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  • Scholastic Arguments for and against Religious Freedom
  • Gregory M. Reichberg

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM is increasingly a topic of debate within academic and political circles. Two important historical works on this theme appeared in 2019.1 Twice in the last two years, the U.S. State Department has organized a Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, and in June 2020 President Trump issued an executive order “On Advancing International Religious Freedom.” Within the Catholic orbit, a debate has been ongoing as to whether the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) of the Second Vatican Council is consistent with earlier papal and conciliar pronouncements on the topic.2 And the International Theological Commission has recently issued a document that updates Dignitatis Humanae in light of political, social, and theological developments of the last fifty years.3 [End Page 1]

Many of these discussions refer in one way or another to the seminal influence of St. Thomas Aquinas. His emphatic statement in the Summa theologiae (STh II–II, q. 10, a. 8) that “under no condition may unbelievers be compelled to the faith” appears to provide a solid foundation for religious freedom. And insofar as the assent of faith is encompassed within his wider teaching on conscience, this too would seem to support a robust affirmation of religious freedom. From his assertion that the dictates of one’s conscience should always be adhered to, even when they objectively err,4 it is natural to infer that adhesion to religious truths should never be compelled, nor should anyone be forced to abandon a religious conviction that others deem patently false.

Other statements by Aquinas reveal a countervailing tendency to restrict the application of religious freedom within a narrow band. For instance, the prohibition against compelling others to the faith (quoted above) applies solely to persons who are raised outside of the Christian community. Those who become members of the community through baptism are not allowed to leave even should they wish to do so—a position Aquinas likewise affirms in question 10, article 8 of the Secunda secundae.

The same dichotomy—affirmations of religious freedom on the one hand, tight restrictions on the other—can readily be found in the writings of Aquinas’s Scholastic disciples. Both Cajetan and Vitoria, for instance, deny that Christianity can rightly be spread by dint of war; forcible conversion they unequivocally rule out. “We would sin very gravely should we seek to spread the faith of Christ in such a way,”5 Cajetan writes, and in a similar vein Suarez says, “However probably and sufficiently the [Christian] faith may have been announced to the barbarians and rejected by them, this is still no reason to [End Page 2] declare war on them and despoil them of their goods.”6 The latter likewise emphasizes that someone’s refusal to accept revealed truths—withholding assent to the supernatural teaching of God—does not justify a forcible response of the part of Christians.7 Examples could readily be multiplied by reference to other authors. Nonetheless, in line with Aquinas and indeed the wider Latin tradition that stems from St. Augustine, medieval and early modern Scholastics were highly selective in their appeals to religious freedom: affirming some of its modalities and denying others.

In what follows, I begin with a survey of Aquinas’s thought on religious freedom and then consider how Vitoria and Suarez approach this topic. The last two stand apart from other Scholastics insofar as they engage in systematic reflection on the varying situations in which individuals or even whole communities can be subject to religious coercion (in contrast to others—Duns Scotus8 or Durandus of St. Porçain,9 for instance—who restrict their inquiry to special cases such as forcible child baptism) or be considered immune to it. Vitoria and Suarez think that such coercion is permitted by appeal to sound moral and theological principles: they likewise seek to demarcate the zone where coercion can not legitimately intrude. They recognize, however, that the boundaries of licit religious coercion are not entirely set within Catholic teaching, and therefore they take care to situate their own viewpoints within the broader spectrum of theological positions on this topic. In this...