Saturday, February 28, 2009
This essay, by Christopher Tollefson, is well worth a read, and should be of particular interest to Catholics engaged with religious-liberty questions. It is also, or might be, responsive, to questions that Steve Shiffrin has raised, most recently, at the Scarpa Conference a few days ago. A bit:
Contemporary culture is often hostile to the idea of authority in general and to religious authority in particular. Religious liberty, on the other hand, is readily grasped as a core value of the West. How the two can be harmonized strikes many as an insurmountable difficulty. But properly understood, religious authority need be in no conflict with religious liberty. That proper understanding, however, requires a prior appreciation of the distinctive value of religion. . . .
Now it appears that, under these conditions, it is not the case that a non-coercive religious authority—that is, an authority which cannot punish with the sword—is ever in a position to violate the conscience or religious liberty of its members or its alleged members. For those members are either believers, in which case they look to the magisterial authority for guidance and, receiving it, take it to be authoritative for the formation of their conscience, or, they are not believers, perhaps because, having consulted their consciences and exercised their reasoning capacities, they no longer believe in the privileged epistemic position of the magisterial authorities. These agents, whom the magisterial authority is unable to coerce, are free to leave the set of believers, or accept what non-coercive—because avoidable at will—punishments, such as excommunication or lighter discipline the ecclesial authority may mete out, just as agents in any other voluntary association are free to leave, or accept that association’s non-coercive punishments.
At the same time, it is also clear, based on what has been said, that a mingling of religious authority and political, or coercive authority, is inappropriate, given the nature and importance of conscience and the good of religion. Yet it is important to see this as the locus of abuse, not the exercise of magisterial authority as such. Religious authority that is exercised with genuinely coercive power—the sort of power characteristic of the political state—is a perversion of both religious and political authority, and is inadequate to the tasks of either. Magisterial authority need pose no threat to religious liberty; and if the claims of some magisterial authority are true, then such authority must be considered essential for the fullest participation in the good of religion.