Archive Civic Polity Ecclesiastical Polity Steven Wedgeworth

The Catholic Church Has Already Been Transformed

The continuing fallout from Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia appears to be reaching a decisive moment. The bishops of Malta have released an interpretation of Amoris Laetitia which supports and applies what might be called the “progressive” interpretation. It allows for those people who have been divorced and remarried, hitherto a state considered mortal sin, to receive Catholic communion if their consciences are clear. While this topic is unlikely to impress Protestant readers as touching on the essence of the faith, conservative Catholic leaders, including the celebrated Cardinal Burke, it is a fundamental revision of “the Church’s teaching on marriage.” Because this issue is directly connected to the Roman understanding of “liberty of conscience,” some of their leaders have called it the place where they “meet and clash with the central pillar of modernity.” As such, it is directly relevant, from that point of view, to “the salvation of the faithful.”

Indeed, this situation is so significant for the Roman Catholic Church that some of its North American conservative apologists have been reduced to arguing that God will strike Francis dead before allowing him to endorse the Maltese Bishops’ interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. While this is packaged as a sure rebuttal to any lingering doubts, readers can see that it is quite the opposite.

At TCI, we are magisterial Protestants, and we understand the role of conscience and the authority of the visible church to be an essential point of opposition between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The doctrine of justification by faith alone is directly united to the doctrine of liberty of conscience, serving as its foundation, and a denial of one has always been understood by Protestants to necessarily undermine the other. Since this is the case, we are both closer to the Maltese position and yet in agreement with their more-conservative critics as to what the classic position of Rome is. While this dispute is most certainly “not our fight,” we cannot help but find it illustrative of one of the most fundamental errors we identify in the Roman system. But we also understand the ambiguity for Roman Catholics.

You see, while this “crisis” may be reaching a new level of intensity for Rome, an even more fundamental revolution has already taken place for them. Their doctrine of liberty of conscience was dramatically rewritten in 1965, though at the time it was merely explained as a clarification of what had always been believed, expressed more appropriately for a changing civic landscape. This defense hardly holds up under investigation, however, and a careful reading of plain statements will readily explain the source of the Roman Catholic Church’s current dilemma. This change was their declaration on religious freedom, known as Dignitatis Humanae, and it became official Roman Catholic teaching with the reception of the Second Vatican Council.

In what follows we will explain the classic Roman Catholic position on religious liberty. This will be a large enough project to warrant its own installment. After we have laid out this position, we will then return with a follow-up, highlighting the statements in Dignitatis Humanae which most clearly contradict that older position. The current disagreement over Amoris Laetitia frankly pales in comparison to this more fundamental contradiction and appears to be a rather predictable downstream consequence. While the implications for current members of the Roman church will, no doubt, be complex and open-ended, this also does, in fact, falsify their claim to magisterial infallibility. It is our hope that, upon sober reflection, this demonstration will lead them to find true freedom of conscience in the only place that it can be found, the free gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus we begin our first installment.

The Medieval Roman Catholic Teaching on Church and State

The old Roman Catholic teaching on civil liberty was bound up in its doctrine of the “two swords.” While developing over centuries, this came to it highest expression in the 1302 bull, Unam Sanctam, which we have explicated hereUnam Sanctam argues that both the spiritual and temporal swords were given to the church, by which it means the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the bishop of Rome. Employing a Dionysian hierarchy, Unam Sanctam argues that while the church delegates civil power to the princes and other civil magistrates, that civil power is nevertheless subordinate to the spiritual power, which is the teaching and governance of the clergy, terminating in the papacy. This leads to the conclusion that, “it belongs to spiritual power to establish the terrestrial power and to pass judgement if it has not been good.”

This subordination of the civil magistrate to the leadership of the visible church was the Roman position throughout the Middle Ages, and it was an article of the faith. As Unam Sanctam concludes, “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” The language of dogmatic imperative is clear enough. The linguistic choice of “every human creature” is also important, in that it is not merely a statement about persons and the duties of individuals towards religion as such. It is a claim about public offices as well.

Many readers will instinctively reject an appeal to 1302. Without necessarily admitting a fundamental “change” in the Roman system, they will surely argue that development has occurred. Important qualifications have been made. No one could hold to the position of Unam Sanctam as such. But subsequent history shows otherwise.

19th Century Catholic Teaching On Liberty

In fact, the position of Unam Sanctam was never repudiated, and though it faced opposition in its own day, it was retained and even advanced upon in subsequent centuries. The fifth Lateran Council explicitly confirmed it in 1517, and various popes continued to lay claim to temporal power throughout the Reformation debates and Wars of Religion. Indeed, papal power would not reach its high-water mark until the 19th century. The first Vatican Council defined the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870, and thus declared all statements made by the bishop of Rome, when acting in his universal office and speaking about faith or morals, to be infallible. Importantly, key claims to ecclesiastical supremacy in civil matters were being made by the papacy in the years leading up to this council and in the years following.

Three particularly relevant documents for the 19th century papacy are Mirari Vos, Immortale Dei, and Libertas. Each encyclical makes claims about the church’s temporal rights, and more significantly, each makes claims about the appropriate definition and limits of freedom of conscience.

Mirari Vos 

Pope Gregory XVI who had lived during the invasion of Italy by Napoleon was fiercely committed to the supremacy of the Catholic Church, even in temporal matters. In response to the rising pressures of liberalism, he wrote Mirari Vos, “On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism.” This document addresses a variety of issues, but its most important point concerns liberty of conscience and its condemnation of the separation of church and state.

Linking liberty of conscience to a modern religious liberalism, it says:

This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. “But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error,” as Augustine was wont to say. When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. Then truly “the bottomless pit” is open from which John saw smoke ascending which obscured the sun, and out of which locusts flew forth to devastate the earth. Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws — in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty.

Notice that Mirari Vos is addressing “sacred and civil affairs,” and it highlights the way that “cities” perished because of “immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty.” Any understanding of “liberty of conscience” which allows unbounded freedom of opinion or speech is condemned as wrong. It goes on to condemn “that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people” and says “The Church has always taken action to destroy the plague of bad books,”citing the fifth Lateran Council and the Council of Trent’s index of prohibited books as supporting examples.

From here, Mirari Vos rejects the separation of church and state and calls upon “Our dear sons in Christ, the princes” to “support these Our desires for the welfare of Church and State with their resources and authority” and “take special care that religion and piety remain safe.” The implication is clear. Civil magistrates ought to support and protect the Roman Catholic Church, even in its censorship of competing ideas and religions.

Immortale Dei 

The spirit of liberty continued to influence nations throughout the 19th century, and so the Catholic Church once again addressed the matter. Pope Leo XIII wrote two important encyclicals concerning the relationship between church and state and the character of religious liberty. The 1885 Immortale Dei explains the Roman Catholic philosophy of statecraft and governance, and the 1888 Libertas sets out to properly define liberty and to give instruction to the civil realm as to how it ought to properly order religious matters.

Immortale Dei begins by laying out a general philosophy of civil government. It begins with squarely theocratic principles:

But, as no society can hold together unless some one be over all, directing all to strive earnestly for the common good, every body politic must have a ruling authority, and this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has, consequently, God for its Author. Hence, it follows that all public power must proceed from God. For God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the world. Everything, without exception, must be subject to Him, and must serve him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern holds it from one sole and single source, namely, God, the sovereign Ruler of all.

After arguing that civil government must be orderly and for the benefit of all members of a common society, Immortale Dei then maintains that “the State” must promote and protect “the public profession of religion”:

For, men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, no less than individuals, owes gratitude to God who gave it being and maintains it and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its reaching and practice-not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion -it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, would hold in honour the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favour religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule.

This mandate extends, naturally, to promoting the “true” religion.” And what is this true religion? “It is evident that the only true religion is the one established by Jesus Christ Himself, and which He committed to His Church to protect and to propagate.” As one might expect, the encyclical then goes on to explain how the Catholic Church is a perfect and supernatural society, “chartered as of right divine.” This Church is even invested with the power to oversee civil affairs:

It cannot be called in question that in the making of treaties, in the transaction of business matters, in the sending and receiving ambassadors, and in the interchange of other kinds of official dealings they have been wont to treat with the Church as with a supreme and legitimate power. And, assuredly, all ought to hold that it was not without a singular disposition of God’s providence that this power of the Church was provided with a civil sovereignty as the surest safeguard of her independence.

Immortale Dei reaffirms a “two powers” philosophy, giving the civil magistrate legitimate authority and even a kind of supremacy in its jurisdiction. Yet this is qualified:

Each in its kind is supreme, each has fixed limits within which it is contained, limits which are defined by the nature and special object of the province of each, so that there is, we may say, an orbit traced out within which the action of each is brought into play by its own native right. But, inasmuch as each of these two powers has authority over the same subjects, and as it might come to pass that one and the same thing-related differently, but still remaining one and the same thing-might belong to the jurisdiction and determination of both, therefore God, who foresees all things, and who is the author of these two powers, has marked out the course of each in right correlation to the other.

And so the Church is allowed to intervene in what would strike moderns as “political” affairs. Indeed, the encyclical goes on to argue that it was a better day “when States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel.” This would have continued and improved “had obedience waited upon the authority, teaching, and counsels of the Church, and had this submission been specially marked by greater and more unswerving loyalty.” But, of course, the Reformation and Enlightenment intervened: “that harmful and deplorable passion for innovation which was aroused in the sixteenth century threw first of all into confusion the Christian religion, and next, by natural sequence, invaded the precincts of philosophy, whence it spread amongst all classes of society.”

To counter these errant opinions, the Catholic Church must again oversee civil liberties. Immortale Dei approvingly cites Mirari Vos and condemns the separation of church and state. Catholics, it argues, should extend themselves beyond private and domestic spheres and “give their attention to national politics.” Indeed, “it is the duty of all Catholics worthy of the name and wishful to be known as most loving children of the Church, to reject without swerving whatever is inconsistent with so fair a title; to make use of popular institutions, so far as can honestly be done, for the advancement of truth and righteousness; to strive that liberty of action shall not transgress the bounds marked out by nature and the law of God; to endeavour to bring back all civil society to the pattern and form of Christianity which We have described.” Catholics are not free “to follow one line of conduct in private life and another in public, respecting privately the authority of the Church, but publicly rejecting it” but should rather live all of their lives consistently and in submission to the same higher law.


In Leo XIII’s 1888 encyclical, Libertas, we find a lengthy and detailed explanation of the Catholic understanding of liberty, particularly religious liberty. In it, liberty is praised as a virtue in this encyclical, indeed it is “the highest of natural endowments.” But for this very reason it must carefully defined:

Yet there are many who imagine that the Church is hostile to human liberty. Having a false and absurd notion as to what liberty is, either they pervert the very idea of freedom, or they extend it at their pleasure to many things in respect of which man cannot rightly be regarded as free.

And so:

Seeing, however, that many cling so obstinately to their own opinion in this matter as to imagine these modern liberties, cankered as they are, to be the greatest glory of our age, and the very basis of civil life, without which no perfect government can be conceived, We feel it a pressing duty, for the sake of the common good, to treat separately of this subject.

Leo then goes on to explain the proper definition of liberty and the reasons that liberty is so-easily distorted and misused. He says, “human liberty… necessarily stands in need of light and strength to direct its actions to good and to restrain them from evil. Without this, the freedom of our will would be our ruin.” The first rule to direct liberty is, therefore, “law.” He goes on to give some very helpful explanations about the relationship between natural law and civil law, claiming that both must be in conformity to the eternal divine law. However, for a Roman Catholic in the 19th century, this also means that both natural law and civil law are under the guardianship of the Roman magisterium: “the powerful influence of the Church has ever been manifested in the custody and protection of the civil and political liberty of the people.”

From this, then, Libertas argues:

Moreover, the highest duty is to respect authority, and obediently to submit to just law; and by this the members of a community are effectually protected from the wrong-doing of evil men. Lawful power is from God, “and whosoever resisteth authority resisteth the ordinance of God’ ; wherefore, obedience is greatly ennobled when subjected to an authority which is the most just and supreme of all. But where the power to command is wanting, or where a law is enacted contrary to reason, or to the eternal law, or to some ordinance of God, obedience is unlawful, lest, while obeying man, we become disobedient to God.

This means that “true liberty really consists” in living in submission to the divine law as interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore Opposing itself to “naturalist” and “rationalist” liberalism, as well as “socialists and members of other seditious societies,” Libertas declares that the protection of the true religion is necessary for any sort of freedom:

Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engravers upon it. This religion, therefore, the rulers of the State must preserve and protect, if they would provide – as they should do – with prudence and usefulness for the good of the community.

A few observations are worth noting. The above paragraph clearly prioritizes one religion above “various religions (as they call them)”. Indeed, it says that treating all religions “alike” is equal to godlessness. Instead, “that religion must be professed which alone is true” and therefore “the rulers of the State must preserve and protect” it.

From here, Libertas goes on to allow for a limited understanding of free speech and free publication. Like Mirari VosLibertas does not allow for universal free speech. Laws must be enacted which protect “the greater part of the community… from illusions and deceitful subtleties, especially such as flatter the passions.” Indeed, it argues, “If unbridled license of speech and of writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate; even the highest and truest mandates of natures, justly held to be the common and noblest heritage of the human race, will not be spared.” So law must limit this liberty of speech and press.

The Church (the Roman Catholic Church) is again held up as God’s appointed instrument for guarding true liberty, and therefore of instructing proper laws. After this affirmation is made, Libertas then affirms freedom of conscience. But, in keeping with its logic, this too is of a limited variety:

If by this is meant that everyone may, as he chooses, worship God or not, it is sufficiently refuted by the arguments already adduced. But it may also be taken to mean that every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands. This, indeed, is true liberty, a liberty worthy of the sons of God, which nobly maintains the dignity of man and is stronger than all violence or wrong – a liberty which the Church has always desired and held most dear.

Notice that “liberty of conscience” does not mean the freedom to choose to worship God or not. It means the right to follow the will of God and obey His commands, commands which are mediated by the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, a few paragraphs later, Libertas, like Mirari Vos and Immortale Dei, rejects the separation of church and state. “Against such as these, all the arguments by which We disprove the principle of separation of Church and State are conclusive; with this super-added, that it is absurd the citizen should respect the Church, while the State may hold her in contempt.”

Importantly, Libertas also claims for the Roman Catholic Church the right “to legislate, to judge, or to punish.” It expressly adds these rights to the mere right “to exhort, to advise, and to rule her subjects in accordance with their own consent and will.” In defense of this, Libertas points back to the encyclical Immortale Dei written three years earlier in 1885.

Importantly, Libertas does allow for the Church to adapt to diverse situations, so long as it does not violate the natural law. “Religion, truth, and justice must ever be maintained.” Thus, “unconditional freedom of thought, of speech, or writing, or of worship, as if these were so many rights given by nature to man” is rejected as unlawful.

Libertas says that men may seek a change in their civil government if there is “an unjust oppression of the people on the one hand, or a deprivation of the liberty of the Church on the other.” This can even be extended to democracy, but on the condition that “if only the Catholic doctrine be maintained as to the origin and exercise of power.” Indeed, Libertas admits any form of government to be legitimate, so long as “they should be constituted without involving wrong to any one, and especially without violating the rights of the Church.” It is important to not impose a Protestant meaning to the expression “rights of the Church.” As Libertas has earlier claimed, the “rights of the Church” include its right “to legislate, to judge, or to punish,” and it includes the Church’s right to claim its tradition of political philosophy.

Conclusion For Now

Many of the documents consulted above are unfamiliar to Protestant readers. Indeed, they are unfamiliar to many Roman Catholic readers. And yet their claims are clear enough, and the logic is consistent. Stretching from the Middle Ages through the early Modern period and into the Modern era, the Roman Catholic Church claimed that the spiritual power was superior to the temporal and had a place of priority in evaluating civil laws. It rejected the separation of church and state and argued that the divine law required civil laws to be consistent with the natural law, which included religious duties and was guarded and interpreted by the magisterium.

Even as late as 1925, this was the case. Pius XI, in Quas Primas, cited that tradition, even naming Leo XIII, claiming that the “empire” of Christ extended to all nations, even non-Catholic and non-Christian nations:

“His empire includes not only Catholic nations, not only baptized persons who, though of right belonging to the Church, have been led astray by error, or have been cut off from her by schism, but also all those who are outside the Christian faith; so that truly the whole of mankind is subject to the power of Jesus Christ.” Nor is there any difference in this matter between the individual and the family or the State; for all men, whether collectively or individually, are under the dominion of Christ. In him is the salvation of the individual, in him is the salvation of society.

This Catholic teaching lead Pius to make the claim that, “If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.” Indeed, he says, it is will only be after nations recognize this kingship that they will have true liberty. He concludes with instructions to this end–“not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ” and “the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles” when it makes its laws and orders its welfare.

So the tradition was not unclear. A pure secularism was condemned. More than this, it was demanded that states submit themselves to the Catholic Church as the proper way to obey Christ, and it was the expectation that Catholics would work towards this goal in their various stations. For its part, the Church “has a natural and inalienable right to perfect freedom and immunity from the power of the state” and “cannot be subject to any external power.” Yet the state ought to be subject to the Church in that listens to the magisterium’s rulings, orders its laws according to the Church’s interpretation of the  natural law, and restricts its notions of liberty to the proper bounds–those consistent with the restrictions placed on it by the Church.

This was the old view, and indeed, it is not so old that it cannot be easily uncovered. Less than one hundred years ago, it was taught confidently and without embarrassment. Yet it strikes many readers, even many Catholic ones, as incredible and indeed unacceptable. How has this come to be? The answer must wait our next installment, as we will turn out attention to 1965.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

9 replies on “The Catholic Church Has Already Been Transformed”

I can say, however, the Cross quickly skims over the political question. He relegates the question to one of ideas– should people be free, and if so how? But he doesn’t discuss the appropriate rights and imperatives of the civil magistrate, and he certainly doesn’t give the “old view” any sort of thorough presentation. I don’t think Pater Edmund, our RC friend above, would find Cross’s explanation helpful or interesting in the least.

Comments are closed.