The alternative to freedom of religion

I value my Protestant conservative allies.  I notice they seem to get concerned when they hear that traditionalist Catholics object to the principle of religious freedom.  Presumably, they worry that, should Catholics ever again gain power, we will start persecuting Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and so forth.  I can sympathize; if I were a Lutheran, Anglican, or Methodist, I would prefer that people be willing to tolerate me.  However, they’re going about reassuring themselves in the wrong way.

This age is fond of abstractions.  They won’t simply ask we if I am willing to tolerate Lutherans practicing their religion.  Instead, they ask me something more general.  I am presented with two boxes.  One box is labeled “a religion”, but I am not allowed to peak inside.  Inside could be Methodism, Islam, Druidism, Buddhism, or who knows what else.  The other box is labeled “religious practice”, and I am not allowed to peak inside that box either.  It might contain anything from prayer to almsgiving to human sacrifice.  They consider that the only principled thing to do is to set forth a policy without looking into these boxes.

Of course, the policy needn’t be unlimited liberty.  After all, human sacrifice might be lurking inside one of those boxes.  Well, could we just say “okay, I’ll accept anything in these boxes, as long as it’s not human sacrifice”?  That would be unwise.  There might be all sorts of nasty stuff inside the second box that I’m not thinking of.  We could say “Any group from the first box may do anything from the second box as long as it’s not illegal.”  Now that second box isn’t nearly so scary, but “religious freedom” amounts to absolutely nothing.  There’s a law that says your business can’t discriminate against gay weddings.  There was once a law that said everybody has to offer a pinch of incense to the divine Caesar.  Formally speaking, these are religiously neutral laws, although in practice they present inconveniences for some religions more than others.  As long as we remain at this level of abstraction, freedom of religion either means anarchy or it means nothing.

Nobody really does remain at that level of abstraction, though.  We all have some sense of what sorts of activities we are sanctioning by “freedom of religion”, always a smaller set of activities than what one can find in the history of religion as normally defined.  In the context of the early United States, pretty much all of the things in the first box were flavors of Protestantism, and the activities in the second box were pretty similar across denominations and all stuff endorsed by the broader culture.  Freedom of religion, as defined by this cultural context, was a pretty sensible policy.

Many conservatives have noted that liberal politicians have lately tended to replace “freedom of religion” with “freedom of worship” in their rhetoric.  The former, they’ve realized, can interfere with their social engineering schemes, while the latter they imagine to be harmless stuff done in a church.  In the abstract, though, “worship” is just as vague a term as “religion”.  What the Left is doing is appealing to a cultural/linguistic context where the demands of “worship” are much more uniform across cults than the demands of “religion”.  They too feel the need to frame things abstractly.

No, Catholics don’t believe in freedom of religion in the abstract.  Nobody does.  It would be terribly unfair for overzealous concilarists to demand the Lefebvrists be the only ones be believe it as a condition for regularization.  If what you really want to know is whether I’m inclined to tolerate Lutherans, it’s better to just ask me if I think a Catholic state should tolerate Lutherans.  After all, I know roughly what Lutherans believe and have some sense of what goes on in a Lutheran Church.

What is the alternative to freedom of religion?  Case-by-case toleration.  This list of religious practices is allowed.  This list of practices isn’t.  This is what most pre-liberal societies did.  Many cults flourished in the Roman Empire, but the Romans would suppress quite harshly ones they regarded as bad.  This policy is so obvious, nobody even thought to name it.  Really, there is no alternative.  Freedom of religion turns out to be just another case of liberalism promising to let us avoid making judgements about all the big issues while somehow still answering all our questions about political order.  The thing can’t really be done.

Minority religions may not like this.  If there are two lists–allowed and forbidden cults–they will have to continually make the case that they belong on the first list.  They can’t rest on an assurance of universal toleration; they must argue that their particular doctrines and practices are worthy of accommodation.  But, really, this will always be the situation.  If you don’t convince the majority, or at least the rulers, that your beliefs are worthy of respect, they won’t be tolerated.  The Soviet Union legally had religious freedom, but this abstract assurance did nothing for Christians in practice.  An abstract guarantee of universal religious toleration from a future Catholic king would in itself be equally useless.  There will always be religiously neutral-sounding restrictions, concerns for the common good, for public morality,…

If you ask me personally, I’d say that Protestants should be allowed to do their Protestant things, given my understanding of what those things currently are.  On the other hand, I’m a very bad Catholic, and a long line of popes and saints disagree with me on this.  And even a decision to tolerate a group doesn’t give it carte blanche to do as it pleases.  The one religion that Catholicism has consistently taught should be tolerated (other than itself) is Judaism, but this meant Judaism as Catholics understood it, not necessarily as Jews understood it.  The Church felt entitled to condemn some bits of the Talmud.  So even if I’d be inclined to tolerate Protestantism in its classical form, I wouldn’t recommend my future kingdom put up with things like feminist degeneracy even if it has a label like “Episcopalian” slapped on it.

If a Protestant were to ask me what sort of Catholic theological development would do the most to make Catholicism safe for them, here’s what I’d say.  Remember that the reason the Jews were tolerated is because of what Saint Paul said about their future conversion and Christ’s return.  The best thing for you would be if Catholics were to give up on all this Christian reunification stuff and push off reunion with the Protestants to the eschaton, with their conversion taken as a sign of the End Times like that of the Jews.  Good luck convincing us of that, though, because you guys aren’t even in the Bible.

11 Responses

  1. If you ask me personally, I’d say that Protestants should be allowed to do their Protestant things

    Under what circumstances? Letting the Protestants into your 100% Catholic country would be crazy, for example. Toleration is, as you say, a case-by-case prudential judgment. However, the decision to tolerate is not, as you seem to imply, determined exclusively by the cultic and creedal characteristics of the potentially-tolerated faith.

  2. I’m perfectly fine with papists who are in favor of religious persecution, so long as you understand that I’m in favor of religious persecution of papists (God willing). We shouldn’t let the fact that in the end there can only be one dominant religion per society obscure the fact that conservative protestants and conservative papists both need to defeat secular progressives in order to secure a Christian society. Just as it would be absurd for Italian nationalists and Slav nationalists to prefer the European Union (no nationalism for anyone, anywhere) to an outcome where the other group got control of Istria, it is absurd for Christians in any particular society to prefer laïcité to potentially losing the reins of the Church to another denomination.

  3. I suppose it depends on what you mean by toleration. As a simple -practical- matter, Protestants make up a large percentage of Anglo-German countries these days. It would be unwise and unjust to treat them like the Anglicans treated Catholics in the reigns of Henry VII and Elizabeth I. However, technical legal toleration is – as we have learnt – not the same thing as cultural toleration. It would behoove any Catholic sovereign to do what he could to convince the body of Protestants to convert, and that may very well include things like punitive taxes – though not, as I mentioned above, tortures and imprisonments, with the possible exception of those who go about trying to -spread- the Protestant heresy.

  4. The rub seems to be to what degree evangelization should be tolerated. Whether in a Protestant or Catholic nation, if there is a faction of the other within the nation they will be making evangelical efforts, and their ability to do so will be directly proportional to the sovereign’s toleration of their existence and practice. A significant change in the religious deomographics of a nation leads to instability, especially if the sovereign converts to the religion of the minority faction. I’m glad I’m not a sovereign responsible for making these kinds of decisions on religious toleration.

  5. The key word here is toleration, which many assume means uncritical acceptance, which it does not.

    When it comes to Tolerance, what matters is where you draw the line, and I think one of the sad failures of Catholicism, speaking as a Catholic, is its historical near total lack of tolerance. Protestantism, on the other hand, seems to have a problem with drawing the line anywhere.

    I think that there is plenty of scope, in both Catholic and Protestant religions to tolerate each other without tolerating crazy. Respectfully, I suggest that the line be drawn at the empirical realities. Those that deny it are ostracized and those that accept it are tolerated.

  6. “Many cults flourished in the Roman Empire, but the Romans would suppress quite harshly ones they regarded as bad.”

    The Romans understood the power of religion; “Separatim nemo habessit deos neve novos neve advenas nisi publice adscitos” – Let no one have gods by himself, neither new nor introduced, unless publicly acknowledged, says the Law of the XII Tables of 500 BC. However, virtually all beliefs were tolerated; as Gibbon explains, “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” What the authorities viewed with deep suspicion was any kind of sect demanding the obedience of its members.

    We have a bronze tablet containing the Sc de Bacchanalibus, of 186 BC, suppressing the Bacchanalian cult and it is very revealing. “No one shall appoint either man or woman to be master or to act as master; no one, either man or woman, is to be an officer (to manage the temporal affairs of the organization); nor is anyone of them to have charge of a common treasury; they shall not form conspiracies among themselves… make mutual promises or agreements, or interchange pledges.” Drunken orgies in honour of a god were no problem; being part of an organization exercising authority over its members was to be “rem capvtalem faciendam censvere” – adjudged a capital offence.

    This fear only intensified under the Empire. After the great fire in Nicomedia, the Emperor Hadrian would not allow his friend Pliny to form a volunteer fire brigade; he feared it might become a political club. Christians were persecuted, not for their beliefs, but for their membership of a “collegium illicitum,” an illicit corporation, by authorities who condemned, as a state within the state, every inner group or community, class or corporation, exercising authority over its members.. “Non-denominational Christians,” had they existed (they didn’t), the Romans would have viewed with unconcern.

  7. NRx has this distressing tendency to act like the past never happened. You guys talk tough but I don’t think you’re serious. How about you live through the Thirty Years War and then come talk to me?

  8. Lefebvrists

    Why not call them what they are – traditional Catholics instead of treating them like a heretical sect? After all you are always so deferential and polite to the real heretics in your combox.

  9. I didn’t realize “Lefebvrists” is disrespectful.

  10. As some have pointed out, it makes a big difference whether the religion in question is already established within the country or is trying to gain entry.

  11. […] Bonald proposes case-by-case examination as The alternative to freedom of religion. […]

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