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Faith of our Fathers

Chapter 17
Civil and Religious Liberty

A man enjoys religious liberty when he possesses the free right of worshipping God according to the dictates of a right conscience, and of practicing a form of religion most in accordance with his duties to God. Every act infringing on his freedom of conscience is justly styled religious intolerance. This religious liberty is the true right of every man because it corresponds with a most certain duty which God has put upon him.

A man enjoys civil liberty when he is exempt from the arbitrary will of others, and when he is governed by equitable laws established for the general welfare of society. So long as, in common with his fellow citizens, he observes the laws of the state, any exceptional restraint imposed upon him, in the exercise of his rights as a citizen, would be an infringement on his civil liberty.

I here assert the proposition, which I hope to confirm by historical evidence, that the Catholic Church has always been the zealous promoter of religious and civil liberty; and that whenever any encroachments on these sacred privileges of man were perpetrated by professing members of the Catholic faith, these wrongs, far from being sanctioned by the Church, were committed in palpable violation of her authority.

Her doctrine is, that as man by his own free will fell from grace, so of his own free will must he return to grace. Conversion and coercion are two terms that can never be reconciled. It has ever been a cardinal maxim, inculcated by sovereign Pontiffs and other Prelates, that no violence or undue influence should be exercised by Christian princes or missionaries in their efforts to convert souls to the faith of Jesus Christ.

Pope Gregory I in the latter part of the Sixth Century, compelled the Bishop of Terracina to restore to the Jews the synagogue which he had seized, declaring that they should not be coerced into the Church, but should be treated with meekness and charity. The great Pontiff issued the same orders to the Prelates of Sardinia and Sicily in behalf of the persecuted Jews.

St. Augustine and his companions, who were sent by Pope Gregory I to England for the conversion of that nation, had the happiness of baptizing in the true faith King Ethelbert and many of his subjects. That monarch, in the fervor of his zeal, was most anxious that all his subjects should immediately follow his example; but the missionaries admonished him that he should scrupulously abstain from violence in the conversion of his people, for the Christian religion should be voluntarily embraced.

Pope Nicholas I also warned Michael, king of the Bulgarians, against employing force or constraint in the conversion of idolaters.

The fourth Council of Toledo, held in 633, a synod of great authority in the Church, ordained that no one should be compelled against his will to make a profession of the Christian faith. Be it remembered that this Council was composed of all the Bishops of Spain, that it was assembled in a country and at a time in which the Church held almost unlimited sway, and among a people who have been represented as the most fanatical and intolerant of all Europe.

Perhaps no man can be considered a fairer representative of the age in which he lived than St. Bernard, the illustrious Abbot of Clairvaux. He was the embodiment of the spirit of the Middle Ages. His life is the key that discloses to us what degree of toleration prevailed in those days. Having heard that a fanatical preacher was stimulating the people to deeds of violence against the Jews as the enemies of Christianity, St. Bernard raised his eloquent voice against him, and rescued those persecuted people from the danger to which they were exposed.

Pope Innocent III in the Thirteenth Century promulgated the following Decree in behalf of the Hebrews: "Let no Jew be constrained to receive baptism, and he that will not consent to be baptized, let him not be molested. Let no one unjustly seize their property, disturb their feasts, or lay waste their cemeteries."

Other succeeding Pontiffs, notably Gregory IX and Innocent IV, issued similar instructions.

Not to cite too many examples, let me quote for you only the beautiful letter addressed by Fenelon, Archbishop of Cambray, to the son of King James II of England. This letter not only reflects the sentiments of his own heart, but formularizes in this particular the decrees of the Church, of which he was a distinguished ornament. "Above all," he writes, "never force your subjects to change their religion. No human power can reach the impenetrable recess of the free will of the heart. Violence can never persuade men; it serves only to make hypocrites. Grant civil liberty to all, not in approving everything as indifferent, but in tolerating with patience whatever Almighty God tolerates, and endeavoring to convert men by mild persuasion."

It is true, indeed, that the Catholic Church spares no pains and stops at no sacrifice in order to induce mankind to embrace her faith. Otherwise she would be recreant to her sacred mission. But she scorns to exercise any undue influence in her efforts to convert souls.

The only argument she would use, is the argument of reason and persuasion; the only tribunal to which she would summon you, is the tribunal of conscience; the only weapon she would wield, is "the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God." It is well known that the superior advantages of our female academies throughout the country lead many of our dissenting brethren to send their daughters to these institutions. It is also well known that so warm is the affection which these young ladies entertain for their religious teachers, so hallowed is the atmosphere they breathe within these seats of learning, that they often beg to embrace a religion which fosters so much piety and which produces lilies so fragrant and so pure. Do the sisters take advantage of this influence in the cause of proselytism? By no means. So delicate is their regard for the religious conscience of their pupils, that they rarely consent to have these young ladies baptized till, after being thoroughly instructed in all the doctrines of the Church, they have obtained the free permission of their parents or guardians.

The Church is, indeed, intolerant in this sense, that she can never confound truth with error; nor can she admit that any man is conscientiously free to reject the truth when its claims are convincingly brought home to the mind. Many Protestants seem to be very much disturbed by some such argument as this: "Catholics are very ready now to proclaim freedom of conscience, because they are in the minority. When they once succeed in getting the upper hand in numbers and power they will destroy this freedom, because their faith teaches them to tolerate no doctrine other than the Catholic. It is, then, a matter of absolute necessity for us that they should never be allowed to get this advantage."

Now, in all this, there is a great mistake, which comes from not knowing the Catholic doctrine in its fullness. I shall not lay it down myself, lest it seem to have been gotten up for the occasion. I shall quote the great theologian Becanus, who taught the doctrine of the schools of Catholic Theology at the time when the struggle was hottest between Catholicity and Protestantism. He says that religious liberty may be tolerated by a ruler when it would do more harm to the state or to the community to repress it. The ruler may even enter into a compact in order to secure to his subjects this freedom in religious matters; and when once a compact is made it must be observed absolutely in every point, just as every other lawful and honest contract. This is the true Catholic teaching on this point, according to Becanus and all Catholic theologians. So that if Catholics should gain the majority in a community where freedom of conscience is already secured to all by law, their very religion obliges them to respect the rights thus acquired by their fellow citizens. What danger can there be, then, for Protestants, if Catholics should be in the majority here? Their apprehensions are the result of vain fears, which no honest mind ought any longer to harbor.

The Church has not only respected the conscience of the people in embracing the religion of their choice, but she has also defended their civil rights and liberties against the encroachments of temporal sovereigns. One of the popular errors that have taken possession of some minds in our times is that "in former days the Church was leagued with princes for the oppression of the people". This is a base calumny, which a slight acquaintance with ecclesiastical history would soon dispel.

The truth is, the most unrelenting enemies of the Church have been the princes of this world, and so-called Christian princes, too.

The conflict between Church and State has never died out, because the Church has felt it to be her duty, in every age, to raise her voice against the despotic and arbitrary measures of princes. Many of them chafed under the salutary discipline of the Church. They wished to be rid of her yoke. They desired to be governed by no law except the law of their licentious passions and boundless ambitions. And as a Protestant American reviewer well said about forty years ago, it was a blessing of Providence that there was a spiritual Power on earth that could stand like a wall of brass against the tyranny of earthly sovereigns and say to them: "Thus far shall you go, and no farther, and here you shall break your swelling waves" of passion; a Power that could say to them what John said to Herod: "This thing is not lawful for thee;" a Power that pointed the finger of reproof to them, even when the sword was pointed to her own neck, and that said to them what Nathan said to David: "Thou art the man." She told princes that if the people have their obligations they have their rights, too; that if the subject must render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, Caesar must render to God the things that are God's.

Yes; the Church, while pursuing her Divine mission of leading souls to God, has ever been the defender of the people's rights.

St. Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, affords us a striking instance of the strenuous efforts made by the Catholic Church in vindicating the interests of the citizen against the oppression of rulers.

A portion of the people of Thessalonica had committed an outrage against the just authority of the Emperor Theodosius. The offense of those citizens was indeed most reprehensible; but the Emperor requited the insult offered to him by a shocking and disproportioned act of retribution, which has left an indelible stain upon his otherwise excellent character. The inhabitants were assembled together for the ostensible purpose of witnessing a chariot race, and at a given signal the soldiery fell upon the people and involved men, women and children in an indiscriminate massacre, to the number of about seven thousand. Some time after the Emperor presented himself at the Cathedral of Milan; but the intrepid Prelate told him that his hands were dripping with the blood of his subjects, and forbade him entrance to the church till he had made all the reparation in his power to the afflicted people of Thessalonica.

People affect to be shocked at the sentence of excommunication occasionally inflicted by the Church on evil-doers. Here is an instance of this penalty. Who can complain of it as being too severe? It was a salutary punishment and the only one that could bring rulers to a sense of duty.

The greatest bulwark of civil liberty is the famous Magna Charta. It is the foundation not only of British, but also of American constitutional freedom. Among other blessings contained in this instrument it establishes trial by jury and the right of Habeas Corpus, and provides that there shall be no taxation without representation.

Who were the framers of this memorable charter? Archbishop Langton, of Canterbury, and the Catholic Barons of England. On the plains of Runnymede, in 1215, they compelled King John to sign that paper which was the death-blow to his arbitrary power and the cornerstone of constitutional government.

from Chapter 10
The Supremacy of the Popes

In a synod held in 444, St. Hilary, Archbishop of Arles, in Gaul, deposed Celidonius, Bishop of Besancon, on the ground of an alleged canonical impediment to his consecration. The Bishop appealed to the Holy See, and both he and the Metropolitan personally repaired to Rome, to submit their cause to the judgment of Pope Leo the Great. After a careful investigation, the Pontiff declared the sentence of the Synod invalid, revoked the censure, and restored the deposed Prelate to his See.

The same Pontiff also rebuked Hilary for having irregularly deposed Projectus from his See.

The judicial authority of the Pope is emphasized from the circumstance that Hilary was not an arrogant or a rebellious churchman, but an edifying and a zealous Prelate. He is revered by the whole Church as a canonized Saint, and after his death, Leo refers to him as Hilary of happy memory.

Theodoret, the illustrious historian and Bishop of Cyrrhus, is condemned by the pseudo-council of Ephesus in 449, and appeals to Pope Leo in the following touching language: "I await the decision of your Apostolic See, and I supplicate your Holiness to succor me, who invoke your righteous and just tribunal; and to order me to hasten to you, and to explain to you my teaching, which follows the steps of the Apostles...I beseech you not to scorn my application. Do not slight my gray hairs...Above all, I entreat you to teach me whether to put up with this unjust deposition or not; for I await your sentence. If you bid me rest in what has been determined against me, I will rest, and will trouble no man more. I will look for the righteous judgment of our God and Savior. To me, as Almighty God is my Judge, honor and glory are no object, but only the scandal that has been caused; for many of the simpler sort, especially those whom I have rescued from diverse heresies, considering the See which has condemned me, suspect that perhaps I really am a heretic, being incapable themselves of distinguishing accuracy of doctrine." Leo declared the deposition invalid and Theodoret was restored to his See.

John, Abbot of Constantinople, appeals from the decision of the Patriarch of that city to Pope St. Gregory I, who reverses the sentence of the Patriarch. In 859 Photius addressed a letter to Pope Nicholas I, asking the Pontiff to confirm his election to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In consequence of the Pope's conscientious refusal Photius broke off from the communion of the Catholic Church and became the author of the Greek Schism.

Here are a few examples taken at random from Church History. We see Prelates most eminent for their sanctity and learning occupying the highest position in the Eastern Church, and consequently far removed from the local influences of Rome, appealing in every period of the early Church from the decisions of their own Bishops and their Councils to the supreme arbitration of the Holy See. If this does not constitute superior jurisdiction, I have yet to learn what superior authority means.

Second - Christians of every denomination admit the orthodoxy of the Fathers of the first five centuries of the Church. No one has ever called in question the faith of such men as Basil, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Leo. They were the acknowledged guardians of pure doctrine, and the living representatives "of the faith once delivered to the Saints." They were to the Church in their generation what Peter and Paul and James were to the Church in its infancy. We instinctively consult them about the faith of those times; for, to whom shall we go for the Words of eternal life, if not to them?

Now, the Fathers of the Church, with one voice, pay homage to the Bishops of Rome as their superiors. The limited space I have allowed myself in this little volume will not permit me to give any extracts from their writings. The reader who may be unacquainted with the original language of the Fathers, or who has not their writings at hand, is referred to a work entitled, "Faith of Catholics," where he will find, in an English translation, copious extracts from their writings vindicating the Primacy of the Popes.

Third - Ecumenical councils afford another eloquent vindication of Papal supremacy. An Ecumenical or General Council is an assemblage of Prelates representing the whole Catholic Church. A General Council is to the Church what the Executive and Legislative bodies in Washington are to the United States.

Up to the present time nineteen Ecumenical Councils have been convened, including the Council of the Vatican. The last eleven were held in the West, and the first eight in the East. I shall pass over the Western Councils, as no one denies that they were subject to the authority of the Pope.

I shall speak briefly of the important influence which the Holy See exercised in the eight Oriental Councils. The first General Council was held in Nicaea, in 325; the second, in Constantinople, 381; the third, in Ephesus, in 431; the fourth, in Chalcedon, in 451; the fifth, in Constantinople, in 553; the sixth in the same city, in 680; the seventh, in Nicaea, in 787, and the eighth, in Constantinople, in 869.

The Bishops of Rome convoked these assemblages, or at least consented to their convocation; they presided by their legates over all of them, except the first and second councils of Constantinople, and they confirmed all these eight by their authority. Before becoming a law the Acts of the Councils required the Pope's signature, just as our Congressional proceedings require the President's signature before they acquire the force of law.

Is not this a striking illustration of the Primacy? The Pope convenes, rules and sanctions the Synods, not by courtesy, but by right. A dignitary who calls an assembly together, who presides over its deliberations, whose signature is essential for confirming its Acts has surely a higher authority than the other members.

Fourth - I shall refer to one more historical point in support of the Pope's jurisdiction over the whole Church. It is a most remarkable fact that every nation hitherto converted from Paganism to Christianity since the days of the Apostles, has received the light of faith from missionaries who were either especially commissioned by the See of Rome, or sent by Bishops in open communion with that See. This historical fact admits of no exception. Let me particularize.

Ireland's Apostle is St. Patrick. Who commissioned him? Pope St. Celestine, in the fifth century. St. Palladius is the Apostle of Scotland. Who sent him? The same Pontiff, Celestine. The Anglo-Saxons received the faith from St. Augustine, a Benedictine monk, as all historians, Catholic and non-Catholic, testify. Who empowered Augustine to preach? Pope Gregory I, at the end of the sixth century. St. Remigius established the faith in France, at the close of the fifth century. He was in active communion with the See of Peter.

Flanders received the Gospel in the seventh century from St. Eligius, who acknowledged the supremacy of the reigning Pope. Germany and Bavaria venerate as their Apostle St. Boniface, who is popularly known in his native England by his baptismal name of Winfrid. He was commissioned by Pope Gregory II, in the beginning of the eighth century, and was consecrated Bishop by the same Pontiff. In the ninth century two saintly brothers, Cyril and Methodius, evangelized Russia, Sclavonia, Moravia and other parts of Northern Europe. They recognized the supreme authority of Pope Nicholas I and of his successors, Adrian II and John VIII.

In the eleventh century, Norway was converted by missionaries introduced from England by the Norwegian King, St. Olave. The conversion of Sweden was consummated in the same century by the British Apostles Saints Ulfrid and Eskill. Both of these nations immediately after their conversion commenced to pay Romescot, or a small annual tribute to the Holy See - a clear evidence that they were in communion with the Chair of Peter. (See Butler's Lives of the Saints, St. Olave, July 29th) All the other nations of Europe, having been converted before the Reformation, received likewise the light of faith from Roman Catholic Missionaries, because Europe then recognized only one Christian Chief.

Passing from Europe to Asia and America, it is undeniable that St. Francis Xavier and the other Evangelists who, in the sixteenth century, extended the Kingdom of Jesus Christ through India and Japan, were in communion with the Holy See; and that those Apostles who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, converted the aboriginal tribes of South America and Mexico received their commission from the Chair of Peter.

But you will say: The people of the United States profess to be a Christian nation. Do you also claim them? Most certainly; for, even those American Christians who are unhappily severed from the Catholic Church are primarily indebted for their knowledge of the Gospel to missionaries in communion with the Holy See.

The white races of North America are descended from England, Ireland, Scotland and the nations of Continental Europe. Those European nations having been converted by missionaries in subjection to the Holy See, it follows that, from whatever part of Europe you are descended, whatever may be your particular creed, you are indebted to the Church of Rome for your knowledge of Christianity. Do not these facts demonstrate the Primacy of the Pope? The Apostles of Europe and of other countries received their authority from Rome. Is not the power that sends an ambassador greater than he who is sent?

Thus we see that the name of the Pope is indelibly marked on every page of ecclesiastical history. The Sovereign Pontiff ever stands before us as commander-in-chief in the grand army of the Church. Do the bishops of the East feel themselves aggrieved at home by their Patriarchs or civil Rulers? They look for redress to Rome, as to the star of their hope. Are the Fathers and Doctors of the early Church consulted? With one voice they all pay homage to the Bishop of Rome as to their spiritual Prince. Is an Ecumenical Council to be convened in the East or West? The Pope is its leading spirit. Are new nations to be converted to the faith? There is the Holy Father clothing the missionaries with authority, and giving his blessing to the work. Are new errors to be condemned in any part of the globe? All eyes turn toward the oracle of Rome to await his anathema, and his solemn judgment reverberates throughout the length and breadth of the Christian world.

You might as well shut out the light of day and the air of heaven from your daily walks as exclude the Pope from his legitimate sphere in the hierarchy of the Church. The history of the United States with the Presidents left out would be more intelligible than the history of the Church to the exclusion of the Vicar of Christ. How, I ask, could such authority endure so long if it were an usurpation?

But you will tell me: "The supremacy of the Pope has been disputed in many ages." So has the authority of God been called in question - nay, His very existence has been denied; for, "the fool hath said in his heart there is no God." (Psalm 52) Does this denial destroy the existence and dominion of God? Has not parental authority been impugned from the beginning? But by whom? By unruly children. Was David no longer king because Absalom said so?

It is thus also with the Popes. Their parental sway has been opposed only by their undutiful sons who grew impatient of the Gospel yoke. Photius, the leader of the Greek schism, was an obedient son of the Pope until Nicholas refused to recognize his usurped authority. Henry VIII was a stout defender of the Pope's supremacy until Clement VII refused to legalize his adultery. Luther professed a most abject submission to the Pope till Leo X condemned him.

You cannot, my dear reader, be a loyal citizen of the United States while you deny the constitutional authority of the President. You have seen that the Bishop of Rome is appointed not by man, but by Jesus Christ, President of the Christian commonwealth. You cannot, therefore, be a true citizen of the Republic of the Church so long as you spurn the legitimate supremacy of its Divinely constituted Chief. "He that is not with Me is against Me," says our Lord, " and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth." How can you be with Christ if you are against His Vicar?

The great evil of our times is the unhappy division existing among the professors of Christianity, and from thousands of hearts a yearning cry goes forth for unity of faith and union of churches. It was, no doubt, with this laudable view that the Evangelical Alliance assembled in New York in the fall of 1873. The representatives of the different religious communions hoped to effect a reunion. But they signally and lamentably failed. Indeed, the only result which followed from the alliance was the creation of a new sect under the auspices of Dr. Cummins. That reverend gentleman, with the characteristic modesty of all religious reformers, was determined to have a hand in improving the work of Jesus Christ; and, like the other reformers, he said, with those who built the tower of Babel: "Let us make our name famous before" (Genesis 11:4) our dust is scattered to the wind.

The Alliance failed, because its members had no common platform to stand on. There was no voice in that assembly that could say with authority: "Thus saith the Lord."

I heartily join in this prayer for Christian unity, and gladly would surrender my life for such a consummation. But I tell you that Jesus Christ has pointed out the only means by which this unity can be maintained, viz.: the recognition of Peter and his successors as the Head of the Church. Build upon this foundation and you will not erect a tower of Babel, nor build upon sand. If all Christian sects were united with the centre of unity, then the scattered hosts of Christendom would form an army which atheism and infidelity could not long withstand. Then, indeed, all could exclaim with Balaam: "How beautiful are thy tabernacles, O Jacob, and thy tents, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5)

Let us pray that the day may be hastened when religious dissensions will cease; when all Christians will advance with united front, under one common leader, to plant the cross in every region and win new kingdoms to Jesus Christ.

Taken from Faith of our Fathers by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.

The subject of "religious liberty" and of "freedom of conscience" is a complex one. Cardinal Gibbons brings forward the truth that the State must never try to force anyone to accept any religion, even the True Religion. For the Church's teaching on other matters dealt with in this chapter, we refer the reader to Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum "On the Nature of True Liberty" (1888), and to other Encyclicals in the volume The Popes Against Modern Errors (TAN, 1999). - Publisher, 1999.

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