Freedom of Conscience
ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
A glance cast at the religious literature of the last decade will immediately reveal the emphasis laid on freedom of conscience. Never before have men gained such an unshakeable conviction that any form of coercion in the religious domain runs counter to the dignity of the human person. No doubt, this rests on a profound insight: man must freely assent to truth, and any pressure put on him not only is essentially opposed to his dignity but also defeats its own purpose. Indeed, a person forced to accept certain beliefs will act as if he actually endorsed them while, in fact, he will reject them in his innermost heart. This insight into the evil of religious coercion could be hailed as authentic progress if, alas, it were not gained at the cost of another truth which is just as important: man's duty to seek and love truth and to accept it fully and unconditionally as soon as it is presented to him. The history of philosophy offers abundant illustrations of the fact that a new or deeper awareness of a truth often goes hand in hand with a weakened perception of another truth—its concomitant. And yet, these two truths are so intimately interconnected that they can be validly apprehended only when perceived simultaneously.
Man's right to freedom of conscience is in proper focus only if man's duty to submit to truth is grasped with it.
In the past, the centrality of truth in religion was so much in the foreground of people's consciousness that it often led them to deplorable abuses, such as forcing men's religious conversions. Contrary as these practices were to the official teaching of the Church, they nevertheless crept into the mentality of some members of the Church's hierarchy. Granted that some of them may have been well-intentioned and were aiming at the good of those who were pushed into the Church, the fact remains that these practices were deplorable and must be severely censured.
They led—and inevitably so—to sham conversions, the effects of which were tragic, not only for the victims, living in duplicity, but also for the very religion they joined, weakened by the presence of purely nominal members.
But our concern lies in showing that in times past the crucial importance of truth in religious matters and the awareness that all should accept it was isolated from its concomitant: truth must be freely perceived and accepted; when truth is forced upon an individual, it is inevitably out of focus for the very person upon whom it is pressed.
The opposite mistake is made today: such emphasis is now put on man's dignity and his freedom that many men lose sight of the fact that this dignity precisely consists in man's capacity of freely submitting to truth, and not in man's doubtful privilege of making up his own truth. The very meaning of human dignity is perverted as soon as it is severed from man's basic orientation toward truth, and man's freedom is stripped of its authentic meaning when cut off from man's responsibility of seeking truth—and of submitting to it when found.
In fact, man cannot sincerely seek and love truth if he is unwilling to recognize and accept it gratefully when it is offered to him. No man can call himself a seeker after truth if he is so engrossed by the process of seeking that he is no longer interested in finding truth.
Just as in philosophy there are self-evident truths which impose themselves on the human mind; in religion, there is one absolute, indisputable source of truth: God’s revelation. In these privileged cases, man is no longer in the position of seeking truth; he is called upon to receive it, accept it, and embrace it.
Moreover, true as it is that no man should be permitted to compel another to accept a truth, we should not forget that every single truth, however modest its content may be, speaks authoritatively to man with the awesome greatness of the voice of Being. Any apprehension of a truth is necessarily linked to the consciousness that it is not up to man to accept or reject it, but that he should accept it, whatever it is.
Granted that man has the doubtful privilege of rejecting truth, this possibility, far from testifying to man’s freedom, points to the fact that he has become a slave of his pride.
The confusion between human coercion and the authoritative voice of truth itself is widespread, but the rejection of the former is justified only to the extent that the validity of the latter is fully acknowledged; for truth does dictate and should dictate what it is.
St. Augustine expresses this in saying, “This is our liberty, when we are subordinate to the truth” (On Free Will).
One wonders if the clamoring for freedom of conscience today is not, in fact, a cover used to conceal an attack on the authority of truth itself, and more particularly on religious truth as proclaimed and taught by the Divine magisterium of the Church.
The contemporary failure to perceive the “whole round of truth” explains why we can hear people gloat over the fact that “man is now free to worship as he pleases,” implying thereby that the act of worship is to be governed not by the awesome authority of God, but rather the arbitrary will and mood of the individual.
In fact, the more a person perceives that coercion in the religious sphere must be condemned, the more should he understand the responsibility resting on his shoulders: to submit to truth.
Freedom implies responsibility. And yet, the way freedom of conscience is presented today seems to refer to freedom from any type of responsibility, which is a full endorsement of irresponsibility.