Saturday, 23 June 2012

Pre-Enlightenment Catholicism and religious liberty

Following on from my various posts about Counter-Enlightenment Catholicism, my attention has been drawn to a paper entitled What is the Catholic doctrine of religious liberty? by Prof. Thomas Pink of King's College, London.

In my earlier posts, I set out the Catholic Church's pre-Vatican II stance on religious liberty, which was essentially that, while people could not be forced to become Catholics, it was right and necessary to restrict non-Catholics from publicly professing their religions, at least where this could be accomplished without doing more harm than good.

Prof. Pink points out that this this stance, as articulated by 19th and 20th century popes and theologians, actually represented a watering-down of earlier, mediaeval and Counter-Reformation Catholic doctine as articulated by Aquinas (whose views on this I have blogged about), Suarez and Bellarmine.

Essentially, the mediaeval and Counter-Reformation doctrine was based on the notion of jurisdiction.  The Church had jurisdiction over all baptised persons, and therefore had the right to compel them - if necessary, using physical penalties going as far as capital punishment - to be good Catholics.  This was so even if the people in question had been baptised in infancy without their consent and if they had been baptised in a non-Catholic denomination.  Seen against this backdrop, the apparently harsh teachings of the Counter-Enlightenment Church actually represented a shift in the direction of modern liberalism.  Moreover, Vatican II's Decree on Religious Liberty, which is generally seen as mostly accepting modern liberal ideas on this subject, did no more than assert that the State acting on its own account - as opposed to the Church acting with the co-operation of the State - cannot coerce religious belief.

Prof. Pink argues that the older doctrine is still binding on Catholics: it seemingly found its way into the infallible decrees of the Council of Trent, and it is (very implicitly) preserved even in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.  Prof. Pink writes:
The Church remains dogmatically committed to her possession of a coercive power over the baptized unlike any that liberals would accord the state over its citizens. The Church is given, by virtue of a mission that transcends nature, a coercive authority over her members to hold them to the faith... and this authority is of a kind that no earthly state can possess over anyone, and which (as Trent clearly indicates) the individual, once baptized, cannot throw off at will.
....What must be clear is that Catholicism is as dogmatically committed to the existence of this authority as in the days of the counter-reformation, however brutally or excessively that authority was then applied.
For further material on this subject, see here, here and here.