Scattering the Proud – Chapter VIII

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Bridging the Chasm between Faith and Freedom

At Christmas 1998, the Irish journalist David Quinn wrote a piece for the Sunday Times entitled ‘Keep the Faith – but you also have to keep the dogma’. He recounted a conversation with an Irish TV executive who had asked him how the Catholic church leadership was to recover any influence in Ireland following a series of scandals. Quinn had responded by suggesting that the church would need to more clearly explain its core teachings or dogma. This suggestion was summarily dismissed. ‘People today have no time for dogma,’ his interlocutor told him. ‘Dogma is what’s ruining religion.’ Quinn went on:

My interrogator … expressed a typically modern impatience with the whole concept of dogma. Dogma fuelled the Inquisition. It burnt women at the stake for witchcraft. It caused bloody and long-running religious wars across Europe. Dogmatic religion was responsible for the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France in 1572 when Catholics killed protestants in their thousands.’

Quinn’s article did not deny these charges, but went on to argue that reason, for him the alternative to dogma, had not brought intellectual agreement and couldn’t inspire lives of service. ‘Do away with dogma, with defining beliefs, and you do away with the ideals that motivate people to go out and change the world.’ He went on:

Agnosticism never energised anyone. It never sparked a mass movement or started a religion. History has shown that once a movement starts to doubt itself, it starts to die. That is why liberal Christianity is failing so badly. It has decided that only religion without dogma has a future.

Dogmatism or Disbelief

Is this then the choice that faces Ireland and the West? To revert to dogmatism, accepting its downside — intolerance and authoritarianism, maybe even a murderous fanaticism — or to adopt a vague self-indulgent liberalism without clear core beliefs? If so we haven’t moved from the situation described by Yeats in The Second Coming, written early this century.

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
1W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming, Collected Poems

This exchange between Quinn and his RTE acquaintance goes to the heart of the dilemma of the west. The nub of the problem is clear. It is the belief, held both by liberals and by conservative Christians, that dogma cannot embrace freedom, and that freedom cannot embrace a passionate Christian faith. If this perception is accurate, then Christian dogma cannot contain the principle of religious freedom as a core belief, and those who believe passionately in freedom cannot believe strongly in anything else, for fear of becoming dogmatic.

Dogma cannot embrace freedom?

Let us begin by taking the first part of this position — that a passionate Christianity cannot embrace the principle of human freedom. It is true that from the late fourth to the late nineteenth century the Catholic Church denied, often murderously, the principle of religious freedom. As late as 1864 pope Pius IX’s Syllabus (or List) of Errors indicted the principle of religious liberty and went on:

Therefore do we, by our apostolic authority, reprobate, denounce and condemn generally and particularly all the evil opinions and doctrines specially mentioned in this letter, and we wish and command that they be held as reprobated, denounced and condemned by all the children of the Catholic Church.2Pope Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors, 1864

This couldn’t be clearer. Yet by 1965 the same church, embodied in Vatican Council II, had declared in a document devoted specifically to this issue, The Declaration on Religious Freedom:

The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.3Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dec. 7, 1965, Article 1

This newly discovered principle – a categorical repudiation of Augustine’s use of the Gospel to justify religious coercion – became the basis of the church’s current appeals for religious freedom throughout the world, particularly where Catholics are in a minority position, ranging from eastern Europe to India, Pakistan and China.

Where did this principle come from? Certainly not from the church’s practice or policy over one and a half millennia. And not from the text of the gospels either, it seems, for no scriptural citation was given at this point in the Vatican II document, although everything else that can be sourced there is meticulously annotated in all of the council documents.

We have here a mystery of derivation. Liberalism, originating in the Enlightenment, took it as axiomatic that religious freedom was a basic human right as early as the mid-1700s. The Catholic Church did not assent to this for another two centuries. The connection appears to be Fr John Courtney Murray SJ, who drafted the Vatican II document. He had earlier argued that the basic rights enshrined in the US constitution, including freedom of belief, were compatible with Christianity4J. Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, 1964. And, as everyone knows, the US constitution is an eighteenth century document heavily influenced by the Enlightenment.

To be fair to Murray, the main argument upon which he based the principle of religious freedom related to the natural law, a concept very old in the church. God, he argued, had given freedom to all to reach their supernatural goal, so this justified the granting of freedom of conscience to all believers by the state, irrespective of their denomination. The Vatican II declaration also stated that religious intolerance was contrary to the ‘spirit of the gospels’.

No Scriptural Support for Religious Freedom?

There is an important problem here. The church now accepts as axiomatic the principle of religious freedom — but seems to have derived it from the Enlightenment and/or a very late natural law argument, rather than from scripture or tradition as it had been practised and taught for by far the greater part of the church’s long history.

The nub of the question is this: does God believe in the principle of religious freedom? According to Murray and the Vatican II church the answer is ‘yes’, but no clear scriptural basis for this belief has been identified. Why was the church denied a clear revealed truth on this matter for so long, given its divine support? The problem becomes even more pressing when we remember those many thousands of victims of religious intolerance over those centuries. Did God not care about this? If we are to believe the church’s top theologians, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, God cares profoundly for all of the church’s sins of intolerance5Memory and Reconciliation, International Theological Commission, 1999, but Christ was apparently silent on the issue. This is strange and unsettling, and not overcome by reference to unformed understanding at the time. (The whole point of being a Christian is the belief that one’s faith already contains at least most of the truth and can enlighten the understanding of all periods. Was the issue of religious freedom unimportant to Jesus?)

The Problem of the Cross

There is another problem that has been gnawing away at Christianity over the centuries. Why was the crucifixion necessary anyway? The doctrine of atonement is supposed to explain this, but no such doctrine has been found completely satisfactory. The classic early notion — that humans were in bondage to the devil and had to be rescued by a human act of great heroism — was countered by the much later argument, made by St Anselm6c.1098, Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God become Man?) and others, that God could have ransomed us at a far lower price. Anselm’s own notion, still influential, was that God’s justice and honour required a reparation for human sin greater than any possible sum total of human virtue, without Jesus’ self sacrifice. Yet this was countered by Abelard: wasn’t the crucifixion itself the greatest of all human crimes; why did the Father choose to add this to the sum of human infamy, if his intention was to forgive us anyway?

It seems that the crucifixion is still a problem for theologians. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was the Catholic church’s supreme theological monitor during the pontificate of John Paul II. In an extended interview in 1996, discussing the problem of the power of evil, Peter Seewald asked him: ‘Does this mean that God has too little power over this world?’ The cardinal replied:

In any case he didn’t want to exercise power in the way that we imagine it. This is, of course, exactly the question that I too would ask the ‘world-spirit’: Why does he remain so powerless? Why does he reign only in this curiously weak way, as a crucified man, as one who himself failed? But apparently that is the way he wants to rule; that is the divine form of power. And the nondivine form of power obviously consists in imposing oneself and getting one’s way and coercing.7Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium, An Interview with Peter Seewald, Ignatius Press, 1997, P.44

Where a cardinal can with great humility admit a problem, I offer the following solution, both to the problem of deriving religious freedom from the gospels, and to the problem of understanding the crucifixion:

For both the Father and the Son, the acceptance of crucifixion was necessary because in the end the only alternative was the cancellation of human freedom, the right to reject divine authority, the use by God of what Cardinal Ratzinger himself calls the nondivine form of power (which) consists of imposing oneself and getting one’s way and coercing.

The Messiah as perceived by the Jews, including Peter, was to be another David, exercising total sovereignty over the lives of all of his subjects, and meeting resistance by force. Christ’s acceptance of the sovereignty of Pilate, his rebuke to Peter’s use of the sword at Gethsemane, and his consequent acceptance of crucifixion, were in themselves a definitive divine statement of the sovereignty of human freedom, including religious freedom. When we understand to the core of our being that God will suffer rather than coerce us to follow him, then, and only then, are those for whom freedom is inviolable drawn to Christ by the overwhelming love we must then feel for him. This realisation is also personally devastating, for (no matter how hard we have tried to submit in the past) we may have used our freedom until that moment essentially to flee from him, rather than to come close. This personal sorrow — and it may never be fully overcome in this life — is true repentance, and in that repentance we move freely to the Father, in response to his earlier self-sacrificial movement towards us. The atonement (at-one-ment) then takes place, in the deepest recess of the human heart.

The Futility of Religious Coercion

If this explanation of Jesus’ acceptance is correct, we Catholics who know the history of our church must feel an increased grief in the realisation that all of the church’s attempts to draw humankind to Christ, from Augustine on, by the use (or connivance at the use) of force were not only futile, but in practical terms counter-Christian. Here we find the root of the church’s present predicament, and not just in Ireland. The church’s long alliance with the state, the primary locus of coercive power, was a profound mistake — a vital source of the modern world’s alienation from its Christian roots.

How does this relate to the problem of reconciling faith and liberty? A God who believes first and last in human liberty — in Eden and on Calvary — must be loved passionately by anyone who loves freedom, and so must the freedom of all peoples. The clash of dogma with liberty is no more when core dogma includes the principle of liberty. There is no other way of reconciling the two, but, once understood, no other way is needed. The dogma of ‘compel them to come in‘ that fuelled the Augustinian upward journey of the church and led to the Crusades and Inquisition and Church complicity in global imperialism, was warped and a mistake. The defining beliefs that identify the Christian must include faith in the inviolable freedom of the individual human person.

When we trace backward in time the chasm in western culture between freedom and faith, we arrive at Christendom, the notion that state power allied with the truth of Christ can produce a perfect world. It didn’t, for the simple reason that the truth of Christ includes the necessary freedom of all men. Without that freedom, atonement — the moment of meeting with God — is impossible for the person who loves freedom (and all of us certainly value ourr own). When the church allies with the state it colludes with the nondivine form of power (which) obviously consists in imposing oneself and getting one’s way and coercing. The denial of the primacy of human freedom by the church necessarily alienated from it those for whom intellectual and religious freedom were essential. This is the root of the secularist liberal tradition, whose achievements in terms of intellectual and political liberty have shaped our world.

This is why David Quinn and his interlocutor were at odds and could not agree, because Catholic dogma does not currently include the principle of freedom, and must therefore be incomplete. Here we find the root of the problem that Yeats also identified – the separation of passion from faith, and the origin of the ‘rough beasts’ of the twentieth century, those heartless fanatical ideologies that also tried to build Utopia by force, and produced hell on earth instead. The church’s long inability to recognise the principle of freedom left Christians in the Third Reich and in the Soviet Union ambivalent about tyranny.

‘Will You Too Go Away?’

If we interpret the crucifixion as a rejection of the option of coercion, other passages in the gospel take on an enhanced meaning. When Jesus asked the disciples ‘Will you too go away?’ we can interpret this – despite Augustine – as an implicit acknowledgement of their freedom and right to do exactly that. Juxtaposed to Thomas Aquinas’ implicit approval of torture to compel heretics to recant8See e.g. Aquinas and the Heretics, Michael Novak, 1995, it becomes a vindication of the liberal position the church has now adopted. The parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son can also be interpreted as a divine statement that God’s tolerance excels ours.

What alternative position is there? The only obvious one is that God’s tolerance is less than ours – an impossible position. When the church in 1965 rejected that option9Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dec. 7, 1965 it vindicated, for the first time in 1600 years, the divine tolerance, embarking upon an entirely new relationship with the world. Already committed to the view that the Inquisition was contrary to ‘the spirit of the gospels’, it needs to see the crucifixion itself as a repudiation of religious coercion, and thus of religious privilege vis-à-vis the state.

It is here, I believe that we find the source of the ambivalence with which many, if not most, well-intentioned people regard the Catholic Church. On the one hand, they see it as a warm enfolding influence, the instrument of God’s forgiveness and his grace. On the other, they find it historically tyrannical and overbearing, denying the personal freedom that we find so clearly in the gospel relationships. This ambivalence exists because the church itself, in its historical reality, has been ambiguous, manifesting both the warmth of Jesus and the authoritarianism of Augustine. Neither in the Gospels nor in logic is it possible to argue that God is ambiguous: Jesus is non-coercive to the last drop of blood, so coercion has no valid role in Christianity. The central Christian event is a divine acknowledgement of the inalienable freedom of our species.

It makes no sense to argue otherwise. If the crucifixion is to draw all men to the Father, how can the church propose to intrude any other influence into the process of evangelisation? The ‘statism’ of Catholicism is a fundamental error that has diminished the crucifixion and associated Christ, heretically, with oppression.

Freedom must exclude Dogma?

Finally, let us take the second part of the ‘dogma versus freedom’ argument: that a passionate belief in human freedom must involve a rejection of dogma.

This is simply overcome. A passionate belief in human freedom becomes a liberal dogma when stated as an inalienable belief. If affirmed also by the church, we have a mutuality of dogma, of things that are passionately believed, centred upon the principle of human freedom. Had Quinn been able to declare a passionate belief in the religious freedom his church had so long denied, he might have found common ground with his acquaintance. With that fundamental point of conflict resolved, we can then begin to labour together on the great problem of the age — how to reconcile individual freedom with the needs of stable community, without which no-one’s liberty is safe.

If history teaches us anything it is that morality and truth cannot be enforced. Nor can faith. The acceptance of dogma can only result from a passionate love of God – and a God who does not love freedom, a God who coerces, is not lovable. The central purpose of this book is to affirm a God for whom human freedom is inviolable.

From this perspective, Christians can rightly claim that modern liberalism is inconceivable outside the context of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which gave such a high valuation to the individual deprived of dignity by social injustice. As the Encyclopedia Britannica recognises, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount affirmed the dignity of, and divine love for, those alienated from the world by poverty and injustice, and must be considered at least one source of modern liberalism. The Magnificat and the Christmas story, as well as the personality of the adult Jesus, have deeply influenced western culture, at a level deeper than the intellectual. Even in the Middle Ages peasants typically upbraided their betters by reference to a shared Christian heritage, and affirmed their own dignity by pointing to Jesus’ birth in a stable.

The Enlightenment did not acknowledge its debt to Christianity, but this does not mean it had none – specifically compassion for the underdog. The best of the Enlightenment intellectuals expressed a spirit of social concern which goes far beyond mere rationalism. It is not going too far to say that western liberalism also is a branch of the Christian vine, which can also always renew itself by drawing from the same source, for Jesus shows us not only a love for our freedom, but also its most fulfilling use – in service rather than self-indulgence.

We have here a means of interpreting our present crisis which can heal the chasm in western civilisation between secularism and Christianity. Secularism can be seen as the product of an impossible choice forced upon modernity by an obscurantist Christian clergy who misrepresented the Christian God as fundamentally hostile to individual intellectual and personal freedom. In forcing modernity to choose between faith and freedom they effectively secularised the present, misrepresenting Christ himself. However, a Jesus who unaccountably used his freedom to undertake a journey of ultimate self-sacrifice and humiliation, radically challenges the secularist individualism of our culture, the fundamental source of its present danger.

There is absolutely no doubt that unless we can all become wiser as individuals our civilisation is unviable. Lower consumption by the well-to-do, a spirit of service and affirmation of the weak, a tolerant love of all other individuals on the planet, whatever their race or religious persuasion — all these are essential virtues for saving our world. Their outstanding moral archetype, freed from the institutional propaganda of all those organisations which have misrepresented him for their own purposes, is Jesus of Nazareth.


  1. W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming, Collected Poems
  2. Pope Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors, 1864
  3. Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dec. 7, 1965, Article 1
  4. J. Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, 1964
  5. Memory and Reconciliation, International Theological Commission, 1999
  6. c.1098, Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God become Man?) St Anselm of Canterbury
  7. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium, An Interview with Peter Seewald, Ignatius Press, 1997, P.44
  8. See e.g. Aquinas and the Heretics, Michael Novak, 1995
  9. Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dec. 7, 1965, Article 1