Should unbelievers be compelled to become Christians?
It is written (Luke 14:23): "Go out into the highways and hedges; and compel them to come in." Now men enter into the house of God, i.e. into Holy Church, by faith. Therefore some ought to be compelled to the faith (ST II-II Q10 A8).An important word there is "some".
Among unbelievers there are some who have never received the faith, such as the heathens and the Jews: and these are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will...Those who have never believed must not be compelled to do so. One must will to believe - he must want to do so - and this cannot be compelled. So the attempt would be futile. This is not to say that it hasn't been tried: Charlemagne did, for example.
But St. Thomas says that some in fact may be compelled. Who? Apostates and heretics.
On the other hand, there are unbelievers who at some time have accepted the faith, and professed it, such as heretics and all apostates: such should be submitted even to bodily compulsion, that they may fulfil what they have promised, and hold what they, at one time, received.Now on the one hand I can understand the principle behind what he says here, which is that people ought to honor the promises and vows and commitments that they make. And to one extent or another we do this even today: men are obliged to fulfill the contracts they make, for example. And it's no good for us to say in complaint against St. Thomas that in all likelihood the heretics and apostates he would compel only made their promises at baptism as infants. This is certainly true, but I am an American citizen by birth, and I am perfectly liable for fulfilling the responsibilities of a citizen even if I never agreed to them myself as an adult. It's not an excuse for tax evasion, for example, nor for evading the draft (if we have one again), to complain, "I never agreed to be a citizen." By the same token it would be unfair to St. Thomas to criticize his view on the grounds that those whom he would compel had only made their promises by means of infant baptism.
Nevertheless, I think that with respect to the faith St. Thomas overlooks something: namely, that (as he says) "belief depends upon the will." But if this is the case for those who have never been Christian, it is the same for the Christian as well. How then can it be that St. Thomas accepts that the will cannot be compelled when the man in question is a heathen, but he is perfectly willing to compel the will of the heretic? This seems to me to be a contradiction, and I don't see how he can have it both ways.
I think it ought to be said that this must be distinguished from a somewhat similar question - namely, the question of the supremacy of the conscience. To concede that a man may not be forced to be a Christian is not the same as granting that his conscience is some sort of ultimate measure of the truth above even the Church. No. But that's a subject for another day and another post. For our purposes today, the important thing to notice is: granting the fact that one cannot be forced to believe something he doesn't wish to believe is not the same as saying that his conscience is supreme. If I am going to be Catholic, I'm obliged to believe what the Church teaches. I have no right to say I'm Catholic while disbelieving anything that the Church proposes for belief. But no one can force me to believe anything against my will.