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Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Banning (or allowing) religion-related groups? Not so fast!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 17, 2021

One of our news stories yesterday was headlined “41 countries ban religion-related groups”. The story observes that the highest percentage of countries which restrict religion in this way are in the “Middle East-North Africa” region and the “Asia and the Pacific” region. Owing to Islam and Communism, this is hardly surprising.

What is more valuable, perhaps, is to reflect on this whole question of the protection of various “religion-related” groups in regions and countries which claim to maximize personal liberty. Although this protection is gradually waning as secular ideologies take hold even in the West, this is still something that is largely taken for granted in North America and Western Europe. But it is hardly a foregone conclusion that the freedom to organize for religious purposes is an unmixed blessing. It is actually a complex issue, as a moment’s reflection on “cults” in our own country fairly easily demonstrates.

The problem is that all sorts of claims can be made in the name of religion, and all sorts of influences brought to bear under that label. Therefore, both the influence and the restriction of “religion-related groups” requires a closer examination.

The rise of religious liberty

Religious liberty is a fairly modern civil concept, arising primarily from the dramatic conflicts that arose among divergent Christian sects in the sixteenth century. In a still broadly Christian cultural context, it quickly became apparent that it was socially unworkable to impose a particular religious orthodoxy on whole societies where one Christian “variant” was no longer super-dominant. Moreover, Catholicism itself emphasizes the importance of a significant measure of liberty in order to come to the knowledge of the truth (cf. 1 Tim 2:4). Under such circumstances, it became obvious that the common good demanded space for a certain latitude of religious belief if only to avoid constant deadly conflicts. In earlier eras there was more often a state religion that had, at the least, pride of place.

Unfortunately, the same social pressures which led to this realization in modern Western circumstances also led eventually to widespread religious indifference. Intractable religious disagreements seemed to “prove” any or all of the following: (a) that any authoritative establishment of religion is presumptuous and damaging; (b) that religious or spiritual truth really cannot be known; and (c) that, in any case, religion is irrelevant (at best) or even damaging (at worst) to public peace and security. The result, over several centuries, has been the rise of the ideology that we now call secularism—the claim that religion is essentially a form of sentiment and, as such, it cannot play any positive role in shaping either public policy or the broader values which inform the overall common good.

It is now presumed, in other words, that religion is not and cannot be a source of truth. By any reasonable measure this has been a disastrous development in modern history. Consider how it has played out ideologically in France during the period of the Revolution, in the Soviet Union under Communism, in Germany under the Nazis, in China, and now under the rapidly expanding dictatorship of relativism in Western Europe and North America. Over the past two hundred years, in all these regions, a vicious secularism has emerged and taken shape in one repressive ideology after another—an effort, if the truth be told, to immanentize the eschaton, that is, to create heaven on earth through the coercive power of the State.

Rethinking religious liberty

The only way out of the horrors of a world which denigrates all religion is to distinguish true from false religion. The principle that must be applied is what I call the principle of religion’s double source. In other words, there are two and only two sources of authentic religious belief, and both are dependent on the simple human recognition that God exists and has, at least in some measure, revealed His presence and His will to us in some broadly verifiable way. In the first place, God can disclose His presence and power through the things He has made, things that in fact could not exist if He had not made them; in the second place, God can disclose Himself through specific instructions which are attested by signs and wonders that prove these instructions come through a Divine agency.

It has been obvious since mankind came on the scene that God can be known in a basic way through His Creation. Indeed, to deny what is so glaringly obvious we must be very carefully taught by secular ideologues who are in rebellion against God. And we will typically follow their lead only under the weight of two dispositions: (a) We want to enjoy certain pleasures which would otherwise be thought sinful (should we be influenced by either the natural law or Revelation); or (b) We lack the perception or courage (or both) to resist the “ideological orthodoxies” imposed on us by either direct political power or the dominant culture, which controls our access to acceptance, approval, position, and wealth.

But even if we recognize the validity of religion as revealed generally through nature and more specifically by Divine Revelation (assuming any specific Revelation has been manifested to us), at least two important questions remain: Can what we learn through natural law and through Divine Revelation extend beyond private (and perhaps even idiosyncratic) belief? And can it have a legitimate public role in the furtherance of the common good?

Now it is precisely these questions which have been the object of substantial Catholic reflection over the centuries. I am referring to the public endorsement and/or enforcement of religious faith and morals in the life of the temporal community as a whole. This has obviously been an important question for those who understand the nature of religious faith, for faith cannot be coerced without losing its meaning as a free interior response to God. But moral behavior, obviously, can be and has been coerced, always and everywhere, for the good of individual persons and the community as a whole.

Nature and Government

It is immediately obvious, I suppose, that the values which drive our personal conduct are important to our neighbors and to the general society in which we live. This explains why one of the most obvious purposes of government is to make laws which restrict and punish evil for the protection and flourishing of the whole community—that is, for the common good. Moreover, it so happens that the primary source of our moral knowledge is not the unique, specific, and explicit sort of disclosure we call Divine Revelation, which is accessible only through Faith—that is, by recognizing and believing God’s self-disclosure through specific miraculous events. Rather, the primary source of our moral knowledge is the omni-present general disclosure through creation itself (including our own self-perceived nature). This is a disclosure of basic principles of right and wrong in accordance with the obvious ends for which things (including ourselves) were made, and a disclosure of the legitimate means by which these ends may be pursued. We call this disclosure the natural law.

Our first experience of this disclosure that is built-into our very nature is usually what we might call the principle of “fairness”. We instinctively understand that personal beings of like nature ought to be treated in essentially the same way, and we instinctively denounce the failure to do this as “unfair”. As we mature we become aware of less immediately obvious moral issues, and we examine the nature and purposes of human action based on what things are “made for” so that we can distinguish legitimate and illegitimate ends affecting our approach to everything from personal sexual activity to the establishment of a business to the formation of a government. In the same way, we also distinguish legitimate and illegitimate means to even legitimate ends.

As we consider these moral realities implicit in our very nature through natural law, we can already see that human governments do not have a unique or superior access to the interpretation of the natural law. And with regard to any possible more specific Divine Revelation, we understand that human governments can claim no Revelatory authority unless and until such a Revelation is made directly to some human government—a Revelation, once again, that is attested by signs and wonders that can be explained only through Divine agency.

At the same time, however, we perceive that human societies can and should establish governments for the purpose of guiding the “commonwealth”, that is, orchestrating human affairs toward a joint benefit, based on fairness and other natural law principles of fundamental human morality, while also coordinating larger activities, regulating social and public life, and punishing crime in order to secure what we call the common good.

In such matters, some governments will be far more adept than others, but what is most important is that everything be done within the limits of the natural law. Nothing contrary to the natural law should be imposed on the community, and restrictions in accordance with the natural law should be chosen and implemented with great prudence, striking a balance between the good of each person’s freedom and the good of the community as a whole. Most importantly, nothing that is intrinsically evil may be imposed by government, even if government cannot effectively prohibit and punish all the evils of those who are governed. What is intrinsically evil is by its nature an unjust attack either on individual persons or on the common good, or both.

Revelation and Spiritual Authority

I come now to my last consideration—that is, the problem posed by Divine Revelation and the nature of spiritual authority. Many people seem to think that all religions claim to be based on revelations from God and, since they all make conflicting claims, this proves that Divine Revelation is either unreal or fundamentally inconsistent and unreliable. But a moment’s reflection disproves any such assumption.

First, remember that I have already ruled out by definition whatever this or that person claims has been revealed by God through any sort of private locution or vision or interior enlightenment. But, in fact, many religions both major and minor are based on such private claims. Islam is a perfect example of a major religion founded on one man’s absolutely unverifiable claim that God revealed everything to him. Mormonism is another.

In addition, many more religions have arisen “who knows how” under the leadership of who knows whom. Pagan religions are typically of this type; they assert their divinity without submitting their source to verification (and such religions are often clearly diabolical in origin). They may even include striking mythologies with no verification whatsoever, and even with no insistence that these myths are literally true. In addition to the religions of many ancient and/or primitive peoples, Hinduism today is a major religion essentially of this type.

Some other religions have posited many “gods”, which is, as monotheists understand the term, categorially impossible. Still other “religions” even today are not religions at all, but paths to human wisdom, such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Any and all religions may include elements of the natural law, and therefore some truth. Indeed, the existence of God is known through the natural law. But such truth-elements in various specific religions are both unsurprising and irrelevant in this context, as these elements do not depend on distinctive verifiable revelations.

No. In reality this whole question of Revelation is not so difficult after all, because the claim of verifiable public revelation is extremely rare. As far as we know, in the entire history of human religion, only two religions have claimed to be based on a publicly-verifiable Divine Revelation, accompanied by signs and wonders which could only have been performed by God. What are they? Judaism and Christianity. And (unsurprisingly) these two are really a single continuum, with earlier Divine interventions leading to a fuller Revelation in Jesus Christ. Moreover, if you look closely at all who claim the Jewish or the Christian name, you will find only one “religion-related group” that claims actually to have within it, as part of its very institution and constitution, an authority principle which guarantees an ongoing certainty about how this Divine Revelation must be understood.

Only one! This alone is remarkable. It is also completely contrary to the conventional dismissive narrative about “different religions”. But for the purposes of this discussion, perhaps the most important point is that this Revelation was not claimed to have been given to a political power but to a spiritual authority, that is, to the Church. And this is why we Catholics say that, as the custodian of Divine Revelation in this world, the Church has the authority to teach infallibly the truth about man and about his supernatural destiny, including all the moral and spiritual truths revealed by God through the natural law and all the moral and spiritual truths revealed by God through Jesus Christ.

Human governments are themselves obliged to recognize and operate in accordance with these moral and spiritual truths, even though, in a fallen world, most governments are not equipped to do so by a widespread acceptance of the Catholic religion, either by the governors or by the governed.

The question with which we began

After all this, then, it is possible to return to the question with which we began, the question of allowing or disallowing “religion-related” groups. What we find is that this question cannot be answered by trivializing the concept of religion, either by admitting all “religion-related” groups or by admitting none of them. There are deep fallacies haunting the theoretical justifications of Western religious liberty, so it is perhaps no wonder that religious liberty has become something of a byword for licentiousness around the world, even while that same liberty is gradually fading away under the quite logical insight that to admit all religions is to admit the truth of none.

There is, in fact, everything to recommend that human governments show a singular respect for the teachings of the Catholic Church and for the guidance they receive from those teachings. In any case, every government is bound, whether it knows it or not, by the natural law—which is crucial because civil government deals continuously in morals. But since the Church alone can infallibly determine the moral ends and means of government (by her official teaching, let me add, and not by the whims of her ministers or their policy committees), governments are wise to take her clarifications of the laws of God into account, if not explicitly then at least implicitly, in determining genuinely just courses of action.

Of course, it remains the duty of the civil authority, and not the Church, to figure out the most prudent ways to advance the common good in the temporal order, always understanding that the common good is best served through the prudent application of truth and goodness within the circumstances currently in play. This is a great art. But it is a practice that does not at all depend on a set of guarantees to all “religion-related groups” any more than it depends on turning temporal government over to the Church herself. It depends on policy-makers doing their best to promote the common good of all in accordance with the defined moral principles of the one “religion-related group” that really is the custodian of both Divine Revelation and the natural law.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wieb517134 - Nov. 18, 2021 12:07 AM ET USA

    Brilliant! an excellent reductio ad absurdum of the truth of other religions by means of straightforward logical discussion. It's too bad the that the rose-colored glasses of those holding to modern secularism cannot see the truth that is thus revealed