Freedom of Conscience (I)
St. Thomas Aquinas and Liberty of Conscience


The humanists may well be right if they do not follow the classical philosophers in developing principles based on the bios theoretikos, or Christian thinkers into a conception of politics orientated toward the sanctification of life. But this question can be answered only through a closer study of their argument. I shall proceed by analysing in some detail their position with regard to a theoretically central problem, to the principle of liberty of conscience. . . .

We may appropriately start from the final judgment passed by [Mr.A.P.] D'Entrèves on the politics of Saint Thomas. When Mr.D'Entrèves proceeds from his impeccable account to an evaluation, he arrives at the following conclusions: "We find that the matters which the State is supposed to leave to the Church are precisely those which the modern man has struggled for centuries to secure against the interference of Church and State alike: such as the pursuit of truth and the worship of God according to his conscience. There is no room for religious freedom in a system which is based on orthodoxy." "Medieval intolerance . . . was a thorough, totalitarian intolerance."

On the other hand: "It looks as if, instead of providing us with a complete and elaborate system, Saint Thomas had been concerned with setting forth the principles from which such a system can be constructed. What matters is that the principles should not be betrayed. All the rest is a task for the 'prudent' legislator." "And now in our days the Church and Catholic apologists have brought that teaching even nearer to us in the battle against totalitarianism. We have learnt to appraise a doctrine which is founded upon the vindication of human personality and on the unflinching assertion of the primacy of spiritual values." Nevertheless: "It is hardly possible for the modern man to accept the system which Saint Thomas coherently founded upon (the 'primacy of the Spiritual') without renouncing that notion of civil and religious liberty which we have some right to consider the most precious conquest of the West."[FN]

We sympathize with the sentiments that have inspired the judgment, and we do not doubt the correctness of the facts on which it is based. If nevertheless we take exception to it, it is on the purely theoretical ground that the judgment is couched in terms, halfway between critical concepts and humanist-progressivist ideological symbols.

Mr. D'Entrèves does not attack the "primacy of the Spiritual." What he really does not like is Saint Thomas' insistence on the use of temporal power for discrimination against Jews and Gentiles, as well as for the criminal prosecution of heretics and apostates.

The logical flaws in the expression of his dislike stem more immediately from the anachronistic application of the term coherent system to a medieval "summa" that does not derive propositions from axioms but moves in the tension between reason and faith. "Systems" are a modern invention; and I doubt that one can properly speak of a "system" before Descartes. Hence, the reprehensible demands of Saint Thomas do not follow "coherently" from the "primacy of the Spiritual," but originate in the spheres of prudence or political expediency, of the mores of the age, and of the Roman Law whose revival was accompanied by a regrettable enthusiasm for construing spiritual divagations as crimes in the legal sense.

From the recognition of spiritual perfection as the highest good of man (in Christianity the beatific vision) there follows nothing at all, as far as I can see, with regard to specific measures that will serve the creation and protection of the environment most favorable to the realization of this good. If the distinction between an inquiry into principles (hierarchy of goods) and prudential measures is not made, if both are treated on the same level as a "system," the result will be that odd totalitarian intolerance of Saint Thomas, which at the same time is concerned about the integrity of human personality, is "the most important factor of Western civilization," and is even an ally in the battle against totalitarianism.

7. D'Entrèves, introduction to Selected Political Writings, by Thomas Aquinas, xxi f., xxxii f. [BACK TO TEXT]

CW VOL 11,
The Oxford Political Philosophers,
pp 30-31.

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