Religious Liberty: Necessity or Virtue?

Hello again TAC! It has been nearly a year since I posted here, and it is good to be back. I have a long one for you this time, but I think you will find it interesting and my hope is that it will contribute to an ongoing discussion about an important topic.

In December of last year John Zmirak, a Catholic author I know and respect, wrote a piece for titled “Illiberal Catholicism.” In it, Zmirak takes to task a growing tendency among both Catholic traditionalists (bear in mind I consider myself a traditionalist) and various leftists to denigrate liberalism in general and America’s classical liberal heritage in particular. The piece rubbed quite a few people the wrong way, as several hundred Facebook posts I skimmed would attest. There were lengthier responses from some corners of the Catholic blogosphere as well. If I had to offer the thesis statement of the piece, it would be this:

 [T]here is something very serious going on in Catholic intellectual and educational circles, which — if it goes on unchecked — will threaten the pro-life cause, the Church’s influence in society, and the safety and freedom of individual Catholics in America.  The growth of illiberal Catholicism will strengthen the power of the intolerant secular left, revive (and fully justify) the old anti-Catholicism that long pervaded America, and make Catholics in the United States as laughably marginal as they now are in countries like Spain and France…

From there, Zmirak provides us with an overview of the lack of tolerance in Church history that was bound to rankle traditionalists, as well as an endorsement of political and economic liberty that anti-capitalist traditionalists and leftists could not but despise. He also explicitly identified with “Tea Party” Catholicism – what could be more philistine for the enlightened anti-capitalist crowd, traddie or leftie?

Liberalism is a tangle of ideas. There is classical liberalism and modern liberalism. There is political liberalism, economic liberalism, and religious liberalism. The word “liberalism” can be affixed to many other areas of life and thought. This is why we find liberals everywhere; economic liberals on the American right, social liberals on the American left, and religious liberals virtually everywhere, except perhaps among the federal government. The United States is fundamentally liberal, and it is hard to imagine why anyone ought to expect it to be anything else, or spit the words out as if they were a hideous indictment. America’s liberalism did not arise at the expense of the Church as it did in France; it arose as part of a defense of the ancient liberties of Anglo-Saxon freemen and a consideration of the same pagan philosophers that the Church had drawn from throughout the Middle Ages. A republican form of government, which had never been condemned by the Church, combined with a doctrine of individual natural rights also recognized at least in some form by Catholic theology, provided the intellectual foundations for America’s classical liberal heritage.

I am not attempting to argue that the American Revolution was some sort of secret Catholic project, but rather that it drew upon ideas and principles that were not entirely new or controversial. Pope Pius VI had every reason to condemn the French Revolution, which was a brutal assault on the Church based in the radical innovations of men such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. One would search in vain for similar condemnations of the American Revolution. Pope Leo XIII would state that America’s separation of church and state is not ideal, but that the Constitution had provided one of the best environments for the Church to thrive in the modern world – a world that was filling up with anti-clerical regimes rather quickly at that time.

Part of America’s liberal heritage was the development of religious liberty. Even the beloved king of a few traditionalists I have known, James II, had sought to establish religious toleration primarily for the sake of Catholic Britons. For the same reasons, Lord Baltimore established it in the colony of Maryland. Religious liberty was initially a defensive tactic against a Protestant majority, though its advantages as far as peace and general welfare are concerned were also obvious. It is arguable, perhaps, that Catholics ought to give themselves up to martyrdom before brokering for peace on the terms of religious liberty. It is also arguable that the Church has definite rights, including first and foremost, the right to exist, and that this right ought to be secured in whatever way possible short of compromising the essential truths of the faith. For this reason the Church has often entered into concordats with hostile powers, including post-revolutionary France, the Russian Empire wherein large Catholic minorities resided, and most famously the neo-pagan Nazi Germany.

Where John Zmirak’s conflict with the traditionalists comes into play is over the delicate balancing act between determining what is necessary and declaring what is good. As far as the typical traditionalist is concerned, religious liberty is a heresy condemned in the most explicit terms by Pope Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors (see #77-79). The Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, which declares religious liberty to be a fundamental human right, is therefore null and void. Countries that formally establish religious liberty must also be hated, condemned, and rejected. Liberals on the other hand will either try to stress the basic continuity of Church doctrine – which is theoretically possible but practically almost impossible – or simply agree that there was in fact a rupture at Vatican II, but that it was positive and necessary. This appears to be the direction Zmirak is going. It is worth noting of course that the Church’s position on religious liberty is not necessarily dogmatic, though by elevating religious liberty to a basic human right, it becomes much more difficult to explain the Church’s denial of it for so long. The Church can err on some things, and is protected from error in others; a basic human right seems to be more than a mere prudential matter and something less than a divinely-revealed truth.

I would propose yet another view of religious liberty, provided by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Libertas. Here various liberal innovations, including religious liberty, may be tolerated by the Church for the sake of a greater good. What cannot be done is precisely what occurred at Vatican II, however, which is the elevation of a necessity imposed by the times into a positive virtue, supposedly timeless in its goodness and evident all along. According to Pope Leo:

But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake; for evil of itself, being a privation of good, is opposed to the common welfare which every legislator is bound to desire and defend to the best of his ability. (33)

I would argue that the Vatican II conception of religious liberty approves of and desires what had been labeled an evil by the Papacy for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of the common good. Of course it does not sit comfortably with us to refer to religious liberty as an “evil” opposed to the common welfare, especially when it appears to be so essential to our survival as Catholics in the United States, and so evidently good in a number of other respects. And yet from the perspective of Pope Leo:

Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. (20)

It would be hard to argue that modern liberal societies are not approaching a state of godlessness, to be sure. It would also be very difficult to argue that this is not, in fact, a tragic evil. And yet to recognize this does not necessarily mean that one must reject religious liberty. For as Leo also states:

 Lastly, there remain those who, while they do not approve the separation of Church and State, think nevertheless that the Church ought to adapt herself to the times and conform to what is required by the modern system of government. Such an opinion is sound, if it is to be understood of some equitable adjustment consistent with truth and justice; in so far, namely, that the Church, in the hope of some great good, may show herself indulgent, and may conform to the times in so far as her sacred office permits. (41)

Mark me down as one of those. In the hope of some greater good, I would call upon Catholics to defend religious liberty. But I would also insist that religious liberty itself is not an intrinsic good that the Church just forgot to acknowledge and suddenly discovered in 1962. The formulation of Pope Leo is quite accurate: to treat all religions equally implies that no religion is true, which serves to excuse a great many people from even cursory attempts to study and discover the truth. By example, religious liberty teaches religious indifferentism. It is therefore impossible, as so many contemporary conservatives would have it, to wage wars against moral and philosophical relativism while positively embracing policies that put relativism into practice. At the same time we cannot reject religious liberty in practice, unless we are prepared to be denied the right to publicly exist and profess as authentic Catholics. We must know and profess that our religion is true, and yes, that other religions are in fact false, while simultaneously defending their right to be false. We do so only because it would be a far greater evil to empower the presently-existing state to determine truth and falsehood than to simply allow a free competition of ideas.

Are we required, however, to answer what we would prefer in the unlikely event that Catholic majority had the willingness and ability to establish a Catholic state? For this is a part of Zmirak’s concern; we Catholics must not only accept religious liberty, but we need to emphasize our willingness to fight for the religious liberty of others. Fortunately there is an answer that does not require us to choose between America and Catholicism. Under the Constitution, only the federal government is prohibited from establishing an official church. Established Protestant churches existed in various states until the 1830s. Whether or not the establishment clause of the 1st amendment has been “incorporated” in such a way as to prohibit a state from now establishing a church is a separate question. The original letter and spirit of the supposedly anti-Catholic U.S. Constitution fully allowed for the establishment of an individual Catholic state within the union. All that was wanting were the Catholics, who did not arrive here in sufficient numbers until after Supreme Court decisions such as Reynolds v. U.S. (1878) offered what I think is a historically-dishonest conception of the establishment clause.

That is to say, the early American conception of religious liberty was not necessarily one of individual liberty, but it was certainly one of collective pluralism. A state could choose to totally separate religion from itself, as did Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia, or it could establish a church, as did Connecticut. It should be noted as well that state-level established churches were not instruments of intolerable tyranny (at least after the Revolution) though they could be somewhat inconvenient for those who belonged to other sects. It depends upon what the terms of the establishment are, which can and do vary from tolerant to repressive. The fallacy is that they are inherently repressive and unjust.

So, to Protestants and others whose political support we depend upon to maintain our own liberties, we might confidently express our positive embrace of collective pluralism in religious matters. I have no issue with the letter and spirit of the 1st amendment because I don’t believe that the federal government was formed to be the sort of “State” with a capital-s that the Papacy had always spoken of. In the American context, the Papal capital-s “State” is actually the small-s individual “state” within the union. It is here that the authorities theoretically have the right to establish a religion, and each individual would be free to live in any of these states they chose. There would be Protestant states, Catholic states, disestablished states, and so on. At least in theory.

There is also economic and political liberalism to discuss, but another time. I will close by stating my basic agreement with Zmirak’s piece: that it is essential to defend religious liberty and quite foolish to denounce what people wrongly assume to be “Americanism.” What Pope Leo denounced as “Americanism” has nothing in common with what traddies and lefties denounce as such; what Leo praised about America is generally what these same types hate about it. The abuse of this word is inexcusable since Leo himself told us what he did not mean by it:

From the foregoing it is manifest, beloved son, that we are not able to give approval to those views which, in their collective sense, are called by some “Americanism.”  But if by this name are to be understood certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and if, moreover, by it is designated your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed, there is no reason to take exception to the name.