Freedom to Profess the True Religion

Historian Roberto de Mattei has an old-fashioned and exclusive notion of religious freedom:

The liberty of the believer is based on the truth believed and not on the self-determination of the individual. The Catholic and only the Catholic has the natural right to profess and practice his religion and he has it because his religion is the true one. Which means that no other believer apart from the Catholic has the natural right to profess his religion.

He consequently opposes State neutrality on the question of religion:

The reason the State cannot constrain anyone to believe does not arise from the religious neutrality of the State, but from the fact that adhering to the truth must be completely free. If the individual had the right to preach and profess publicly any religion whatever, the State would have the obligation of religious neutrality. This has been repeatedly condemned by the Church.

For this reason we say that man has the right to profess, not any religion, but to profess the only true one. Only if religious liberty is intended as Christian liberty, will it be possible to speak of the right to it.

This framing of religious freedom sounds strange to our ears—not even the recent popes define religious freedom so narrowly. According to de Mattei, the Catholic Church hierarchy took a wrong turn at the Second Vatican Council when they broke with centuries of tradition by failing to distinguish between “the internal forum, which is in the sphere of personal conscience, and the public space, which is in the sphere of the community, or rather the profession and propagation of one’s personal religious convictions.” Ambiguity and political correctness ensued.

Were it in his power, de Mattei would give us all the Social Kingship of Christ, the “rights of Jesus Christ to reign over entire societies as the only solution to modern evils.” His interpretation of this kingship, of course. He wouldn’t force anyone to believe in Christ in the private forum because “faith is a personal choice formed in the conscience of man,” but in his ideal system, people would have “no right to religious freedom in the public space, or rather freedom to profess whatever religion, because only the true and the good have rights and not what is error and is evil.” Error—e.g., false religions—may be “tolerated by the civil authorities, with the view of obtaining a greater good or avoiding a greater evil,” but error should never be allowed as a right, and false religions may justly be repressed by force.

Roberto de Mattei may be the Christianist par excellence, but he’s not entirely off base. He’s correct that error has no rights, so to speak, but wrong to conclude that the State shouldn’t therefore have the obligation of religious neutrality. The wisdom of separating of Church and State has its basis not on the supposed rights of error, but rather on 1) the principle that each person ought to seek the truth in her own way and in accordance with her own conscience (which may, in practice, mean a public, communal pursuit) and 2) the prudence of separating the power of priests and the power of princes.

True freedom is ordered toward the true and the good, as de Mattei rightly implies; however, while religious liberty may be best understood as the freedom to practice true religion, when the State takes a stand on what is and is not this true religion—and what in a religion is truth and what is error—it coercively sets the course for the pursuit of religious truth for those under its power, infringing their right and duty to seek truth in their own way.

Error may have no rights, but the pursuit of truth, which brings with it the possibility of error, merits the respect of the State. Roberto de Mattei fails to make this distinction and consequently cannot see a case for religious neutrality in the part of the State.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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48 Responses

  1. Sam says:

    I remain baffled whenever encountering Catholics loyal to their church and its machinations. How much more evidence does anybody need about that institution’s fundamental moral bankruptcy?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      One could argue that de Mattei is being disloyal to his church by dissenting from its now much broader framing of religious freedom. You might say his Catholicism here is outdated.

      • Sam says:

        You don’t think the current Pope might be into what de Mattei is marketing if he thought it was politically feasible within the church?

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Unlikely. The guy wrote a book called “Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions.” His personal views on religious freedom are worlds apart from de Mattei’s.

      • Rodak says:

        “You might say his Catholicism here is outdated.”

        @Kyle — But is it outdated by true conviction, or merely by practical necessity? I would say the latter. I would further say that all “full-time Catholics” are, at least in their secret hearts, of the party of de Mattei.

    • NewDealer says:

      There are a lot of tensions in Catholicism it seems and people seem to want to reform rather than split off. Though reform in this case is both on the left and the right-wings of the Catholic Church.

      I am Jewish and went to a law school connected to a Jesuit University. My law school was rather strongly liberal. The criminal law professors all came from a defense background, the law school and non-law schools had non-discrimination policies that covered sexual orientation and gender non-conformity. A significant number of the law professors (including the dean) were Jewish. I can only think of one practicing Catholic on the entire faculty. Yet the university was still Jesuit and the upper-administration of the overall university were mainly priests including the President and the Provost. Our graduation ceremony began with a lovely prayer to the “God of Inclusion”

      The Catholic Church seems to me to be such an unwieldy organization that it might offer something for everyone. Large chunks are very socially conservative but overall they have also rejected the prosperity gospel. The Catholic Hierarchy protested the Ryan budget as being a crime against the poor and elderly. They are also largely against the death penalty which at least makes them more consistent than Protestant Fundamentalist in their pro-life views. I am pro-choice and pro-assisted suicide but can be more respectful of someone who is against abortion if they also oppose the death penalty. I like that kind of intellectual consistency.

      I also remember this probably false story. Napoleon told a priest that he (Napoleon) was going to destroy the Catholic Church. The priest replied “We have been trying to destroy ourselves for a thousand years. If we can’t do it, neither can you!”

  2. Jaybird says:

    Dude seems to think that God does better work without wiggle room.

  3. Sam says:

    It is remarkable to see religious people so terrified about how unconvincing their beliefs apparently are. “Good lord, people might not believe me if they’ve got other options. GET RID OF THE OTHER OPTIONS!” Can you imagine arguing about this guy with anything ever?

    “I think Hank Aaron was a great baseball player.” Me.
    “Not only was Hank Aaron not a great baseball player, Babe Ruth was, and he is the only great baseball player, and you can’t talk about Hank Aaron anymore, and you’re illegal.” Roberto de Mattei.


  4. Ryan Noonan says:

    Where this all comes apart, I think, is that, to my eye, Catholicism is rather obviously a lie. If error has no rights, then it seems to me that this guy is in trouble, since the thing he believes is manifestly false.

    Now, of course, you might point out that this irresolvable dispute is the thing at the core of religious liberty, and that it requires state neutrality on the question of religion, but I’m guessing this guy has no particular use for the notion that he might not be right about something.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      He is mighty confident.

      • NewDealer says:

        How does he think India, Israel, Bangladesh, China, Bhutan, and many non-Catholic and even non-Christian nations are going to react to his ideal world? The guy sounds like he would secretly want another inquisition, crusade, and thirty year war.

        I think he is going to find that people are not quite as fearful of the Catholic Church anymore.

    • James K says:

      Quite. I could use his exact logic to argue that, for instance, parents should be banned from raising their children into a religious tradition since the only reason religion persists is that children are indoctrinated (literally) into integrating religious views into their identity when they’re too young to question what they’re being told. After all, religion might be acceptable when practised by consenting adults in their own home, but it’s simply immoral to expose children to something like that.

  5. BlaiseP says:

    Hence, we do not renounce the doctrine of the Social Kingship of Christ: let us speak of the rights of Jesus Christ to reign over entire societies as the only solution to modern evils. So, instead of fighting for religious liberty, which is the equalizing of the true religion with the false ones, let us fight in defense of liberty for Christians, today persecuted by Islam in the East and by the dictatorship of relativism in the West.

    This sort of talib nonsense is why the Catholic Church is forever doomed to repeat its many errors. They are no different than their Islamic persecutors in wishing to establish a literal Kingdom of God upon the Earth where our Lord told us his kingdom was in the hearts of men. If their Kingdom has been restricted to the boundaries of the Vatican, we may thank the secular powers which pulled the teeth of that vicious dog.

    • Morat20 says:

      There’s a huge difference. Those Muslims don’t have God on their side. They’re deluded.

      He spelled it out in the essay, and I’d imagine he’d tell you right to your face if you pointed it out — his God is real, the Muslim’s isn’t. Or at least the Muslim’s don’t know his will.

      He doesn’t see it as the same thing, because to him the very core of it is different. His God is real, theirs is delusion and mistake.

      • BlaiseP says:

        Yes, it’s a proven fact that God hates Muslims. All of ’em, just tools o’ Satan. Oh, it’s true, they’re people too. Gotta admit that much, however grudgingly. And it’s true some of them are kindly, decent people, very hospitable, that seems to be part of their religion. Spend some time around them, they’re very tricksy. Soon enough, you may come to like them, respect them. Even the Crusaders came to admire them. They called that wicked Saladin “The Flower of Islam”. They thought he was a noble and gracious man. When Richard got sick, Saladin sent his own doctor to cure him.

        You see what’s going on here? Don’t be deceived by their seeming graciousness and humanity. My God, look at their corrupting influence on the Crusaders!

  6. BlaiseP says:

    If the Catholics had any marketing sense, they’d look to Sufism’s relationship to Islam and work out an adjunct for mystical types in that vein. Lord knows the Catholics have enough material in the shed, museums full of it. Get all the doctrinaire hooey out of this Catholi-sufism, add loads of St. John of the Cross, Merton, Hildegard of Bingen, Teilhard de Chardin, the list goes on and on. Catholicism is infested with mystical tradition, wonderfully appealing stuff. Might even throw in some of the more energetic aspects of New World Catholicism.

    Such an entity would give the Pope a run for his money.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      We can’t even get our brothers and sisters to tithe.

      • BlaiseP says:

        I’ll never figure out the modern Catholic. They’ve got a lock on beauty in religion. We Protestants might have a slight edge in music but Catholics have the art and the architecture, the legends, the saints, the dreamers, they’ve got whole freight of Western Civ on their balance sheets.

        What’s gone wrong over there? It’s as if their leadership has rejected everything of importance which might tie the believing Catholic to the transcendent and the sublime. Of course people aren’t giving, they’re not receiving. The great mysteries of the altar, the ancient rituals which tie the believer to all who came before, all reduced to a pitiful caricature of itself.

        Boy howdy, if I was Pope, there would be a few changes. Turn the altar back around the right way, get rid of all those wretched 1960s-era monstrosities like guitar masses, get out of politics, start reaching out to other faiths and get back to basics. Start teaching the Bible again. Preach charity and the life of holiness. Quit with the skim-milk theology and start acting as if they were the heirs of the disciples, you know, Catholics. Empower women as our Lord did in the gospels. Allow people in holy orders to marry. Reconcile with the Orthodox and the Protestants and quit acting like sinners and homosexuals aren’t welcome: Lord knows there are enough of them wearing the dog collar at present. The Papacy and the Cardinals have brought untold shame upon the House of God. Clean house at the Vatican.

        And improve the music. It’s pitiful, going to mass, which I do ever and anon, listening to Catholics sing. Sounds like someone moving a herd of cattle. And the Protestants are no better on the music front. They’re dumbing it all down, them and their idiotic choruses, presented via PowerPoint on some tacky screen. Commission some new masses. The world could use some of what Our Lord had on offer, Palestrina and Bach, too.

        • Rodak says:

          @ Blaise — Well said, sir.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          I’m sympathetic to much of this, but you also have the problem of reaching people where they are. Not all Catholics, perhaps not most, relate to sublime liturgies. Anyhow, the Church has its work cut out for it. No doubt about that.

    • Rodak says:

      @BlaiseP — Again, I’m in full agreement. Sufism is the natural bridge between Islam and Christianity, for those who can’t see it already in the Koran (which mentions the Virgin more times, and arguably with more admiration, than do the Gospels, btw.)

  7. MikeSchilling says:

    De Mattei claims to be a full believer but rejects Vatican II? Fishing Cafeteria Catholic.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      He might respond that the conciliar declaration Dignitatis humanae, especially because of its ambiguities, needs to be interpreted in light of the tradition that excludes other religions in the conception of religious freedom. Postmodernist that I am, I tend to approach traditions in light of ambiguities.

  8. James Hanley says:

    Did he skip that whole part where he has to convincingly demonstrate that his faith is the real one before we need to accept the claim that only it has rights? So far as I’m concerned, the Pentecostals seem just about as convincing in the rightness of their faith, so for the time being, I really am compelled to allow each of them equal rights to continue trying to persuade me of their rightness.

  9. GordonHide says:

    “True freedom is ordered toward the true and the good” –

    What does this even mean?
    I think that the degree of personal freedom that a society allows, when push comes to shove, depends on how secure those in power feel the society is. If the society believes it faces an existential threat it will coerce the citizens to whatever co-operative effort it feels is necessary to overcome its difficulties.

    Some societies face existential challenges from the environment and other groups to such an extent that even in the long haul they will not achieve a very high standard of personal freedom.

    Personal freedom is certainly important. It’s from the mavericks and outliers that society gets the new ideas that allow it to adapt to new conditions. But, in terms of the wellbeing of all, the degree of personal freedom should not be a constant but only something society seeks to increase when by doing so it will not undermine society’s cohesiveness to the general detriment.

    When I talk about personal freedom I mean freedom to act. I think it’s a very bad thing if people are in some way prevented from thinking or believing anything that suits them no matter the perilous position of their society. When the group has its back to the wall you can still think what you like as long as you don’t incite disruptive activity in others.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      When I speak of freedom, I do not mean the power to do whatever one wants regardless of the consequences, but rather the power to do the good. That’s why I say this it is ordered or directed toward the good. Of course, in our liberal democratic society, what exactly constitutes the good is a wee bit controversial.

      • NewDealer says:

        I think that it is a huge issue of what is good and what is not good can often be very relative and subjective.

        This is not meant to be a glib example but in the movie High Fidelity, John Cusack’s on-again and off-again love asks him to have sex while they are in a break-up mode. Her reasoning is that her father just died and she wants to see something other than grief. The two options she had (according to the movie) were pleasure or pain (as in punching a wall very hard).

        One can argue that in these circumstances, one can be doing a good by consenting to have sex because it relieves a suffering person. But many religious conservatives might not see it that way.

      • GordonHide says:


        Well, in a sense “the good” is defined by society’s code of conduct. In all societies one is free to do “the good” on that basis. So your statement still doesn’t really make sense to me. I suspect you want the freedom to do good as you see it irrespective of the tenets of society.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          A society’s code of conduct is one way to understand “the good,” but to do so runs into the problem of what we then mean by societies whose codes of conduct are partially immoral. Is “the good” purely objective, purely subjective, or something of both?

  10. Fnord says:

    I was going to make a snide remark about how “freedom” to do only one thing is a bizarre way to use the word. But a little thought reveals that demonstrating how backwards De Mattei’s conception of religious freedom is doesn’t require one to care about non-Catholics at all.

    The 2000 year history of Church is ample demonstration that making the state a servant of the Church makes the Church a servant of the state. For much of that history, church offices were filled by neither religious authority nor the will of their congregation, but by appointment by secular rulers. Including, often enough, the Papacy itself, over which kings and emperors exercised a veto as recently as 1903 (more recently than most of the authorities de Mattei cites were written).

    Catholics are oppressed, according to de Mattei, when the state takes no role in shaping the public sphere of religion. Religious freedom, on the other hand, is when the Emperor of Austria tells the Papal Conclave who not to elect as Pope.

  11. Murali says:

    True freedom is ordered toward the true and the good

    I think I disagree. I don’t have the time now, but when I do, I will try to present an argument as to why our freedoms ought to be derived in a way that is orthogonal to what actions are moral, what states of the world are good, and what beliefs are true.

  12. James Hanley says:

    The phrase “the true and the good” chills me.

  13. DRS says:

    Are we up to the Enlightenment yet? Because the whole idea of religious freedom and tolerance really didn’t get much traction until that came along.