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.