholic theologians who continue to read Dignitatis as a reaffirmation of the older teaching).  Zigliara's argumentation is as clear and careful as it is intransigent.

I.  The idea of freedom of conscience.  Today, people everywhere who profess to be liberals declare that it is necessary to have freedom of conscience; and on this issue not a few Catholics of the so-called "liberal school", who therefore call themselves liberal Catholics, agree with them on the basis of liberal reasoning.  But what is freedom of conscience?  In general, according to its proponents, it can be defined as the ability to think and act as one pleases in those matters which pertain to God and religion.  We may therefore ask whether mankind enjoys this right, this freedom of conscience.  Note the phrasing of this question: we are asking whether a right exists.

II.  First preliminary comment.  I omit from the outset to discuss the point that faith cannot be imposed by force upon an unbeliever who refuses to accept it, since belief is a matter of the will, as St Thomas says.  Hence the Council of Toledo decreed as follows: "Concerning the Jews, however, this holy Synod decrees that no-one be subjected to violence to make him a believer; for God has mercy on whomever He pleases and hardens the heart of whomever He pleases".  Those, therefore, who say that the Catholic Church subjects men's consciences to violence in order to spread the Christian faith are truly guilty of slandering her.  Violence has certainly been committed and is still committed, but the Church has suffered and suffers violence and does not inflict it, as the history of the martyrs and persecutions clearly bears witness.

III.  Second preliminary comment.  Moreover, for true freedom to be exercised, it is necessary that no duty be left unfulfilled, for the purpose of freedom is not to do wrong but to do good (Psalm 50.14).  Therefore, every time a man abuses it to do wrong, it should not be called freedom but rather licentiousness.  Enquiring whether freedom of conscience is legitimate is thus the same thing as enquiring whether the freedom to think and act as one pleases in those matters which pertain to God and religion represents a departure from one's duties towards God Himself.  This is the specific import of the question.  It is to be answered in this vein, and the answer is simple.

IV.  Third preliminary comment.  But the question, framed in this way, can be defined (1) in absolute terms, that is, looking at freedom of conscience in itself, and (2) in relative terms, that is, looking at freedom of conscience in the context of civil society.  It is under this latter aspect in particular that the idea is defended from its opponents.  Our first conclusion, then, is as follows.

V.  Freedom of conscience considered in itself is wholly impious.  Man is bound by a strict natural duty to think correctly about God and about those matters which pertain to both theoretical and practical religion.  To contravene a strict natural duty voluntarily is not liberty but licentiousness.  If, as is the case here, we are speaking of voluntarily contravening a duty towards God, this licentiousness is impiety.  Because, therefore, freedom of conscience gives mankind the right to think about God as he wishes, this freedom and this right are in point of fact impious.

-  Because this first conclusion is scarcely discussed by its opponents, what has been said should suffice as proof of it, and so I proceed to the second part of the question.  The following, therefore, is our second conclusion.

VI.  In the social context, while freedom of conscience can be tolerated in particular circumstances, it can nonetheless never be approved of, much less protected or promoted.  It can readily be admitted that it can be tolerated in particular circumstances, for many other evils are tolerated or not penalised (for to tolerate is not to approve, nor simply to permit, but only not to penalise).  Indeed, sometimes they should be tolerated in society because otherwise greater evils would result.   But this toleration cannot be approval, protection or promotion.

- This is the proof of our thesis.  Freedom of conscience in the social context has no foundation other than political atheism, it is extremely harmful to society, and it is self-contradictory.  Therefore, freedom of conscience in the social context cannot in any way be approved.  The proof of this is as follows.

It is founded purely on political atheism.  As we said in the preceding section, freedom of conscience is a right given to individuals to think about God as they wish, or to submit to those things that pertain to God and religion and the duties that follow therefrom according to the discernment and judgement of their individual conscience, which is thereby set up as the criterion of religion.  But, just as in many other matters man errs not only out of ignorance but also out of malice, the same is the case in those matters which pertain to religion.  In fact, this is more the case in relation to such matters than with other matters, because religion imposes stricter duties, which our depraved passions are resistant to.  Such errors, both theoretical and practical, in the sphere of religion constitute impiety.  But because, as we have said, the criterion in freedom of conscience is the individual's own reason, the right of freedom of conscience is in truth a right of error and impiety.  Such a right cannot be approved in society or by society, unless together with it there is posited religious scepticism or political atheism.

It is extremely harmful to society.  As long as actions remain confined to an individual's conscience, they are a matter for the individual alone and do not fall under any jurisdiction except that of God.  But that which is manifested by the individual has a connection with the other members of society.  Consequently, when such things confer harm on members of society, they fall under the police powers of the civil authority.  Just as men suffer scandal or some other form of harm from the dishonesty of other men, so a fortiori they suffer scandal and harm from the public dissemination of error and impiety where it passes unpunished, and even more so where it is permitted and approved.  By such things the intellectual and moral development of men is impeded.  To refrain from impeding such scandals and more serious injuries with physical punishments, or even to approve them, is not only impiety towards God but also a perversion of the social order itself.

It is self-contradictory.  In truth, either freedom of conscience is a right or it is not.  If it is not, why is it promoted?  If it is, why is it limited?  It is precisely in this limitation that the contradiction of defenders of freedom of conscience resides.  Some of them make no demands in relation to religion but vehemently demand respect for the laws of the state, the king, etc.  But neither the laws of the state nor the king, nor society itself, are above God.  If God is taken away, everything else collapses and all of human life is either an absurdity or the rule of the strong imposed by violence.  Therefore, if freedom of conscience is a right as regards religious duties towards God, and the political authorities are scrupulous in protecting this right unimpaired, those political authorities themselves cannot without manifest contradiction or open violence prevent the same right from being exercised fully in relation to the power of the king, the laws of the state and ultimately society itself.

- But if it is said that freedom of conscience should be restricted in this manner, so that men's duties towards society are not harmed, I conclude from that that it is much more important to restrict freedom, or rather licentiousness, of conscience so that men's duties towards God are not harmed.  These duties are more important than social duties, such that the latter do not and cannot exist without the former.

VII.  Corollaries.  The following propositions are therefore deservedly condemned in the Syllabus of Pius IX.  They affirm both freedom of conscience and indifferentism:
"Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, led by the light of reason, he believes to be true." (Proposition 15)
"Men can find the way of eternal salvation and can attain eternal salvation in the practice of any religion." (Proposition 16)

VIII.  NOTE.  Replies to objections.  The teachings of contemporary liberals on freedom of conscience in the social order are not new.  Rousseau put forward the same ideas in his Social Contract.  Let us therefore listen to this bogus philosopher so that we may learn the arguments of others from his mouth: "Subjects", he says, "are not bound to give an account of their personal opinions to the civil authorities except insofar as they are relevant to the community.  The State indeed has an interest that every citizen professes a religion which engenders in him a love of his duties, but the dogmas of that religion are not a matter either for the State or for its members except insofar as they relate to morals and to the duties which the citizen is bound to fulfil towards others."

It is clear from what he writes in the chapter from which I have quoted that Rousseau wrote this out of hatred for the Catholic Church.  Hence the contradictions and absurdities which we find everywhere in his words and those of his imitators.

- There is no doubting that, insofar as religion is confined to the individual's conscience, it is outside the reach of both the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities, and consequently God alone is its judge.  But when religion becomes a rule for morality it thereby becomes relevant to the community.  In this sense, Rousseau says that the State has an interest that every citizen professes a religion which engenders in him a love of his duties.  But only the true religion engenders in citizens a love of their duties.  Therefore, contrary to what Rousseau illogically concludes, it must be said at all events, even proceeding from his premises, that it is not merely convenient for the State, but that a grave duties lies upon it, to do everything in its power to see that the true religion is at least externally practised by all citizens and that the promoters of irreligion and false teachings are restrained.

-  All this is so obviously true that Rousseau himself, who promotes freedom (or licentiousness) of conscience against the Catholic Church, completely destroys this freedom in the words immediately following those which I have quoted by affirming the omnipotence of the State and Statolatry: "We must therefore accept", he says, "a purely civil profession of faith, the right to determine the details of which lies with the ruler, not as religious dogmas but as sentiments of civil society, without which it is impossible for a man to be a good citizen and a faithful subject.  A ruler indeed has no power to impose faith in this creed, but he can nevertheless expel from the State anyone who does not believe in it, not because he is impious but because he is repugnant to society and incapable of sincerely loving the laws and justice or of arranging his life, where necessary, so as to fulfil his duties.  But if anyone publicly professes to believe the doctrines that I have mentioned but lives his life as if he does not believe them, he should be punished by death.  For he has committed the worst of crimes: he has lied in the face of the law."

-  This is what Rousseau says, and this is what those who follow his bogus philosophy say.  It is set out at the start:  The religious opinions of subjects have nothing to do with the ruler, as long as their life is in external conformity with their social duties, but it is added straight away that the ruler must draft a religious creed, which must include positive dogmas, namely the existence of God, life after death, rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the wicked, and negative dogmas, which Rousseau describes as the only form of intolerance.  The conclusion drawn is that citizens are not to be tolerated, and must be expelled from the State or punished by death, if they do not hold to this civil religion, even if in other respects they observe everything which pertains to their duties towards others.  In other words, religion is excluded from the State on the strength of freedom of conscience, as if the principles of the true religion had nothing to do with the State, but on the grounds of social order religion is submitted to the discretion of the ruler - and, in accordance with the discretion of the ruler, citizens must profess his civil religion with blind obedience on pain of exile or death!

- This is the only possible conclusion.  Freedom of conscience, as soon as it is accepted, is in opposition both to true religion and to the true happiness of the State, because there is no morality without God and no duty without religion.  If the directing role in matters relating to religion is taken away from the Church of God, it must necessarily be handed over to the discretion of the civil powers, who lack authority in matters of religion and will impose their own tyranny on men's consciences.  Therefore, true freedom of souls is oppressed by the same principles by which false freedom of conscience is proclaimed by Rousseau and his followers.