On Liberty of Cult

by Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara, OP

Translated by Timothy Wilson

Today we continue our series of original translations of important texts relating to Catholic political philosophy. Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara was a prominent Thomist philosopher and theologian in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Among many other accomplishments, he was closely involved with the preparation of the Leonine edition of the Angelic Doctor’s Opera Omnia (the first volume of which contains his synopses and annotations on St. Thomas’ Organon commentaries), and assisted in preparing the encyclicals Aeterni Patris and Rerum novarum.

The chapter translated here is taken from book two of the third part of Zigliara’s widely circulated Summa philosophica (14th ed., 1910). Having treated of domestic, civil, and religious society in their principles and particulars in the preceding books and chapters of this part, he now sets himself the task of treating in brief the relations which should obtain between those two perfect societies, the Church and the State. The original text can be found here.

This is the third of the five articles of the chapter, treating of liberty of cult. The remaining articles will be posted serially over the next few days.


On liberty of cult

I. The notion of liberty of cults. Liberty of cult is intimately involved with liberty of conscience. For if each and every citizen is free to decide upon a religion for himself according to his will, since religion implies also an external cult, each and every citizen ought to be free to profess his religion by any extrinsic cult whatever: and because the State is not able to offend against liberty of conscience, so neither may it prohibit liberty of cult; no indeed, it ought to sanction it by its laws. Thus teaches liberalism, the opinion of which the Church has condemned, as has been related in no. VII of the preceding article. Since, therefore, the liberty of cult is wholly founded in the liberty of conscience, it is to be refuted by the same process and with the same principles which we have laid down against liberty of conscience. Therefore let the first conclusion be set forth:

II. Liberty of cult, considered in itself, is absurd. This proposition remains proved in the first place from the things said above. For liberty of cult is inferred from the liberty of conscience. Because, therefore, this latter is absurd, the former ought also to be called absurd. — But furthermore: liberty of cult having been conceded to man, there is removed from God the power of assigning a determinate cult to men, and there is imposed upon God an obligation of accepting or at least approving any cult shown to Him by human reason. And indeed, if God is able to command a cult, if it is clear that He has prescribed a determinate cult, if He is held by no reason to accept the arbitrary cults of men, men are not able, without manifest irreligion or impiety, to oppose the commands of God, and their cult is an arbitrary and true mockery of God, and liberty of cult is superstition and an impiety. But it is an impiety to deny to God the ability of determining cult, and to impose in any way the duty of approving any cult whatsoever indiscriminately. Therefore liberty of cult is absurd. — In addition, let the second conclusion be stated:

III. Although the civil social authority is able at times to tolerate liberty of cult, yet it is in no way able to sanction it by any law. There is nothing to be added concerning tolerance after the things said concerning tolerance of liberty of conscience. And so the thesis is proved with respect to approbative or prescriptive law. We have proved above that political atheism is entirely repugnant. Therefore, just as any citizen, so also society itself, endued as it is with the nature of a moral person, is obliged to the duties of religion, and of true religion, by a most strict precept of nature. But religion implies external cult. Therefore the civil authority, to which it belongs to direct society, is most strictly obliged to observe, inculcate, and promote this external cult: I say that the civil authority is held to a cult consentaneous to the nature of sociality, that is, public, social, and finally, proper to society as it is society, or as a public and moral personality. But a false cult is not religion, but superstition and consequently error and impiety. Therefore to sanction liberty of cult, is to sanction impiety, but the denial of some social cult is the negation of religion in society qua society. Therefore social authority, although at times it is able to tolerate liberty of cult, yet is in no wise able to sanction it in law.

These things seem to me to be evident, and I wonder that they are denied not only by the rationalists—who, since they either explicitly deny God or retain Him in word only, logically reject any religion by the individual and from society—but by the liberalism which wishes to be called Catholic. For a Catholic would know that God ought to be worshiped with a true cult, and thus a false cult is not able to be endorsed; that God has spoken to men, has commanded a determinate cult, has constituted the Catholic Church as the sole magistra in those matters which pertain to religion—and hence there ought not to be approved any cult but that ordained by the Church, commanded by God Himself.

IV. Note. A difficulty is resolved. You may say: by means of liberty of cult, the Catholic Church also is able freely to practice its worship, while on the contrary, this liberty having been removed, the Church loses even her juridical liberty. — I respond, that this sort of argument effects a sham, and confounds things which, among themselves, are distinct and ought to be distinguished. For we are able to speak in a twofold manner concerning liberty of cult, relatively and absolutely[1]. Relatively, against those who proclaim liberty of cult and yet (just as we have heard from Rousseau concerning liberty of conscience) plague the Church, and prohibit her from practicing her worship, we argue in this manner: Either liberty of cult is to be admitted as a true social principle, or not. If it is to be admitted, therefore unjustly and irrationally are Catholics prohibited from profiting by their liberty; but if not, therefore liberty of cult is merely proclaimed by means of a solemn lie. This argumentation is indeed right, and strikes against the adversaries: wherefore also the Catholic Church does not scornfully reject it, but urges it so that she might defend the claims of her liberty.

But this does not imply that the liberty of cult is able to be defended absolutely by Catholics. For liberty of cult, considered in itself, is absurd and impious, as has been proved. Therefore it is absurd and impious to defend it in an absolute manner. And although from such liberty there sometimes arise goods, namely the liberty of Catholics, Catholics are not for this reason able to teach or defend it; for it is not licit to speak error for the apparent defense of truth: «For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie, unto his glory, why am I also yet judged as a sinner? And not rather (as we are slandered, and as some affirm that we say) let us do evil, that there may come good? whose damnation is just» (Rom. III, 7-8).


[1] The Cardinal here refers to vol. 1 of his manual, Logica: Dialectica III, cap. 4, a. II, no. XI, where, delineating kinds of demonstration, he writes:

«Absolute demonstration, and relative demonstration or ad hominem. The first is that which proceeds from premises, the truth of which is admitted by us and is assumed for inferring something absolutely: as when we demonstrate the real existence of God from the contingency of creatures, and other things of this sort. A relative or ad hominem demonstration is that which proceeds from principles admitted by an adversary and assumed by us in order to refute him, an abstraction having been made from the truth of those principles; as if someone were to assume principles admitted by materialists or rationalists, in order to convince them of the falsity of their doctrine.»

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