A Vindication of the American Dream
A Debate on Tolerance and Religious Liberty
The previous article on “The Two Swords” [The Angelus, Jan.-Feb. 2013] expounded the social doctrine on the relations of Church and State in the ideal circumstance of a Catholic State: this is when there is harmony between the two powers working towards a common good. Added to this is another principle which regards those cases where the Catholic faith is not that of the great majority of the citizens. This is called the principle of tolerance, and it is also an essential element of Church doctrine.
After a brief exposition of the question, we shall bring out the two groups involved in the dispute, before concluding with the results reached at Vatican II.
Magisterium on Tolerance
“The Church, indeed,” Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei teaches, “deems it unlawful to place the various forms of divine worship on the same footing as the True Religion, but does not, on that account, condemn those rulers who, for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, patiently allow custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the State.”
In the footsteps of Leo XIII, Pius XII in Ci Riesce (Dec. 6, 1953) explains the double aspect of tolerance: error has no right, but for a higher good like the common good of society, it may be tolerated. And in fact, given the international relations between states, it may well be that toleration becomes universal.
“The two principles are clarified to which recourse must be had in concrete cases.…
- First: that which does not correspond to truth or to the norm of morality objectively has no right to exist, to be spread or to be activated.
- Secondly: failure to impede this with civil laws and coercive measures can nevertheless be justified in the interests of a higher and more general good.
“Let Us return now, however, to the two propositions mentioned above: and in the first place to the one which denies unconditionally everything that is religiously false and morally wrong. With regard to this point there never has been, and there is not now, in the Church any vacillation or any compromise, either in theory or in practice. Her deportment has not changed in the course of history, nor can it change whenever or wherever, under the most diversified forms, she is confronted with the choice: either incense for idols or blood for Christ.
“Concerning the second proposition, that is to say, concerning tolerance in determined circumstances, toleration even in cases in which one could proceed to repression, the Church—out of regard for those who in good conscience (though erroneous, but invincibly so) are of different opinion—has been led to act and has acted with that tolerance, after she became the State Church under Constantine the Great and the other Christian emperors, always for higher and more cogent motives.”
Liberty is not an absolute faculty to use at will; it is the faculty to choose what is good, not evil. No man is morally free to choose good or evil, true or false. Error is the evil of the mind, and even though it is not always a sin, it is always evil and damaging for souls. A real right is something objective, based on truth. Applied to religion, no Catholic can defend the “freedom of religious worship” if it means that everyone has a natural, God-given right to accept and to practice whatever form of religion appeals to him individually. The only religion that has a genuine right to exist is the religion that God revealed and made obligatory on all men; hence, man has a natural and God-given freedom to embrace only the one true religion.
The Dynamic Group
For about ten years (1946-56), the United States was the theater of a heated debate which opposed the holders of the “received” doctrine on Church and State, called by their opponents the static group, and those who wished for new blood to be infused in the matter, who liked to call themselves the dynamic group. Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., was teaching theology from 1937 in Woodstock, Maryland, and, in 1941, was named editor of the Jesuit journal Theological Studies, and he held both positions long years until his sudden death in 1967.
Murray seemed to stir trouble within the theological world on various grounds. He had misgivings on the doctrine of salvation, when in 1944, he endorsed full co-operation with Christians and theists, raising some eyebrows about dangers to the faith. He turned to questions of how the Church might arrive at new theological doctrines. If Catholics were to arrive at new truths about God, they would have to converse “on a footing of equality” with theists.
But Murray’s main effort dealt with the Church and State relation. He contended that every man by right of nature (jure naturae) has the right to freedom of religion following his conscience, and therefore, that no state can forbid religious worship simply because it is religious. He also contended that the state was incompetent to judge the true religion or to bring it into the state constitution.
A good summary of his plight was given when his ideas had already taken root in the conciliar aula (America, Nov. 30, 1963): “This principle, which asserts the incompetence of secular political authority in the field of religion is deeply embedded in the true political tradition of the Christian West. It is also affirmed with the theological tradition of the Church. Leo XIII for instance made it quite clear that political authority has no part whatsoever in the care of souls, or in the control of the minds of men. It is, of course, true that this political principle was obscured in Europe for centuries, largely in consequence of the rise of royal absolutism and the ‘Union of Throne and Altar.’ The true tradition was, however, preserved in the American constitutional system. Absolutism never set foot in America, much to the joy both the Church and of the American people.…I should like to see this principle asserted in the final conciliar text on religious freedom. It is, I think, essential to the case for religious freedom in society.”
It is interesting to note the reasons he furnished to back up his pet theory. It is because this is the true doctrine of the Church, but also because the Church needs to assume a universal patronage of the dignity of the human person in the age of growing totalitarian tyranny. It is because we are living in the age of the religiously pluralist society, where men of all religions and of no religion must live together under equitable laws that protect the whole range of human right. Finally, and this is perhaps the underlying motive to his effort, it is because we are living in an age in which a great ecumenical hope has been born, and the path to this goal can lie only along the road of freedom—social, civil, political, and religious freedom.
Murray had had some skirmishes with his opponents all the way to Rome in the early 1950s. But what precipitated things was the bold address he gave in March 1954. He suggested that Pope Pius XII’s Ci Riesce was largely a refutation of Cardinal Ottaviani’s more conservative interpretation of the Pope on religious liberty. This incident culminated in Murray being silenced the next year, forbidden, under pressure from Rome, to write or publish on the topic. His superior Fr. McCormick told him: “You may write poetry.” Yet he managed to publish His landmark book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, which garnered him the Time coverage.
The Tandem Fenton-Ottaviani
Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton headed the static group. He was professor of fundamental dogmatic theology at the Catholic University of America for twenty-five years and editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review (1943–1963). He had embellished the Review with regular articles critical of Murray’s ideas since 1948. Another of his targets was another Woodstock theologian, Fr. Weigel (AER, May 1953).
Fr. Weigel argued thus against the statics: “The dynamic expositors simply cannot understand the final position of the static group. This position is that American Catholics can be loyal to, and satisfied with, the American Constitution, in spite of the fact that there is an objective obligation to go counter to it.…Does not such a stand make the Catholic’s situation most ambiguous to himself and more so to his non-Catholic fellow Americans? Obviously the principle of tolerating what cannot be remedied is a sound one, but even toleration in the face of an objective obligation must do everything possible to correct the condition.…Could the American Catholic who de facto feels no conflict between his religion and his Constitution be intelligently honest with himself? Do not the static expositors agree fundamentally with the claim of some that there is a chasm separating Catholicism and American democracy?”
Fr. Fenton explained to his readers that this was really getting old hat. Already, back in 1946 (sic), Time magazine had made a similar false accusation about our Catholic teaching: “Nothing about Catholicism so confuses—and often dismays—U.S. Protestants as the stand of the Church on freedom of worship. Does Catholicism support the first article of the Bill of Rights? In U.S. practice, yes; in principle, no.”
It seems thus that the opponents of the Catholic principles misconstrued and caricatured the true position so as to better attack it, but they were having a go at a straw man, and not at the Catholic position. Here are some rebuttals made by Fenton.
The attacks of Time magazine were directed at the article “Freedom of Worship” by Fr. Connell, Fenton’s associate at C.U. But Fr. Connell never said that religious toleration was an anti-Catholic principle. On the contrary, he echoed Ci Riesce: “Indeed, a Catholic would not be inconsistent with any principle of his faith if he held that in the circumstances that prevail at the present time, it would be the most feasible plan to have complete religious toleration throughout the whole world. But it must ever be remembered that a Catholic cannot advocate such a plan on the basis that all religions have a genuine, God-given right to exist. Such a right belongs only to the one religion founded by Jesus Christ for all men.”
“It would seem, that the side of the controversy to which Fr. Weigel has devoted his sympathies and his efforts is in some way more American in tone or in tendency than that defended by Fr. Connell. Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth and nothing could do more harm to the cause of Catholic truth in this country than the naïve acceptance of such a misconception. Truth is not a matter of nationality.…Thus when the validity of the concept of a ‘Catholic state’ was defended and when we argued that a state made of Catholics had a definite obligation, as a social unit, to worship God according to the rites of the true religion…we advanced these theses because and only because they were in line with the declarations of the ecclesiastical magisterium and with the teachings of Scripture and tradition.”
“A lecturer [Murray] gave the appearance (end March 1953) that Ci Riesce of Pius XII constituted a repudiation of the teachings of Cardinal Ottaviani on ‘Church and State.’ He contended that since Ci Riesce, those who have hitherto accepted the teachings of the Cardinal’s article as true are faced with the obligation of reconsidering their position to avoid coming into opposition with the doctrine of the Pope. This, of course, is an extremely serious charge. It is also utterly baseless and incorrect.…What has attracted opposition to Cardinal Ottaviani’s paper may possibly be due to what the Cardinal had to say about the permanent validity of authoritative ecclesiastical doctrine, affirming the identical and constant teaching between Pius XII, Pius XI and Leo XIII.” And Fenton concluded that both documents “gave new support to what is, after all, the standard teaching of Catholic manuals of fundamental dogmatic theology and of public ecclesiastical law.”
At that juncture Cardinal Ottaviani intervened. He wrote the following:
“The controversy recently carried on between two authors of opposite views in a country beyond the Atlantic is widely known. One of the disputants has defended the thesis we have just mentioned and holds:
- The State, properly speaking, cannot accomplish an act of religion.
- The State’s obligation to worship God can never enter the Constitutional sphere.
- Finally, even for a State composed of Catholics, there is no obligation to profess the Catholic religion. With regard to the obligation to protect it, this does not become operative except in determined circumstances and precisely when the liberty of the Church cannot be guaranteed in any other way.
“From such principles spring attacks directed against the teaching set forth in manuals of public ecclesiastical law, no account being taken of the fact that such teaching is based, for the most part, on the doctrine expounded in Pontifical Documents.”
The Liberals Take Over
On the eve of the Council, while working on the preparatory schemas, the most dramatic session took place between Cardinal Ottaviani and Cardinal Bea during the debate on religious toleration with Archbishop Lefebvre as a witness. Ottaviani declined that Bea’s commission (of the Secretariat for Christian Unity) had any right to present a second schema on religious liberty since it was a doctrinal matter. It was as if the Pope had made use of Hegelian dialectics in order to arrive at a satisfying result. The Ottaviani schema was called “Relations between Church and State and Religious Tolerance,” comprising fourteen pages of quotes from Pius XI and Pius XII. The Bea text, entitled “On Religious Liberty,” had only five pages of notes with no references to the magisterium of the Church. The Archbishop concluded that the liberals wanted to introduce Liberalism and the Declaration of the Rights of Man into the Church.
Msgr. Fenton, a peritus, or theological expert, at Vatican II fighting on the side of his Roman friend, Cardinal Ottaviani, had gone to Rome convinced there was no way that the Council would propound a “revolution in Catholic attitudes.” On November 11, 1963, there was a crucial meeting between the Roman theologians: Cardinal Ottaviani and Msgr. Fenton on one side, and Cardinal Bea, John Courtney Murray, and Karl Rahner, on the other. A vote was taken at that meeting which secured John Courtney Murray’s new teaching on religious liberty as the official position at the Council. This was a position that Fenton understood well, and had consistently fought throughout the entire 1950s.
Msgr. Fenton immediately returned from Rome and resigned as editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review, allegedly for health reasons. Yesterday’s heresy had become today’s orthodoxy, and Msgr. Fenton resigned his post rather than promote a teaching he knew to be incorrect, a teaching which was the glorification of the American dream.