"Religious Freedom and the Catholic Church"
By Wilhelm Emmanuel Von Ketteler

[Note: "Religious Freedom and the Catholic Church" was originally written by Von Ketteler in 1862 and taken from chapter XXIII of his work "Freedom, Authority and the Church". All excerpts are taken from "The Social Teachings of Willhelm Emmanuel Von Ketteler", University Press of America, 1981, Translation by Rupert J. Ederer. Biographical note, emphasis and comments between brackets mine.]

Biographical Note

Wilhelm Emmanuel Von Ketteler
Bishop of Mainz (1811-1877)

Regarded as the “pioneer” of modern Catholic social teaching, Von Ketteler’s thought has found expression in the great social encyclicals since his time. Pope Leo XIII refers to Von Ketteler as: “our great predecessor from whom I have learned" (Association Catholique, October 15, 1893, 428).

Religious Freedom (Part I)

We come now to the all important question whether religious opposed to the principles of the Catholic Church. May Catholics who wish to remain true to the principles of their church concede to those of other religions such a position in the state? May Catholic rulers legally permit to their subjects such freedom of conscience without violating their own consciences? Can there be situations in which rulers are even bound in conscience to grant such freedom? Would not such a position be completely opposed to the way the Church operated in the Middle Ages?

Before we proceed to answer these questions, we have to come to grips with an ambiguity that exists here and make clear precisely what is meant. Moral freedom is not a right to do evil, but simply the free and inner self-determination towards what is good; it involves free choice which includes the possibility of choosing what is evil without external compulsion. [Ed: Bishop Von Ketteler delivered a sermon on December 17, 1848 on "The Christian Concept of Human Freedom" where he stated: "Christianity accords to man his full right of self-determination and recognizes in this right his fullest dignity and nobility. In fact, Christianity by its doctrine of eternal damnation recognizes the ultimate consequence of this right, because this teaching implies that God will even permit men to eternally contradict Him rather than violate man's sacred right to self-determination."] The freedom to make up one's own mind is, in itself, no right to choose error and to lie. It is the free inner self-determination towards what is truth without external compulsion. The choice of what is good and what is true is at the same time our bounden duty, in fact, the highest obligation that a man has. [Ed: Moral freedom in this sense presupposes natural liberty. Pope Leo XIII opens the encyclical "Libertas" as follows: "Liberty, the highest of natural endowments, being the portion only of intellectual or rational natures, confers on man this dignity -- that he is 'in the hand of his counsel' and has power over his actions."] The choice of what is evil and untrue, on the other hand, is the wonton abuse of our legitimate liberty. Only in this sense can we speak of freedom of religion. The right to adopt a false religion, to organize it, to propagate it does not exist, as such. On the contrary man's first and highest obligation is to seek out the true religion and to give all of his devotion to it. For that reason, the Catholic Church cannot cease to regard the existence of all false religions as the gravest abuse of freedom that it must fight against with all of its might. As opposed to this we are faced with the question whether the Catholic Church can remain loyal to her principles and waive the exercise of external force in the area of religious freedom, or in the area of moral freedom; whether she may leave to the individual freedom of choice in this matter of choice of religion, as she does regarding his freedom to choose between good and evil; and finally, whether, since she possesses no means of external compulsion, she must demand the exercise of such compulsion by public authorities or at the very least by Catholic rulers? That is the real nub of the problem.

We intend to consider this matter in three parts: First, the position of the Catholic Church towards the unbaptized unbelievers; Secondly, the position of the Catholic Church and the secular authorities in earlier ages toward those who were baptized but who fell into erroneous beliefs; Thirdly, the conclusions which we have to draw from these positions for pertinent situations in our own time.

Religious Freedom (Part II)

Concerning the Unbaptized

We regard St. Thomas, as certainly the most reliable exponent of Catholic teachings, and he lived in the very times (d. 1274) when it is maintained nowadays, albeit wrongly, that the Catholic Church exercised limitless power. He answered the questions: whether the unbeliever may be forced to accept the true religion as follows:
The non-believers who, like the pagans and the Jews, have never accepted the true Faith may in no way -- nullo modo -- be forced to accept it, since Faith is a matter of free consent by the will. (ST. ii-ii., 10)

The noted and learned Jesuit Suarez addressed himself to the same question 400 years later when he was discussing the power of the Catholic Church and Christian rulers. He said: "It is the universal opinion of theologians that non-believers, whether they are one's subjects or not, may not be forced to accept the Faith even if they have attained sufficient knowledge of it." (Suarez, Tract. de Fide Disp. 18 Sect. III, n. 4.) He then enumerated a long list of the most reputable theologians who supported this position and came to the conclusion that: "This opinion is therefore completely true and certain." To make it the more conclusive, he added: "We regard it, first of all as intrinsically evil -- intrinsice malum -- to wish to force non-believers who are not one's subjects to accept the Faith, because such force, to be applied, presupposes the existence of legitimate authority, as must be obvious. The Church, however, does not possess legitimate authority over such persons." (ibid. n. 4) He continues: "Secondly, the Church cannot compel even non-believers who are subject to her temporal authority to accept the Faith. That is because the direct use of force presupposes full authority and jurisdiction, and it is clear from what has been said that the Church has not gotten such full power over her temporal subjects by any specific commission from Christ." (Ibid. n. 7)

Until now we have only spoken of non-believers as individuals. St. Thomas went further now and asked whether the religious practices of non-believers must also be tolerated. In other words, we are face to face with the issues...integral to religious freedom. St. Thomas first mentioned the possible objections to his position in his accustomed manner: "It appears as though the religious practices of unbelievers must not be tolerated inasmuch as it is obvious that by their observance of these practices they are sinning; and we must conclude that he who does not prevent such a sin when he is able, himself shares in its guilt." The Saint answered:

"Temporal government has its origin in divine government, and it must, therefore to the extent that it can, imitate it. God, however, though He is almighty and infinite, permits certain evils to occur on earth, even though He could prevent them from occurring. He does this because, first of all, by preventing evil in this manner He would deprive man of greater benefits and secondly, because therefore greater evils would result." (ST. ii-ii, 10, 11)

The greater benefits which St. Thomas had in mind here are not hard to determine. God would have to deprive a man of his liberty which is the highest endowment that man has, if He were to deny a man every possibility of abusing that liberty. [Ed: Here we have another reference to natural liberty as the foundation for moral freedom. Pope Leo XIII continues in Libertas: "...natural freedom is the fountainhead from which liberty of whatsoever kind flows...The unanimous consent and judgement of men, which is the trusty voice of nature, recognizes this natural liberty in those only who are endowed with intellignece of reason; and it is by his use of this that man is rightly regarded as responsible for his actions."] Applying that principle to temporal governments, St. Thomas concluded that they too must tolerate certain evils, and he stated finally: "Even though the non-believers sin because of their religious practices, these must nevertheless be tolerated, either because of the good that they still have in them, or because of the greater evil that would result." Among such evils, he listed the scandal and discord which might result from forceful interference or, even more important, the hindrance that such interference could prove to be to the true conversion of the unbelievers.

We see here with what great circumspection the great teachers of the Catholic Church opposed that much abused viewpoint according to which anyone who holds authority is obliged to promote as much good as lies within his power. To avoid evil by the use of force involves a whole lot more than simply the possession of physical force, but also legitimate authority. Secondly, it involves the employment of means which do not promote more evil in the process of avoiding evil. It is madness to deprive a neighbor of both of his eyes in an effort to save a hand which may be endangered. Thus every authority -- where the liberty and self-determination of the human being is involved -- must pause to analyze not only the scope of its legitimate authority, but also the correctness of the means which it wishes to employ.

Since this question has such overriding importance, we shall also see what Suarez, the great interpreter of St. Thomas, had to say about it. Suarez not only confirmed St. Thomas' opinion regarding the toleration of the religious practices of unbelievers, he went further and sets the precise limits to which such toleration can go. His determination is of the greatest practical significance in dealing with the question of how far the limits of religious freedom can extend in our own time and remain in conformity with the Church's principles. In his commentary on St. Thomas, Suarez begins much in the style of the latter:

"It appears as though the religious practices of the unbelievers, notably all of the unbaptized as, e.g., pagans and Mohammedans, may not be tolerated in Christian nations since they involve superstition and injury to the honor that is owed to the true God, whose honor Christian rulers have an obligation to uphold. St. Thomas, however, rightly distinguishes two kinds of religious practices: there are those which go against reason and against God insofar as he can be recognized through nature and through the natural powers of the soul, e.g., the worship of idols, etc. Others are contrary to the Christian religion and to its commands not because they are evil in themselves or contrary to reason as, for example, the practices of Jews and even many of the customs of Mohammedans and such unbelievers who believe in one true God.

Regarding the first, the Church may not tolerate them on the part of her own unbelieving subjects. But that is merely the general principle. It may happen often that Christian rulers cannot prevent even such practices without causing greater harm to the nation and to the Christian inhabitants. In that case, the ruler may tolerate such evil with a clear conscience on the basis of what Christ said to the servant who asked the master whether they should remove the weeds from the field. He replied, 'No, or perhaps while you are gathering the tares you will root up the wheat with them.' (idid. sect. IV, n. 9)

As regards the other religious practices of unbelievers which go contrary to Christian beliefs but not counter to natural reason, there is no doubt but that the unbelievers, even though they are subjects, may not be forced to abandon them. Rather the Church has to tolerate them. [Ed: In other words, while both groups have natural liberty, the second group has the moral freedom to act insofar as their actions conform to the natural law and in obedience to their honest dictates of conscience. In this sense, Pope Leo XIII describes the authentic meaning of 'liberty of conscience' in Libertas: "...every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands."] St. Gregory addressed himself clearly to this problem regarding Jews, and he forbade anyone to deprive them of their synagogues or to prevent them from observing their religious practices therein. (Lib. I Epistol. 34) Elsewhere he reaffirmed that no one should prevent Jews from participating in their religious observances. (Lib. II. Ep. 15) The reason is that such observances do not in themselves violate the natural law, and therefore, the temporal power of even a Christian ruler does not confer a right to forbid them. Such action would be based on the fact that what is being done goes contrary to the Christian Faith, but that is not enough to compel those who are not subject to the spiritual authority of the Church. This opinion is also supported by the fact that such a ban would involve, to some extent, forcing people to accept the Faith; and that is never permitted. (Ibid. n. 10)

From all of what these authorities have said, we are able to derive certain important principles regarding how the Catholic Church and Christian rulers must conduct themselves in the matter of religious freedom of the unbaptized:

1. The acceptance of the Christian Faith, which is before God the greatest obligation facing any human being, must be an act of the free will and free self-determination of each individual, and no one may in any way -- nullo modo -- as St. Thomas said -- be compelled to do so by the use of external force.

2. The spiritual authority of the Church, like that of any temporal authority, is limited. Those who exercise that authority may not do all that they would be capable of doing, or what they regard as useful, nor may they use any force at their disposal to accomplish such ends. The application of external force can only be justified to the extent that the nature of authority indicates. Thus, every absolutism is unthinkable, and the implications contained here are of the greatest significance. It is a basic fallacy of our times, and many of the best and well-intentioned fall prey to it -- a fallacy, incidentally, which we have grown accustomed to because of absolutism -- to look for remedies by the use of external force especially as applied by some great and powerful ruler. Far be it from us to deny the great blessing that a true Christian ruler would be, but such a ruler would be the more blessed, the more he operated within the bounds of what he could legitimately do. When a ruler, with the best of intentions, goes beyond his authority to do good, such good turn out to be spurious, and he can end up doing grave harm to both Church and state...All power has its limits, and whenever those limits are transgressed, no matter how good the intentions may be, God's will is opposed; and what was intended as a blessing ends up being a curse.

3. The spiritual authority of the Church which was conferred upon it by Christ extends only over her members, and even then only to the extent that Christ has given her authority. The unbaptized and the non-Christians are not subject to the Church's authority. (Ecclesia in neminem judicium exercet, qui prius per baptismum non fuerit ingressus. Conc. Trid. Sess. IV. c. 2.) Thus, she has only the right to preach the gospel to all men and to urge them for the salvation of their souls to join the Church. She does not have proper authority to use external force directly or indirectly to compel anyone to become a member of the Church, or to order anyone else to use such force.

4. The temporal power exercised in the state, whether by Christian rulers or by others, concerns itself only with a part of the temporal well-being of the subjects, not with the supernatural truths of revelation. The scope of temporal power and the authority which is proper to it and not conferred upon it by others derives from the natural order of things and the unchangeable laws which God has implanted in that order. The scope of that authority can be extended if the Church chooses to confer more powers, as the Church did grant additional rights to the ancient Christian rulers -- powers which they then exercised in the name of the Church. Likewise, certain historical situations may develop which add to the state's power. Yet, the basic limitation of its authority derives from laws of God who, in laying down His plan for order in the universe, also included a proper sphere for the temporal community. No one, either the Church or the people, has a right to transgress these limits. Christ acknowledged the natural order and sanctified it. In doing so, He imparted to those who were vested with temporal authority as well as to their subjects a purity and nobility of purpose, as well as a loyal devotion to duty which the world had not known hitherto. The temporal order was blessed and ennobled by Him, but He did not enlarge the scope of temporal authority. The new powers which He brought to humanity were conferred upon His Apostles and their successors. Temporal rulers, therefore, do not have the authority to compel non-Christians to convert to the Christian Faith, since that is a purely supernatural concern; nor can the Church grant that authority to temporal rulers, because the Church itself does not have it.

5. On the other hand, religious freedom has its own natural limits as dictated by reason, by natural morality, and by the natural order of things. No reasonable moral freedom can go so far as to destroy moral order to which everyone has a right. Therefore, Christians as well as non-Christian rulers and those who hold temporal authority are obliged to oppose religious teachings and practices which are in latent violation of the laws of reason and morality. For this reason, Christian rulers may not tolerate, for example, the worship of idols by their subjects, if they are able to prevent it. As Suarez said, "Reason and the natural law demand of human society that it worships the true God. Therefore it must possess the power to require people to honor the true God and to prevent the honoring of false gods. Aside from this, it is the goal of temporal authority to preserve peace and justice in society, but it cannot accomplish this without requiring virtuous conduct among its subjects. But the latter cannot live according to natural morality and virtue unless they have religion and serve the one, true God. Thus, temporal authority is justified and obligated to tolerated only the worship of the true God and to suppress the worship of false gods as unreasonable and immoral." (Suarez, op. cit. 18 s. IV. n. 7)
The same rule applies for all other religious practices which transgress against the natural moral law, but only so far as one's own subjects are concerned. (ibid. n. 3)

On the basis of these principles, the Church fully protects the religious freedom of unbelievers in the sense the Guizot required [Ed: In a previous section the author had outlined the requirements of Religious Freedom proposed by Guizot as an example of what is commonly understood by the term]. We have purposely taken pains to discuss this matter at length to show that we are not dealing with a casual opinion, but a matter which has been subject to painful scrutiny and one which rests on important principles. The Church places so high a value on freedom of conscience and freedom of religion that she rejects as immoral and illegitimate any use of external force against those who are not her members. [Ed: See, for example, Pius XI (Mit Brennender Sorge, 1937): " as a person possesses rights he holds from God, and which any collectivity must protect against denial, suppression or neglect...The believer has an absolute right to profess his Faith and live according to its dictates. Laws which impede this profession and practice of Faith are against natural law."] At the same time, she recognizes definite limits beyond which religious freedom would constitute a wrong that would jeopardize the moral well-being of society. Even in the area of morality, freedom reaches its limits when it constitutes a wrong which poses a threat to society. Therefore, religious freedom too must have its limits, not only where it is a threat to the state, but also if it threatens the rights of others to the higher moral benefits of society. That becomes the case, when, as at present, sects are founded which under the guise of religion add up to a denial of Almighty God, foster crass materialism, and thereby lay the groundwork for destroying the entire moral foundations of human society. Such religious liberty is in fact immoral and unreasonable abomination which God is bound to curse; and states which tolerate it are doomed. [Ed: Such false notions of "religious freedom" condemned, for example, in "Quanta Cura" and "Libertas"]

Religious Freedom (Part III)

Concerning Heretics during the Middle Ages

These principles which suggest that no manner of compulsion may be employed against unbelievers to force them to believe, and that even their form of worship, so long as it is not immoral in itself and does not reject worship of the one, true God, must be tolerated, seems at first glance to contradict the conduct of the Church and of temporal rulers toward heretics during the Middle Ages. If we take a closer look at the basis for their actions we shall see that there was in fact, no contradiction. By the same token, that basis for action no longer exists in our time, so that the use of external compulsion in matters of faith are no longer an issue at present. [Ed: Bishop Von Ketteler's goal here is to demonstrate "continuity" of doctrine where some have accused the Church of "contradictions" that, in fact, were only apparently so.]

Before we demonstrate that, we have to examine the legal nature of the kind of heresy which alone, according to the principles of the Church, justified punishment because it was an offense against the Faith. Heresy in this sense involved two factors. First, there was a stiff-necked persistence and perseverance by a baptized Christian in error as determined by prior, thorough investigation. Secondly, implicit in this stiff-necked posture, there was active rebellion against the authority of the Church. It is apparent that there is a great difference between one who is in error in the matter of Christian dogmas and a heretic who was subject to punishment. Innocent error is not only not punishible heresy; it is not even an infinitesimal moral violation. Punishable heresy entailed a clear perception of the Christian truth that was in controversy, stiff-necked rejection of it, and at the same time a rejection of the authority of the Church. In the Church's view the real malice of heresy lay actually in rejection of the Church's teaching authority, because the whole body of Christian teaching rests on that authority, and that authority is the arbiter of all disputes and the very essence of the Magisterium. Therefore, where there is no insight into the nature of the Church's authority, where only prejudices prevail, and where the Church's authority is considered to be tantamount to arbitrary human judgments and the judgments of priests, there can be no question of punishable heresy. It is clear that the concept of punishable heresy does not apply when we are dealing with persons who did not themselves choose to leave the bosom of the Church, but who are the descendants of those who centuries ago made that decision. Whether and to what extent their false beliefs constitute sin, only God who sees into the human heart can judge. Externally, it is impossible to pass judgment. Even though the Church regards all those who are validly baptized as members of the one, holy, Catholic Church and therefore as basically and before God subject to ecclesiastical authority, there has never been any intention to exercise external force to punish them. Toward them, the Church can only adopt the position which it takes toward all unbelievers. It is left to their completely free self-determination whether they wish to return to the Faith. [Ed: Today those non-Catholic Christians growing up in various Protestant sects would fall into this category.]

On the basis of this conception of punishable heresy by temporal authorities in earlier times, such authorities regarded it as a civil matter and therefore felt justified in inflicting severe external punishment up to the death penalty itself. Even in Roman law, after the conversion of the emperors to Christendom, heresy came to be regarded as a civil offense. The same view was taken over into German common law, and from there it eventually found its way into laws promulgated by German emperors. It is a conception which developed spontaneously because of the unity of belief that was deeply and universally imbedded in the whole culture, without the Church having had to demand compulsion and the pain of punishment even though she later accepted that as justified. A diversity of various Christian confessions -- or if one prefers, churches -- was totally unknown to people in those times. People all lived with the conviction that there was just one, holy, Christian Church which was spread over the whole world and which alone was the true Church. This Christian Church was regarded as a gift from heaven which was the great common benefit and possession of all Christians everywhere and the repository and custodian of all of their greatest treasures. How could it have happened otherwise then that men came to regard as a crime, also in the temporal order, an attack upon this great spiritual temple of God here on earth, which was also rightly regarded as the bastion of all social order, especially since the attacks came from its own children and members. Would it be surprising that men came to regard the adulteration of the common Faith as a more serious punishable offense than the counterfeiting of currency, as St. Thomas pointed out? The unbaptized retained their full freedom. Baptized Christians, however, were regarded as bound by their baptismal vows to be loyal to the Church. They were, therefore, considered the more as criminals when they fell into heresy, the more highly one came to regard the great benefit of which these heretics were trying to deprive everyone. Even though people recognized and accepted unconditionally the truth that the Faith is basically a matter for free self-determination, they saw the situation as essentially different for those who by baptism into the Church had taken on the sworn responsibility to remain true to their Faith until death. Aside from that, the right of all the faithful to be secure in their beliefs and to have them jeopardized took precedence over the religious freedom of the individual. If ever any law emanated from the general consensus of all men in those times, the civil laws against heretics would have to be regarded as such laws. One may rightfully regard them as natural laws in the proper sense of the word, because whenever men have lived together in civil society, even among the pagans, they have regarded it as their right to protect from attack by individuals the religious conviction which they all shared. If it is at all legitimate to question this practice, the attack ought to be launched not against the Church, but against the legal and national consciousness of all peoples who have enjoyed unity in religious beliefs.

We must also draw attention to the fact that the actions by temporal authorities against heresy were not exclusively, and often not even chiefly, directed against denial of the Faith. Many other kinds of misconduct were included in the proceedings, as, for example, crimes of immorality. The heretic trials of the Middle Ages were far more frequently penal actions against abominable crimes of immorality than against actual sins against the Faith. Later inquisitional proceedings in Spain, the horrors of which incidentally have been too much exaggerated, have nothing immediately to do with the Church and with its principles. They were simply the outcome of an ever more prevalent state absolutism which, here too, pretended to be acting in the interests of the Church so as to gain limitless power and, eventually, under this mantle, to acquire total power.

From what we have said, it is clear that treating heresy as a civil matter is no longer legitimate once the unity of the Faith has been shattered. Disunity destroys the essential prerequisites, and in Germany this began with the Religious Revolt. By order of the Capital Court of Charles VI in 1532, heresy already appears to have been removed from the area of civil proceedings. [Ed: Other laws that presuppose religious unity also begin to lack foundation once that basic unity has been shattered. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912) states: “…the coexistence of the most varied religious beliefs in every land have imposed the principle of state tolerance and freedom of belief upon rulers and parliaments as a dire necessity and as the starting-point of political wisdom and justice. The mixture of races and peoples, the immigration into all lands, the adoption of international laws concerning colonization and choice of abode, the economic necessity of calling upon the workers of other lands, etc., have so largely changed the religious map of the world during the last fifty years that propositions 77-79 of the Syllabus published by Pius IX in 1864 (cf. Denzinger, op. cit., 1777-79)…do not now apply even to Spain or the South American republics to say nothing of countries which even then possessed a greatly mixed population (e.g. Germany).”] The unity of the Faith was lost to Christendom because of men's fault, something which God rightfully permitted to happen. As it was originally won not by force, but simply by the power of the word of God and by God's grace, and by the virtues of Christians, and the blood of martyrs, so, without a doubt, it will be restored once again. Until that happy day comes, we will have to bear with each other as best we can, and the State will have the obligation, above all, to preserve the religious freedom of all.

It is an absurdity therefore to want to assert that the Catholic Church finds it necessary, or at least nurtures the intention, to secure the services of some ruler who will use temporal power to punish those who abandon the Catholic Faith. The fact is, if we except the period of the Reformation and the Peasant Wars, that Catholics have in recent centuries used no force against others; and least of all have there been such actions on the part of the Church or of the popes. In England, Sweden, and other countries, on the other hand, the most gruesome criminal legal proceedings were taking place not only against who fell away from religion but against those who remained loyal to the Faith of their fathers. These horrors were perpetrated under laws which prevail practically until our own time. The least one could do would be to not ignore historic facts so stubbornly!

As regards the use of spiritual compulsion against heretics in the context that we have been discussing, the Church has always affirmed the authority to use such force on those who are by belief and by baptism her own members. Such force consists in spiritual and ecclesiastical penalties which have as their special purpose to bring about their spiritual improvement. The most severe of these punishments is excommunication. The Faith is the foundation of the Church. Therefore, as every organization which wishes to survive has the right to protect by expulsion those members who are at odds with its basic constitution, so the Church too must have the right to expel members who make an assault against her foundations. Even when the Church used external means of compulsion, this too was done for improvement and enlightenment purposes, not in the sense that the Faith has to be forced on people or that it is something other than an act of inner conviction. The family as well as the State uses external means of punishment also to bring about inner moral betterment. In any case, the possibility of employing such external means of compulsion was contingent on the state's making such power available, and it comes to an end once the state withdraws its external assistance.
Religious Freedom (Part IV)

Conclusions & Application to Modern Circumstances

If now, after our discussion of the question, to what extent the Church must use external compulsion against the abuse of religious freedom, and whether Catholics may regard religious freedom as essential, we wish to answer the questions as they apply to our own times, we have to present the following conclusions:

1. In general, the Church regards the acceptance of religion as a matter for inner self-determination, and would contest the right to use external force by either the state or by ecclesiastical authority. [Ed: The natural right to inner self-determination seems to be the ultimate foundation of due Religious Freedom as noted above in Part I: "Christianity accords to man his full right of self-determination and recognizes in this right his fullest dignity and nobility. In fact, Christianity by its doctrine of eternal damnation recognizes the ultimate consequence of this right, because this teaching implies that God will even permit men to eternally contradict Him rather than violate man's sacred right to self-determination."]

2. The punishment of heretics by the Church in relatively few instances was not undertaken to effect conversion by external force, but rather in the sense that a Christian accepted certain responsibilities when he was baptized, and that he ought to be held accountable for them. Such external punishment, however, only took place in special circumstances and in the case of proclaimed formal heretics in the sense which we discussed above. Validly baptized Protestants are still by virtue of baptism in a certain union with the Church. However, even aside from all other reasons which ought to make it abundantly clear that the Catholic Church has not the remotest inclination to wish to use force against them, the very notion of formal and punishable heresy cannot be applied to them. Any suggestion to the contrary is therefore an irresponsible scare tactic.

3. Heresy as a violation of civil law presupposed unity in Faith, and with the disappearance of that unity it too has become a dead letter.

4. Where other religious organizations exist legally, a Catholic ruler is required to give them the full protection which the law affords. If he were to use external force against them he would violate the principles of his Church.

5. In this sense, there exist in Germany along with the Catholic Church also the Lutheran and the Reformed Church. A Catholic ruler, without question, owes them full legal protection as well as love and concern for their well-being.

6. To what extent civil authorities wish to afford to other religious groups the free legal right to operate, the Church leaves this up to their own free self-determination. There is no ecclesiastical principle which would prevent a Catholic from upholding the principle that under given conditions, the civil authorities would best afford full religious freedom to all, subject to the conditions we have now to mention.

7. We have to insist upon the limits of religious freedom referred to earlier, whereby it is an abuse of that freedom if the state, under the guise of religious freedom, tolerates sects which deny the existence of a personal God, or which jeopardize morality. [Ed: The state must prudently exercise vigilance against those vices (e.g., atheism, superstition, idolatry, divination, etc.) opposed to the natural virtue of religion] Such conduct stands in open contradiction to the obligations of civil authority, first of all by virtue of the origin of civil authority. Ultimately, all authority comes from God, and therefore, there can be no more flagrant abuse of that authority than to tolerate the denial of God. Secondly, the ultimate goal of civil authority sets certain limits. That goal is to preserve peace and justice on earth, and neither of these is possible without morality; and morality is impossible without fear of the Lord.

8. The Church will not cease, however, to use that force upon its own members which Christ Himself has entitled her to use, namely, to expel from her midst those members who deny their Faith.

Related Church Documents:


CI RIESCE (1953)


ADDRESS TO THE ROMAN CURIA (December 22, 2005)

Other Readings:

Religious Toleration, Catholic Encyclopedia (1912)

Vatican II and Religious Liberty: Contradiction or Continuity? (Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.)