Thomistic political philosophy and religious freedom

Two years ago I published a two-part interview on this blog with Raymond Dennehy on Maritain's political philosophy (here and here). In particular it was about a couple books by Maritain that were being reissued, Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law. I had entitled the interview "The return of Thomistic political philosophy." In the comments box John Lamont wrote: "Reprinting Maritain's work is in no way a revival of Thomistic political philosophy, because Maritain's thought was completely different from that of St. Thomas in this area." I tend to think that Dr. Lamont's criticism was justified. I posted twice more on this topic (here and here), taking a rather harsh line toward Maritain's political thought -- not that I had not been skeptical of it prior to considering Dr. Lamont's objection. Quite the contrary is true. The issue was not whether Maritain's political thought had problems but whether it could properly be called "Thomistic."

In this present post I ask what an authentically Thomistic approach would be to the problem of religious freedom. Religious freedom is especially on the minds of many Catholics in the U.S. now as Catholic institutions fight against the H.H.S. mandate. But it seems to be a topic of perennial importance.

Anyhow, I would say that it is obvious that no ostensibly Thomistic political thought would accept the notion that all religions have an equal right publicly to teach and practice their beliefs. This would not mean that it would not be prudent in many circumstances to tolerate false religions nor does it take a stand on what would be permissible in private. Recently, I have tried to articulate my thoughts on these questions in a short essay. The essay focuses on Dignitatis Humanae but also incorporates Aquinas on a key point. Here are some relevant excerpts from the essay:

In the Catholic tradition religion is considered a moral virtue falling under justice. This understanding of religion can be found, for instance, in Aquinas and, more recently, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For Aquinas, religion is fundamentally rendering the true God the honor that is due him. The Catechism sees the moral virtue of religion in a similar way.

As with all virtues, religion has corresponding vices. According to Aquinas, the opposite of religion is superstition, the offering of worship to whomever or whatever does not deserve it. Idolatry, for Aquinas, is a species of superstition. The Catechism too treats the vices of superstition and idolatry, although what Aquinas says about these appears to be dealt with in the Catechism solely under the heading of idolatry. Idolaters, the Catechism tells us, “venerate other divinities than the one true God.”

If religion as a moral virtue honors the one true God, then religions that do not are not truly religions or could justly be called false or defective religions. This is not to say that they contain no elements of truth. It is rather to say that their orthodox practice and teaching, taken as a whole and objectively considered, do not lead to God. To follow or promote religions of this sort would be to act against the moral law. This consideration evidently raises more and deeper problems for religious freedom.


But if false religions run contrary to objective moral order—as they must if they are moral vices, as we have observed—then, in principle, only prudent toleration could prevent legislation against them. In other words, there is no absolute right to follow and teach a false religion. By “absolute right” I mean one that cannot in any circumstances be legitimately violated. An “absolute right” would be a right that accrues to us simply by virtue of being human persons. You could call it a “human” or “natural right.” Such a right would transcend all cultures and political communities, requiring recognition by all. That can not be true for adherents of false religion.

If false religion is a moral vice, plainly no one has any natural right to practice it, for no one can have a right to do evil. Were there a natural right to do evil, there could not be a natural moral law that bound us to do good. We certainly are not naturally bound to do good if we have a natural right to do evil.

I would be grateful for feedback on my essay from readers.

Of course, you may query whether the "authentically Thomistic approach" to religious freedom is also the right approach. I would argue that it is and would be happy to pursue a discussion of its validity at some point in the future. No doubt there are also some who would wonder whether what I am calling the authentically Thomistic approach to religious freedom really is just that. I would welcome that discussion too.