On Liberty of Conscience

by Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara, OP

Translated by Timothy Wilson

Today we continue our series of original translations of important texts relating to Catholic political philosophy. Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara was a prominent Thomist philosopher and theologian in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Among many other accomplishments, he was closely involved with the preparation of the Leonine edition of the Angelic Doctor’s Opera Omnia (the first volume of which contains his synopses and annotations on St. Thomas’ Organon commentaries), and assisted in preparing the encyclicals Aeterni Patris and Rerum novarum.

The chapter translated here is taken from book two of the third part of Zigliara’s widely circulated Summa philosophica (14th ed., 1910). Having treated of domestic, civil, and religious society in their principles and particulars in the preceding books and chapters of this part, he now sets himself the task of treating in brief the relations which should obtain between those two perfect societies, the Church and the State. The original text can be found here.

This is the second of the five articles of the chapter, treating of liberty of conscience. The remaining articles will be posted serially over the next few days.

On liberty of conscience

I. The notion of liberty of conscience. Everywhere today, all who profess liberalism proclaim that liberty of conscience is necessary; and not a few Catholics, from the liberal school, as they call it, who thus call themselves liberal Catholics, are of the same mind with the liberal rationalists. But what is liberty of conscience? Generally, according to its defenders, it can be called the faculty of thinking and doing those things which are more pleasing in those matters which relate to God and religion. We ask, therefore, whether man enjoys this right, or this liberty of conscience: and note the words of the question, for we inquire concerning the right.

II. First preliminary note. In the first place, I say that faith is able to be imposed upon no unbeliever through violence, which faith he refuses to admit; because to believe is of the will, as St. Thomas says in IIaIIæ, q. 10, a. 8. Wherefore the Council of Toledo commanded these things: «But concerning the Jews, the holy Synod commands, that force be inflicted upon no man in order that he believe; for God shows mercy to whom He wills, and hardens whom He wills.» (Cf. Francisco Victoria, Relect. V. de Indis, §. XV). Whence they indeed calumniate the Catholic Church, who say that she does violence to consciences in order to obtain the faith of Christ. Certainly, there has been, and is, violence—but the Church has suffered it and indeed now suffers it; she has not inflicted it, as the history of the martyrs and persecutions manifestly attest.

III. Second preliminary note. For our purposes, so that the exercise of true liberty may be had, it is necessary that it disparage no duty: for liberty is not for evil, but for good (Ps. 50, XIV). Therefore as often as a man abuses it for evil, it ought not to be called liberty, but more truly license. To ask, therefore, whether liberty of conscience is licit, is the same as to ask whether the liberty of thinking and doing those things, which are more pleasing in matters which are concerned with God and religion, disparages the duties toward God Himself. This precisely is the sense of the question, and under this aspect it is to be solved; and its solution is easy.

IV. Third preliminary note. In truth, this question, posed in this manner, is able to be defined 1° absolutely, or liberty of conscience considered in itself; 2° relatively, or liberty of conscience considered with respect to social cooperation: under which latter aspect it is chiefly defended by the adversaries. — Let the first conclusion, therefore, be stated.

V. Liberty of conscience, considered in itself, is entirely impious. And indeed, man, by a most strict duty of nature, is held to think rightly of God, and of those things which look to religion, both speculative and practical (33, II). But voluntarily to make resistance to a most strict duty is license, not liberty; and if the discussion, as in our argument, is concerned with the voluntary transgression of a duty toward God, the aforementioned license is an impiety. Since, therefore, through liberty of conscience, a right is given to man of thinking of God as it more pleases him, this liberty, this right is a true impiety. — But, because this first conclusion is hardly examined by the adversaries, the things already said suffice for its proof; and I arrive at the second part of the question. And thus let the second conclusion be stated.

VI. Liberty of conscience, socially considered, if it is able to be tolerated in given circumstances, yet never is to be approved, and much less to be protected or inculcated. That it is able to be tolerated in given cases is easily admitted: for many other evils are tolerated, or are not punished (for to tolerate is not to approve, nor simply to permit, but only not to punish)—no indeed, it sometimes happens that they ought to be tolerated in society, for otherwise worse evils would follow. But this tolerance ought not to be approbation, nor protection, nor inculcation. — The thesis is proved. Liberty of conscience, socially considered, is founded in nothing other than political atheism: it is most pernicious to society, and self-contradictory. Therefore liberty of conscience, socially considered, is in nowise able to be approved. The antecedent is proved.

It is founded in political atheism alone. And indeed, as has been said in the preceding number, liberty of conscience is a right, conceded to individuals, of thinking of God as they should please, or of submitting those things which are of God and religion, and the duties following from these, to the definition and arbitration of individual conscience, which thus is constituted as the criterion of religion. But just as in many other things, man not only errs from ignorance, but also from malice, so in the things which pertain to religion; nay more, in these more than in others, for religion imports more severe duties, to which the depraved passions make resistance: which errors, both speculative and practice, yet constitute an impiety in the religious order. But because, as has been said, in liberty of conscience, the criterion is the individual reason, the right of liberty of conscience is truly a right to error and impiety: which right indeed is not able to be approved in society and by society, unless at the same time there be set in place religious skepticism or political atheism.

It is most pernicious to society. For, as long as actions remain in the conscience, they are proper to the individual, and do not fall under judgment except that of God. But by the very fact that they are manifested, they have relation to the members of society, and consequently, when they inflict evil upon the members of society, they fall under the purview of the social authority. Now just as men suffer either scandal or any other injury whatsoever from the improbity of other men, so a fortiori they suffer scandal and injury from public and unpunished improbity, and much more from the permitted and approved dissemination of error and impiety, by which the intellectual and moral perfection of men is directly impeded. Therefore not to impede, nay more, indeed to approve these scandals, these injuries, more grave than corporal injuries, is not only impiety toward God, but is a perversion of the social order itself.

It is self-contradictory. And in fact, either liberty of conscience is a right, or it is not. If it is not, why is it noisily proclaimed? But if it is a right, why is it limited? In this limitation is clearly found the contradiction of the defenders of liberty of conscience. Indeed, not only do they prescribe religion, but they also forcibly impose in regard to civil laws, in regard to the king, etc. But neither civil laws, nor the king, nor society itself are above God, Who being removed, all other things topple, and all morality is either absurdity or the animal law of the stronger (29, II). Therefore if liberty of conscience is a right with respect to the duties of religion toward God, and political authority is scrupulous in preserving this right inviolate, the political authority itself is not able to impede it, without manifest contradiction and without open violence, so that that right is exercised fully with respect to royal power, with respect to civil laws, and finally, with respect to civil society itself. — And if it be said, that liberty of conscience should be restrained, such that duties toward society are not harmed; I rejoin, therefore much more ought not liberty to be restrained, but rather license of conscience, lest the duties toward God be abused—which duties are more weighty than social duties, such that the latter do not exist, nor are able to exist, without the former.

VII. Corollary. Rightfully therefore are the following propositions condemned in the Syllabus of Pius IX, which propositions affirm both liberty of conscience and indifferentism:

«Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, led by the light of reason, he shall consider true» (Prop. XV).

«Men are able to find the way of eternal salvation in the worship of any religion whatever, and therein to attain eternal salvation» (Prop. XVI).

VIII. Note. A difficulty is resolved. The things which present-day liberals teach concerning liberty of conscience in the social order are not new—indeed, Rousseau had already given them in his Social Contract, Book IV.8. Let us therefore hear this sophist, that from his mouth we might become acquainted with the arguments of the others: «Subjects are not obliged to render a reason to the civil power concerning their opinions, except so far as these are referred to the community. But it is in the interest of the State, that each and every citizen profess a religion which impresses upon him a love of his duties; but the dogmas of this religion concern neither the State nor its members, except so far as they are referred to morals and to the duties which the citizen is obliged to fulfill toward others.»[1]

That these things were written by Rousseau in hatred of the Catholic Church, is manifest from the things which he invents with respect to the will in the chapter cited. Next in order, we shall see the contradictions and absurdities which we encounter throughout in his words and in those of his imitators. — Without doubt, so long as religion is shut up in the interior conscience, it lies hidden from both the civil and ecclesiastical power; and consequently God alone is the judge of it. But when religion becomes the rule of morals, by this very fact it is referred to the community. In this sense, Rousseau thought the State to be present so that each citizen might profess that religion which impressed upon him a love of his duties. But only true religion impresses upon citizens a love of their duties. Therefore, contrary to what Rousseau illogically concludes, it ought entirely to be said, that even from his principles, it is not only fitting to the State that the true religion be at least externally observed by all the citizens, and the propagators of irreligion or of false dogmas be restrained, but it is incumbent upon it as a most grave duty of carrying out that which is proper to it.

All of which things are in such wise true, that Rousseau himself, who defends liberty or license of conscience against the Catholic Church, utterly destroys it after the words just cited by making firm the omnipotence of the State, or Statolatry: «Therefore there ought to be admitted a purely civil profession of faith, the right of which belongs to the Sovereign to determine the articles, not as dogmas of religion, but as they are sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible that a man be a good citizen and faithful subject. The Sovereign has no faculty for imposing faith in articles of this sort, but he is yet able to make an exile of him who does not believe them, not as one who is impious, but as one who is unsociable and incapable of sincerely loving the laws and justice, and of pouring out one’s life, if necessary, for the carrying out of a duty. And if a man were publicly to admit the aforementioned dogmas, yet led a life as if he did not believe them; let him be punished by death: for he perpetrates the greatest crime, because he has spoken falsely before the law: qu’il soit puni de mort: il a commis le plus grand des crimes, il a menti devant la loi.»[2]

Thus speaks Rousseau, and thus speak they who follow after his sophisms. They set out from the principle: Nothing pertains to the Sovereign concerning the religious opinions of the subjects, so long as their exterior life is conformed to social duties, but immediately it is added, that a code of religion ought to be rendered by the Sovereign, which ought to encompass positive dogmas, that is, the existence of God, the future life, rewards for good deeds, and punishments for bad; and negative dogmas, which Rousseau reduces to intolerance alone. Finally, it is concluded that those citizens ought not to be tolerated—and indeed ought to be expelled from the State or punished by death—who do not hold to this civil religion, even if in other quarters they observe all those things which pertain to duties toward others. That is, religion is excluded from the State by reason of liberty of conscience, as if the principles of true religion should in fact be of no concern to the State; by reason of sociality, religion itself is submitted to the arbitrary will of the Sovereign; and by the arbitrary will of the Sovereign, the citizens, in admitting religion, ought to comply in a blind fashion, under pain of exile or death!

Nor could it have been concluded in any other way. For liberty of conscience, if once admitted, just as it is opposed to true religion, thus is opposed to the true felicity of the State; because there is no morality without God, and no duty without religion. But if regulation in those matters which pertain to religion is taken from the Church of God, it is necessary that it be given over to the arbitration of the civil power: which, lacking authority in religion, imposes its own tyranny upon consciences; and thus the true liberty of souls is oppressed by means of the same principles with which the false liberty of conscience is proclaimed by Rousseau and his followers. — Cf. Principes du Droit politique mis en opposition avec le Contrat social de J-J. Rousseau, par Honoré Torombert, etc., Lib. IV, par M. Lanjuinais, p. 335 (Paris, 1825).


[1] This is our direct translation of the Latin text given by the Cardinal. The 1782 translation by G.D.H. Cole from the French renders it thus:

«The subjects then owe the Sovereign an account of their opinions only to such an extent as they matter to the community. Now, it matters very much to the community that each citizen should have a religion. That will make him love his duty; but the dogmas of that religion concern the State and its members only so far as they have reference to morality and to the duties which he who professes them is bound to do to others.»

[2] Cole renders it:

«There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them — it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If any one, after publicly recognising these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.»