Church Fathers and Medieval Doctors on Religious Liberty

This is a compilation of passages from important Church figures before Vatican 2 on the topic of religious liberty. I wanted to make this compilation because I often hear people say that the Church changed its teaching on religious liberty at the Second Vatican Council, and I think that's not true. Hopefully, this post will help people see that our doctrine on religious liberty is an ancient part of the faith. BTW I'd love to add to this. Does anybody know of other early Catholic documents that can be used to defend religious liberty?

180 A.D. - Melito of Sardis criticized the Roman persecution which had been enacted against Christians, saying it is “not fit to be executed even against barbarian enemies.” By these words he showed that he did not think either Christians or pagans should be persecuted. This is a very pro-toleration principle. (Apology to the Emperor, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV, Chapter 26, Paragraph 6)

213 A.D. - Tertullian - “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us.” (Ad Scapulam, chapter 2)

308 A.D. - Lactantius - “Religion, being a matter of the will, cannot be forced on anyone. In this matter it is better to employ words than blows. Of what use is cruelty? What has the rack to do with piety? Surely there is no connection between truth and violence, between justice and cruelty.” (De Divinis Institutionibus 5, 10)

313 A.D. - The edict of Milan grants “to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each [has] preferred” so that both Christians and non-Christians may have “the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, [and so] that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases.”

450 A.D. Salvian said that heretics normally become heretics by believing falsely but in good faith, and therefore should be dealt with patiently. (On the Government of God, Book V)

597 A.D. - King Ethelbert of England learns from the Roman missionaries who converted him (including St. Augustine of Canterbury) that the Christians believe in religious freedom, and thus he does not coerce his subjects but lets them adopt Christianity freely: “Their conversion the king so far encouraged, as that he compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow­-citizens in the heavenly kingdom. For he had learned from his instructors and leaders to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion.” (Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, Chapter 26)

602 A.D. - Pope St. Gregory the Great - "Those who sincerely wish to lead people who stand outside the Christian religion into the proper faith should strive to do so by gentle means rather than by harsh means, lest adversity alienate the mind of those whom a reasonable argument would have been able to attract. For those who do otherwise and wish to force them, under such pretext, from the customary observance of their rite are seen clearly to attend to their own affairs more intently than those of God." (Letter to the Bishop of Naples as quoted in Dwayne Carpenter, Alfonso X and the Jews: An Edition of and Commentary on Siete Partidas 7.24 "De Los Judíos", Volume 115, [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986], 80.)

624 A.D. - St. Isidore of Seville criticizes King Sisebut regarding his religious policy: “At the beginning of his reign he forced the Jews into the Christian faith, indeed acting with zeal, ‘but not according to knowledge’ [Romans 10:2], for he compelled by force those who should have been called to the faith through reason.” (History of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi, 60–61, as translated in Kenneth-Baxter-Wolf, Conquerors and Chronicles of Early Medieval Spain (Liverpool 1990) 106–107.)

633 A.D. - The Fourth Council of Toledo decrees against religious intolerance: "No one should henceforth be forced to believe, [for] God hath mercy on whom he will and whom he will he hardeneth; such men should not be saved unwillingly but willingly, in order that the procedure of justice should be complete; for just as man perished obedient to the serpent out of his own free will, so will any man be saved—when called by the divine grace—by believing and in converting his own mind. They should be persuaded to convert, therefore, of their own free choice, rather than forced by violence." (Fourth Council of Toledo, Canon 57)

786 A.D. - Pope Adrian I - “[He] gave the Emperor [Charlemagne] wise counsel, asking him to let the priests regulate [the] penalties of conscience, for in such cases it is necessary to make allowance for the free consent of the will.” (Oportet sacerdotes partibus illis pastoralem circumdare vigilantiam, et in eorum arbitrio indicere poenitentiam, considerantes piaculum tarn voluntatis quam extra voluntatem coactis ad suum revertentis vomitum. Patrologia Latinae, XCVIII, 591; Historiens des Gaules, V, 568. As quoted in Mourret-Thompson. A History of the Catholic Church Volume 3. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co. 1946. p. 232 and footnote 23)

787 A.D. - St. Alcuin of York - “Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptised, but you cannot force them to believe.” He was confronting Charlemagne over his recent decision to force Saxon pagans to be baptized or be killed, and as a result of this confrontation Charlemagne abolished the death penalty for paganism (re: that, I think the author refers to a capitulary of 797 A.D. Wikipedia says of this capitulary: “[In it] Charlemagne shows less brutality and pronounces simple compositions for misdeeds which formerly entailed death.” A former capitulary of 782 was apparently much more brutal, because “death [was] the penalty for every offence against the Christian religion.” Says Wikipedia.) (Needham. Two Thousand Years of Christ's Power, Part Two: The Middle Ages. Grace Publications, 2000. p. 52.)

Alternate version of the above quote (I think it’s the same quote): “Faith is an act of the will and is not a forced act. Conscience may be appealed to, it must not be constrained by violence. Preachers, not brigands, should be sent to the Saxons.” (Patrologia Latinae, C, 205 f, as quoted in Mourret-Thompson. A History of the Catholic Church Volume 3. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co. 1946. p. 231-232)

827 A.D. - St. Abogard of Lyons - “Because [the Jews] live among us...we should not be wicked to them nor act contrary to their life, health, or wealth. ... We should be cautious or humane towards them, [and this] is not at all obscure but has been clearly expounded.” (The Insolence of the Jews)

866 A.D. - Pope Nicholas I - “Concerning those who refuse to receive the good of Christianity and sacrifice and bend their knees to idols, we can write nothing else to you than that you move them towards the right faith by warnings, exhortations, and reason rather than by force, proving that what they know in vain, is wrong. ... Furthermore, violence is never in any way to be inflicted upon them to make them believe. For whatever is not from an inner desire [ex voto], cannot be good.” (Ad consulta vestra, Response of Nicholas I to the Bulgarians)

1045 A.D. - Bishop Wazo of Liege - “The church should let dissent grow with orthodoxy until the Lord comes to separate and judge.” (Letter to Bishop Roger of Chalons)

1065 A.D. - Pope Alexander II - “Although We have no doubt it stems from the zeal of devotion that your Nobility arranges to lead Jews to the worship of seem to do it with a zeal that is inordinate. For we do not read that our Lord Jesus Christ violently forced anyone into his service, but that by humble exhortation, leaving to each person his own freedom of choice, he recalled from error whomsoever he had predestined to eternal life, doing so not by judging them, but by shedding his own blood. Likewise, the blessed Gregory forbids, in one of his letters, that the said people should be drawn to the faith by violence.” (Letter Licet ex to Prince Landolfo of Benevento)

~1150 A.D. - Gratian's Decree - "Those who sincerely wish to lead people who stand outside the Christian religion into the proper faith should strive to do so by gentle means rather than by harsh means, lest adversity alienate the mind of those whom a reasonable argument would have been able to attract. For those who do otherwise and wish to force them, under such pretext, from the customary observance of their rite are seen clearly to attend to their own affairs more intently than those of God." (Distinction 45 Causa 3, quoting Pope St. Gregory I, as quoted in Dwayne Carpenter, Alfonso X and the Jews: An Edition of and Commentary on Siete Partidas 7.24 "De Los Judíos", Volume 115, [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986], 80.)

1199 A.D. - Pope Innocent III - “We in fact decree that no Christian should compel [the Jews] by violence to come to baptism reluctantly or unwillingly; but if one of them of his own accord flees for refuge to Christians for the sake of the faith, after his wish is made known, he should without any abuse be made a Christian. For he who is known to come to the baptism of Christians, not spontaneously, but reluctantly is certainly not believed to have true faith in Christianity. ... Furthermore in the celebration of their feasts, let no one disturb them in any way.” (Constitution Licet perfidia Iudaeorum)

1201 A.D. - Pope Innocent III - “It is contrary to the Christian religion to force others to into accepting and practicing Christianity if they are always unwilling and totally opposed.” “The one who never consents and is absolutely unwilling receives neither the reality [rem] nor the character [characterem] of the sacrament because express dissent is something more than not consenting at all.” (Letter Maiores Ecclesiae causas to Archbishop Humbert of Arles)

1233 A.D. - Pope Gregory IX - “Christians must show towards Jews the same good will which we desire to be shown to Christians in pagan lands.” (Cf. Auvray, "Le régistre de Grégoire IX", n. 1216)

1272 A.D. - Pope Gregory X - “We decree moreover that no Christian shall compel [the Jews] or any one of their group to come to baptism unwillingly... [For whoever] is known to have come to Christian baptism not freely, but unwillingly, is not believed to posses the Christian faith.”

1274 A.D. - St. Thomas Aquinas - “[T]he heathens and the Jews...are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the [free] will.” (Summa Theologica II-II Question 10 Article 8)

And: “Christ's faithful...wage war with unbelievers, not indeed for the purpose of forcing them to believe, because even if they were to conquer them, and take them prisoners, they should still leave them free to believe, if they will.” (Summa Theologica II-II Question 10 Article 8)

And: “Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue.” [[Note: in classic Catholic theology, God doesn't prevent all evil because doing so would take away a greater good, that being man's free will.]] “Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred.” (Summa Theologica II-II Question 10 Article 11)

And: “[The] rites of [some] unbelievers...[may] be order to avoid an evil, e.g. the scandal or disturbance that might ensue, or some hindrance to the salvation of those who if they were unmolested might gradually be converted to the faith. For this reason the Church, at times, has tolerated the rites even of heretics and pagans...” (Summa Theologica II-II Question 10 Article 11)

1330 A.D. - Don Juan Manuel - “Christ never ordered that anyone should be killed or put under pressure in order to convert, for He does not wish for any obligatory service, only for that which is given voluntarily and with a good heart.” (Libro de Los Estados Book 1 Chapter 30)

1482 A.D. - Pope Sixtus IV condemned the violence of the Inquisitors, and intervened on behalf of the accused. He said: “In Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca, and Catalonia the Inquisition has for some time been moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls but by lust for wealth. Many true and faithful Christians, on the testimony of enemies, rivals, slaves, and other lower and even less proper persons, have without any legitimate proof been thrust into secular prisons, tortured and condemned as relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and property and handed over to the secular arm to be executed, to the peril of souls, setting a pernicious example, and causing disgust to many. ... Provoked by the complaints of many men against this, we desire to and are bound to provide that the office [of the Inquisition] itself is duly carried out by such means that no one is unnecessarily and unjustly harmed. ... In the example of [Jesus], whose vicar we are on earth (cujus vices gerimus in terris), not willing the death of sinners but rather desiring to restore their salvation, we choose to show mercy rather than to punish.” (Papal Bull Ad Perpetuam Rei Memoriam, reproduced in page 587 of Volume 1 of Henry Charles Lea’s “A History of the Inquisition of Spain.”)

1528 A.D. - St. Thomas More - “The fear of [the] outrages and mischiefs [which] follow upon [non-Catholic] sects and heresies, with the proof that men have had in some countries thereof, have been the cause that princes and people have been constrained to punish heresies by terrible death, whereas else more easy ways had been taken with them.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies, Part IV, Chapter 13)

And: “[The princes] never indeed [would have] fallen so sore to force and violence against heretics, [unless] the violent cruelty first used by the heretics themself against good catholic folk, [drove] good princes thereto.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies, Part IV, Chapter 13)

And: “[As] I said before, if the heretics had never begun with violence, though they had used all the ways they could to [attract] the people by preaching...yet if they had set violence aside, good Christian people [would have perhaps] yet unto this day used less violence toward them than they do now.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies, Part IV, Chapter 13)

And: “[For] in the beginning, never were [heretics] by any temporal punishment of their bodies anything sharply handled till that they began to be violent themself.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies, Part IV, Chapter 13)

And: “[Therefore] the order of the [ecclesiastical] law therein is both good, reasonable, piteous and charitable, and nothing desiring the death of any man therein.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies, Part IV, Chapter 13)

And: “[A]ll the sore punishment of heretics wherewith such folk as favour them would fain defame the clergy, is, and hath been, for the great outrages and temporal harms that such heretics have been alway wont to do, and seditious commotions that they be wont to make, beside the far passing spiritual hurts that they do to men's souls.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies, Part IV Chapter 18)

And: “[The severe punishments were] devised and executed against them of necessity by good Christian princes, and politic rulers of the temporalty, for as much as their wisdoms well perceived that the people should not fail to fall into many sore and intolerable troubles if such seditious sects of heretics were not by grievous punishment repressed in the beginning, and the sparcle (spark) well quenched ere it were suffered to grow to over great a fire.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies, Part IV Chapter 18)

1557 A.D. - Francisco de Vitoria - “[E]ven if [unbelievers] refuse to recognize any lordship of the Pope, that furnishes no ground for making war on them and seizing their property. … [And] even if the barbarians refuse to accept Christ as their lord, this does not justify making war on them or doing them any hurt. … The proof lies in the fact that belief is an operation of the will[, which is free].” (De Indis Book 4 Section 2 #7, #15)

And: “Our conclusion is also proved by the canon de Judaeis (can. 5, Dist. 45), which says: ‘The holy synod also enjoins concerning the Jews that thenceforth force be not applied to any of them to make him believe; “for God has compassion on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.”’ There is no doubt about the doctrine of the Council of Toledo, that threats and fears should not be employed against the Jews in order to make them receive the faith. And Gregory expressly says the same in the canon qui sincera (can. 3, Dist. 45): ‘Who with sincerity of purpose,’ says he, ‘desires to bring into the perfect faith those who are outside the Christian religion should labor in a manner that will attract and not with severity; ... for whosoever does otherwise and under cover of the latter would turn them from their accustomed worship and ritual is demonstrably furthering his own end thereby and not God's end.’ ” (ibid.)

1608 A.D. - Robert Persons - “[Consider] the grievous sin which they commit, who force, and press other men to swear against their consciences, then which, almost nothing can be imagined more heinous: for it is to thrust men headlong (especially such as are fearful) into the very precipitation and downfall of hell itself. ... For he that [would] force a Jew, or Turk to swear, that there [is] a blessed Trinity, either knowing or suspecting that they would do it against their Conscience, [would] sin grievously, by forcing them to commit that sin. This is Catholic doctrine, which I also think the learned Protestants themselves will not deny.” (The Judgment of a Catholic Englishman Living in Banishment for his Religion Section 1 Paragraph 35)

~1612 A.D. - Martin Becan, the religious advisor of Emperor Ferdinand II, argues, in the words of Cardinal Gibbons, that “[A Catholic] ruler may [legitimately] enter into a compact [which] secure[s] to his subjects...freedom in religious matters; and when once a compact [like this] is made it must be observed absolutely in every point, just as every other lawful and honest contract.” (Becanus, de Virtutibus Theologicis, c. 16, quaest. 4, No. 2, as cited in Gibbons, Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter XXX)

1613 A.D. - Francisco Suarez - “[A]venging misdeeds pertains per se only to civil magistrates insofar [as] these are contrary to the peace of the republic and human justice; but [the right] to coerce [people] as [far] they are contrary to religion and the salvation of the soul [belongs] per se to the [Church].” (Defense of the Catholic Faith Book 3 Chapter 23 Paragraph 19)

1634 A.D. - The state of Maryland is founded by Catholics with the express purpose of being a safe-haven where religious liberty will be respected.

1687 A.D. - The Catholic King James II issues the Declaration of Indulgence, granting religious liberty in England for both Catholics and Protestants. He states: “we think [the happiness of our subjects] can be [secured] by no means so effectually as by granting to them the free exercise of their religion for the time to come…[for] it is and has of long time been our constant sense and opinion (which upon divers occasions we have declared) that conscience ought not to be constrained…” (Declaration of Indulgence)

1689 A.D. - In this year the relation to France by Venier is published. It explains how, after the King of France revoked religious toleration for Protestants, and began to persecute them, Blessed Pope Innocent IX testified that the Church opposes religious violence, writing, “It was not of such methods that Christ availed himself: men must be led to the temple, not dragged into it.” (Venier, Relatione di Francia, 1689, as quoted in Ranke, History of the Popes Book VIII Section 16) The relation further states: “[T]he pope took it ill that this should have been undertaken without his consent, and conducted with the severities so well known, declaring that missions of armed apostles were not advisable; [and] that this new method was not the best, since Christ had not used such for the conversion of the world.”

~1701 A.D. - After the deposition of King James II, the last Catholic king of England, Bishop Fenelon advises James the Pretender to respect the religious liberty of his subjects: “Above all, never force your subjects to change their religion. No human power can reach the impenetrable recess of the free will of the heart. Violence can never persuade men; it serves only to make hypocrites. ... Grant civil liberty to all, not in approving every thing as good, nor regarding everything as indifferent, but in tolerating with patience whatever Almighty God tolerates, and endeavoring to convert men by mild persuasion.”

1758 A.D. - Pope Clement XIII - “[Scripture] says: Love is patient and does not take offense and is not resentful. From this, we should clearly understand that where love is absent, there reigns...malice...proud contempt…[and] intolerance… The love of the bishop considers it a crime to burn with anger. [For] the man led astray by harmful desires [is not] an enemy...[but] a brother... [C]oax...him, encourag[e] him, and warn...[ing] him back from error and lead[ing] him back to the path of righteousness. ... [But let] severity abstain from every affront.” (A Quo Die)

1789 A.D. - John Carroll is appointed the first bishop of the United States and was a great promoter of religious liberty:
"Under all these distressful feelings, one consideration alone relieved me in writing; and that was the hope of vindicating our religion to your own selves at least, and preserving the steadfastness of your faith. But even this prospect should not have induced me to engage in the controversy, if I could fear that it would disturb the harmony now subsisting amongst all Christians in this country, so blessed with civil and religious liberty; which if we have the wisdom and temper to preserve, America may come to exhibit a proof to the world, that general and equal toleration, by giving a free circulation to fair argument, is the most effectual method to bring all denominations of Christians to an unity of faith.” (Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of America)
~1836 A.D. - Archbishop John Hughes - “the Catholic Church cuts off from her communion those who reject her Doctrines. ... But [when] Catholic France and Catholic Poland made all religions equal [under the law]...there was no excommunication; because, in the exercise of civil sovereignty, they had the right to do so, and because, in so doing, they violated no doctrine of the Catholic Church.” (A Discussion of the Question, Is the Roman Catholic Religion, in Any pr in All its Principles or Doctrines, Inimical to Civil or Religious Liberty? Negative 3.)

And: “Catholics can be the most strenuous promoters of both civil and religious liberty, without violating any doctrine of their creed. … [If] there were any doctrine, in the Catholic Church, opposed to civil and religious liberty, it would be heresy to advocate the principles of civil and religious liberty. Now, this principle has been advocated by Catholic individuals and Catholic nations, and in this they have never been accused of violating any doctrine of their religion. France is certainly a Catholic nation; and yet [in France] all religions are equal [under the law]. Poland is a Catholic country; and yet Catholic Poland has always been conspicuous among the nations for its advocacy of civil and religious liberty. If, therefore, Catholic nations and individuals can be, and have been, the advocates of civil and religious liberty, it follows that the most unbounded freedom, both political and religious, is perfectly compatible with the principles and doctrines of the Catholic religion.” (A Discussion of the Question, Is the Roman Catholic Religion, in Any or in All its Principles or Doctrines, Inimical to Civil or Religious Liberty? Negative 2.)

And: “[The Church] claims to be ‘infallible.’ If she teach as ‘a Tenet Of Faith Or Morals Revealed By Almighty God’ that ‘civil and religious liberty,’ or either of them, is sinful, then I am bound as a Catholic to believe accordingly, and I [would] be guilty of heresy were I to deny it. … [Some] Catholics...have opposed civil and religious liberty...and other[s]...have advocated [it]; [our] doctrines leaving [us] at perfect liberty to exercise [our] own discretion in the matter. … [The] Catholic colony of Maryland…[was] the first to teach the Puritans of New England, and the bigots of the world, that no human authority has a right to interpose between the conscience of man and his God... All this proves that there is no doctrine in the Catholic creed opposed to ‘civil and religious liberty,’ and it proves that no such doctrine can ever become a portion of that creed, which would forfeit its claims to infallibility, the moment it should teach as a ‘tenet revealed by Almighty God,’ any article that had not been taught and believed from the beginning of Christianity.” (A Discussion of the Question, Is the Roman Catholic Religion, in Any or in All its Principles or Doctrines, Inimical to Civil or Religious Liberty? Negative 2.)

1875 A.D. - Bl. John Henry Newman - “I say frankly I do not see how [religious conformity] could possibly be maintained in [modern times]. When the intellect is cultivated, it is...certain that it will develop into a thousand various shapes…[especially] in matters of religion... During the last seventy years, first one class of the community, then another, has awakened up to thought and opinion. ... This brought on a dead-lock in [religious matters]. The ministry of the day could not agree together in the policy or justice of keeping up [religious conformity]... No government could be formed [today], if religious unanimity was a [requirement]. What then was to be done? As a necessary consequence, [religious conformity] came to pieces and went the way of all flesh. This was in the nature of things. Not a hundred Popes could have hindered it... The Pope has denounced the sentiment that he ought to come to terms with ‘progress, liberalism, and the new civilization.’ I have no thought at all of disputing his words. I leave the great problem to the future. God will guide other Popes to act when Pius goes, as He has guided him. ... [In] centuries to come, there may be found out some way of uniting what is free in the new structure of society with what is authoritative in the old, without any base compromise with ‘Progress’ and ‘Liberalism.’ ” (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk Section 6)

1876 A.D. - Archbishop Gibbons - “A man enjoys religious liberty when he possesses the free right of worshiping God according to the dictates of a right conscience, and of practicing a form of religion most in accordance with his duties to God. Every act infringing on his freedom of conscience is justly styled religious intolerance. This religious liberty is the true right of every man because it corresponds with a most certain duty which God has put upon him. … [The] Catholic Church has always been the zealous promoter of religious and civil liberty… [W]henever any encroachments on these sacred privileges of man were perpetrated by professing members of the Catholic faith, these wrongs, far from being sanctioned by the Church, were committed in palpable violation of her authority. … Her doctrine is, that as man by his own free will fell from grace, so of his own free will must he return to grace. Conversion and coercion are two terms that can never be reconciled.” (Faith of Our Fathers Chapter 17)

1885 A.D. - Pope Leo XIII - “[No] one should accuse the Church of being wanting in gentleness of action or largeness of view, or of being opposed to real and lawful liberty. ... [R]ulers [may], for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, allow...each kind of religion [to have] its place in the State. And, in fact, the Church is wont to take earnest heed that no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will, for, as St. Augustine wisely reminds us, ‘Man cannot believe otherwise than of his own will.’ ” (Immortale Dei 36)

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