Religious Freedom Revisited

The fact that Rod Dreher is trying to inculturate his ideas in ‘Le Pari Bénédictin’ Est Arrivé (the word pari in French usually means a gamble or a bet, but can also be used analogically to mean a challenge) into a French context is very interesting, something which highlights the difference between religious freedom as perceived in the USA and “freedom from religion” in France and increasingly in England. The question is still discussed by Roman Catholic traditionalists under the guise of the “social kingdom of Christ”.

In the Roman Catholic world, the institutional Church was concerned about the Papacy having lost its temporal authority in 1870 as a kind of “super empire” lording it over kings and emperors all over the world. Pius XI in 1922 attempted to formulate a notion of a kingship of Christ in the face of Fascism and Nazism. American Protestants and Catholics alike, when identified with the conservative tendency, want a world in which a religious minority can require that their government should enact laws against moral issues like homosexuality and abortion. This notion of the Church having temporal authority goes all the way back to the Peace of Constantine and in a clear form in Bonface VIII’s Unum Sanctam of 1302. It was challenged in 1870 by the Italian Resorgimento. Since then, the Church has had to refine its authority at a spiritual level, but using every opportunity to regain political power through “sympathetic” dictators like Pinochet, Mussolini and Franco.

This ambition for political power is thus a deeply rooted temptation, but one that has turned many against the Church and encouraged the formation of deeply anti-clerical tendencies in Europe. Many Roman Catholic polemical pundits felt validated by the development of Freemasonry in different and more or less virulent forms and the development of socialism and anarchism.

From lording it over the world, the Church had rapidly to beg for its freedom in Europe, America and elsewhere. How do you go about asking a hostile or indifferent secular authority to grant you civil rights and freedom whilst withholding them from rival religions like Protestants, Jews or Muslims? All of a sudden, the Church has to compete without force and coercion. The days of the Inquisition’s torture chambers are over! From day one, the American Constitution declared the complete separation between State (or federal government) and religious bodies. Such bodies are simply private associations like associations for other human interests.

Here in France, the most “mainstream” way is for everyone to be atheists and adhere to the prevailing socialism. People are free to adhere to the religion of their birth or convert to another and engage in a constant game of self-justification and standing out. In the classical fashion of the Vicar of Bray, mainstream Catholicism has aligned itself with all political ideologies, including Nazism under the Occupation. The current incumbency of Jorge Bergoglio shows the almost complete submission of his Church to the prevailing orthodoxies of socialism and various forms of collectivism.

Give France a shot of Americanism? I can hardly see that happen, when many French Catholics of the milieux bourgeois still only relate to England through stereotypes and ignorance. They still talk about Joan of Arc and Napoleon! I am also sceptical of America’s tired message when that country slides ever more deeply towards the police state and dystopia. The opposition between the antifas and the alt-right is increasingly polarised and violent, brought out by the election of Trump. What is at stake here is not America or Europe, but human nature at its basest. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it – if I have got the quote right.

Dreyer is right in that massive Islamic immigration has changed the paradigm. The Roman Catholic Church is no longer a force to be resisted, and the laws of separation of church and state are of historical relevance only. As far as I see things, the old laws will continue to be in place to resist radical Islam today like radical Catholicism a hundred years ago. Unlike many, I do not see Islam creating a totalitarian caliphate in Europe for as long as political authorities remain under the influence of atheism, big money and power. At the same time, politicians still need votes from the strong Muslim minority.

Christianity must find a different way from claiming political power and denying freedom to those who are not Christians. “Error has no rights”. It may be correct in the absolute and in metaphysical terms, but what right do we have to coerce people into a our faith and / or morality? As for religion becoming private, I see no other way, certainly not by getting into politics. Then, by culture? Yes, perhaps.

It is interesting to note from one of the comments in this thread that:

Islam is even deader than Christianity when it comes to the spirit of the religion. He says for the young it’s all surface and lots of hypocrisy. Certainly from a few students I know, they seem to suffer from the same embrace of contemporary western liberal culture that we see with many young Christians.

All that means is that diaspora Islam is going the same way as mainstream Christianity.

I am not that sure of using culture to bring Christianity back into society. It depends on what we mean by culture. Most of what passes for culture today, including museums and classical music concerts, is no platform for Christianity. Institutional Christianity has little time for art and artists these days. Even in the past, artists and composers got short shrift from the Church.

The future of Christianity has to come from its intrinsic truth and value as a way of life. Those notions have no need of validation by politicians and legislators. People often feel the need for validation by some small society or association. Don’t we all? I cannot be a legitimate priest without being under a bishop with a working Church and who is in communion with a number of fellow bishops. At the same time, anything worthwhile comes from individual persons, be it prophetic vision, art, music, literature or anything inspiring and beautiful. I have to make a distinction between my vocation as a priest and my personal aspirations. This goes against my seminary formation teaching that a priest sees everything through his priesthood and clerical status.

Being a cleric removed me from the usual categories of social classes. Among other things, I have an instinct for “detecting bullshit” and the less sincere and honest aspects of social life. In my present married life, I spend more of my time looking like a fairly “bohemian” sort of layman than a cleric or gentleman about town. I find myself having largely gone the way of a tendency of post-war French clergy. They stripped themselves of their clerical identity (and the cassock) to live among ordinary people who had long ago been alienated from parish life. The worker priests and the Mission de France largely became political and espoused issues of interest to communists and trade unionists, and that was their greatest mistake. Perhaps, Dreher’s greatest intuition is to emphasise St Benedict, not for the purpose of founding monasteries but a more contemplative and liturgical notion of Christianity to be lived by intentional communities and individuals alike. Someone working in town and showing some difference from most people will attract attention, well or badly intentioned.

I have read most of Nicholas Berdyaev’s books, and I think particularly here of Freedom and the Spirit. There is no way that anyone can legislate over the free human spirit. We can be brought to task for what we say or do, but usually not for what we think. Orwell imagined the frightening concepts of thought crime and thought police, but they are not yet with us, and we can still think as we want. Religious freedom is above all a freedom of spirit, as in the spirit being distinct from the soul.

To continue a theme on which I have written, religious and spiritual life probably prosper better under conditions of pressure and adversity, the need for clandestinity, than being officially validated by the rich and powerful of this world. We live in a world where people kill, steal, abort, fornicate, violate marriage and family, abuse children and just about every other crime against God and man. What can we do about it? Perhaps the only thing is not doing any of these things ourselves! Many so-called “Christians” do, as I read this morning in an article about a Catholic orphanage in Scotland where evidence revealed 300% more mortality among the children in this institution than in the general population during the same era (late nineteenth century to about 1930). We can also cease supporting political ideologies that advocate things like “ethnic cleansing” and other euphemisms for killing certain categories of human beings.

Being powerless is perhaps the most purifying experience of all. I know of no teaching of Christ, neither in the New Testament nor in various apocryphal and Gnostic texts, that advocates the use of political authority or force against those not in agreement with his message. Christ went out to the marginal, the poor, the sick and the weak, those who sought God’s help and blessing, those who had hopes beyond this present world. This is what was attempted by those French priests in the 1950’s and 60’s, with the distinguished example of the Prêtre chez les Loubards, Fr Guy Gilbert. I wish and hope for the day that the black priest’s cassock will cease to be a symbol of alt-right politics, and will again become something that represents the same gentle and compassionate ministry as Fr Gilbert’s motorcycle jacket and long hair.

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8 Responses to Religious Freedom Revisited

  1. ed pacht says:

    Thought crimes and thought police are very much with us, and, really, always have been. Of course, if they are not expressed in any way they are not punishable, but let them be expressed even tentatively and there are consequences. No human society has ever been truly tolerant of thoughts wildly out of accord with the accepted “truth” — not if they have any impact on the living of life. That’s what the Roman persecution was about, and the Inquisition. It stands behind Nazism and Communism and energizes both religious and antireligious fundamentalists. Among people to whom I feel close there are some with whom I have to be extremely careful in expressing my dislike of such things as abortion, gay marriage, samesex practices, and the like, and others who are shocked that I do not support our current President, that I have warm feeling toward immigrants, that I support what they call ‘socialized medicine’. I’ve drawn flak for believing in God, for not believing the rigidities of fundamentalist protestantism, for taking a ‘popish’ view of sacraments and ceremonial, as also for not accepting the claims and culture of the Roman church. All these attitudes do manage to intrude into government (in every nation I know of) and there are thoughts that cannot safely be expressed without legal consequences.

    This isn’t anything new. I can see it all through history, and I can see it in the present day. It’s what ‘fallen’ humanity is like. Christians have tended to try to use the machinery of power for what seem to be good ends, but I’m convinced that this is always a mistake. Jesus stated that His kingdom is NOT of THIS world, and that it is within us, that to live by the sword is to die by the sword, and that His followers are to take up a cross and follow Him. He promised persecution, not as a dire warning, but as a blessing. “Blessed are ye…” when they do such things, He said, and also, “Rejoice and be glad.” There’s no power-centered or political approach compatible with that. We’re even ordered to LOVE our ENEMIES.

    We are in the middle of a hostile world, thinking thoughts that are not permissible, and this does make us radically separate from the world we inhabit, but we are still called to remain in the midst of it, for we have a message (those same forbidden thoughts) that the world needs to hear spoken, and to see lived, whether or not the world is willing to hear.

  2. Caedmon says:

    HI Father, did you know that there was an advertisement on your website?

  3. J.D. says:

    You’re right, somehow we are more free to live our Christian lives in societies like this than if we had a “throne and altar ” style theocracy where Church and State were two sides of the same coin and most people just went through the motions out of peer pressure.

    These days it takes work to want to be a Christian when neither the various ecclesial bodies or the outside culture sees any real value in our way of life.

    I get up each day and pray the Office and the Jesus Prayer because quite frankly I get something out of it for me. I feel connected to something greater than me, I feel anchored in a Tradition and way of life that keeps me from being blown away by the world around me. I’ve got no church I’m affiliated with, although if there were a Russian Orthodox Church around here or a Russian Catholic parish no doubt I’d join. It’s not always fun to feel like the church you once believed in has so fallen from any semblance of traditional sacramental Christianity so as to be unrecognizable.

    Like I’ve always said to others, the various Traditions of our fathers in the faith are always available to us, even though they mostly exist today in books, in our hearts and amongst scattered groups of likeminded individuals affiliated with many different churches. If we love the Tradition it’s up to us to live it. We have the freedom to walk alone if need be.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Tangentially, but perhaps worth noting, here: the new FIF-NA statement with respect to the recent ACNA “Message from the College of Bishops” interestingly includes “The final paragraph is quite clear in indicating that for a variety of reasons historic lay ministries have not been encouraged to the extent that ordained ministries have, and we must seek to effect that change. We must form more monastic communities for men and women – convents, monasteries, friaries, and draw upon models such as ‘Little Gidding,’ Third Orders and Oblates, to place before the Church ministries that have shaped countless generations.”

    • This is an amazing idea coming from Anglican bishops. FIF-NA seems more detached from the Establishment than their English counterparts, but I’m sure the English FIF bishops would not disagree. The first thing, which is distinctive of Churches, is the identifiable place of worship and the Office. If lay communities could be got going, then it would be possible to give a priest a stable and worthwhile ministry. Otherwise, the parish priest is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Living in a community is a special vocation – I don’t think I could commit myself to that for life. There is also “niche” ministry: “riding piggyback” on other types and communities and charitable works and not looking like a priest or actively proselytising, just being a “leaven”. There are not many options left.

      • ed pacht says:

        Ultimately the ordained ministry of Bishops and Priests is fundamentally internal, to lead the faithful in worship, and to administer Word and Sacraments to the faithful, also leading and giving discipline to the faithful. Outside the fellowship of the faithful, I don’t think there is a difference of ministries. We are all (clerical or lay) entrusted with the works of mercy and the Word of life. The great commission is not a clerical calling, but a mandate for all Christians. Most of what we do as a church in the world is properly the work of the whole body, and that is what has tended to be neglected in Christian-majority societies. That needs to change dramatically in what has come to be a non-christian majority society.

        You mention an ‘identifiable place of worship’. Identifiable by whom? Yes, the church building (in whatever form – cathedral or your little chapel) has been a valuable tool and does have a message to proclaim, but is it really at the heart of the Gospel? Is it our mission to draw unbelievers into a building? Christians do need to know where to worship, but does the world need to identify it? In the earliest times nonbelievers were often not even admitted to the place of worship. It was the friendship and ministry of ordinary Christians that drew them. An underground church worshiping house to house in secret is no less (and no more) holy or effective than a cathedral, providing that in both cases the members are involved in the ministries to which we are all called.

      • Thanks, Ed, for the comment. There is something of a paradox about the liturgy. It has to be celebrated somewhere, and I have celebrated the Holy Mysteries in some quite minimalist circumstances. I do believe that getting butts into pews is not exactly what Christ taught in the Gospel. His “anarchism” was quite above any human institution or material building like the Temple of Jerusalem or our churches. America is “behind” Europe in terms of dechristianisation and the trashing of our cultural heritage. We can’t do much about other than let it all go. The essential is what is within each one of us.

        In my village in France, in 11 years, not one single person has expressed any interest in my chapel. This is a country where proselytism is viewed very dimly. There are no more than two RC Masses a year in the village church – whose bells only ring because a machine does the job. Weddings are rare, and even funerals are not very frequent here. It really is time I shook the dust from my feet and moved on…

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