Rorate Caeli

On the coercive authority of the Church: a response to Fr. Martin Rhonheimer by Dr. Thomas Pink

A vigorous and extensive discussion on Vatican II, and the plausibility of interpreting its decrees as being in continuity with the teachings of the Magisterium of the pre-Vatican II era, has been carried out since the early part of this year in the pages of Sandro Magister's websites, Chiesa (with English translation) and Settimo Cielo (in Italian only). As Fr. Giovanni Cavalcoli OP put it in the course of the discussion: "The heart of the debate is here. We all agree, in fact, that the doctrines already defined [by the dogmatic magisterium of the former Church] present in the conciliar texts are infallible. What is in discussion is if the doctrinal developments, the innovations of the Council, are also infallible."

The following are the articles in Chiesa that are part of this discussion, listed in chronological order:

1) High Up, Let Down by Pope Benedict. (April 8, 2011) -- Noted by Rorate Caeli. An article describing the disappointment of Roberto de Mattei, Brunero Gherardini and Enrico Maria Radaelli over the approach of Pope Benedict XVI towards Vatican II, and concluding with a defense of the hermeneutic of continuity written by Francesco Arzillo.

2) The Disappointed have Spoken. The Vatican Responds. (April 18, 2011) -- Noted by Rorate Caeli. -- Concerning the defenses of the "hermeneutic of continuity" written by Inos Biffi and Archbishop Agostino Marchetto in response to Gherardini and de Mattei (see the first item in this list of articles).

3) Who's Betraying Tradition. The Grand Dispute (April 28, 2011) -- Mainly concerning Fr. Martin Rhonheimer's essay in "Nova et Vetera" regarding religious liberty and the hermeneutic of reform.

4) The Church is Infallible. But Not Vatican II. (May 5, 2011) -- Containing / referring three articles: the first one by Roberto de Mattei regarding the element of rupture to be found in Vatican II, the second one by David Werling in response to Francesco Arzillo (see the first item in this list of articles), and the last one by Fr. Giovanni Cavalcoli OP in response to Werling.

5) Benedict XVI "The Reformist". - The Prosecution Rests. (May 11, 2011) -- Where Massimo Introvigne responds to Roberto De Mattei and contends that Vatican II indeed represents "renewal in continuity", while Fr. Martin Rhonheimer returns to the fray and elaborates on "hermeneutic of reform."

6) Religious Freedom. Was the Church Also Right When It Condemned It? (May 26, 2011) -- Which publishes Fr. Basile Valuet's critique of Gherardini and de Mattei on one hand, and of Rhonheimer on the other, after reprinting part of the last-mentioned's Nova et Vetera article. Valuet's article is followed by a note about David Werling's response to Cavalcoli (see the fourth item in this list) and a long series of "postscripts" in Italian and French. (In sequence: separate responses to Valuet by Rhonheimer and Cavalcoli, followed by a response of Valuet to Cavalcoli and a second response by Cavalcoli to Valuet, then followed by a long note from Introvigne, and then one response each to Introvigne and Rhonheimer by Valuet.)

7) A "Disappointed Great" Breaks His Silence. With an Appeal to the Pope. (June 16, 2011) -- Noted by Rorate Caeli --Enrico Radaelli's memorable contribution to this discussion, an impassioned appeal to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to "restore the divine 'munus docendi' in its fullness.

8) Bologna Speaks: Tradition is Also Made of "Ruptures". (June 21, 2011). -- Where the historian Enrico Morini interprets Vatican II as a return to "what the Church had lost", in the process making some unexpected nods to Eastern Orthodox criticisms of Catholicism; followed by the responses of Cavalcoli, Rhonheimer and Arzillo to Morini.

Rorate is now posting the following intervention (especially submitted to our blog) in this still-open debate. This particular intervention is in response to Fr. Martin Rhonheimer's essay in Nova et Vetera, part of which can be found in the third item in the list of articles above. More than being a mere response, the following essay throws further light upon the Catholic doctrine and theology of religious liberty and coercion from Trent to Vatican II, especially in relation to the coercion of belief.

The author is Dr. Thomas Pink, Professor of Philosophy in King's College, London and author of various books. To the blogosphere, Dr. Pink is best known for his long introduction (Introduction and Part 1. Part 2.) to the statement of Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller (the Roman Catholic bishop of Regensburg) on the Church's Confession of Christ in Jewish-Christian Dialogue (Part 1, Part 2). The latter statement -- and Dr. Pink's commentary on it -- were called forth by the controversy over the reformulation of the Good Friday Oratio pro conversione Iudæorum in the Missal of 1962.

Rhonheimer on religious liberty
On The 'hermeneutic of reform' and religious liberty in Nova et Vetera

Thomas Pink

Martin Rhonheimer sees doctrinal reform, not doctrinal continuity, in Vatican II's declaration on religious liberty. According to his Nova et Vetera paper, Dignitatis humanae is a genuine revision of earlier doctrine. The pre-conciliar magisterium endorsed religious coercion, calling for state restriction of the public practice of false religions. Now, by asserting religious liberty as not only a natural but a state or civil right, Dignitatis humanae has contradicted previous Church doctrine.

Rhonheimer denies, however, that the Church's previous endorsement of religious coercion was a doctrine of the faith. In particular, in a crucial appendix to his paper, he asserts, regarding various levels of magisterial dogmatic teaching:

"The first case - definition ex cathedra or by an ecumenical council - has clearly nothing to do with the question of religious liberty. In effect, the first and to this day only council to express itself on this subject has been Vatican Council II."

The pre-conciliar teaching was merely social doctrine, about the nature and role of the state. And the endorsement by pre-conciliar popes of religious coercion was based on a mistake. To defend what really is of the faith - the unique truth of Catholicism against other religions - the popes thought they had to assert the state's duty to repress religious error. But they were wrong. Indifferentism is the real enemy, not religious liberty itself. The mistake corrected, Vatican II can still teach the unique truth of the Catholic religion, while finally espousing religious liberty.

The argument is interesting - but faces certain difficulties. For Rhonheimer is wrong to claim that earlier general councils did not address religious liberty. And doctrine of the faith was involved - about the nature of the Church herself and her sacraments. For in Catholic doctrine the true bearer of an authority to coerce, or to forbid coercion, in matters of revealed religion is the Church, not the state.

True: in Dignitatis humanae, as arguably in her current canon law, the Church opposes and forbids various kinds of religious coercion that once she not only permitted, but even made obligatory. Yet Dignitatis humanae does not deny the doctrine of the authority to coerce on which those past coercive policies were based. Policy has changed through the Vatican II declaration, but the underlying doctrine of coercive authority has not. For this doctrine involves teaching about the Church's sacraments that is de fide and irreformable. And there is another reason, too, why Dignitatis humanae does not in any case touch this doctrine, and why the declaration's doctrinal implications are not as great as Rhonheimer supposes. Vatican II's declaration on religious freedom, and this was by design, does not address the coercive authority of the Church.

The full argument for this view is to be found in a paper, What is the Catholic doctrine of religious liberty? (What is liberty? for short) which is the basis for this post, as for various forthcoming scholarly publications. Its topic is the Catholic doctrine and theology of religious liberty and coercion from Trent to Vatican II, especially in relation to the coercion of belief. What follows is a mere outline of some themes. For the full argument and the supporting evidence, download the paper or read it online.

Baptism and the coercive authority of the Church

Like other modern Catholic writers on religious liberty, Rhonheimer thinks of the problem of religious liberty as a problem about the state; and so for past Church teaching he has consulted decrees and encyclicals that were expressly political. Therefore, and in this again like other modern writers, he did not consult any past conciliar decree on baptism. Baptism is a sacrament shared by all Christians. It is also key to the identity of the Church, and the traditional basis of her authority to coerce: that is to direct and authorize the use of force for religious ends. One central such form of ecclesial coercion is to apply real punishments to enforce moral obligations to fidelity in belief and practice that come with baptism - obligations that apply to the baptized independently of their will and consent.

It was Erasmus who stimulated a General Council to declare infallibly about baptism as a basis for coercion. Erasmus disliked the use of coercive penalties to enforce religion. In his famous Paraphrases on Matthew of 1522, he suggested that on reaching adulthood, after being properly catechized, those baptized as children should be asked if they were still willing to meet their baptismal obligations to the Church - including the central obligation to faith. What caused real shock was his follow-up; that if any were unwilling, beyond being excluded from the sacraments, they should not be pressured into fidelity by punishments, but be left uncoerced to their own decision. The outrage, even among the many Catholic theologians who otherwise admired Erasmus, was marked. By the time of Trent opinion had hardened further. As What is liberty? explains, Erasmus's proposal was anathematised as heresy, in canon 14 of Trent's decree on baptism, along with other heresies of Calvin and the Anabaptists. This condemnation is thereafter referred to by theologians as de fide, and as supporting the moral authority to use punishment to pressure the baptized into Christian fidelity, and into fidelity in respect of belief as well as practice.

Rhonheimer mentions that one of Pius IX's advisors, Fr Luigi Bilio, actually thought it heresy to deny that the Church has the right to impose temporal penalties to coerce the faithful. And he treats Bilio's opinion as just an outmoded expression of defunct social teaching. But perhaps in the light of Trent an opinion such as Bilio's seems less surprising. It is pretty obvious from the authority he was discussing, that Bilio was dealing with a doctrine about the Church, not the state. Indeed, Pius IX's Quanta cura defends the Church's right to impose temporal penalties on those who breach her laws, not as part of an assertion of the duties of the state, but in an assertion of the Church's own authority, defending that authority from intrusion by the state. And in the Syllabus Errorum, the condemned opinion that "the Church does not have the power of using force, nor has she any temporal power, direct or indirect", is cited, unsurprisingly, in the section of errors concerning the Church and her rights, and not in the subsequent section on errors about civil society and its relation to the Church. This is very plainly teaching about the Church and her authority, not social teaching about the state.

Moreover Pius IX was defending a doctrine of the Church's authority that the Church still teaches in her legal code. Far from being abandoned as supposedly outmoded social teaching at Vatican II, this doctrine about the Church's coercive power was retained in a code expressly designed to be reflective of Vatican II. The present 1983 code of canon law still teaches what Pius IX and Bilio both believed: that the Church has the general authority to coerce offending christifideles - Christian faithful, defined in the code as the baptized - for supernatural ends, and to apply temporal as well as spiritual punishments to this end. The obligations the Church has the authority to enforce are ones arising from baptism, under divine law, on belief as well as practice, as well as those arising specifically for Catholics under ecclesiastical law. The penalties within the Church's general authority to impose on the baptized are such temporal and spiritual penalties as might serve her supernatural ends; those currently imposed on clerics presently include such as loss of office and restriction of movement (for heresy and other serious breaches of baptismal obligation), as well as simple exclusion from the sacraments. What Trent endorsed - the coercive enforcement of baptismal obligations through punishments for crimes such as heresy and apostasy - is still canonically provided for. And the Church's general authority so to coerce is still explicitly taught.

Something seems wrong with Rhonheimer's theory that the Church's past endorsement of religious coercion was just social doctrine about the state. That past endorsement is turning out to involve not supposedly mutable doctrine about the state, but doctrine about the Church's own authority and nature - doctrine that seems in part de fide, and that the Church has not abandoned.

Church and state

Gregory XVI's Mirari vos, Pius IX's Quanta cura, and Leo XIII's Immortale dei do all make claims about the state and its religious duties.

Some of these duties are to profess the true religion, which is the Catholic faith. Thus Immortale dei says

So, too, it is a crime for the state to act as if there were no God, or not to have a care for religion, as something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of the many forms of religion to adopt whatever one it likes; for states are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which he has shown to be his will.

This teaching about the state's duty to profess the true religion clearly concerns a duty of reason under natural law:

As a consequence, the state, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to fulfil the many and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion. Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in holiness, because we are under his authority, and because having come from him we must return to him, bind also the civil community by the same law.

Now Dignitatis humanae does not explicitly teach this natural law duty on the state to profess the true religion. But nor does the declaration explicitly deny this teaching either, and seems to leave open the possibility of at least a 'soft' or non-coercive Catholic religious establishment. The declaration directly opposes not establishment, but the state's involvement in religious coercion. So is this opposition to religious coercion by the state really what Rhonheimer asserts it to be - a change in doctrine that is social, about the nature of the state? I shall suggest that it marks not any doctrinal change, but rather a change in the Church's policy - in the use of her own authority.

Certainly the nineteenth century papacy did teach a duty on the state to coerce on behalf of the Catholic faith. Thus in Quanta cura, those people are condemned who assert

that it is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except in so far as public peace may require.

So Pius IX certainly talked of the state as having an officium coercendi or duty to coerce on behalf of the Catholic faith in matters of religion. But where, according to papal teaching, does this duty come from? Does the state have an authority of its own to direct and coerce the religious belief and practice of its subjects, an authority it should exercise on behalf of the true faith? Or does the authority to direct and coerce religion belong to the Church, so that the duty on the state is imposed on it by the Church, and is a duty to help the Church in the exercise of her authority?

Quanta cura does not actually answer this crucial question. That was left to Leo XIII, who explained which coercive power, Church or state, has the authority to direct and legislate for the practice of religion. His doctrine is clear. That authority very clearly attaches to the Church, not to the state. For it is the role of the Church, not the state, to direct humans to supernatural ends, and - as the modern code still proclaims - to authorise coercion for those same ends. In Immortale dei he expressly claims:

In truth Jesus Christ gave his Apostles free authority in matters sacred, together with a true power to legislate and what follows therefrom, the twofold power to judge and to punish...Hence, it is the Church, and not the State, that is to be man's guide to heaven: and it is to the same Church that God has assigned the charge of seeing to, and legislating for, what concerns religion.


The Almighty, therefore, has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, the other over human, things…. While one of the two powers has for its immediate and chief object care of the goods of this mortal life, the other provides for goods that are heavenly and everlasting. Whatever, therefore, in things human is in any way of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church.

Nor was Leo XIII's teaching novel. We find it also three centuries before in papally approved teaching coming out of the Roman College. So when Dignitatis humanae says

Furthermore, those private and public acts of religion by which people relate themselves to God from the sincerity of their hearts, of their nature transcend the earthly and temporal levels of reality. So the state, whose peculiar purpose it is to provide for the temporal common good, should certainly recognise and promote the religious life of its citizens. With equal certainty it exceeds the limits of its authority if it takes upon itself to direct or prevent religious activity,

we shall easily find texts of approved Roman theology from the counter-reformation that, regarding the state, say much the same. Thus Suarez, in a papally commissioned text of 1613:

Punishment of crimes only belongs to civil magistrates in so far as those crimes are contrary to political ends, public peace and human justice; but coercion with respect to those deeds which are opposed to religion and to the salvation of the soul, is essentially a function of spiritual power [the power of the Church], so that the authority to make use of temporal penalties for the purposes of such correction must have been allotted in particular to this spiritual power.

The ends natural to this life that were the particular competence of the state simply did not justify coercion on behalf of any revealed religion. So we had a natural right not to be so coerced on the state's authority. Vatican II's statement above of the state's lack of authority in matters of religion, which Rhonheimer cites as if it were a novelty, is not novel at all.

How then was the state ever involved in religious coercion? For everyone knows that Catholic states were once very heavily involved. Heresy could be a crime under state law. And Catholic states were still being encouraged into the nineteenth century, as a matter of duty, to protect their subjects from error by restricting non-Catholic practice and proselytization in the public sphere.

If all this religious coercion was under the authority of the Church, then its basis must lie in what founds that authority - the sacrament of baptism and the moral obligations on the baptized that baptism brings. Traditionally understood, these may include a duty, when so directed, to aid the Church in her rightful use of force, whether to enforce baptismal obligations on the baptized themselves, or to resist and ward off threats to the Church's mission from without, such as by protecting the baptized from exposure to non-Catholic error.

And that is how the state came into the picture: through such obligations on the baptized so to assist the Church. For if the state is Christian, its rulers as baptized can in particular be under an obligation to assist the Church in coercion for religious ends, should such assistance be requested. But the authority behind such religious coercion is, as Leo XIII insisted, that of the Church, not that of the state. This is a coercive authority that exists independently of that of the state, that serves supernatural ends quite distinct from those proper to the state, and that would still exist whether or not the state existed.

To take one example, from what is as much a general Council of the Church as Vatican II: Lateran IV clearly committed itself to the existence of an obligation on baptized rulers to assist the Church in the exercise of her coercive jurisdiction, should that assistance be requested. That Council conveyed the teaching in the most direct way possible: by making the provision of such assistance a condition of rulers' continued communion with the Church. Baptized rulers unwilling to follow Church instructions to remove heresy could be excommunicated, the Council decreed - a penalty that was imposed by a pope after the Reformation on one otherwise faithful Habsburg ruler who dared to tolerate Protestant belief and practice among his subjects.

Dignitatis humanae

So what kind of religious coercion is Dignitatis humanae now opposing as wrong, because a violation of a natural right? It certainly cannot be the Church's use of coercion in matters of religion. For the Church still claims the authority to exercise such coercion, however much or little she chooses to exercise that right in specific cases; and, in particular, Trent's teaching of the legitimacy of the coercive enforcement of baptismal obligations is de fide.

In fact it is clear that the declaration is condemning religious coercion by the state and other civil institutions, not coercion on the authority of the Church. This is shown by the right to liberty protected, which is expressly described as a political or civil right. It is also clear from the internal structure and argumentation of the declaration, which What is Liberty? discusses in great detail, and which clearly and quite deliberately precludes the declaration from addressing the coercive authority of the Church.

Indeed, at Vatican II those involved in the declaration's preparation expressly declared, to worried canonists among the Council fathers, that the document was intended to bypass issues to do with the Church's own coercive authority. Dignitatis humanae was supposed not to address the Church's own right and authority to direct the baptized and to impose sanctions.

Now we can see the full significance of that famous 'tradition-friendly' clause in Dignitatis humanae - a clause of which Rhonheimer is rather too dismissive:

Indeed, since people's demand for religious liberty in carrying out their duty to worship God concerns freedom from compulsion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional catholic teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ.

Rhonheimer makes out that this clause is subordinated to and qualified by the declaration's supposed general condemnation of religious coercion. The traditional teaching protected by the clause, he insists, involves just a duty to give true worship to God and to evangelize.

But Rhonheimer's reading is simply not supported by the structure and argumentation of the declaration, and by what we anyway know of its subject and purpose. For the declaration was intended to bypass the coercive authority of the Church. And what else is included in the 'traditional teaching' that the declaration is supposed to preserve? Clearly included are the moral obligations to the Church of the baptized. These obligations, as traditionally understood, base and constitute the Church's coercive jurisdiction, and include obligations on the baptized to aid the Church in exercising her authority. One effect of the clause is, exactly as required, to ring-fence what was supposed to be ring-fenced - the coercive authority of the Church.

So Dignitatis humanae in no way impugns religious coercion as such. Its subject matter is state and civil coercion under natural law; and it teaches the moral wrongness of the state's involvement in religious coercion. And that wrongness plainly follows given, first, the state's lack of any authority of its own for such coercion - hardly a new idea, but standard counter-reformation teaching; and given, second, the Church's present and evident refusal to license such coercion by states on her authority.

Was the Church wrong in the past to license state involvement in religious coercion, and even demand that Christian states coerce on her behalf and on her authority? Opinions will differ on what is a very complex question. But this is not a question that Dignitatis humanae actually answers. All the declaration states is that, as things stand, and given rights against the state attaching to human nature, state coercion of religion cannot be justified. And that is clearly true.

As What is liberty? makes clear, Dignitatis humanae in no way denies that the Church's past policy, particularly towards those subject to her jurisdiction, the baptized, was highly coercive; nor does the declaration in any way disavow or contradict the Church teaching that consistently endorsed such coercion, when done under her authority. The declaration even cites, without condemnation, canonical authority actually supportive of such coercion. True, the declaration does give an argument from the Church's own past against religious coercion. But this refers to the Church's consistent condemnation of the religious coercion into the faith of the unbaptized - precisely that category of persons who are not subject to the Church's jurisdiction and who lack any moral obligation of fidelity to the Church. And this argument is in support of what is the declaration's real concern - the state's lack of any authority to coerce religion, a lack based on an analogous, and complete, absence of specifically religious obligations on the part of citizens to the state. The whole declaration sidesteps very carefully the issue of the Church's own coercive authority, and of the legitimacy of past religious coercion done under that authority.

The Church's present policy regarding state coercion on her behalf is abundantly clear, and is not likely to change soon. But the complete Catholic doctrine on the issue goes beyond this. It depends on the moral obligations of the baptized, including baptized state officials, towards the Church; and it depends on the nature of those obligations not just under present conditions, but also under conditions such as those that held in the past, when state populations were overwhelmingly made up of the baptized, and Church policy was very different. Beyond expressly undertaking to preserve traditional teaching about such obligations - and cases such as Lateran IV suggest something about the actual content of this teaching - the declaration does not itself tell us what these obligations could involve. The declaration in effect guarantees traditional teaching about the authority of the Church to direct and coerce, without itself telling us what that teaching is.

So Rhonheimer is quite wrong to see in Dignitatis humanae a doctrinal resolution of the Church-state question, which depends not on mere social teaching, but on something Rhonheimer rightly insists Vatican II did not intend to abandon: traditional doctrine concerning the nature of the Church herself, which centrally involves her relation to and authority over her members.


The issue is not the overall morality of the Church's past coercive policies, such as her past choice of sanctions and her choice of targets. Much imprudence and outright cruelty may have been involved, scarcely justified by the supernatural ends the coercion was supposed to serve. The issue is the Church's very authority and right to coerce religious belief and practice. Is her possession of such an authority a matter of Catholic faith? It seems in fact to be so.

The modern Catholic debate about religious liberty has been conducted as a debate about the state and its competence and authority in matters of religion. The focus has been on this: apparent, and considerable, variation over time in the levels of state coercion of religion that the Church has been willing to endorse. To the end of the counter-reformation, the Church often required the state to aid in the coercive conversion back to Catholic fidelity of baptized Protestants - a coercion that, even before Vatican II, she eventually came to forbid. Then, during the 19th century, and to the 1960s, she might encourage the restriction, in Catholic countries at least, of non-Catholic practice in the public sphere. And now, subject to just public order, she forbids the state to coerce religiously at all; and concordats with Catholic countries have been rewritten to reflect this.

The debate about the significance of such apparent variation in permitted state coercion is proving interminable. Indeed, the debate seems impossible to resolve when limited to the history of teaching specifically on the state. And now we see why. For all along the real coercive authority in religion was always the Church, not the state.

So until the debate moves from what is, where religion is concerned, the secondary issue of the authority and competence of the state, and addresses what is fundamental, the authority of the Church over those subject to her, the controversy about religious liberty cannot be resolved. We particularly need what is currently lacking - a theology of the Church that properly acknowledges what is de fide, her own divinely given authority to coerce, and which explains the doctrinal basis of and limits to the Church's power of coercion. This will centrally involve an appropriate theology of baptism and, in particular of the obligations to the Church incurred through baptism. For Erasmus's anti-coercive heresy was about baptism, not about the state. So it is baptism and its juridical and moral significance that will be key to settling the debate about religious liberty.

Thomas Pink
Professor of Philosophy
King's College London

(Image source: Tradicion Revista)