Religious Liberty and Tradition II

This is the second of four parts of an essay on the interpretation of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanæ. Part I considered inadequate interpretations. A printable version of the whole essay can be found here.

The English philosopher Thomas Pink has recently developed a new account of the continuity and discontinuity with previous teaching in Dignitatis Humanæ.[1] Pink is an expert on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and it was Hobbes that led him to a new approach to the problem, since one of Hobbes’s main concerns in Leviathan was to refute the Catholic claim according to which the Church has its own coercive authority independent of the state.[2] The two main defenders of the Catholic position in Hobbes’s time were Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez, and so Pink studied their arguments. He noticed that they pose the question of coercion in religious matters in terms quite different from those usual today. Today it is usual to see the question of freedom and coercion in religion as a question of the competence of the state: does the state have the authority to use coercion in religious matters or not? Moreover, the coercion in question is thought of as coercion of public actions, not of the interior act of faith itself.[3] But Bellarmine and Suarez do not treat the question of religious coercion in the first place as a question of the competence of the state; they treat it as a question of the competence of the Church, since they see the Church as a societas perfecta (a complete community) with its own coercive authority— an authority to promulgate binding laws and enforce them with sanctions. The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ and Communion of Saints, is of course much more than a juridical societas perfecta, but this juridical character is essential to her as well. Church laws are therefore not merely rules of a voluntary society, which would only bind so long as one wished to remain within the society. Rather, Church law is genuine coercive law, binding on all her members.[4]

Everyone who has become a member of the Body of Christ through Baptism is thereby forever subject to the law of the Church. Baptism does not “expire” when someone apostatizes or falls into heresy or schism. The Church can therefore continue to demand that the baptized keep their baptismal vows and the other duties flowing from baptism. And the Church can back this demand up with sanctions.[5] The Council of Trent explicitly taught that the Church as a genuine coercive authority can impose not only spiritual sanctions (such as excommunication), but also temporal sanctions. Against a thesis of Erasmus, who thought that baptized children ought not to be forced to keep their vows when grown up, Trent promulgated the following canon:

If anyone says that when they grow up, those baptized as little children should be asked whether they wish to affirm what their godparents promised in their name when they were baptized; and that, when they reply that they have no such wish, they should be left to their own decision and not, in the meantime, be coerced by any penalty into the Christian life, except that they be barred from the reception of the Eucharist and the other sacraments, until they have a change of heart: let him be anathema.[6]

One of the main obligations that flows from Baptism is the obligation to believe. According to the traditional teaching it belongs to the essence of faith that it be free, and no one can therefore be coerced into Baptism; the Church has always condemned forced Baptisms.[7] But once a person has received the supernatural virtue of faith through Baptism that person is obliged to keep the faith. For this reason St Thomas Aquinas, to take one prominent example, teaches that although the unbaptized can never be forced to accept the Christian faith, heretics who have fallen away from the true faith can and ought to be coerced back into accepting it.[8] Pope Pius VI confirmed this view, explicitly citing St. Thomas, in the Brief Quod Aliquantulum (1791):

We must distinguish between those who have always been outside the Church, namely infidels and Jews, and those who have subjected themselves to her through Baptism. The former ought not to be compelled to profess the Catholic Faith, the latter however are to be coerced (sunt cogendi). St. Thomas proves this with his usual solidity.[9]

During the Counter Reformation such teachings were used to justify coercing Protestants to accept the Catholic faith. Since there is only one Baptism, baptized Protestants are subject to the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church.[10] As Pink points out, one can of course question the prudence and morality of the inquisitorial methods of applying this teaching, but such questioning need not necessarily entail a rejection of the teaching itself.[11]

The idea that persons should be coerced not only in their external actions, but even in the very act of faith itself is unusual today. Pink shows that the influence of the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke have had an important role in making such an idea seem strange. Hobbes and Locke argue that such coercion ought to be forbidden de jure because it is impossible de facto.[12] But according to scholastic philosophy legal coercion has a pedagogical function,[13] and therefore it can help persons to accept the truth. Since Baptism infuses the virtue of faith, coercion need not necessarily lead to hypocrisy. Coercion can force the baptized to examine the evidence of the faith.

In exercising coercion the Church has historically made use of the right to use the temporal power as an instrument or organ (secular arm). This does not however imply that the temporal power was seen as having a native jurisdiction in religious matters. Insofar as the temporal power acts as an instrument of the Church it is precisely not acting on its native authority. In the 19th century this distinction was very emphatically taught by Pope Leo XIII:

The Almighty, therefore, has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things. […] Whatever, therefore in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church. Whatever is to be ranged under the civil and political order is rightly subject to the civil authority.[14]

Thus the temporal power has no authority whatsoever in religious matters. Nevertheless, this does not exclude the temporal power acting as an agent of the Church in such matters.

In the light of this distinction Pink can show the continuity of Dignitatis Humanæ with previous teaching. For previous teaching would agree that in religion everyone should be “immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power,” (Dignitatis Humanæ § 2) if “human power” is taken to mean worldly or temporal power. Thus Dignitatis Humanæ § 3 is entirely traditional when it teaches that “religious acts” “transcend by their very nature the order of terrestrial and temporal affairs,” and that the state would “transgress the limits set to its power,” were it to command or forbid such acts.[15]

But such a statement about the limits of the authority of the temporal power in no way restricts the authority of the Church. For Dignitatis Humanæ explicitly states that it is treating of “immunity from coercion in civil society” and leaving untouched traditional teaching on duties toward the Church, and therefore by implication the rights of the Church.[16] So on Pink’s reading Dignitatis Humanæ is treating only of the state’s own task and authority derived from natural law, not on any additional task that it might receive as agent of the Church. It is simply not treating of the authority of the Church to coerce the baptized even with the assistance of the secular arm. Pink sees this reading confirmed in the fact that a number of council fathers wanted a passage inserted affirming “as compatible with religious liberty that the Church use sanctions to impose her doctrine and discipline on those subject to her,”[17] but the Conciliar Commission rejected this request for the following reason: “This (proposal) is not admitted, since ecclesial obligation or right are not treated here, nor is the question of freedom within the Church herself.”[18]

But, Pink argues, by not mentioning the right of the Church to make use of the state as secular arm Dignitatis Humanæ changes Church policy. That is, the Church no longer makes use of that right; she no longer authorizes the temporal power to act as her agent:

the Church’s present and evident refusal to license such coercion by states on her authority […] is […] made evident by Dignitatis Humanae in itself; by the Church’s subsequent diplomatic policy toward states, which now excludes state coercion to support Catholicism; and by the absence from the 1983 Code of Canon Law of the requirement on the state to act as a coercive agent that the 1917 Code had contained. […] Dignitatis Humanae constitutes a great reform in the policy of the Catholic Church. For the first time since late antiquity, the state is no longer directed to act as the Church’s agent to enforce and defend her jurisdiction.[19]

This is a change not in doctrinal principles, but in their disciplinary application to particular historical circumstances. Thus Pink’s reading does indeed use a “hermeneutic of reform”—he shows continuity at the level of principles, but discontinuity at the level of application to circumstances.

Pink’s postition can thus be summarized as follows:

  • There is a right to religious liberty.
  • This right means that no worldly power has the authority to coerce persons to religious acts, or to prevent them from practicing religion within the limits of public order.
  • The Church as the spiritual power has the authority to coerce the baptized (and only the baptized) to keep their baptismal vows.
  • For this purpose the Church can make use of temporal power as an instrument or agent.
  • Dignitatis Humanæ treats of religious freedom only in relation to the temporal power.
  • Practically Dignitatis Humanæ represents a change in Church policy, since the Church no longer makes use of her right to use the temporal power as an instrument.

I consider Pink’s case very strong indeed, but it is to be expected that there will be opposition to it from those who have expounded other interpretations. Thus Martin Rhonheimer has defended his own interpretation against Pink. According to Rhonheimer the traditional teaching, according to which the Church can make use of the temporal power as its instrument for coercing the baptized in religious matters has “no roots in Scripture, nor in the Apostolic Tradition or in the Fathers,”[20] and was therefore reformable, and was in fact “definitively and with sound theological reasons abandoned by Vatican II.”[21] Rhonheimer tries to establish this by an appeal to the history of Church-state relations, which he claims Pink “disregards.”[22] In order to defend Pink against Rhonheimer I will now give a brief summary of the relations between the Church and the temporal power. I will base this summary in large part on Rhonheimer’s own research,[23] but will draw very different conclusions from Rhonheimer.

Part III will consider the history of the relation of spiritual and temporal power; Part IV will consider the concerns of theologians at the Council. A printable version of the whole essay can be found here.


[1] See: Thomas Pink, “What is the Catholic doctrine of religious liberty?” (Lecture, Trumau, June 2012): (accessed November 22, 2014); idem, “The Right to Religious Liberty and the Coercion of Belief: A Note on Dignitatis Humanae,” in: John Keown and Robert P. George (ed.), Reason, Morality, and Law: The Philosophy of John Finnis (Oxford 2013) 427-442; idem, “Conscience and Coercion: Vatican II’s Teaching on Religious Freedom Changed Policy, not Doctrine,” in: First Things 225 (2012): 45-51; idem, “The Interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae: A Reply to Martin Rhonheimer,” in: Nova et Vetera, English Edition 11,1 (2013): 77–121; idem, “Jacques Maritain and the Problem of Church and State” (Lecture, Mundelein, October 2013): (accessed October 21, 2014); idem, “Suarez and Bellarmine on the Church as Coercive Lawgiver” (Lecture, Bologna, December 2013): (accessed October 21, 2014).

[2] See: Pink, “Suarez and Bellarmine” 187.

[3] Pink, “What is the Catholic Doctrine” 1-2.

[4] Pink, “Suarez and Bellarmine” 187-188.

[5] Pink, “Suarez and Bellarmine” 188.

[6] Council of Trent, Session VII, Decree on Baptism, canon 14, 3 March 1547; citation following: Pink, “What is the Catholic Doctrine” 16; for the Latin text see: Denzinger/Hünermann 1627.

[7] Cf. Dignitatis Humanæ §§ 11-12 with many citations of patristic and magisterial texts.

[8] See: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ IIa-IIæ, q10, a8.

[9] Pius VI, Quod Aliquantulum, in: Brefs et instructions de notre Saint Père le Pape Pie VI, Vol. 1 (Rome 1797) 132; cf. Rhonheimer, “Benedict XVI’s Hermeneutic” 1036.

[10] See: Pink, “Pink, Suarez and Bellarmine” 188.

[11] Pink, “What is the Catholic Doctrine” 26; cf. Edmund Waldstein, “Tarnishing the Splendor of Truth,” Sancrucensis (blog), January 2, 2014: (accessed November 24, 2014).

[12] Pink, “What is the Catholic Doctrine” 6.

[13] See: Pink, “What is the Catholic Doctrine” 6-9; cf. Michel Therrien, Law, Liberty & Virtue: A Thomistic Defense for the Pedagogical Character of Law (Dissertation, Fribourg, 2007).

[14] Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, in: Acta Sancta Sedis 18 (1885) §§ 11, 14; translation: (accessed November 14, 2014).

[15] See: Pink, “What is the Catholic Doctrine” 45 and passim.

[16] Dignitatis Humanæ § 1.

[17] Pink, “What is the Catholic Doctrine” 34.

[18] Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II (Rome 1970-1980), Vol. 4, Pars 6, 763; trans. following Pink, “What is the Catholic Doctrine” 34.

[19] Pink, “Conscience and Coercion.”

[20] Rhonheimer, “Dignitatis Humanae—Not a Mere Question” 447.

[21] Rhonheimer, “Dignitatis Humanae—Not a Mere Question” 447.

[22] Rhonheimer, “Dignitatis Humanae—Not a Mere Question” 447.

[23] As presented above all in the first part of Christentum und säkularer Staat.