THE CATHOLIC KNIGHT: Within Catholic circles there is a significant debate over the term "religious liberty," and with that comes a significant misunderstanding, on both sides, as to what it actually means. I included the video above, of the popes visiting the synagogue in Rome, because nothing seems to highlight this debate and misunderstanding more so than the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews.
What is religious liberty, and what does it mean? It all depends on from what perspective you are interpreting it...
In an American (and now Western) sense, it mean simply "believe how you like" without interference from the government. It means the government cannot tell you what to believe, or what not to believe, when it comes to religious matters. In this sense it has nothing to do with what is right belief or wrong belief. It is strictly limited to what the government can and cannot do. The restriction is placed on government -- not the Church. Whereas liberty is granted to individuals. This is what we shall call religious liberty in a civil sense, for it has to do with civil society and civil law.
In a religious sense, it means something more than this. Religious liberty has come to be defined as a form of theological relativism. As in it doesn't matter what people believe, so long as they are good and have good intentions. "Believe whatever you like," so it is thought, "and you have reasonable assurance of heaven so long as you play nice." It is mistakenly thought, under this false religious interpretation, that Catholics have no right to evangelise non-Catholics, as everyone is "free" to "believe whatever they want." As you can imagine, this is the source of the confusion and the debate. Religious liberty, in this context of theological relativism, effectively nullifies the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It makes the death of Jesus on the cross irrelevant, and his life on earth no more significant than Buddha, Mohammed, Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard. Jesus becomes little more than a "good teacher" who is not so much greater than any other throughout history. What makes this misunderstanding so incredibly explosive is that shockingly, many Catholic subscribe to it!!!!
Now when I say many Catholics subscribe to it, that does not mean they have lost their emotional attachment to Jesus Christ. They still have that -- thank God! They may still have an emotional attachment to the mass, the sacraments, and Catholicism in general. What they also have, unfortunately, is a fundamental and toxic misunderstanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many Catholics subscribe to this relativist understanding of religious liberty in an attempt to tackle the tough questions in life. Question such as: "What about my friends and relatives who are non-Christians? Will they inherit eternal life?" Religious liberty, in a relativist religious context, offers them a quick and easy solution, but at the expense of Catholic orthodoxy. We shouldn't lay all the blame at the feet of laymen. Many Catholic priests, especially in the United States, have promoted this view. I have witnessed it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears. I have even confronted a priest about it. And in the course of our heated discussion, after he had just promoted this heresy in an R.C.I.A. class, one of the devout Catholic sponsors came up to him and thanked him for putting her mind to ease. You see, she had a family member who rejected Catholicism and became a Buddhist. She worried about her eternal salvation up until this priest's lecture. Now, she said she no longer needed to worry about her, or attempt to evangelise her, because she's a "good person" and that makes her "good enough" to get to heaven. After she walked away, the priest I was confronting was speechless. Everything I was saying to him was just confirmed by somebody who had no idea what we were talking about. She just walked up, made my case for me, and then walked away. The priest was left wide-eyed and stone-faced. I said to him "you see!?!" He said nothing. Like a zombie he just walked away. As if after years (maybe decades) of preaching this nonsense, it finally dawned on him what he had done. I later learned that he succumbed to a deep depression and required medication. I don't know where he is today, but I pray he has learned his lesson and I do hope he is feeling better. For it would be far better for him to fully repent, and become an apologist against this error, then for him to go on in a life of regret.
Naturally, it is this very acceptance of theological relativism that has caused many traditional Catholics to react violently. (I'm speaking in a spiritual sense here.) They find the whole thing repulsive, and rightfully so, and go so far as to say the mainline Church is corrupted with the errors of the modern age -- "Modernism." Most of them remain faithful to the pope and the bishops of course, though they do sometimes segregate themselves from the mainline Catholic population by strictly attending the Traditional Latin Mass (Tridentine Missal of Pope John XXIII), and joining various societies and confraternities that have strong traditional appeal. Again, who can blame them? Anyone with strong orthodox leanings might be tempted to do the same. Then of course there are the ultra-traditionalists who claim to be more Catholic than the pope. These are those who have bought into various conspiracy theories, about how the Vatican was taken over by communists, and the pope is really an imposter. Most of these people have separated themselves from the Church formally, creating what are often referred to as "Sedevacantists" communities, meaning those who believe the Chair of Peter is vacant. A small few have even gone so far as to elect a new pope more to their liking. (I believe he lives with his mother in Kansas if I'm not mistaken. Ah yes, here's the link. Most of my readers should find this entertaining.) It's a bit sad when you think about it, that a dignified faith such as Catholicism would be reduced to this, but it is the result (in my opinion) of a poorly defined explanation of religious liberty. People get the wrong idea of what it means, and then other people react to that wrong idea, resulting in the mess we now have today between the mistaken "Modernists" and the reacting "Traditionalists."
So what is religious liberty in a Catholic sense? What does the Church mean when it says "religious liberty?"
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (emphasis mine)...
The social duty of religion and the right to religious freedomSo based on the Church's own teaching, which is easily found in the Catechism, the Catholic Church maintains her absolute monopoly on the full truth given to the apostles by Jesus Christ. That is not to say that other religions, faiths, churches, etc. lack any portion of that truth, or even a large share of it, but the full truth given to the apostles SUBSISTS in the Catholic Church. The word "subsists" means to exist and to continue in existence. It means to live on and maintain life, as if to say a baby "subsists" on milk and a man "subsists" on food. It is absolutely necessary. So with that definition in mind, the Catechism (in paragraph 2105) tells us to believe in "the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church." The Catechism minces no words here. It is clearly telling us that Catholic Christianity, or Catholicism, IS the one true faith.
2104 "All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it." This duty derives from "the very dignity of the human person." It does not contradict a "sincere respect" for different religions which frequently "reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men," nor the requirement of charity, which urges Christians "to treat with love, prudence and patience those who are in error or ignorance with regard to the faith."
2105 The duty of offering God genuine worship concerns man both individually and socially. This is "the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ." By constantly evangelizing men, the Church works toward enabling them "to infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which [they] live. "The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good. It requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church. Christians are called to be the light of the world. Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies.
2106 "Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits." This right is based on the very nature of the human person, whose dignity enables him freely to assent to the divine truth which transcends the temporal order. For this reason it "continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it."
2107 "If because of the circumstances of a particular people special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional organization of a state, the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom must be recognized and respected as well."
2108 The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities. This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the juridical order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right.
2109 The right to religious liberty can of itself be neither unlimited nor limited only by a "public order" conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner. The "due limits" which are inherent in it must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with "legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order."
Likewise, (in paragraph 2108) the Catechism tells us that by advocating "religious liberty" the Church is not giving license to error. That, in one sentence, wipes out the whole notion of theological relativism. Instead it defines religious liberty as pertaining primarily to the civil definition, which I pointed out above. In other words, we don't use the civil laws of the land to force people to convert. We don't use government to persuade or prod people into converting either. That doesn't mean that government can't be used to protect a religion, or a culture, from the assault of godless secularism. For example, laws can be enacted to protect prayer in public schools, prohibit the disruption of church services, and even recognise the contribution a religion has made toward a particular culture. Government leaders can be openly religious, if they so choose, and so can government officials of all types. What the Church is prohibiting here is using civil laws to force people, against their will, to attend a particular church or subscribe to a particular creed. As Catholics, we are not supposed to do that, as it violates the Christian law of charity.
The Catechism goes a little further than that, in saying that certain social climates should be accounted for too. Aside from government pressure, sometimes social pressure can force people to convert for less than sincere reasons. For example, if certain societies give Catholics more privilege than non-Catholics, even if this is done only by social traditions rather than civil laws, it is still immoral, because it lacks charity and is designed to force people to convert solely to elevate social status. The Catechism is telling us to "be fair." Don't make it hard for non-Catholics, like Jews or Protestants for example, by enacting laws that restrict them, or social norms that make people look down on them. In summary; treat non-Catholics fairly, both in law and society, so they have no cause to resent us, and their conversions might be sincere. This is what the Church means by "religious liberty." It categorically does not mean, "believe what you like."
Having said that, it does not mean inviting non-Catholics to sing in the parish choir, or receive communion at the altar rail. There are of course reasonable limits. We are talking about fairness in society here, not opening up churches to a religious free-for-all.
So what about those tough questions, like "what happens to my Buddhist family member?" The Catechism acknowledges that it is possible for Jesus Christ to save them in ways outside of the normal sacraments, but it nowhere says this method is "easy" or "guaranteed." In fact, the Catechism seems to suggest such occasions are really quite rare and unnatural. This is why it is so very important for Catholic Christians to evangelise, Evangelise, EVANGELISE!!! For acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the one best shot anyone has at receiving eternal life in Heaven. Everything else is an unnecessary and unwarranted gamble -- not to mention a dangerous one.
I often compare finding eternal life in Heaven to finding one's way out of a deep dark cave, which is sort of like the darkness of this world. In a cave there are many pitfalls, dangerous holes, running water, creatures that bite, and an endless maze of twisted caverns. So it is with life in general. To the Catholic, a powerful spotlight is given, able to illuminate the whole cavern. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the sacraments of the Catholic Church. To the Protestant, a less powerful hand-held flash light is given, able to illuminate well the path before him, but not much further than that. To the Jew is given a candle. To the Muslim a glow-stick. To everyone else they must use their hands to feel their way around. Now, which one is most likely to find his/her way out of the cave? Which one is least likely? It is impossible for none, but difficult for some, and exceedingly difficult for those with no light at all. Wouldn't you prefer to have the best light possible?
If more Catholics understood this, I think there would be less cause for dispute within the Church. Please consider sharing this article with your Catholic friends and family.