Sunday, August 25, 2013

"Error has no rights"

George Weigel on the prescient, if misguided, warnings from Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office in the Vatican in the 1950's:

As a legal scholar considering the future of society, Ottaviani’s fear was that religious freedom would result in religious indifference and then a collapse of religious conviction, which would in turn lead to state hostility toward religious believers and religious institutions. His theological argument against religious freedom, widely held in the Roman universities of the day, rested on the proposition that “error has no rights.” The council’s response to that claim was that persons have rights, whether their religious opinions be erroneous or not, and that, in any event, states lack theological competence.

Alfredo Ottaviani lost virtually every one of the battles he fought at Vatican II, but from his present, post-mortem position he may be enjoying a last laugh (if of a subdued, even sorrowful, sort). For the notion that “error has no rights” is very much alive—and precisely in those quarters where religious indifference has indeed led to intolerance of religious conviction.

When a Canadian Evangelical pastor is levied a significant fine for advocating biblical truth about men, women, and the nature of marriage, or when a Polish priest and magazine editor is punished with even stiffer fines (these, like the Canadian fines, were later thrown out) by a Polish court for accurately describing in print what an abortion does, the forces of coercive political correctness (embodied in the gay insurgency and the global campaign for “reproductive health”) are using state power to nail down the notion that “error has no rights.”

When the present U.S. administration attempts to overturn decades of equal employment opportunity law by attacking the legal exemption that allows religious bodies to choose their religious leadership according to their own criteria, the same dynamic is at work. And that mantra—“Error has no rights!”—will, inevitably, be used to punish religious bodies that do not recognize any such thing as same-sex “marriage”: by taking away their tax-exempt status, denying their ministers the legal capacity to act as witnesses of marriage under civil law, or both.

An idea long associated with the farther reaches of Catholic traditionalism has thus migrated to the opposite end of the political spectrum, where it’s become a rallying point for the lifestyle left. There are many reasons why Kathleen Sebelius, the HHS secretary responsible for the coercive contraceptive/abortifacient/sterilization mandate currently being fought by the seriously Catholic elements of American Catholicism, is ill-cast in the role of Ottaviani redivivus. But in the oddities of history, that’s what has happened. The Catholic Church in the United States, which did more than any other local church at Vatican II to disentangle the universal Church from the notion that, in the civil order, “error has no rights,” is now being hard-pressed by aggressive secularist forces arrayed under that banner.

There are many ironies in the fire.

There are indeed many ironies. There is no doubt that a collapse of religious conviction in the West has kindled state hostility toward religious believers and religious institutions. It is not clear that the loss of religious conviction is due to religious freedom-- the United States probably has the greatest religious freedom of any nation in the West, and it has the most religious populace. Cardinal Ottavaiani's view that religious freedom leads to religious decay and secular tyranny seems wrong. There certainly has been religious decay and secular tyranny, but it's difficult to make the case that this has been because of religious freedom granted by the state.

There is another kind of religious freedom, however, that certainly leads to decay and tyranny, but it is not granted by the state. It is freedom granted by the church-- the freedom of doctrinal dissent. That kind of religious freedom has been profoundly destructive-- the Episcopal Church, to cite one example almost too obvious to bother mentioning.

Cardinal Ottaviani's aphorism-- "Error has no rights"-- is either true or pernicious, depending on who it is who is granting the "rights". Certainly error has no rights in theology and in church doctrine and governance. The Lord's Church, and the many churches in His Body, should confer no rights on error. Orthodoxy is simply the truth, and with that there can be no compromise.

But "Error has no rights" is, in a different sense-- a secular sense-- true. Only persons have rights. Error-- ideas-- cannot have rights. Both theses assertions are true: error should not be permitted within the Church, and prohibition against error should not be imposed by the state. Persons have rights, vis-a-vi the state, to hold religious beliefs and to live in accordance to those beliefs, regardless of whether secular rulers regard those beliefs and practices as truths or as errors.

Ironically, as Weigel points out, "Error has no rights" was not enforced by the Church, as it should have been, and that has clearly led to doctrinal collapse and manifest sin. On the other hand, the secular state has taken up the doctrine of "Error has no rights" with a vengeance, and is in the process of crushing Christians who live by their faith.

Many Christian churches lack all conviction, while secular Torquemadas ferret out Christian belief and praxis with passionate intensity.

Irony abounds.


  1. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyAugust 25, 2013 at 9:56 AM

    Although I agree with you regarding ecclesial matters vis-a-vis doctrinal dissent, I think I probably disagree with you about the cause(s) of the current attempts to abrogate the free exercise of religious doctrine in the public square. I think those attempts are but a part of a more general effort to limit and/or manipulate all discourse in the public square.

    One of the major problems the Left must constantly face is the problem of being wrong. William James famously said "truth is what works", and leftist social policy simply does not work. Whether you look at the collapse of the economy following on the inane Clintonian attempt to manipulate the mortgage market, the epidemic (CDC's term) of sexually transmitted disease and the worrisome increase in breast cancer following on widespread government promotion of of promiscuity and birth control, or the explosion of inner-city violence and dystopian living conditions following on the government's so-called War on Poverty, it's easy to see that the Left has been wrong - spectacularly wrong - about many things. In fact, in the words of the brilliant Wolfgang Pauli, their theories are "not even wrong"; their theories, if it's fair to call them theories, are ridiculous.

    Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that any mention of the effects of their theories be banned, and lies must be promulgated through the largest megaphone possible. Here's an example...

    Just yesterday, Martin Luther King III announced from his podium at the MLK rally that "the color of one's skin remains a license [...] to murder". A mere glance at Table 7 and Figure 20a in the DoJ's most recent iteration of "Homicide Trends in the United States" shows that blacks are far more likely to murder whites than vice versa, and vastly more likely than whites to murder other blacks. The ideal murder rate is zero (irrespective of melanin), but surely Mr King must know that mischaracterizing reality cannot but do damage to the very community he seeks to benefit.

    So the leftist attempts to purge the public square of brute fact is more like the case of a cat in a litter box than a case of "error has no rights". Unless one is speaking of political errors as defined by the new political commissars, of course. And that is a cat of a different color, because political truth can be whatever those in power want it to be. Ask Lysenko.

    1. @Adm:

      "So the leftist attempts to purge the public square of brute fact is more like the case of a cat in a litter box than a case of "error has no rights"." Heh. Well said.

      I agree with you, really in all respects here. The reason that I have characterized the abrogation of Christian expression (the left cares not a wit about any other religion) is that at the core, I believe this fight is about Christ, and only about Christ.

      Leftism is a Christian heresy. Rene Girard pointed out that Satan works through mimesis. He imitates. Leftism is a secular imitation and perversion of Christian morality, soteriology and eschatology. Hatred of Christ and of Christianity is what motivates the left-- ultimately it is the only real motivation. All other leftist motives are derivative.

      So the left is certainly frantically engaged in covering up it's dung. But the whole leftist digestive process, in truth, is hatred of Christianity.

    2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyAugust 25, 2013 at 11:55 AM

      Your description of the Leftist Salvation Story hits the nail on the head.

      And by the way, thanks for the steer to Stark's Discovering God. I just finished reading it. IMO, it's outstanding, comprehensive, and even enjoyably readable despite a rather dry sociohistorical topic.

    3. Adm:

      Stark is great. I read DG on vacation a couple of years ago, and it was so enjoyable that it made my vacation more fun!

      Stark is a great antidote to the fabrications that abound about Christianity and history.

  2. You didn't discuss the Catholic monarchy's place in all of this. I'm sure it's very 'retro' for me to even bring it up.