Religious Freedom and More

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Apse of the Church of Saint Agnes, Rome religious freedom I’ll try not to make this my particular hobby horse, but further to my previous grousing about the bowdlerized use of Thomas More in contemporary championing of religious liberty, I see that the clock is now ticking down to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom,” which is timed to coincide with More’s feast day (as well as that of John Fisher, also executed under King Henry VIII). Commenting on last year’s Fortnight campaign, my colleague Darryl Hart sensibly wondered: “at a time when the bishops want to support religious freedom more generally, why invoke saints executed by Protestants”?

One might also ask, more pointedly, why invoke a saint involved in the execution of Protestants?

There seems to be a curious lot of this selective—even passive-aggressive—use of history going on.

Over at First Things, for example, George Weigel, while noting that Roman Catholics have not been immune to the temptation toward religious coercion, suggests that the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whose the region, his the religion), which brought to an end the Reformation era’s “wars of religion,” also spelled a reversal of the policy of religious toleration promulgated with the fourth-century Edict of Milan.

As such, he offers, it was, “in fact, the West’s first modern experiment in the totalitarian coercion of consciences.” That qualifying term “modern,” though, is crucial, even if not quite accurate, because a historian of Weigel’s capacities cannot be unaware that already in the same century as the Edict of Milan the Christian emperor Theodosius would criminalize paganism, that into the fifth century imperial authorities attempted forcibly to suppress schismatic Donatists, or (to cite only one more example) that the Fourth Lateran Council would go so far as to insist that secular authorities “ought publicly to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the church.”

It’s difficult to see how the whole post-Theodosian phenomenon of Christendom can be viewed as anything other than cuius regio on a grand scale. So why is it only “totalitarian coercion” when Protestants are finally allowed in on the action? This question also came to mind while recently reading Kevin Seamus Hasson’s The Right to Be Wrong, a popular history (and defense) of religious liberty in America. Hasson identifies opponents of religious liberty as falling into two camps: those who demand that all religion be banished from the public square, and those who insist that only the “true” religion be allowed public expression.

The first group he tags “Park Rangers” (for reasons not worth explaining), the second “Pilgrims,” in view of the fact that most colonial Puritan (and other Protestant) polities effectively proscribed all rival denominations. This rhetorical framing is certainly not illegitimate given that Hasson’s purview is limited to the U.S., and that hostility toward Roman Catholics, rather than by them, was long the norm in America.

But especially since Hasson puts such great emphasis on how long and difficult it proved for Americans to develop and to enshrine in law a robust concept of religious liberty, it might similarly have been emphasized that this was partly the case because there was no clear theoretical or historical precedent on which to draw—even in the sources of Catholic Europe.

Indeed, it might even have been noted that, for a century after America’s adoption of the first amendment, a number of Roman Popes were still regularly condemning the principles there set forth. Again, it might have been mentioned that it was not until 1965, at Vatican II, that Rome would come to embrace a recognizable doctrine of religious liberty. Such acknowledgements, though, would have reflected poorly on Catholics no less than Protestant “Pilgrims.” As such, it would have complicated the sort of narrative on display yet again over at First Things.

Commenting on a Slate.com article that offers the surprisingly positive assessment of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as one who “doesn’t share the morals of gay marriage supporters, but … is willing to live and let live,” Elizabeth Scalia concludes: “That’s a very catholic, and Catholic, way of looking at things; it used to be the very definition of liberality and tolerance.”

Perhaps it’s only because I happened to read Weigel, Hasson, and Scalia within the same few days that the similar sentiments reflected in each managed to get up my nose. But having read them in close proximity to one another, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that one is meant to understand that, historically, Catholic equals tolerant liberal; Protestant equals totalitarian coercer of conscience.

Which makes the question of prudence worth asking again: given the recent and strong Catholic attempts to defend a broad religious liberty, why all the implicit and explicit swipes at their potential Protestant allies?