To what extent (if at all) does natural law entail religious liberty? To put it another way, is religious liberty a natural right? An attempt to answer this question should elucidate the long and sometimes equivocal tradition of natural law.

What, for example, is the proper relationship between tolerance and the truth? When does tolerance become a lax permissiveness that breeds indifference and the moral relativism sometimes concealed in the word “pluralism”? To what extent is the Enlightenment interpretation of natural law itself a distortion and truncation of the traditional understanding of natural moral law, wherein the fundamental Christian concept of “natural” always meant “by virtue of the (Creation” and was bound to a sacred and Christian conception of the world, which stands in sharp contrast to the impersonal, deistic “absentee landlord” notion of God as the “Deus Extramundanus“?

“Nature” is an elusive and very equivocal “norm” of judgment and conduct. For example, is there such a thing, as the higher speculative Masons would argue, as a “true, primordial, natural religion” to which we must return? Or is there, as St. Augustine asked, such a thing as an alternative “true religion”—a vera religio? Is religion from man or from God? Most fundamentally, does religion, finally, come from God or from elsewhere? The cult of man, once considered an idolatry or a pantheism, may well be a subtle kind of polytheism. However, in some modern theologies (“process theologies,” for example) God needs man to complete himself (or itself), a view which would have once been considered a blasphemy. But is there a “natural right” to “religious liberty,” in order to profess, live, and proselytize such a “process theology”? What are the limits to religious liberty and its missionary activity or proselytism, for example, among the young? Are there not to be standards of truth and reason?

St. Thomas Aquinas articulates clearly the indispensable importance of human reason in the proper discernment of the principles and precepts of natural law. In his Summa Theologiae he says:

It is from precepts of the natural law, as from general and indemonstrable principles, that the human reason needs to proceed to the more particular determination of certain matters. These particular determinations, devised by human reason, are called human laws, provided the other essential conditions of law be observed.

St. Thomas had earlier defined law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and which is publicly promulgated.” Furthermore, given that “the eternal law is the plan of government in the Chief Governor,” “all laws, insofar as they partake of right reason, are derived from the eternal law.”

St. Thomas’s emphasis on human reason and right reason is important when trying to understand the proper meaning and justification for the purported natural right of religious liberty. To the extent that a right is “a claim in justice,” does anyone have a right to do what is wrong? In the Christian, especially Roman Catholic, understanding of natural law, the question of why we have a free will at all has a very specific answer. Is it to do our will? Or is it to discern and do God’s will? Given our initial, liberal or prejudicial, view of religious liberty, are we free to do what is not permitted? Arc we free to do what is not morally permitted? Are we free to pursue a false religion? And to do it with impunity, without adverse consequences? Is it the case that “one religion is as good as another, but none of them is true”?

Contemporary, and often very permissive, views of religious liberty usually posit a natural right to “liberty and conscience.” But what do we mean by “conscience”? If there is such a thing as a sincere but erroneous conscience, then we must face the matter of authority, and of religious authority, with special reference to the formation of conscience. That is to say, we must find the grounds and the authority—a specific religious authority—by which the conscience is to be properly formed, if it is not to be negligent and subjectively culpable (morally blameworthy) as well, and not just objectively in error. Just as modern notions of law often consider law not as an “ordinance of reason” but as an “ordinance of will,” so, too, with conscience. Conscience now often “drops down,” as it were, into the will—or to what is merely desired and wanted. The same thing has happened to the concept of right. Instead of being a reasoned “claim in justice,” right now often merely means what is willed and wanted or desired. Such re-orientations of concepts such as law, right, and conscience undermine the very primacy of reason in the human person, and also the primacy of the common good.

Tolerant and winsomely liberal men of the secular Enlightenment, such as Moses Mendelssohn in his book O! Jerusalem, have argued that religions toleration—or religious liberty—is an inherent part of the natural law. But such an orientation means naturalizing the supernatural—e.g., revelation, faith, grace—and hence “de-naturing” it, cutting it back to some secular set of analogues, which would promote tolerance and “what is held in common,” and hence a kind of religious peace and unity. But what is the basis of unity? Is it not truth? Does not truth finally matter in determining, although with true prudence, the nature and limits of “religious liberty”? Natural law, properly understood, does not promote religious pluralism, religious relativism, or promiscuous “ecumenism,” under the guise of “religious liberty.”

At the heart of the concept and reality of religions liberty is “the meaning of freedom.” What is freedom and what is freedom for? In his book Mysticism and Logic, Bertrand Russell has an eloquent essay entitled “A Free Man’s Worship.” This vividly poetic essay is meant as a sequel to Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Natura, on the nature of reality. Russell, like his philosophical mentors—Lucretius, Epicurus, and Democritus—would rid his reader of the fear of death, and not just the craven, ignoble, and irrational fear of death. Russell argues that “a free mans worship is based upon a firm foundation of unyielding despair.” He assumes that, for a mature and truly free man, despair (which is one form of hopelessness) can be and can remain a firm foundation. A truly free and properly reverent man, in Russell’s view, has a sustaining perception of beauty because he has a tragic conviction about human fragility and final isolation, as part of humanity, stranded as on a tossing raft, “amidst a universe which cares nothing for its hopes or its fears.” In other words, Russell believes that if natural law is properly understood, a mature man’s freedom of worship will be founded upon the unshakable conviction that there is nothing finally to hope for. Final hope for fulfillment is an illusion. Despite man’s desires for fulfillment and his consciousness of acting with a purpose, there is no possibility of a final fulfillment of one’s “having,” “doing,” “being” in an existential plenitude, in a completing and elevating beatitude. Russell’s vision of religious liberation starts with the conscious anticipation of final non-fulfillment, and if Russell were to answer what Immannel Kant, among others, considered to be the fundamental question of philosophy, “Quid sperandum est?” (What is to be hoped for?), he would reply: “Nothing, finally.”

In contrast to Bertrand Russell, Tom Wolfe (author of The Bonfire of the Vanities) has written an essay entitled “The Meaning of Freedom.” The essay appeared as the lead article in the March 1988 issue of Parameters, published by the U.S. Army War College. It was originally delivered as a lecture to the cadets at West Point in October 1987, before the disordering “Revolutions of 1989.” Wolfe’s article examines four phases of American freedom. He argues that America is now in “the fourth phase,” which should be of particular concern to the United States’ military officer corps. Wolfe writes:

The fourth phase is freedom from religion. It is not freedom of religion; it is freedom from religion. . . . De Tocqueville said, in 1835, that American democracy was the freest form of government in the world, by which he also meant the most libertine; so free, in fact, that American society would have come apart had it not been for the internal discipline of the American people. This internal discipline, he said, was rooted in their profound devotion to religion. What we are now seeing is the earnest rejection of the constraints of religion in the second half of the 20th century; not just the rules of morality but even simple rules of conduct and ethics. . . .


You [the American military] are going to find yourselves required to be sentinels at the bacchanal. You are going to find yourself required to stand guard at the Lucullan feast against the Huns approaching from outside. You will have to be armed monks at the orgy. If I use religious terminology, I use it on purpose. One of the most famous addresses ever delivered in this century by an American was the address on 12 May 1962, by Douglas MacArthur at West Point, in which he enunciated the watchwords of duty, honor, and country. . . . He said that the soldier, above all other men, is expected to practice the greatest act of religion: sacrifice.

But these Huns “approaching from outside” are also approaching from “within.” What Whittaker Chambers once said in Cold Friday (1964) about communism’s dialectical and historical materialism, we should say today about the continuing Long March of Freudian-Marxist “Critical Theory” through our cultural institutions:

It seeks a molecular re-arrangement of the human mind. It promotes not only a new world. It promotes a new kind of man [i.e.. the “revolutionary, democratic personality,” not the “authoritarian personality”]. The physical revolutions which it once incited and now imposes, and which largely distract our attention, are secondary to this internal revolution which challenges each man in his mind and spirit.

Since many varieties of “religious liberty” also now promote this “internal revolution,” what criteria and standards does natural law, rooted in reason, provide for our deeper discernment and patient prudence? I leave you with this challenge, and with these suggestive reflections, lest the order and mystery of religion itself, and the sacred, become a servant of disorder and anarchy.

In his 1990 book, Myths of Modern Art, Alberto Boixados, an Argentine professor of literature, quotes from Augusto del Noce’s 1976 interview with a Madrid newspaper. The topic was Gramscian eurocommunism, and other indirect variants of cultural subversion. Introducing the words of del Noce, my venerable friend says:

The conquest of power can no longer be achieved by traditional revolutionary means. Civil society must first be conquered, and then the state will collapse.


And how will the conquest of culture come about? “By means of an alliance with middle-class intellectuals, with radical movements, with Catholic progressives and, most especially, with all the trends of modern Catholic theology.”

“In Italy,” Professor del Noce continues, “all the essentials are under control: the publishing houses, the schools, quite a few universities, the judiciary.” The confrontation in the fight to dominate the sources of culture is not between “the proletariat and the bourgeoisie” but between “tradition and modernity.”

A new culture and a new system of values are created precisely so that the freedom of ideas [about religion, as well] may be redefined. Gramsci also understood that the only hope of eliminating the Catholic Church was to undermine her and destroy her from within. Today’s neo-modernist and demythofied theology was foreshadowed in Gramsci’s thoughts at the beginning of the century. Knowing that Marxism and Catholicism are incompatible, he sought a compromise because he knew that the appeasers would end up in apostasy.

To what extent will appeasers of unlimited or unconditional “religious liberty” end up in apostasy, and maybe also despair? What is to be hoped for from natural law, in itself, without a fuller doctrine of light, and of love?