Fr. Thomas Joseph White - December 2016 Meeting Topic

Identifying a Constructive Notion of Religious Freedom within the Context of the Modern Non-Confessional State: Natural Law and Natural Ends

This paper examines basic claims of the Second Vatican Council document Dignitatis Humanae regarding the natural right of religious freedom, so as to consider the viability of a robust idea of religious freedom within the context of the modern, non-confessional state. The essay makes especial use of the metaphysics, anthropology and moral theory of Thomas Aquinas to consider ways that the basic claims of Dignitatis Humanae might be interpreted. Key to my argument is the idea that a natural religious inclination of the human person toward the knowledge and love of God is philosophically identifiable. I argue that the natural religious end of the human person is an inclusive and not an exclusive end, and that this basic truth has great implications for understanding the serious responsibilities of religious persons toward the temporal common goods of civil society. However, this same anthropology allows us to understand why it is that when the secular state wishes to curb or dampen morally genuine religious activity, the state acts in some sense against the very structure of human freedom itself, and cedes inevitably at least in part toward totalitarian pretentions. The last part of the essay touches upon the importance of a Thomistic notion of the natural imperfect end of human religious behavior. This idea from the Thomistic school provides a framework for giving philosophical rationale for religiously motivated forms of life within Catholic theology. It also helps us recognize why religious adherents have indispensable responsibilities toward authentic common goods of their societies that they cannot dispense themselves from by appeal to theological principles.