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“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves,” wrote Abraham Lincoln. Is there any American of sound mind who would not endorse this statement? Yet things having to do with freedom are not always so clear. The crucial case of religious freedom, celebrated by Pope John Paul II as the “cornerstone of the structure of human rights,” a “point of reference” and “measure” of the other fundamental rights, has not, for instance, always found the ready support of papal authority.

Pope Pius VII called the principle of religious liberty a “disastrous and ever-to-be-deplored heresy”; Pope Gregory XVI condemned it as “insanity”; and Pope Pius IX called it “a monstrous error,” “most pernicious to the Catholic Church and to the salvation of souls,” “the liberty of perdition,” which will “corrupt the morals and minds of the people,” and which propagates “the pest of indifferentism.” He reprimanded those who, “contrary to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the Fathers, deliberately affirm that the best form of government is that in which no obligation is recognized in the civil power to punish, with specific penalties, the violators of the Catholic religion, save insofar as the public peace demands.” Pope Leo XIII called it “contrary to reason,” “a public crime,” tantamount to “atheism, however it may differ from its name.” This is, to say the least, a weighty list of dissenters. What then are we to make of the issue?

In the Church’s past, religious toleration as a practice was occasionally prescribed, but as a principle it was never affirmed. While it was not obligatory for a Catholic politician to invoke the use of force against non-Catholics, circumstances might well suggest the advisability of silencing one whose dissidence threatened society. Various penalties might be imposed, not excluding exile and execution. St. Thomas Aquinas takes up the relevant considerations in the Summa Theologiae, II-II. In qu. 10, art. 10, Thomas asks whether infidels can be allowed to govern the faithful. He answers that an established Catholic authority ought not to be ceded to infidels, but that an infidel authority already in force might be maintained. However, there is no necessity in the latter case: the Church has the right to do away with the dominion of unbelievers, and if she forbears to exercise this right, owing to the fear of scandal, it is a right she nonetheless retains. In art. 11, Thomas asks whether the rites of infidels are to be tolerated. In answer, he recalls the principle that “those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils lest certain goods be lost or certain greater evils be incurred.” However, the rites of unbelievers “which are neither truthful nor profitable are by no means to be tolerated.” And in qu. 11, art. 3, he asks whether heretics are to be tolerated. To this he answers that the heretic himself deserves only excommunication and death. However, the Church is also on the side of mercy, and does not condemn immediately (as strict justice would require) but only after two admonitions, according to the direction of the Apostle.

Pope Leo XIII, instigator of the Thomistic revival, inserts himself into this line of Catholic tradition in his encyclical of 1885, Immortale Dei, on the Christian Constitution of States. Here we read: “God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the world. Everything, without exception, must be subject to Him, and must serve Him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern holds it from one sole and single source, namely God, the Sovereign Ruler of all.” The encyclical argues that because the state’s authority comes from God, it must be exercised in conformity to the law of God, and the state accordingly should publicly profess and favor the true religion. Rationalism and naturalism, which deny the authority of God and His Church, give rise to serious errors, among them a new conception of rights at variance with natural law, maintaining that all men “are equal in the control of their life . . . that each is free to think on every subject just as he may choose, and to do whatever he may like to do . . . .”

Leo XIII returns to the subject of modern liberties in his encyclical of 1888, Libertas, on the Nature of Human Liberty. Specifically with regard to religious liberty, he notes that reason forbids the state “to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness—namely to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges.” Just as we might expect from our brief dip into the Summa, Leo affirms that a Catholic state has the right but not the obligation to restrict the public expression of non-Catholic religions. Toleration is in order only in cases where repression would bring about a greater evil.

The Declaration on Religious Freedom of Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae, as we know, cast all this in a new light. In Article 2 we read: “This Vatican Synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. This Synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” By this declaration the council guarantees, in effect, the natural right to teach and practice any fundamentally decent form of religion in the public forum. We have moved from the right of the public authorities to repress religious errors, subject to the maintenance of the common good, to the universal right of individuals to profess any religion whatever subject to “due limits,” which limits the council later identifies as “public order.”

The council’s declaration was warmly received in both the Catholic and the non-Catholic world. Many had desired a conciliar endorsement of religious freedom, even if they did not see how it could easily be reconciled with tradition. In the department of sober second thoughts, however, it would be well to attend to the recent work of Stanley Hauerwas, a well-known Methodist theologian formerly of Notre Dame, who argues in his new book, After Christendom? How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas, that “freedom of religion is a subtle temptation”: a temptation and therefore to be resisted, but a subtle one, likely to slip by undetected in the liberal state.

The very theologian whose writings most paved the way for the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae, the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, admitted the apparent gap between this document and the Catholic tradition: “The course of the development between the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and Dignitatis Humanae Personae (1965) still remains to be explained by theologians.” The French Dominican Yves Congar pronounced his gloss with a Thomistic accent: “It cannot be denied that a text like this does materially say something different from the Syllabus of 1864, and even almost the opposite of propositions 15 and 77-79 of the document.”

Perhaps most interesting of all was an interview with Hans Küng. “I think [Archbishop Lefebvre] is wrong,” Küng said—no news there—“but nevertheless what he’s arguing are theoretically unresolved questions. Lefebvre has every right to question the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom because Vatican II completely reversed Vatican I’s position without explanation.” Archbishop Lefebvre’s notoriety in this country stems chiefly from his opposition to the new order of Mass, but the French Archbishop was at least as exercised about the question of the newfound right to religious liberty. For the record, in an intervention at the Council, he suggested the following conclusion for the chapter on religious liberty: “For the very dignity of the human person, error must be repressed to prevent it from spreading, unless a greater evil can be foreseen from its repression than from its toleration.” One must admire Lefebvre’s adroit use of the argument from human dignity; it should at the very least make us cautious in our handling of this now favored trope in Catholic social doctrine.

Archbishop Lefebvre found another unlikely admirer in the person of Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind. Many, especially in the Catholic press, noted that Bloom was blind to the place of religion in public life. But Bloom’s silence may have been conceived as an act of kindness to his Christian readers. Some years before his book was published, Bloom executed a dry run of its themes in an interview with a student paper in Toronto. There he said that the theological-political problem had historically involved the most urgent inquiries of the most profound thinkers, but that today all had been given over to the skeptics. A generation ago, Bloom said, the entire Church thought like Archbishop Lefebvre, but now he is only one man, alone. An early modern political philosopher once boasted, “We are preparing an euthanasia for religion.” Possibly Allan Bloom thinks the Church in her absent-mindedness has finally swallowed the fatal draft.

Allan Bloom’s concerns impel one to turn to the origins of religious freedom in modern liberal political theory, especially the work of Hobbes and Spinoza. All the early liberal thinkers exhibit in various ways the common strategy of first deconstructing traditional religion to make way for their new science of politics and then reconstructing it as a civil religion so the politics thus elaborated can operate in actuality. (This complex two-fold scheme has given rise to much of the difficulty in reconstructing the actual relation between faith and reason, religion and secularism, in the early modern thinkers. Not only is it necessary to distinguish the tactical role any given affirmation plays in their overall scheme, but allowances must be made for a prudential reticence in the deconstruction and a conciliatory obfuscation in the reconstructive moment.)

It is sometimes said that early liberal thinkers were compelled to invent their novel political doctrines owing to the worldly corruption and inflammatory politics in the churches of the time. Indeed, the era of the European religious wars was bloody and unsettling. Leibniz, for one, underscored the irony of the situation in the title of his essay, “Mars Christianissimus”—Most Christian War God. Some good souls would like to believe that if only there had been more evidence of charity and forbearance among the professed followers of Christ, if only there had been more lived Christian idealism, there would have arisen no need to invoke a secular solution with its neutral state. This is partly true, but not the whole story. For it is very clear that the early liberals objected not just to the political practice of the ancients and medievals but to their political ideals as well. In fact it was largely owing to false ideals that traditional political practice was found wanting.

Francis Bacon put it this way: the discourses of the ancients are beautiful like the stars, which give little light because they are so high. Traditional political philosophy was ineffective because of its exalted notion of virtue and of polities instrumental to the formation of virtue. According to the ancients, the bare individual as we first encounter him is incomplete. He can reach the promise of his potential only by developing the moral and political virtues exercised by living among others of his kind, and further by the acquisition of the intellectual virtues and the assimilation to God through prayer, the sacraments, and the imitation of Christ. The natural law and the divine law hold out a pattern for human aspiration and a measure for their success or failure. Such goals were, at best, too demanding and at worst (as Machiavelli proclaimed) imaginary. In this impossible situation, an effective politics could follow only from a kind of sixteenth-century “grade inflation.” Forget about virtue and its formation, lower your goals, accept and exploit the passions that move most men most of the time: pleasure, comfort, acquisitiveness, and fear. According to the moderns, the individual man as we encounter him is already morally complete: nature supplies rights for his execution, rather than intimating laws or goals for his perfection.

For Hobbes, the pivotal passion in his new political scheme was fear—fear of violent death. Apart from political society, living in the state of nature, all men have a right to whatever they can acquire. It is obvious that our rights may conflict—you and I both want the same pineapple—and equally obvious that we may come to blows over disputed rights claims. No man is strong enough or vigilant enough to secure his life against his neighbors. Life in the state of nature is a war of “all against all” in which man’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Fear, the master passion, leads men to devise a social contract: “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a Commonwealth.” Thus are peace, comfort, and security—the goals of political society—assured.

One problem remains: the necessary authority of the sovereign over his subjects, based on their fear of violent death in the state of nature, is threatened by a passion yet more powerful than the fear of violent death—the fear of spirits, of hellfire, or of God. Thus do those who claim to be able to avert the wrath of God obtain an authority surpassing that of the political sovereign. This subversive rivalry threatens Hobbes’ entire construction, and nearly half of the Leviathan is devoted to its resolution. Hobbes proposes a new biblical interpretation that would give the civil authority complete control of all religious practice and instruction—no right to religious freedom here. However, at one point he mentions the possibility that the sovereign might refrain from establishing an official state religion and permit all religions that are not seditious.

This brief suggestion supplies the material for Spinoza’s invention of religious toleration. For Spinoza, such toleration is the only way to secure the goals for which men left the state of nature and entered political society. In actuality Spinoza agrees with Hobbes that the sovereign must control the practice of religion. However, he takes issue with Hobbes regarding the proper method for the sovereign to achieve this control. Ironically enough, Hobbes’ mistake was in seeking to tackle this problem directly, in contravention of his overall strategy. Remember that the modern solution to the political problem was to utilize and redirect irrational passions, rather than attempt to extirpate them or subordinate them to a higher goal. Spinoza proposes, by instituting freedom of speech and religion, to use religion to counteract religion. His psychology leads him to predict that toleration of all religious beliefs will lead eventually to the dilution of religion, as men come to emphasize the tenets they hold in common and downplay the peculiarities of their own particular form of religion. An ecumenism of indifference is the product, and religion is effectively defanged thereby. Freedom of religion enjoined by the sovereign lends him a greater authority over religion than he could ever hope to gain by attempting direct control. Spinoza, then, can add freedom to the list of the goals of political society, along with peace, comfort, and security. It is an ambiguous freedom.

This contingent freedom of liberalism is inherently manipulable and necessarily cuts a poor figure next to that essential freedom which is freedom over the passions, freedom from corruption and death, freedom to behold the face of Being, in short, the very sort of difficult ideal the founders of liberalism sought to expunge from the record of human striving forever. It should also be noted that in Spinoza’s construction religious freedom is indeed the “first freedom,” even if the rationale for this primacy is not as edifying as one might wish.

With the religiously subversive modern project in mind, we can appreciate why the pre-Vatican II popes took the line they did. They may not have understood all the nuances and possibilities inherent in classical liberalism, but they clearly saw that Spinoza’s universal toleration and the new natural rights teaching at its basis constituted nothing less than a declaration of war. And looking around us now, it must be granted that a larger part of what Spinoza planned for has come to pass. However, need we accept the original liberal assessment of the human situation?

Pope John Paul II, in his daring appropriation of liberal economics and rights language, thinks not. He is well aware of the fundamental role of the passions in the logic of liberalism. This is acknowledged in Centesimus Annus, and he is most careful to give the passions their due, especially as motors of economic life. Beyond the passions and their play, however, what remains for him is intellect in the classical sense, reason that is not merely ministerial to the passions but capable of holding hegemonic sway and attaining its own proper goal. If religion and morality are not illusions bred upon the passions, but rooted in the very being of the human spirit, they may not be as readily channeled as Spinoza and Hobbes require. The blood of the martyrs has not run dry. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Hobbesian philosophy.

Moreover, parallel to this ontological or intellectual query about the ultimate success of Spinoza’s strategy, we ought to consider a practical objection as well. It is arguable that the doctrines of the early modern philosophers are not all of a piece, that besides the cosmological and metaphysical aspects of their systems there is a purely practical starting point that relies on no antecedent theoretical knowledge. The impetus for the discourse of rights is not a deduction from some theory of the world and man, but a political response to encroachment on human individuality. The metaphysically neutral, political determination of rights discourse, then, entails no predetermined ontological limitations and should not commit us to any predictions unproved in practice. Political liberalism is not an exclusive truth read directly off from nature, but a practical proposition in the making. Perhaps, after all, religion will not counteract religion, religion will not wither away. Perhaps, as Tocqueville noted of America, religion will show itself an ally of freedom rather than its victim.

Need we then believe—as Allan Bloom seems to do—that relinquishing the support of the political establishment deprives religion of its essential foundation in reality? Another skeptical philosopher, Karl Löwith, once noted that the “Christian world has come to an end. This does not mean that a faith which once conquered the world perishes with its last secular manifestations. For how should the Christian pilgrimage in hoc saeculo ever become homeless in the land where it has never been at home?”

Return now to the issue of fairness, as articulated by Mr. Lincoln. Using the new rights paradigm of political discourse, with morally preformed individual actors claiming equal rights in the face of others, I think the traditional doctrine of the Church can only appear to be unfair. The Church claims rights for itself that it is not prepared to guarantee to others. Frankly, it is not a good bet that anyone will make a social contract on those terms. The traditional doctrine assumes a much less offensive face, however, when it is conceptualized according to the natural law approach in terms of duties enjoined by the teleological perfection of the person. In this light, a privileged position for the Church is not claimed as a discriminatory favor—on behalf of this actual community against that—but rather places all persons under the imperative to sanctity as it is made available by the Church. Being Catholic, then, becomes less a badge of identity than a vocation to communion.

In adopting a “mitigated rights paradigm,” Pope John Paul II does not restate the traditional doctrine of the sacral regime in terms of rights, as Leo XIII had done; he accepts the right to religious freedom as the just consequence of the new language. Has he been bewitched by words? Why should the Church embrace the liberal rights language, in however mitigated a form? It does not appear to be of Christian inspiration or a necessary development of theological doctrine. Could one not continue to nourish the beautiful dream of a sacral regime, at least as a lost cause or a Platonic city in speech? The answer is that the Pope’s shift to a quasi-liberal rights doctrine has to be seen as an act of high prudence, a courageous and necessary response to “the signs of the times.”

In both National Socialism and Communism, lands once Christian descried the face of Lucifer; Nazism and Communism rejected moderate liberalism and culminated in unspeakable acts of inhumanity and terror. Loathing remains the only decent human response to them; nevertheless, we do well to remember that both these attempts to solve the political problem on a non-liberal basis were not without their own persuasive power. It suffices to mention the names of Heidegger and Lukacs as certifiable non-imbeciles who linked their destinies to these radical critiques of politics. Christendom is dead and can no longer serve as a rallying point against the foe.

The modern world is awash in the sea of contingency—not least those parts of it that seek to ground “absolutes” or “values” in mere acts of assertion or historical fate. No community in the Western world is composed preponderantly of those with sufficient spiritual perception to discern the ontological difference between principles safeguarded by the magisterium of the Church and simple political ideology. Most people instinctively believe that all affirmations terminate in the subjectivity of the affirmer. Ask any college freshman. For him freedom is likely to mean only the contingent freedom to choose among the bright pictures momentarily flashing upon the screen of one’s perception. Confronting the vista opened by the Catholic tradition, this contingent freedom seems not much different from imprisonment.

In these circumstances, any attempt to insist on the principles of the sacral regime can only be counterproductive. The sacral regime will appear to be an ideology, and insistent preaching of an apparent ideology will strengthen the vise-like grip of ideology overall. If you wish, it is a mark of our corruption that essential freedom can no longer be supported by appropriate structures of a sacral regime. However, the liberal rights doctrine, especially in the moderate, Anglo-Saxon form of the Founders and in the mitigated Catholic form developed by John Paul II, can uphold circumstantial freedom so that essential freedom will at least not be foreclosed. Circumstantial freedom in the modern age must be jealously guarded against cultural and political manipulation: the allure of materialist ideologies and the overweening power of the state.

Regarding the very important question of the apparent breach between Dignitatis Humanae and the Catholic tradition, though some work has recently been done, no explanation has yet emerged that carries universal conviction. There are four possibilities: (1) the tradition only seemingly contradicts Vatican II, which has in fact clarified the tradition; (2) the tradition only seemingly contradicts Vatican II, which is, rather, clarified by the tradition; (3) the tradition indeed contradicts Vatican II, but the tradition is not binding; (4) the tradition indeed contradicts Vatican II, but Vatican II is not binding (the Lefebvre position). Since this exercise must be carried on largely in the realm of logic with the aid of subtle formal distinctions, there is an aspect of sterility to the whole proceeding, however important, and it is easy to see how one might prefer to take the quickest way by affirming either (3) or (4), a simple rejection of one of the putative contradictories. In any case, even if it can be established that there is no logical contradiction, the question remains how the new point of departure was divined and why it was judged opportune to propose it.

Pope John Paul II’s stand in defense of religious liberty has been forthright. He spoke in defense of Dignitatis Humanae at the Council, he included a special appendix on this declaration in his book presenting Vatican II to the Polish people, he preached religious freedom to the Communists in Poland, and he has repeatedly returned to this topic as Supreme Pontiff. Most recently, in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, commemorating Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, he included a little-noticed paragraph on the right to religious freedom. However, he has not insisted on any continuity between the sacral regime with its natural law (still favored by Leo XIII) and the fundamental right of religious liberty taught by Vatican II. Surely the reason is that he recognizes that the paradigms of natural law and natural right are discrepant. Leo XIII tried to subsume modern natural rights talk within the tradition of natural law with unhappy results for religious freedom: “error has no rights.” John Paul II sets aside the natural law paradigm and offers a practical Catholic interpretation of the rights and dignity of the person. This is less a development of doctrine—“development,” after all, does not mean an “about face”—than a shift of paradigm. Archbishop Lefebvre’s insistence on the traditional thesis that religious tolerance can only be prudential and not principled is very nearly correct. However, for John Paul II it is the entire rights paradigm that is adopted on prudential grounds, not the temporary toleration of a given non-Catholic regime. Hence the appearance—and indeed, the reality—of novelty.

In Centesimus Annus, moreover, Pope John Paul II enriches the account of mitigated liberalism with a “parallel” approach to religious freedom drawn directly from Christian experience and practice. This approach is of the greatest interest because it proposes a positive link between Catholic tradition in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and the declaration of Vatican II.

In paragraph 9 of Centesimus, John Paul II says of Leo XIII’s intentions:

The pope wished to proclaim [the right to discharge freely one’s religious duties] within the context of the other rights and duties of workers, notwithstanding the general opinion, even in his day, that such questions pertained exclusively to an individual’s private life. He affirms the need for Sunday rest so that people may turn their thoughts to heavenly things and to the worship which they owe to Almighty God. No one can take away this human right, which is based on a commandment; in the words of the Pope: “no man may with impunity violate that human dignity which God himself treats with great reverence,” and consequently, the State must guarantee to the worker the exercise of this freedom.

John Paul then supplements the text with his own lectio plenior:

It would not be mistaken to see in this clear statement a springboard for the principle of the right to religious freedom, which was to become the subject of many solemn international declarations and conventions, as well as of the Second Vatican Council’s well-known Declaration and of my own repeated teaching.

In Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII mentions the Sunday rest on two occasions: first in paragraph 32, in the context of the duties of employers—“it is the duty of employers to see that the worker is free for adequate periods to attend to his religious obligations”—and later more extensively in paragraph 58, dealing with the things that the power of the state should protect. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II quotes from paragraph 57 of Rerum Novarum, a passage offering a rationale for the prescriptions of paragraph 58:

In the case of the worker, there are many things which the power of the State should protect; and, first of all, the goods of his soul. For however good and desirable mortal life may be, yet it is not the ultimate goal for which we are born, but a road only and a means for perfecting, through knowledge of truth and love of good, the life of the soul. The soul bears the express image and likeness of God, and there resides in it that sovereignty through the medium of which man has been bidden to rule all created nature below him and to make all lands and all seas serve his interests. “Fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and all living creatures that move upon the earth.” In this respect all men are equal, and there is no difference between rich and poor, between masters and servants, between rulers and subjects: “For there is the same Lord of all.” No one may with impunity outrage the dignity of man, which God Himself treats with great reverence, nor impede his course to that level of perfection which accords with eternal life in heaven. Nay, more, in this connection a man cannot even by his own free choice allow himself to be treated in a way inconsistent with his nature, and suffer his soul to be enslaved; for there is no question here of rights belonging to man, but of duties owed to God, which are to be religiously observed.

This passage can be read as an extended transposition of the themes of liberal political philosophy into the key of traditional natural law teaching. Just as the liberal state is instituted to secure the good of the body in its natural life, the Christian state should protect the good of the soul. Mortal life is desirable, but securing its continuance is not the summum bonum. It is in virtue of the soul that Leo justifies man’s sovereignty over nature. It is, contra Hobbes, the potentiality of the soul rather than the vulnerability of the body that confers equality on all men. The unfettered pursuit of happiness in the acquisition of material property is transmuted into the unimpeded pursuit of the perfection of the soul. Just as natural rights are inalienable, so man by nature cannot allow his soul to be enslaved. All this, Leo affirms, is not a matter of rights, but rather a duty owed to God.

While Leo clearly chooses to underline the contrast between the natural law paradigm of Christian philosophy and the natural rights paradigm of classical liberalism, the implicit parallelism can also be used to point up similarities. This seems to be the method that gives rise to John Paul II’s mitigated liberalism. John Paul II rarely mentions natural law but peppers his discourses with appeals to rights. Leo XIII briefly refers to “the dignity of man,” but for John Paul II human dignity becomes foundational. John Paul seems to reverse Leo’s strategy with regard to liberal themes, recommending appropriation or conversion in place of confrontation.

Here is paragraph 58 of Rerum Novarum on the Sunday rest:

Hence follows necessary cessation from toil and work on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Let no one, however, understand this in the sense of greater indulgence of idle leisure, and much less in the sense of that kind of cessation from work, such as many desire, which encourages vice and promotes wasteful spending of money, but solely in the sense of a repose from labor made sacred by religion. Rest combined with religion calls man away from toil and the business of daily life to admonish him to pay his just and due homage to the Eternal Deity. This is especially the nature, and this the cause of the rest to be taken on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, and God has sanctioned the same in the Old Testament by a special law: “Remember thou keep holy the Sabbath Day,” and He Himself taught it by His own action: namely the mystical rest taken immediately after He had created man: “He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.”

Leo has begun to sketch a theology of the Sabbath in this section. It could be supplemented from the Jewish perspective by the very beautiful book of Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, and from a Catholic patristic perspective by the musings of Jean Danielou, S.J., on the mystery of “the eighth day” [the octave or ogdoad] in The Bible and the Liturgy. Danielou’s thought is well summarized by Alexander Schmemann:

Having fulfilled the mystery of salvation, having recreated in Himself man and the world, having rested on the blessed Sabbath, Christ rose again from the dead on the “first day after Sabbath.” On that day a new time began which—though externally it remains within the “old” time of this world and is still measured by the number seven . . . [is] experienced . . . [by the Church] as the eighth day—the one beyond time, beyond seven, beyond “this world”—as her participation in the “day without evening” of the Kingdom . . . . Just as the Church though “not of this world” is present in this world for its salvation, so also the Sacrament of the Lord’s Day, the Sacrament of the new aeon is joined with time in order that time itself might become the time of the Church, the time of salvation . . . the starting point, as indeed the foundation of Christian mission and action in the world.

If we deepen our understanding of the dynamic relation between this world and the next, we will gain an important clue to other dualisms, such as church and state, religion and politics, authority and freedom. Recurrence to the Sabbath rest following the lines of Rerum Novarum thus presents us with a fertile new suggestion for developing an argument for religious freedom, an argument both parallel to and supplementary of the argument from human rights that is so problematic.

Let me briefly identify several benefits of this new approach. It could, first, represent a genuine development of the tradition and not a repudiation of it. The Church has always defended the Sabbath rest. If religious freedom can be linked to this defense its cause gains stability and a rationale. Moreover, it is an argument that starts from a communal base, the working class, and does not pit individual against individual or attempt to reconstitute a community out of atomic individuals. Next, it bears upon public recognition and public action and is neither relegated to nor derived from the realm of private opinion.

Beyond all this, the metaphor for separation contained in the Sabbath rest is temporal not spatial. Thus, the Church retains the potential for dynamic action in the world and is not imprisoned either by a “wall of separation” (secularist) or a “hortus conclusus” (spiritualist). A temporal symbol of separation well accords with the patristic symphonia of church and state; music is the temporal art par excellence . And finally, the metaphor of the “eighth day” signifies an ontological reality (Eucharastic life) and not a bare logical possibility or a utilitarian calculus (a negative right).

The argument is inherently pluralistic rather than bearing upon univocally conceived rights. That is, Leo defends the Christian Sunday observance, but the same considerations could apply analogously to the Jewish Sabbath, the Muslim Friday observance, and even the nonbeliever’s “natural day of rest.” Each community would articulate its own mode of freedom from the world of liberalism; one does not commit the absurdity of requiring a religious tradition without a church to affirm the “separation of church and state.”

Derek Cross, a new contributor to First Things, is a writer living in Washington, D.C.