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essays

Dec 1, 1978

Religious Freedom

“The American experience made no impact on the leaders of the Church.”

Radio Telefis Eireann, Ireland

“Not to be Coerced.” Studies (Spring/Summer 1978): 28–39.

From the beginning the founding fathers of the United States saw the principle of religious freedom not merely as a political norm but also as a duty enjoined by Christian belief. Jefferson observed that the mind of man was free to make its own judgments. Thus freedom came from God, man’s creator. Hence Christians were obliged to respect freedom.

Separation of Church and State was enshrined in the Constitution in order to protect the right to religious freedom. Congress was to make no law which would intrude upon the citizens’ religious beliefs because each citizen had a right not to be coerced and the State simply had no function in the matter of belief.

Whereas the Americans defined the limits beyond which the State could not go without infringing fundamental rights, the revolutionary French interpreted these rights so much in terms of political ideology that they distorted the understanding of freedom in Europe for generations and consequently led to the doctrine of state supremacy.

Despite the antagonism of the revolutionaries to the Church, the Church leaders initially took care not to close off the possibility of reconciliation with the new French regime. Why, in view of attitudes such as this, the Papacy became such an implacable opponent to liberalism during most of the nineteenth century is not clear. Rome could see the revolution only in its European and anticlerical form.

The American experience made no impact on the leaders of the Church. Neither did the example set in Ireland by Daniel O’Connell who said that the right of every man to freedom of conscience was “equally the right of a Protestant in Italy or Spain as of a Catholic in Ireland.” But the liberal Catholics of Europe (such as Montalembert, Lammenais, Lacordaire, Ventura, Rosmini and Ketteler) did draw inspiration from O’Connell and sought to analyze liberal principles.

The concept of freedom motivating these liberal Catholics closely resembled that of the Americans. But Pope Pius IX condemned them, going so far as to brand Catholic liberalism as “a compact between justice and iniquity, more dangerous than a declared enemy.” By contrast, Pope John XXIII included freedom with the great virtues when he spoke of “truth, justice, charity and freedom.” And for the Second Vatican Council the right to religious freedom “has its foundation, not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it.”