Meditations for Layfolks - Freedom in Religion

It is a common comparison to contrast the Church with the great empires of the world, and to note the vastness of design in each. We cannot but be struck by the hordes of people that these secular empires contain, differing in race, in religion, in traditions, in culture, in their manner of life, and in its expression in language, in art, in dress: yet, compatible with this huge difference, not merely in external but also in internal and essential ways of existence, there is a unity which appears to transcend the natural divisions of human nature. In the famous essay of Lord Macaulay which has been more quoted probably than any of his other writings, he has pointed out how out of all the ancient European states the Papacy alone survives, and that with a vigour and a freshness which seems to show no signs of real decay. He is, therefore, himself looking at the Church as he would have looked at the nations with their secular governments. Indeed, from a human point of view, there is much likeness between the two great empires numbering many millions and bridging over many gulfs of thought and habit. But there is this contrast to be insisted on also, that the empires of the world have survived or lived long, only by adopting the greatest freedom in their several parts. Directly a number of divergent races are gathered into a unit, it is essential, if they are to continue to hold together, that allowance should be made for these very differences; and local ideas are permitted to colour the political forms and beliefs of the sister-peoples. No despotic empire of any magnitude has ever for long dominated Europe or Christian civilization. The spirit of our Lord makes tyranny impossible, or rather, drives to revolution the oppressed.

Now in the sphere of religion, the opposite principle is to be noted. For if any empire is held together longest by allowing as much freedom as possible to the separate units, a religion which gives up or diminishes its dogmatic position which allows "comprehensiveness" to be the mark of its formularies has no staying power at all. The more vague religion becomes, the less does it appeal to the children of men. It will be found, for example, that in every civilized state the Churches that are the widest in their beliefs, that, to all intents and purposes, make no demands upon their adherents, are just those which most bewail a decreasing membership. The contrast is therefore very evident. To give life to an empire, encourage mental freedom; to give life to a religion, insist strongly upon authority in the faith. Nor, really, when it is examined, is there anything strange in this; for the principle of politics is the principle of compromise. Every politician knows perfectly well that he will never be able to get quite all he wants; nor, indeed, is he perfectly certain that what he wants is really the best thing for the country, but he judges that on the whole his side is in the right. But the believer is seeking for truth, and in consequence does not wish to be put off with the nearest or next best: for there is no next best to truth; it is either right or wrong. It is impossible to work a compromise on the divinity of our Lord or on the question of divorce; one or other must be the teaching of Christ, and religion presumes that it is important to find out which is His teaching. The contrast between the State and the Church is therefore a contrast in essential purpose. The State gives us the next best; the Church gives us truth.

I must, therefore, be very careful not to allow my mind, brought up in the midst of the modern political forms of thought, to apply them to the region of the soul. It is so easy to say to myself that the insistence of the Church on certain dogmas, and her repudiation of this and that, is uncalled for and opposed to the spirit of the age. It really has nothing to do with the spirit of the age, for that spirit has no power over the range of fact; it cannot affect the reality of truth. It would be as reasonable to denounce the theorems of Euclid as no longer harmonizing with the ideas of a "generation that knows not how to obey." We should answer at once that truth, objective truth, is always one, and is dependent upon the intelligence not of man but of God. Freedom, then, should be the principle of politics, but truth the principle of faith. Naturally, of course, there is wisdom in permitting local customs to enter into the discipline and regulations of Christian life, but no local traditions or prejudices can affect by one hair s-breadth the Gospel of God: rather the Gospel must affect and utterly change the customs and prejudices of all of us. In politics I aim at freedom, and probably I end by obtaining truth; in religion I aim at truth and end by obtaining freedom. I try to advocate among my fellow-citizens that form of government which allows the in dividual the greatest amount of liberty compatible with ordered and stable government, and I find in the end that I have got that form of government that is most ideal. But in religion I choose deliberately that form which most authoritatively claims to teach me truth, and in the end I find that as a result I am most free: for only "the truth shall make you free."

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.