Steve Smith quotes "a few passages from Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965," to remind us that the Catholic Church has (my words, not his) mended its ways:
"This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.
"This Vatican Council 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 of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.
"The council 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. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.
"It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed."
Bravo! It sounds to me like the Declaration of Independence refracted through the wisdom of Catholic tradition. To properly rejoice in the return of the Catholic Church to the Christian view of religious freedom, it is worth contrasting it with the views attributed by Joyless Moralist to Thomas Aquinas and Augustine:
... a great many of the Doctors of the Church (among them Sts. Thomas and Augustine, the two giants of Catholic philosophy) condoned the use of physical force to punish/correct heretics under some circumstances... a heretic is a traitor and a breaker of promises. He is breaking commitments of fidelity that he made upon his original conversion. The subject of how children could be included in this is a complicated one, so for the moment just consider adult converts. Upon their baptism they accept the Church's teachings, and submit themselves to the authority of the Church. Promulgating heresy is somewhat akin to a knight deserting his liege after taking solemn vows that he will protect him to the death.
"The subject of how children could be included in this is a complicated one." Ahem. Lest the reader feel the need to take this view seriously merely because it is attached to the names of "giants of philosophy" (and bear in mind that Heidegger gave a speech in favor of the Nazi Party, Sartre visited Cuba, met with Fidel Castro, and supported Che Guevara and the French Communists, and Plato went to Sicily to support the tyrant Dionysus II, just to give some idea of the reliability of the political judgment of "giants of philosophy") consider that infant baptism was the universal practice in the Middle Ages. And cradle Catholics were certainly not exempted from the Inquisition! The view that an adult convert can be killed for changing his mind is wholly false and wholly evil, but perhaps not wholly absurd. But the idea that a babe in arms, baptized when it could not understand its name let alone the arcana of Trinitarian dogma, would be a breaker of promises for turning to heresy, is not an argument, but a fig-leaf of rationalization for the exercise of naked power. There is nothing "complicated" about it.
The hinted-at alternative view in which heresy could be justly punished only among consenting adult converts would never be promulgated by a church, because "Come be baptized, and if you decide to change your mind afterwards, we'll kill you," is not a way that any church interested in gaining new converts will behave. It is a church protecting its "market share" that wants to use coercion against heretics. It is precisely against those who were baptized when they could give no meaningful consent to submit to Church authority, who constituted virtually the entirety of the medieval population, that the Church wanted to use compulsion. In passing, it might be mentioned that a Church which used coercion only against adult converts and let cradle Catholics go free, would be in practice far closer to modern religious freedom than to the totalitarian ethos of the medieval Catholic Church. One wonders: was St. Thomas, who was already engaged in the risky business of placing a pagan sage, Aristotle, at the center of Catholic philosophy and had reason to choose his battles, really making an ironic argument, one that, while seeming to support coercion and thus not putting himself in the dock for heresy, actually logically applied only to a (then) almost irrelevant special case, while underlining the consensual basis that the Church ought to have? What if a Soviet intellectual in the 1940s were to make an argument that appeared to support Stalin but was in a fact only supported (unconvincingly) a single, marginal Stalinist policy, while affirming liberal principles contrary to the whole nature of Stalin's regime, what conclusions might we draw?
The only way I can regard this is that the real Catholic view, that is, the attitude to religious freedom that is consistent with Christianity even as Catholics understand it and have always understood it in serious and pious moments, is that which is expressed by Paul VI, but which in the Middle Ages was too dangerous to express? In the absence of freedom of thought, no one can be wholly truthful. Everyone is afraid of the stake and the rack; everyone watches his words. There have probably been thousands or millions of Catholics in Italy, France, and Spain over the centuries; there have no doubt been many great thinkers, and perhaps even cardinals and popes; who have known in their hearts that coercion in the name of faith was contrary to the teaching of Christ, but who did not dare to speak out lest they be burned for heresy; or perhaps, who have tried to speak out, but were consigned to the oubliettes of the Inquisition. American power and modern democratic liberalism finally freed Catholics like Pope Paul VI... to be Catholic.
Let us who have been blessed with freedom not judge those who lived in fear. And let us not sneer at the lateness of the Prodigal Son's return. As Jesus said:
For the kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into the vineyard.
About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace and doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'
'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.
He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman. 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'
The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour each came and received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?
So the last will be first and the first will be last. (Matthew 20: 1-16)
The eleventh-hour conversion of the Catholic Church to religious freedom is not to be disdained for its lateness, particularly since the Catholic Church today is perhaps the single most powerful force in the world for religious freedom and for freedom generally. In the past three decades, there has been a dramatic swing towards democracy in Catholic countries, and Pope John Paul II, whose visit to Poland in June 1979 sparked the "Solidarity" movement, may be the single person most responsible for bringing down communism in Poland and made the dominoes fall throughout eastern Europe. In doing so, he gave new breathing space to my own church, the Orthodox Church, a legacy of which I have no doubt he was and would continue to be proud, as ought every Catholic with a proper understanding of his, or her, faith.