Coercive power of the Catholic Church

679. In your booklet, “I Must Obey the Church”, Radio Replies Press, St. Paul, Minn., you even claim coercive power for your Church. You say: “There must be coercive power, a power to prevent continuance in what has been judged to be wrong conduct.”

To that statement, rightly understood, no reasonable person could object. Every definite society, so long as it remains a definite society, must claim the right, not only to have its rules and regulations, but to insist upon their observance. And that right means coercive power. Were I, as a priest, to behave scandalously, giving public disedification by my conduct, would you hold that the Church should just be passive, making no effort to stop me from continuing in such evil conduct? Are there to be no canonical penalties which the Bishop could impose upon a recalcitrant priest? Has he not the right to bid me reform or be expelled from the Church? Yet to speak to me in such a way is to exercise coercive power. Laws without any power to enforce them would not be laws at all, but only optional advice.

680. Had you said that the State should have coercive power to enforce its own laws I would agree.

You at least see the necessity of civil society possessing the coercive power to enforce the observance of civil law.

681. But you have in mind religious matters, and to that I cannot agree.

That is because you do not believe in the necessity of the Church as an organized religious society. That is the problem we need to discuss before discussing consequences which presuppose it; and for that I must refer you to earlier chapters in this book. But granted that God chooses to act through the organized religious society established by His Divine Son, that society must have the religious power to insist upon the observance of its laws; and that means coercive power in the spiritual order, even as the State has coercive power in the temporal order.

682. To my way of thinking, coercion destroys the very essence of Christianity. It denies our freedom to choose or reject God’s laws, with the assurance of reward or punishment in the next world.

As regards our freedom to choose or reject God’s laws, it is necessary yo distinguish between physical and moral freedom. We may be physically free to violate God’s laws, but we are not morally free to do so. As for coercion, in her efforts to secure the observance of God’s laws, the Church relies upon moral coercion. Moral coercion can always be ignored if the person concerned lacks sufficient faith or goodwill to be impressed by it. For example when, back in the 1940’s, the Princess of Bourbon-Parma contemplated marrying King Michael of Rumania, the Catholic authorities warned her that if she, a Catholic, did not marry according to Catholic rites, but accepted the rites of the schismatic Orthodox Church to which King Michael belonged, she would put herself into a state of excommunication from the Church. That was moral coercion. She chose to ignore it; and the Church merely tells her that hers is the responsibility. She was not physically forced, either to obey the laws of the Church, or yield to the dread of the penalties in the spiritual order which their violation involved.

683. I think I heard you yourself say once that, whilst God gives sufficient grace to enable a Catholic to remain faithful to the Church, He Himself will force no man to be steadfast.

That should have been sufficient to show you that when I speak of the coercive power of the Church I am not speaking of physical force, but of moral persuasion. Coercion can have many meanings. A coercive argument is one that carries weight; yet it has no suggestion of physical violence. So, too, a coercive motive is one calculated to induce a person to choose a given line of conduct.

684. Your Church evidently owes more to the teachings of Paul than to those of Christ.

Any idea that St. Paul taught any other doctrine than that of Christ, or differed from Him in spirit, is quite unfounded. Christ Himself, of course, used physical force when He drove the money-changers from the temple with a lash. But He never commissioned His Apostles to adopt such measures. Still St. Paul knew that he had the right to speak with divine authority and to command obedience under penalty of the divine displeasure. When he wrote to the Corinthians: “If I come again I will not spare” (II Cor., XIII, 2), he had in mind, not physical, but moral coercion; though he hoped the Corinthians would rectify their laxity themselves without compelling him to act by official rebukes in the name of Christ and of the Church. His claim to possess such moral and spiritual coercive power was a departure neither from the teachings nor from the spirit of Christ.

685. The idea I get is that your Church is a dictatorship, not a democracy.

You have strange ideas if you imagine that the Church established by Christ ought to be a democracy. The democratic idea may be al I right in politics, where we are dealing with the relations of humai j beings with one another. But religion concerns the relations of humarl beings with God, and those relations cannot be on a democratic basis God is not a kind of political official elected by the people to be the representative! He is the Supreme Creator and Lord, to whose will we are necessarily subject and against whom we have no rights. And the Catholic Church is a society in which all without exception, including the Pope himself, are subject to the will of God.

686. Why should there be so much compulsion attached to religion as Catholics understand it?

Religion teaches us, not only what we should know about God and our relationships with Him, but also what God wills that we should do. In other words, it dictates both our belief and our behavior within certain defined limits. This religious control is not by physical compulsion, but by moral obligation. And any man who has a religion at all is conscious that it imposes certain moral obligations upon him. If not, then one who professes a religion has no religion in reality, but merely some speculative ideas about religion – which is a very different thing. A man who really believes that he is a creature of God must believe that the Creator has the right to dictate how the creature should behave; and the ten commandments do not wring from him the protest that no compulsion should be attached to religion. A religion without moral obligations is not a religion.

687. I am a writer by profession, but if I became a Catholic I would not be allowed to publish opinions which conflicted with Catholic traditions.

If, directly or indirectly, your statements of opinion implied a denial of the Faith, or were calculated to do harm to the faith or morals of others, you would be forbidden to publish them. And as a loyal Catholic you would accept the authoritative directions of the Church. If you were not sufficiently loyal to do so, the authorities of the Church would have to weigh the gravity of the matter involved in order to decide whether you could continue to be acknowledged as a Catholic or not.

688. Shortly after Alfred Noyes, a convert to the Roman Church, published his book “Voltaire” some years ago, Rome condemned it and forbade its circulation.

When that book was first published, some prominent Catholics in England thought its thesis disloyal to the Church and calculated to do harm to the Faith. Reports were sent to Rome and there it was decreed that the book should not be circulated until harmful conclusions in it were corrected. Mr. Noyes declared that his critics had misunderstood him and undertook to write a new preface explaining his purpose and removing grounds for misunderstanding. This was accepted and all was well. The original decree by Rome was a purely disciplinary measure to which only the man who repudiates all authority and discipline would object.

689. Perhaps such treatment gave Mr. Noyes food for thought about his conversion.

It certainly elicited from him no slightest expression of regret that he had become a Catholic. It probably occasioned for him the exercise of the Christian virtues of humility and patience, but he is as enthusiastic a Catholic as ever, still convinced that for anyone who wants the Christian religion in all its fullness it is to be found in the Catholic Church only. But your concern is to get the Catholic Faith yourself instead of worrying as to whether Mr. Noyes might lose it. If you did get it you would see that it made no difference to you whether Mr. Noyes lost it or not, except of course to pray that he might recover it if he did lose it. A Catholic does not say: “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church because Mr. Noyes believes in it.”

690. Why are Catholics forbidden to read or do so many things?

That is too vague and general for precise treatment. Possibly you object to a religion imposing any obligations on anybody. If so, it would be necessary to discuss the question as to whether Christ intended His Church to have any authority to teach and to regulate the conduct of its members or not. If you do not think so, then the rules and regulations of the Catholic Church will necessarily puzzle you; and they will continue to puzzle you until you are convinced that Christ did mean His Church to be our guide in religious and moral matters.

691. Are not Catholics competent or free to judge for themselves?

In some things, yes; in other things, no. And that same reply applies to everybody, including yourself. You are not competent to judge for yourself in all religious or moral matters any more than you would be competent to judge for yourself in all medical or legal matters. If, when it was necessary, you insisted on ignoring all medical or legal advice, thinking yourself competent to manage for yourself in such matters, you would soon fall into costly mistakes. As for our freedom, that is necessarily restricted by religion, not physically, but morally. I feel quite sure that you yourself feel obliged to observe God’s commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Although you are physically free to violate that law, you do not feel morally free to do so. In the same way, Catholics do not feel morally free to violate the laws of God as manifested in the legislation of the Catholic Church. You may say that that would be right if indeed the laws of the Catholic Church are manifestations of the will of God. That again forces us back to the question of the authority of the Catholic Church. Has it, or has it not, a divine authority in its legislation?

692. There are laws enjoining celibacy on the clergy, regulating marriage, forbidding meat on Fridays, obliging attendance at Mass on Sundays, compelling the reception of Communion and confession at least once a year, prohibiting Catholics from being Communists, and many other such laws.

The particular law does not really matter for the purposes of your argument, for you are opposed to any legislative power of the Church at all. But if the words of Christ: “Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also, in heaven” (Matt., XVI, 19) are not clear authority for the actual making of laws, what are they? Either Christ then gave the power to make laws as they seemed good or necessary, or His words were simply meaningless.

693. Why are Catholics themselves so afraid of their priests? A Catholic neighbor told me that if they did not go to Mass the priest would soon be after them.

Your suggestion there, of course, is that Catholics go to Mass, not1 because they fear to be wanting in their duties to the God they love, but only because they stand in craven fear of tyrannical priests. That is quite wrong. Naturally, if Catholics grow careless and do not fulfil the duties of their religion, any true priest will be concerned about their neglect and will do his best to bring them to better dispositions. He will visit them, plead with them, warn them that they are offending God and doing harm to their own souls. But a priest is not a “Dracula” or a “Franken-1 stein.” I am a priest, an ordinary typical priest, yet never have I seen in .j any Catholic, good, bad or indifferent, any least sign of dread in my j presence.

694. No Catholic dares to disagree with anything any priest says or does.

That is not true. If any priest says anything opposed to the teachings of the Catholic Church, or behaves in a way forbidden by the laws of the Church, no Catholic is obliged to approve of what he says or does. In fact, he is obliged not to do so, and may even be obliged to report that priest to his Bishop. Of course Catholics, as well as others, are obliged not to judge rashly that a priest’s conduct is wrong; and truth as well as charity forbids them to invent or exaggerate faults attributed unjustly to others. The conviction that God Himself will punish sins of that kind is more than justified.

695. How do you account for the widespread fear of the Roman Catholic Church on the part of so many non-Catholics?

The chief causes of such fear are really insufficient knowledge, false information, and inherited prejudices whether conscious or unconscious. You must remember that all forms of Protestantism are essentially a protest against the Catholic Church. The basic platform of them all is opposition to the claim of the Catholic Church to be the one true Church. Is it surprising that Protestantism should feel it necessary to dispose its adherents against the Catholic Church? And we all know how the will to discredit another very easily gives rise to misrepresentation, detraction and calumny. In our own days, also, totalitarian States, whether Fascist or Communist, have flooded the world with propaganda against the Catholic Church. Such States want complete control of their people, body and soul. The very insistence of the Catholic Church that there is a higher authority than their own, that of God, is sufficient to enkindle their enmity. So Hitler did all he could td discredit the Catholic Church and boasted that he would destroy it from the land. And Communists, opposed to all religion, have concentrated their attacks upon the Catholic Church as being the foremost defender of the rights of God and of religion. And only too many, with no sympathy at all for the cause of Communism, have been affected by such propaganda, and have been filled with an unreasonable dread of Rome.

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