Was Voltaire an instrument of Providence?

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “It is scandalous that so much prodding from the de-Christianized world was needed to make the Church realize and recall what belongs to its own nature.” Theological Highlights of Vatican II (New York: Paulist Press, 1966), p. 145. What belongs to its own nature is a deep respect for conscience and a recognition of the role of freedom and a free response of faith to revelation. Faith cannot be forced. 

Toleration was the theme of the German-American Catholic conference in Bavaria this past week. My presentation was on Pope John Paul II’s defense of religious freedom. I will use a few blog posts to make his case for religious freedom.

The history of tolerance in the modern world takes definitive shape in Holland during the late 17th century as refugees from France, Poland, and England found there way to that shelter of religious freedom; under their influence, John Locke published his influential Letter on Toleration in 1688. And it reached a crescendo in Paris during the following century with the works of Bayle and Voltaire, in whom we find a passionate defense of toleration and a bitter denunciation of the Catholic Church. With the French revolution in 1789 the first signs of the intolerance of liberalism tolerance showed themselves and the long bloody history of modern totalitarianism began to unfold, coming to an end exactly 200 years later in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. Pope John Paul II read in that event the signs of the times pointing to religious freedom, toleration properly understood, as the foundation of the just political order. 

There is still much to be learned and discussed from the classics written prior to the explosion of liberal intolerance, especially Locke and Voltaire. In the twentieth century the Church has developed a profound argument for tolerance based upon freedom of conscience and the search for God. In 1921 the Catholic author of Antimoderne claimed that Voltaire, despite his vitriolic criticism of the Church, actually served the Church in his bid for toleration. Voltaire opposed that unjust and implicitly totalitarian principle, cuis regio eius religo (whatever the king believes shall be the religion of the realm.) Maritain referred the reader to the recently promulgated canon 1351. (Ad amplexandam fidem catholicam nemo invitus cogatur: no one should be compelled against their will to accept the faith) Stating a principle he would later develop in his philosophy of history, Maritain argues that history is ambivalent and shows a two-fold contrasting progress of good and evil. We need to acknowledge that good and evil are mixed together in a given historical era. The Catholic thinker should “expose the principle and avow the loss.” Or he says, the expansion of history shows that conjoined to evil there are gains and achievements of mankind. Such gains he says are “almost sacred” because of providential order. Toleration is one of those gains he acknowledges even if it comes from the pen of the hated Voltaire. The task of the Catholic thinker, Maritain urged repeatedly, was to extract the truth or the gain of the modern philosophy, while correcting its errors and distortions. He made repeated attempts to do this on the subject of human rights, for example, in Man and the State, Natural Law and Natural Rights. 

 Perhaps it is one of the greatest achievements of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II to have placed human rights, properly understood, at the center of the Church’s social teaching which serves as an admonition to the modern state. Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus annus, which opens with a meditation on the events of 1989, claims that toleration is indeed the foundation of a just political order: “total recognition must be given to the rights of the human conscience, which is bound only to the truth, both natural and revealed. The recognition of these rights represents the primary foundation of every authentically free political order.” In the span of two hundred years, the Church has come to terms with the movement for toleration. Now it promotes the recognition and the proper understanding of religious freedom. This is for the benefit of the Church and mankind for three reasons: “a) because the old forms of totalitarianism and authoritarianism are not yet completely vanquished; b) because in the developed countries there is sometimes an excessive promotion of purely utilitarian values . . . making it difficult to recognize and respect the hierarchy of the true values of human existence; c) because in some countries new forms of religious fundamentalism are emerging which covertly, or even openly, deny to citizens of faiths other than that of the majority the full exercise of their civil and religious rights.” (CA §29)  Hence, it is axiomatic for Catholic political philosophy to defend this conviction: “no authentic progress is possible without respect for the natural and fundamental right to know the truth and live according to that truth.”

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1 Comment
  1. Well said. Thank you and may God bless you.

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