For most of us today, the idea of secularism has been pushed on us as a great positive. Not so, say the great teachings of the past.
In establishing the Feast of Christ the King, Pope Pius XI denounced the heresy of secularism. Refusing to recognize the rights of God and His Christ over persons and over society itself, secularism marginalizes God and religion. The modern concept of religious liberty is cut from the same cloth. While seeming to acknowledge the value of religion in general, it actually denigrates true worship and belief by placing it on a par with false worship.
Or does it? “Who is to say,” the modern asks, “what is true and what is not? And what harm is there in promoting the right of all to worship freely and publicly according to conscience?” Our Catholic Tradition gives the answer.
Pope Gregory XVI identified the danger of this “equal opportunity worship” as “indifferentism [which] gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone.” He then details its results:
It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs. . . . 'But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error,' as Augustine was wont to say. When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. . . . Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws–in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty"
(Mirari Vos, 14, Aug. 15, 1832).
Pope Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Letter, Libertas (June 20, 1888), follows suit:
From what has been said it follows that it is quite unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, of speech, or writing, or of worship, as if these were so many rights given by nature to man. For, if nature had really granted them, it would be lawful to refuse obedience to God, and there would be no restraint on human liberty. It likewise follows that freedom in these things may be tolerated wherever there is just cause, but only with such moderation as will prevent its degenerating into license and excess. And, where such liberties are in use, men should employ them in doing good, and should estimate them as the Church does; for liberty is to be regarded as legitimate in so far only as it affords greater facility for doing good, but no farther (42)."
Flowing precisely from the dominion of Our Lord Jesus Christ over Heaven and earth, the Church encouraged the establishment of Catholic states and the giving of preferential treatment to the true Faith. As to the latter, Pope Leo XIII writes:
[T]he State . . . is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion . . . because we belong to Him and must return to Him. . . . [And] not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to the be only one true religion. . . . [T]he only true religion is the one established by Jesus Christ Himself, and which He committed to His Church to protect and to propagate"
(Immortale Dei, 6, 7, of Nov. 1, 1885).
What then of other religions?
Should other religions be free to publicly worship and publicly promote their beliefs? No, as error has no such rights. Therefore, Pope Pius IX condemns the notion
that a right resides in the citizen as to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way"
(Quanta Cura, 3, Dec. 8, 1864).
But might this not be a “slippery slope” to forced baptisms, that is, conversions by compulsion? No. The Church’s Canon Law declares that “[n]obody may be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will” (Canon 1351, 1917 Code). The issue here is the public profession of error, not private belief. The Catholic historian and apologist Michael Davies illustrates this in his book The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty.
It is a fundamental principle of Catholic theology that no one must ever be forced to act against his conscience either in public or private[.] . . . It is equally true that no one must be prevented from acting in accordance with, his conscience in private (providing that no breach of the natural law is involved). Thus, for the most part, a policy of toleration towards the Jews was followed in the papal states. Jews were allowed to meet together for private worship but were not allowed to hold ceremonies in public or to proselytize among Catholics. . . . [I]t has been the consistent teaching of the Popes that a Catholic state has the right to restrict the public expression of heresy. Thus, in a Catholic state, members of a Protestant sect could not be compelled to assist at Mass but they could be prevented from holding outdoor services, putting up notices outside their places of worship designating them as such, or advertising their services. . . . Similarly, in a Catholic state, a Protestant could not be compelled to profess belief in transubstantiation but could be prevented from attacking the doctrine in public, either by the written or the spoken word."
Although the faithful in the United States are far removed from the immediate possibility of living in a Catholic state, that does not mean that any Catholic has the right to accept indifferentism in religious matters. As the teachings of the Pope and the clear theological principles of the Church make clear, there is no right to false worship any more than there is a right to publicly professing error. As such, Catholics must be on guard against internalizing liberal ideology—an ideology which views all religion as essentially the same. Instead, Catholics should be vigilant in combatting this attitude by living their lives in accordance with the precepts of the Church and taking every opportunity to profess the social Kingship of Christ, the true ruler of all the nations of the earth.
NB: For further explanation of Catholic teaching on this matter, see Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara, OP, Summa Philosophica article 2 (14th ed., 1910), “On Liberty of Conscience.”