An Open Letter to Confused Catholics

His Grace Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre


11. Religious Liberty

Among all the documents of the Council, it was the schema on religious liberty which led to the most acrimonious discussions. This is easily explained by the influence of the liberals and the interest taken in this matter by the hereditary enemies of the Church. Now, twenty years later, we see that our fears were not exaggerated when the text was promulgated as a declaration comprising all the concepts opposed to tradition and to the teaching of recent popes. How true it is that all false or ambiguously expressed principles will inevitably reveal their implicit errors. Later in this chapter, I shall show how the attacks on Catholic education by the Socialist government in France are the logical consequence of the new definition given to religious liberty by Vatican II.

A little theology will help us toward a proper understanding of the spirit in which this declaration was drawn up. The initial--and, in fact, new--argument was based on the freedom of every man to practice inwardly and outwardly the religion of his choice, on the basis of “the dignity of the human person.” In this view, liberty is based on dignity, which gives it its raison d’ętre. Man can hold any  error whatever in the name of his dignity.

This is putting the cart before the horse. For whoever clings to error loses his dignity and can no longer build upon it. Rather, the foundation of liberty is truth, not dignity. "The truth will make you free," said Our Lord.

What is dignity? According to Catholic tradition, man derives dignity from his perfection, i.e, from his knowledge of the truth and his acquisition of the good.  Man is worthy of respect in accordance with his intention to obey God, not in accordance with his errors, which will inevitably lead to sin. When Eve the first sinner succumbed, she said, “The serpent deceived me.” Her sin and that of Adam led to the downfall of human dignity, from which we have suffered ever since.

We cannot then make the downfall the cause of liberty.  On the contrary, adherence to truth and the love of God are the principles of authentic religious liberty, which we can define as the liberty to render to God the worship due to Him and to live according to His commandments.

If you have followed my argument, you see that religious liberty cannot be applied to false religions; it does not allow of being split up in this way; the only right that must be recognized by the state is that of the citizens to practice Christ's religion.

This will certainly seem an exhorbitant claim to those who do not have the Faith. But the Catholic uncontaminated by the spirit of the times will find it quite normal and legitimate. Unfortunately many Christians have lost sight of these realities: it has been so often repeated that we must respect other people's ideas, put ourselves in their place, accept their point of view.  The nonsensical “everyone to his own truth” has become the rule; dialogue has become the highest cardinal virtue, dialogue which necessarily leads to concessions. Through misplaced charity the Christian has come to think that he must go one step further than his interlocutors; he is usually the only one to do so. He no longer sacrifices himself for the truth, as the martyrs did. Instead, he sacrifices the truth.

On the other hand, the increase in the number of secular states in Christian Europe has accustomed people to secularism and has led them to adapt to things contrary to the Church's teaching. But doctrine cannot be adapted; it is fixed and defined once and for all.

At the Central Preparatory Commission before the Council, two schemas were submitted, one by Cardinal Bea under the title “Religious Liberty,” the other by Cardinal Ottaviani under the title, “Religious Tolerance.”  The first filled fourteen pages without any reference to documents of the Magisterium.  The second covered seven pages of text and sixteen pages of references,  from Pius VI (1790) to John XXIII (1959).

Cardinal Bea's schema contained, in my view and in that of a considerable number of the Fathers, propositions not in accord with the eternal truths of the Church.  We read, for example, “This is why we must praise the fact that in our day liberty and religious equality are proclaimed by many nations and by the International Organization for the Rights of Man.”

Cardinal Ottaviani, on the other hand,  set forth the question correctly: “Just as the civil power considers it right to protect citizens from the seductions of error, so it may also regulate and moderate the public expression of other forms of worship and defend its citizens against the diffusion of false doctrines which, in the judgment of the Church, endanger their eternal salvation.”

Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum, said that the common temporal good,  the aim of civil society,  is not purely of the material order but is “principally a moral good.” Man is organized in society for the good of all. How can one exclude the supreme good, i.e., the blessedness of heaven, from the scheme of things?

There is another aspect of the Church's role in denying freedom to false religions. The propagation of false ideas naturally exerts more influence upon the weakest, the least educated. Who will challenge the duty of the State to protect the weak?  This is its primary duty, the raison d'ętre of an organized society.  It defends its subjects from outside enemies, it protects their everyday life against thieves, murderers, criminals and aggressors of all sorts. Even secular states offer protection in the area of morals by banning, for example, pornographic magazines (although the situation in this respect has greatly deteriorated in France in the last few years and is at its worst in countries like Denmark). Nevertheless, civilized Christian countries long retained a sense of their obligations towards the most vulnerable, particularly children. People have remained sensitive in this matter and through family associations call on the state to take the necessary measures.  Radio programmes in which vice is too prominent can be banned--although nobody is obliged to listen to them--on the ground that, since many children have radios, they are no longer protected.  The teaching of the Church in this regard, which might seem excessively severe, is thus in accord with reason and common sense.

It is the current fashion to reject all forms of constraint and to bemoan its influence at certain periods of history. Pope John Paul II, deferring to this fad, deplored the Inquisition during his visit to Spain. But it is only the excesses of the Inquisition that are remembered. What is forgotten is that the Church, in creating the Holy Office (Sanctum Officium Inquisitionis), was fulfilling its duty in protecting souls and proceeded against those who were trying to falsify the Faith and thus endangering the eternal salvation of everyone. The Inquisition came to the help of the heretics themselves, just as one goes to the help of persons who jump into the water to end their lives. Would we accuse the rescuers of exerting an intolerable constraint upon these unfortunates? To make another comparison, I do not think it would occur to a Catholic, even a confused one, to complain of a government's ban on drugs, contending that it is exercising constraint upon drug addicts.

Everyone understands that the father of a family will bring up his children in his faith. In the Acts of the Apostles the centurion Cornelius, touched by grace, received baptism “and all his household with him.” King Clovis in the same way was baptized together with his soldiers.

The benefits that the Catholic religion brings with it show how deluded is the attitude of the post-conciliar clergy who renounce any pressure, or even influence, on non-believers. In Africa, where I spent the major part of my life, the missions fought against the scourges of polygamy, homosexuality, and the contempt in which women are held.  The degraded position of women in Islamic society is well known: she becomes a slave or chattel as soon as Christian civilization disappears. There can be no doubt of the right of the truth to prevail and to replace false religions.  And yet in practice the Church does not prescribe blindly and intransigently regarding the expression of false religions in public. She has always said that they could be tolerated by the authorities in order to avoid a greater evil. That is why Cardinal Ottaviani preferred the term “religious tolerance.”

If we put ourselves in the position of a Catholic state where the religion of Christ is officially recognized, we see that this tolerance can avoid troubles which may be harmful to the whole. But in a secular society professing neutrality, the law of the Church will surely not be observed.  Why, you will then ask, maintain it?

First of all, it is not a question of a human law that can be abrogated or altered.  Secondly, abandoning that very principle has its consequences.  We have already noted a number of them.

The agreements between the Vatican and certain nations which had rightly granted a privileged status to the Catholic religion have been modified. This is the situation in Spain and more recently in Italy,  where the catechism is no longer compulsory in the schools. How far will they go? Have these new legislators of human nature realized that the Pope is also the head of a state? Will he be compelled to secularize the Vatican and authorize the construction of a mosque and a Protestant church in it?

Catholic states themselves are disappearing. In the world today there are protestant States, an Anglican state, Moslem states, Marxist states--and yet they think there should be no more Catholic states!  Catholics will no longer be entitled to work to establish them; they will be allowed only to maintain the religious neutrality of the state!

Pius IX called this “madness” and “the freedom of perdition.” Leo XIII condemned religious indifference of the state. Is what was right in their times no longer so?

We cannot insist upon the freedom of all religious societies, within human society, without at the same time granting them moral liberty. Islam allows polygamy; Protestants--depending on the particular sect--have more or less lax positions on the indissolubility of marriage and on contraception. The criterion of good and evil is disappearing.  Abortion is no longer illegal in Europe, except in Catholic Ireland. It is impossible for the Church of God to condone these abuses by affirming religious liberty.

Another consequence affects Catholic schools.  The state can no longer grant that Catholic schools should exist and that they should have the lion’s share of private education. It places them on the same footing,  as we have seen, with the schools of non-Catholic sects, and says, “If we allow you to exist, we must do the same for the Moonies and every community of this type, even those of bad repute.” And the Church cannot argue! The Socialist government in France has taken advantage of the Declaration on Religious Liberty and tried to merge Catholic schools with the others and demand that the resulting institutions observe just the natural law. Or else they have been opened to children of all religions, congratulating themselves at having more Moslem children than Christians in some areas.

This is why the Church, by accepting the status of common law in civil society, runs the risk of becoming merely one sect among others. She even runs the risk of disappearing, since it is obvious that truth cannot concede rights to error without denying itself.

The Catholic schools in France have adopted--for the purpose of public demonstrations--a certain song, which is beautiful in itself, but with words betraying the pernicious spirit of “liberty, the only truth.” Liberty, considered as an absolute good, is a chimera. Applied to religion, it leads to doctrinal relativism and practical indifference. Confused Catholics must hold to the words of Christ which I quoted, “The truth will make you free.”


To Chapter 10

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