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Cardinal Ottaviani Responds to George Weigel

Peter Crenshaw POSTED: May 30, 2013


In his latest column, Neo-Catholic luminary, George Weigel, presents his thesis that the once Traditional Catholic doctrine — “error has no rights” — has now been adopted by the leftist political state and is the cause of Christian persecution in Western democracies. Conclusion: Cardinal Ottaviani, staunch defender of this Catholic teaching, is having a subdued and sorrowful “last laugh” recognizing the irony and tragic consequences of his own outmoded Pre-VCII thinking on Church/State relations.  While there is a lot of irony in Mr. Weigel’s column, the tragedy is in the fact that Weigel fails to grasp it.

To his credit, Weigel does a good job of capturing Cardinal Ottaviani’s prediction of the fruits of  Vatican II style “religious liberty”:

As a legal scholar considering the future of society, Ottaviani’s fear was that religious freedom would result in religious indifference and then a collapse of religious conviction, which would in turn lead to state hostility toward religious believers and religious institutions.

Can anyone doubt that the Cardinal’s prediction has come to pass?

Furthermore, this tragic sequence of events was not simply the personal “fear” of Cardinal Ottaviani. These consequences were well known as the fruit of going down this path for centuries.  Pope Gregory XVI saw clearly what this idea had in store for society back in 1832, stating:

This most putrid font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous view or rather insanity, that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. "But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error," as Augustine was wont to say. When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. Then truly "the bottomless pit" is open from which John saw smoke ascending which obscured the sun, and out of which locusts flew forth to devastate the earth. Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws--in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty.[1]

Weigel then attempts to demonstrate how what “appeared” to be Catholic pre-VCII teaching on the matter for centuries, namely that “error has no rights”, was neatly corrected by Vatican II:

[Ottaviani’s] theological argument against religious freedom, widely held in the Roman universities of the day, rested on the proposition that “error has no rights.” The council’s response to that claim was that persons have rights, whether their religious opinions be erroneous or not, and that, in any event, states lack theological competence.

Yet, Cardinal Ottaviani himself anticipated and eloquently refuted this response in 1953, twelve years before Dignitatis Humanae was published:

The objection is made, “almost all of those who up until now have tried to mediate and to examine the problem of ‘religious pluralism,’ have run up against a dangerous axiom, the statement that truth alone has rights while error has none. As a matter of fact all agree today that this axiom is misleading, not because we want to recognize any rights as belonging to error, but simply because we agree on this fundamental truth, that neither error nor truth, which are abstractions, are the objects of rights, are capable of having rights, that is of engendering mutual duties between person to person.”

It seems to me, on the contrary, that the fundamental truth consists rather in this: that the rights in question have very well as their subjects those individuals who find themselves in possession of the truth; and that other individuals cannot demand the same rights by title of the error they profess.

And, in the encyclicals we have cited, it appears that the first Subject of these rights is God Himself. From this it follows that only they who obey His commands and who possess His truth and His justice have true rights.[2]

Weigel then goes on to make the startling revelation that modern democracies seem to now be adopting the Traditional Catholic doctrine of “error has no rights” and using it to take rights away from the Church. What Weigel fails to grasp is that the maxim, “error has no rights” is just that; a maxim. A maxim is defined as a general or fundamental truth. It is a reality. “Error”, if it is to have any meaning at all, means those ideas and beliefs contrary to the Catholic Faith. Thus, modern democracies are not using “error has no rights” as their battle cry at all. Instead their motto can be summed up as “Truth has no rights.”

Every type of error, on the other hand, has a legal right to be heard in these states. This should not come as a shock to Weigel, as it is the natural eventual consequence of his notion of “religious freedom” or what Pius IX more properly referred to as “the freedom of perdition.” Cardinal Ottaviani demonstrated the real-life consequences of this doctrine in 1953, presciently giving the example of the “religious freedom” policies of the then Soviet Union. See if the following sounds familiar:

Article 124 of Stalin’s constitution, promulgated in 1936, and intimately connected with the law of religious associations of the years 1929 and 1932, reads as follows:

“To the end that the citizens may be assured freedom of conscience, the Church is separated from the state and the school from the Church. Freedom of religious profession and freedom of antireligious propaganda are recognized for all the citizens.”

Leaving aside the offense committed against God, against all religion, and against the consciences of believers, in the Constitution’s guarantee of complete freedom for antireligious propaganda which is exercised in the most licentious manner, it will be a good thing to bring out clearly the nature of that famous liberty of faith guaranteed by the Bolshevistic law.

The existing norms that regulate the exercise of cults were put together in the law of May 18, 1929, which interprets the corresponding article of the 1918 constitution, and in the spirit of article 124 of the present constitution was formed. This denies all possibility of religious propaganda and guarantees only antireligious propaganda. As far as worship itself is concerned, this is inside only the Church buildings. All possibility of religious formation is forbidden, whether by way of discourses or through the press, in journals, books, pamphlets, and the like. All social and charitable initiative is blocked, and the organizations that are inspired by these ideals are deprived of every fundamental right to expend themselves for the well-being of their neighbors.

In proof of all of this, it is enough to read the summary explanation of this condition of affairs given by a Soviet Russian, Orleansky, in his work on “The Laws on Religious Association in the Socialist, Federal, Soviet, Russian Republic.”

“Liberty of religious profession means that the action of believers in the profession of their own religious dogmas is limited to the believers sphere itself, and is considered as bound up strictly with the religious worship of one or the other of the religions tolerated in our state….Consequently, all propagandistic or hortative activity on the part of churchmen or of religious – and a fortiori of missionaries – cannot be considered as activity permitted to them by the laws on religious associations, but is considered as going beyond the bounds of the religious freedom protected by the laws. It becomes, therefore, the object of penal and civil laws, insofar as it is opposed to these laws.”

Indeed, the Catholic Church has always recognized the maxim “error has no rights”, until recently, as a self-evident proposition. If a state refuses to protect truth and suppress error and instead gives each individual the right to both publicly propagate error and publicly propagate truth, evil results.  As Pope Gregory XVI explains:

We are horrified to see what monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors are disseminated far and wide in countless books, pamphlets, and other writings which, though small in weight, are very great in malice. We are in tears at the abuse which proceeds from them over the face of the earth. Some are so carried away that they contentiously assert that the flock of errors arising from them is sufficiently compensated by the publication of some book which defends religion and truth. Every law condemns deliberately doing evil simply because there is some hope that good may result. Is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available and those who use it may be snatched from death again and again?[3]

Yet this crazed ideology, that which Pope Gregory refers to as an “insanity” is exactly what Mr. Weigel persists in defending. He does so, even as the results of this insanity play out before his eyes. Ironically, the same day Mr. Weigel’s column hit the press, the Holy See released a statement warning that prejudice against Christianity is growing in Europe, often under the guise of “tolerance.” This, despite the fact that these states have embraced the very ”religious freedom” Weigel  has promoted for some time. The Holy See’s recent statement, demonstrates where this concept has taken Europe:

Bishop Toso pointed to severe restrictions on Christian speech and conscience that “can become the grounds of a criminal complaint, or at least intolerance, in many European countries.” He also noted an increase in vandalism and acts of violence against Christians and Christian institutions. The bishop warned that discrimination against Christians is as great a threat to society as anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia. He called it “remarkable” that in the 21st Century, Christians are faced with having to “abandon their faith and act against their conscience, or resist and face losing their livelihood.”[4]

In the final analysis, Weigel fails to come at the question of Church and State relations from a truly Catholic perspective. Weigel starts, as John Courtney Murray before him, from the perspective of an agnostic state with no duty to true religion, and a populous of confused citizens all asserting and ascribing to different religious creeds, or no religion at all. He looks at this issue from the perspective of the individual in such a state who should have a natural “right” to express publicly whatever his conscience believes to be true. Thus he looks at this issue from the perspective of the rights of man.

What Weigel fails to do, is to look at this issue from the perspective of the rights of God; a God who is Lord not only of individuals, but of societies and governments; a God whose Son is due worship and recognition by these societies and governments; and a God who demands that these governments protect the faithful entrusted to them from pernicious error.  

As Cardinal Ottaviani stated:

I have said, first of all, that the State has the duty of professing its religion socially. Men united socially are no less subject to God than when they are taken as individuals, and the civil society, no less than individual men, is in God’s debt, “under Whom, as Author, it is gathered together, by whose power it is preserved, by whose goodness it has received the great treasure of good things which it enjoys.”

Thus, as it is not licit for any individual to fail in his duty to God and to the religion by which God wills to be honored, in the same way, “states cannot, without serious moral offense (citra scelus) conduct themselves as if God were non-existent or cast off the care of religion as something foreign to themselves or of little moment.”

Pius XII reinforces this teaching condemning “the error contained in conceptions such as do not hesitate to absolve civil authority from all dependence upon the Supreme Being, the First Cause, and the Absolute Master both of men and of society, and from every bond of transcendent law which proceeds from God as from its primary Source, and that concede to civil authority an unlimited power of action, a power left to the ever changing wave or whims or to the sole restraints of contingent historical exigencies and of relative interests.”

And continuing, the august Pontiff shows what consequences, disastrous also for the liberty and the rights of man, flow from this error. “When the authority of God and the power of His law have been thus denied, the civil power, by a necessary consequence, tents to attribute to itself that absolute autonomy which belongs only to the Creator, and to substitute itself for the Omnipotent, raising the State or the collectivity to be the supreme end of life, the supreme norm of the moral and juridical order.”


[1] Gregory XVI, in "Mirari vos" of August 15, 1832 DS 2730, paragraph 14.

[2] Ottaviani, Cardinal Alfredo, CHURCH AND STATE: SOME PRESENT PROBLEMS IN THE LIGHT OF THE TEACHING OF POPE PIUS XII, American Ecclesiastical Review, May 1953, pages 321-334

[3] Gregory XVI, in "Mirari vos" of August 15, 1832 DS 2730, paragraph 15.


[5] Ottaviani, Cardinal Alfredo, CHURCH AND STATE: SOME PRESENT PROBLEMS IN THE LIGHT OF THE TEACHING OF POPE PIUS XII, American Ecclesiastical Review, May 1953, pages 321-334

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