Chapter 1



The New Testament

The early Church: survival in an alien society

The medieval synthesis

The 16th century to the present

The meaning and extent of religious liberty has varied a great deal from century to century and culture to culture and is still debated.  In Christian and Islamic tradition, with which we are concerned, religious liberty has never been fully admitted without some qualifications.

First of all, it has never been a Muslim or a Christian position that people are free before God to accept or reject his revelation.  Revelation imposes an obligation. Pope Gregory XVI in the early 19th century said, AFreedom of conscience must no be confused with the freedom to have no conscience@.[2]

The New Testament

The New Testament teaching on religious liberty is best summed up in the Vatican II Declaration on religious liberty, chapter 2, which is found in Document 2, at the end of this chapter.

The early Church: survival in an alien society

The Fathers of the Church in the first three centuries valued the political organization and peace of the Roman empire.  At the same time they saw the Church as a distinct society destined for an eternal heavenly existence, whereas the empire would come to an end.  In spite of the intermittent persecutions, they had prayers said for the emperor and praised rulers who showed any tolerance.

At this time Judaism, unlike at present, was in full expansion and found Christianity a rival in the drive for converts in the Roman Empire.  Many of the persecutions of Christianity were instigated by Jews.[3]  So Christian antipathy for Judaism prevailed for many centuries.  There were exceptions, however, such as St. Justin Martyr=s Dialogue with Tryphon and St. Augustine=s urging a spirit of love towards them.[4]

As for Greek philosophy, the early apologetes for the most part had great respect for it and saw it as an opportunity and means to win the minds of people to Christianity.  Later writers steeped in Greek culture, such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen, attributed the truth of Greek philosophy to borrowing from the Jews, and were quite critical and negative towards classical Greek culture in general.  At this time many Christians viewed Roman and Greek culture as the cult of Satan.

The conversion of Constantine, however produced a turn-about of attitude.  For St. Cyril of Alexandria the Roman Empire was the reign of the Messiah foretold by Isaiah.[5]  Only the monastic movement, centred in Egypt, continued to regard the world as the enemy of the kingdom of God.

Once the Church achieved liberty for itself, how did it look upon the right of others to liberty?  In the 4th and 5th centuries there were quite a few examples of Christians destroying synagogues and replacing them with churches.[6]  As for heretics, Irenaeus was very objective in describing Gnosticism, but was in no way sympathetic to it.  Saints Athanasius and Hilary etc. similarly combatted Arianism, the next major heresy.  The Fathers at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople took imperial enforcement of orthodoxy for granted.  On the other hand, Emperor Maximus= execution of Priscillian for heresy in 386 was protested by Saints Ambrose, Martin of Tours and others.

The Church up to this time knew only a state linked to a hostile religion or one that was theoretically Christian.  Even in a nominally Christian state it was taken for granted that the government was under an obligation to favour the right doctrine and discourage any other.  The mentality of the time could not conceive of a system of thought or a social institution of a neutral kind; everything was either for God or against him.  Where this would lead, no one at the end of the 4th century could foresee.[7]

The medieval synthesis

The political chaos of the Dark Ages by default thrust the European Church into direct civil leadership.  The medieval Church thus inherited the habit of using secular power to further its own interests.  Christian unity, however, was far from achieved.  The Church had to contend with the Jews and a succession of heretical movements in Europe, and the dominance of Islam in the once Christian Middle East and North Africa.  Practice varied from easy accommodation to intolerance, but the official policy was contained in Gratian=s Decretals.[8]

Thomas Aquinas takes this as the starting point for his discussion of the matter in his Summa theologiae II-II, q. 10-12.  Non-Christians were never to be compelled to accept the faith (q. 10, a. 8).  Neither may small children of Jews and other non-Christians be baptized against their parents= wishes, because the parents= natural rights over their children come first.  Only if the children reach the age of reason and ask for baptism of their own accord may they be baptized, even against their parents= wishes (q. 10, a. 12).  On the other hand, Aif they are able, Christians should compel adult unbelievers not to obstruct the faith by blasphemy, wicked propaganda or open persecution@.  Heretics and apostates who once professed the Catholic faith should be compelled to fulfil their baptismal promises and keep the faith they once accepted (q. 10, a. 8).  If, after a first and a second warning (Tim 3:10) they still refuse, they are to be excommunicated and handed over to the secular authority for execution (q. 11, a. 3).  If a heretic repents, is accepted back, and lapses again, he may be reconciled with the Church, but cannot be spared execution (q. 11, a. 4).

As for non-Catholics ruling over Catholics, Thomas said that an unbeliever could never replace a believer in any position of authority over believers, because that would pose a danger to the faith.  On the other hand, he argues that the distinction between believers and unbelievers is a matter of divine law which does not take away the human natural law from which civil authority is derived.  (If Thomas had developed this radical principle he would have come to a position like that of the present-day Church.)  Therefore believers can accept unbelieving rulers where they were already established, as in the Roman empire (q. 10, a. 10).  Yet if a Catholic ruler apostatizes, he should be excommunicated and his subjects absolved from allegiance to him (q. 12, a. 2).

As for freedom of worship, Thomas defends Gratians=s toleration of Jewish rites on the basis that they manifest some truth and are a figurative witness to Christian faith.  Yet he accords no right of worship to Aother unbelievers, whose rites contain no truth or usefulness@.  They may be tolerated, however, where repression might cause greater evil and disturbance (q. 10, a. 11).

The 16th century to the present

The medieval Church position on religious liberty was put to the test in the religious wars which followed the Protestant Reformation, with each side holding to the principle Acuius regio, eius religio@ - the people follow the religion of their rulers.  Exhausted by the contention, Europe turned towards the idea of a secular state, revolting against the Church through the rationalism of the Enlightenment, through nationalism and monarchical absolutism, and through the French Revolution and the ideas it disseminated.

Even so, religious persecution continued to the end of the 19th century, even in such enlightened havens of freedom as the United States.  The Catholic Church was the object of attack not only in Protestant countries, but also at the hands of Aliberal@ governments in countries where the majority of the people were Catholic.  Protestant dissident sects suffered repression in England and in the Protestant sections of Germany.

Throughout the 19th century the popes, from Gregory XVI to Pius IX and Leo XIII, repudiated the principle that all religions should have equal rights and privileges before the law.  The reason for their resolute stand was the context in which religious liberty was proposed.  It was defended as part of irreligion, since all religion, as the influential Voltaire maintained, was just a product of psychological and social processes without any supernatural origin.  Hence all religions are equally valid and may be practised or neglected as one sees fit.  Add to this reasoning the many assaults on the Church in the spirit of the French Revolution, anti-clerical laws, the secularization of Church institutions, and finally the take-over of the Papal States, and one may understand the popes= alarm.

On the other hand, the popes were not altogether intransigent.  They never opposed the Belgian Constitution of 1831 which provided freedom of worship for all.  Leo XIII explicitly accepted the distinction, already entrenched in papal policy, between the Athesis@ or ideal Catholic state, and the Ahypothesis@, which is the practical pluralistic world in which we live, where religious liberty must be accepted.

The 19th century brought the Church to a practical accommodation with religious liberty in a secular state, but the theory of religious liberty was unresolved.  The thesis-hypothesis distinction seemed only a subterfuge, a way of asking liberty for the Church when it is weak, but denying it to others when it is strong.  This theory was very embarrassing in countries like the United States, where Catholics were accused of waiting for a chance to grab power and suppress other religions.

Catholic theologians wrestled with this problem throughout the 20th century.  They were concerned with both the absolute demands of Catholic faith and the need to accommodate and cooperate with other men of good will.  As a result, a major development of thought on religious liberty took place, involving deeper historical research, philosophical reflection on society, and scriptural and theological analysis.  Theologians such as John Courtney Murray prepared the way for the decisive position of Nostra Aetate and thus removed a big obstacle to dialogue.

The new thinking was mature in time for the Second Vatican Council, and was enshrined in the Declaration on Religion Liberty of 7 December 1965.  This document consists of an introduction, a chapter examining the matter in the light of reason and philosophy, and a chapter examining it from the light of revelation.  Since then this thinking has become part and parcel of the Catholic mind, so much so that it is hard now to imagine the long struggle it took to achieve this consensus.  At the same time Protestant thinking has moved in the same direction, particularly as a result of American experience, so that we can speak of a well nigh universal Christian consensus on religious freedom, from grass-roots to leadership.

The Vatican II document on religious liberty can be summarized under the following points:

1.  The one true religion is found in the Catholic Church (and to a varying extent elsewhere).

2.  All are bound in conscience to seek the truth and embrace it when they find it.

3.  Compulsion may never be used to make people profess or repudiate any religion or to prevent them from joining or leaving a religious body, even if they fail honestly to seek the truth, a) because truth can impose itself only in virtue of its own truth freely sought and accepted, b) because God=s law is mediated to each individual through his conscience, c) because civil authority is a human institution concerned with the common good of society, whereas judging the truth of revelation and man=s acceptance of it are beyond its competency.

4.  Religious freedom includes the right to organize in community for worship and religious instruction.

5.  Religious freedom includes immunity from government interference in training and appointing religious leaders, communicating with religious authorities and communities elsewhere in the world, and getting land and permission to build for its needs.

6.  Religious freedom includes the right to teach and bear witness publicly, to comment on social matters from the standpoint of religious principles, and to have educational, cultural and charitable and social organisations.

7.  Parents have the right to have their children instructed in their own religious beliefs.  This right must be respected in schools.

8.  The traditions of some peoples may legitimate civil recognition of a particular religion, but this may not result in discrimination and favouritism or interfere with the religious freedom and equality of all before the law.

9.  Religious freedom excludes: a) coercive or unworthy methods of persuasion, b) disturbance of public peace and rejection of legitimate civil authority.  Yet freedom should be given the fullest possible recognition and be curtailed only when and in so far as its necessary.

Religious freedom and religious liberty, it may be noted, are equivalent terms.  The two go beyond religious tolerance/toleration, which implies first that what is tolerated is evil, wrong or erroneous, and secondly that the tolerating party is more powerful and benignly offers the weaker party toleration.


[1]Some of this was printed in my AReligious freedom, the basis of dialogue,@ Encounter, Documents for Muslim-Christian understanding (Rome), n.181-182 (January-February, 1992)

[2]Quoted by Louis Bouyer in AToleration and the teaching of the early Fathers@, in Tolerance and the Catholic, a symposium (N.Y.: Sheed & Ward, 1955), p. 53.

[3]See W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and persecution in the early Church (New York U.P., 1967).

[4]See Louis Bouyer, op. cit., pp. 33-34.

[5]Ibid., p. 41.

[6]Ibid., pp. 32-33.

[7]Ibid., p. 41.

[8]Part 1, dist. 45, canon 3 upholds the freedom of Jews to celebrate their religious rites.  Canon 5 forbids compelling Jews to convert and forbids those who converted to turn back.  Part 2, cause 11, q. 3, canon 24 allows socializing with those who never accepted the Faith.  Yet Part 2, cause 28, q. 1, ch. 15-17 forbids marriage with Jews; and chs. 12-14 prohibit socializing with them; it seems Thomas had ch. 11 in mind when he attacked the opinion that their minor children could be baptized against their parents= wishes.  Part 2, cause 17, q. 4, canon 31 forbids giving Jews any public office.  Cf. Decretum Magistri Gratiani, ed. A.L. Richter (Graz, 1959).