Sunday, June 15, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - Compulsion of Belief

This could be considered a controversial issue (even though 8 centuries old), and I don't mean to suggest by presenting it here that I agree with St. Thomas about it. The Church does not.

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.


Anonymous said...

Is St. T. actually saying the apostate can be compelled to belief or that he should be treated as a tax evader or draft dodger?

I wonder if he is not talking more about those who, having fallen away, seek to take others with themseves rather than those who by some wakness or fault simply fall away?

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello anonymous,

It appears - so far as I can tell - that he meant that they should be compelled to believe. I suppose, if we start asking what that would look like, it would mean that heretics would be compelled to repent of their heresies, deny them, and to assent to the Faith, and similarly for apostates.

He says in ad 3 of the same article, "[K]eeping the faith, when once one has received it, is a matter of obligation. Wherefore heretics should be compelled to keep the faith."

I can imagine one way in which such means can be therapeutic: some folks, for example, might be prone to run off and do murder if there weren't laws that sternly punish it. Later, they cool off and realize that it would have been a terrible thing to do such evil. In the same way, I can imagine that such laws of compulsion might dissuade some from apostatizing or becoming heretics in a moment of weakness.

Nevertheless, I don't see how one gets around the double standard: how is it wrong to compel the will of the man who has never been a Christian, and yet it is not wrong to compel the will of the believer? This doesn't make sense to me, and it doesn't work with the analogy of murder above (for example): the unbeliever no less than the believer is forbidden to murder: hence in that respect we "compel the will" of the unbeliever. I'm willing to believe that the matter of Christian belief is different from murder - in that one is a question of natural law, while the other requires the grace of faith. So the two aren't really completely parallel. But I don't see how it's reasonable to not compel someone to make the initial step of belief, but it is reasonable to compel them to remain in it. It seems a contradiction to my small brain. In any case, the Magisterium doesn't agree with St. Thomas.