Friday, 5 August 2011

Coercion and liberty: reframing the debate

A new post has been issued on Rorate Caeli on the topic of religious liberty. It presents links to a new essay by Professor Thomas Pink of King's College London on a problem which has exercised the minds of philosophers and theologians on both wings of the Church.

The controversial passage in Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II's declaration on religious freedom, is usually taken to be the following:


1. [...] Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.

Over and above all this, the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.

2. 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.


Interpretations of what this declaration really means are varied, but three clear trends emerge from them.

Liberal interpretation - this was a revolutionary reform since by approving freedom of conscience the Church thereby corrected one of its previous mistakes.


Conservative interpretation
- this was a surface reform of political policy but the deeper obligations of society to God remain the same.


Traditionalist interpretation
- this was a revolutionary reform that overturned two centuries of near-certainly infallible teaching, and represents the Council's commitment to bring the 1789 Revolution into the Church.


The significance of Pink's new essay is that it reframes the problem completely. For the liberal, conservative and traditionalist interpreters, the idea that Dignitatis Humanae is the rupture point in a long line of teaching on this issue goes largely undisputed. For Pink, however, a specialist in Early Modern thought, this understanding evinces near complete ignorance of Church teaching on these issues between Trent and the nineteenth century.

Pink thereby drops several bombshells on the various sides of this debate but let me highlight here just two:

1. Dignitatis Humanae, which is thought to be a denial of the permissibility of coercion of belief, significantly omits to say anything about the Church's power to coerce its own members (i.e., those who are baptised, even schismatics and heretics). This coercive power is in fact a matter of Catholic faith as taught by the Council of Trent in its treatise on baptism.

2. The personalist argument, which traditionalists say Dignitatis Humanae used to dissolve the Church's 19th century Magisterium, is in fact a lot older than they recognise, not in explicit terms (which were not developed until the 20th century) but in its fundamental assumptions about autonomy. The idea that the subject cannot be coerced interiorly in matters of religion appears to be a keystone of theological thinking in this area in nineteenth-century Catholic writers such as Cardinal Manning or Bishop Kettler. But, as Pink shows, this idea would have been very strange to the theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who understood the problem in the light of Trent.

It seems, therefore, that the great forgotten link in this chain of argument is this: the Church has only dogmatically asserted its power of coercion over the baptised, and any State which acts as the civil arm to help the Church in this matter does so by delegation of the Church and NOT by its own power.

Consequently - and this is Ches-reading-Pink now - it is logical that as we move into a period where the Church is no longer in a position to delegate in that way, the need to remind the State of its true powers is ever clearer. It does not de jure have the power to coerce conscience. The Church never taught that it did. It only ever held it as a delegated power accorded it by the Church for the sake of the baptised (see Leo XIII, Immortale Dei). It might have overstepped this boundary at times, but that is another matter.

So why the change in this problematic? I can only suggest a couple of reasons myself. Perhaps coercion is more thematic in the treatment of the issue of religious liberty by the theologians of the earlier period because they instinctively assume that most people are Catholic or baptised. When the theologians of the nineteenth century begin arguing in favour of interior freedom, it seems they are working on a new assumption that Catholicism is now a minority religion in hostile and secular conditions. Both positions depend ultimately not on a shift in doctrine but in contextual circumstances.


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That at least is how I understand the consequences of Pink's essay. As I say, for me this essay not only reframes the problem; it is a game-changing intervention.

In its light, no longer can the liberals pretend that coercion has been done away with by Vatican II.

In its light, no longer can the 'personalist' reading of Dignitatis Humanae be used by traditionalists as a stick to beat the Council.

I commend its reading to you all most heartily.

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