Freedom of conscience and the importance of the search

John Paul, in Redemptor hominis, asserted that “Actuation of this right [right to religious freedom] is one of the fundamental tests of man’s authentic progress in any regime, in any society, system or milieu.” §17 He speaks from historic and personal experience when he says: “the curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but it is above all an attack on man’s very dignity, independently of the religion professed or of the concept of the world which these individuals and communities have.”

            John Paul II emphasizes that aspect of conscience characterized by “seeking.” The human person must be free to seek the truth and to appropriate it. Without freedom of conscience, one is not able to exercise this deeper part of oneself. One is locked into the formation of childhood or the on-going propaganda of the state. One is pressured by the means of social communication and the advertizing of commercial interests. It is good to recognize the freedom of conscience so that the initiative and spontaneity of the mind, will and heart may press forward to seek the truth.

For in the modern world, the person is denied any such fulfillment according to its ideologies and its dominant practices. Totalitarian ideologies and pressures of conformity in liberal society both lead to an openness to search. Tocqueville said “It is safe to foresee that trust in common opinion will become a sort of religion, with the majority as its prophet . . . and democracy might extinguish that freedom of the mind which a democratic social condition favors. Thus it might happen that, having broken down all of the bonds which classes or men formerly imposed on it, the human spirit might bind itself in tight fetters to the general will of the greatest number.” The Church must push back against this closing of the mind.

John Paul finds the Augustinian core of his message here, and he cites him in this section 18: “Our heart is restless until its rests in you.” And thus John Paul II can turn to the human person and see a “creative restlessness” that “beats and pulsates” with what is most deeply human: “the search for truth, the insatiable need for the good, hunger for freedom, nostalgia for the beautiful, and the voice of conscience.” The Church will stimulate and encourage active seeking of the truth and see in the restlessness various signs of the times for which the gospel will be proposed as an answer. 

In a way this argument for religious freedom appeals to what is subjective (the native powers of the soul) and to what is inherently skeptical (zetetic). These are the very things which a dogmatic and institutional religion could well find a threat or antithetical to its existence, and the very things championed by Locke and Voltaire. But the with such an appeal to the subjective powers and skeptical search arises only if there were no hope in truth or no intuition of the good. It depends upon the presuppositions of a philosophy of man. Intellect and will are fulfilled by knowing the truth and willing the good in love. Contemplation and communion anchor the restless mind and will; thus truth and good exercise their attractive influence on the open search. The depth of subjectivity and the ardor of the search can be matched in kind by the wisdom of God and the splendor of truth. In addition, the Church in confident in its message of redemption and the attractiveness of Christ.  In other words, the Church has nothing to fear from subjectivity as such, or the skeptical mind, understood as the seeking mind.

The conditions of the modern world actually encourage the cessation of intellectual search and draw the person to life on the surface of life. A rediscovery of the subject and arousal of intellectual curiosity is a good for humanity under these conditions. Scientism, technology, and tyranny may all strip dignity from the human person and shatter the coherence of the world. These modern forms of knowing and ruling deny the subject of knowing and willing and severely limit or restrict the searching. But the restlessness of the mind and heart surges against these strictures. Many may exhaust themselves in futile pursuits, and others may despair of ever finding, still Pope John Paul II holds out the promise of redemption through drawing close to Christ. The Church will benefit from freedom of conscience and toleration.

            The doctrine of true toleration, based upon respect for the person in his or her free search for truth and understanding of the good in conscience is rooted back in an Augustinian account of the person who seeks the true sanctuary of conscience in the vast resources of memory. “But in which part of my memory are present, O Lord? . . . What sanctuary have you build there for yourself?” (X.25). Augustine’s own life and search stand as a model for this explanation of religious freedom. As we discover in his Confessions, the intellectual search of Augustine led him through Manichaeism, skepticism, Platonism and eventually to embrace Christianity. The active search for truth led to his embrace of Christ. Hannah Arendt said: “Augustine, the first Christian philosopher and, one is tempted to add, the only philosopher the Romans ever had, was also the first man of thought who turned to religion because of philosophical perplexities.” Life of the Mind/Willing, chap. 10. His moral quest led him to discover the distinction between love and lust and the emptiness of worldly ambition. The experience of moral weakness and the phenomenon of “two wills” opened up for him the horizon of grace. The lived experience of this great saint and doctor of grace thrived on keen searching and a penetrating self-reflection. The exploration of memory in Book X culminates in the discovery of the inner sanctuary, the place of encounter with God. The affirmation of the human subject and the protection of the search have become a necessary condition for the discovery of God. Augustine provides the model: “he teaches the person who searches for truth not to despair of finding it. He teaches this by example and by means of his literary activity”..

Join us!

* indicates required