Dignity and the “Religious Sense”: A Word of Caution

There was no confusion at the beginning of this country about the meaning of religion. James Madison said that, by religion, we mean “the Duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it.” That was the Creator who endowed us with unalienable rights, the Author of the Laws of Nature, including the moral laws.

There was no way that this God could be reconciled with a doctrine of moral relativism, and yet that is exactly the position that even conservatives on the courts have been settling into of late, as they seek to cast a wide protection over sects that call themselves “religions.”

Five years ago the Supreme Court found no constitutional violation when the Town of Greece, New York, allowed ministers from virtually any church to open legislative sessions with a prayer.  That decision created a lively new business for Satanists, quite eager to respond to calls throughout the country and offer invocations.  For the lawyers who defend religious freedom there is a deep reluctance now to judge any religion, or its teachings, as illegitimate. And yet, how could Satanism, the affirmation of radical evil, be part of anything we understand as “religion”?

As the Supreme Court went about the task of pushing religion out of the public square, it began to settle in with an understanding of religion that did not require the presence of God.  That current sense of things was reflected recently in a commentary from a friend who has been active as a professor in defending religious freedom.  He remarked that religious beliefs should be protected “regardless of whether the religious beliefs in question are true. This is as it should be. The fundamental human right to religious freedom is grounded in the truth about the human person; it is enjoyed and should be protected whether or not one’s religious beliefs are true.”


But what is it in “the human person” that becomes the source of that dignity?  Human beings alone are given to reflection about the origin of all things and even the non-material cause of a material universe.  And yet, what is distinct to human beings also, as Aristotle reminded us, was the capacity to give and understand reasons over matters of right and wrong.

Humans may also understand then, as Aquinas and Lincoln taught, that they cannot claim a “right to do a wrong.”  Are we really urged then to venerate the man fired with intense convictions, but utterly detached from any serious reflection on whether the religion that commands his soul is directing him to ends rightful or wrongful?

A premier teaching in the Church on human dignity came from Gaudium et Spes, under Paul VI (1965), and there the commentary ran directly to the root.  “Men and women,” it was said,  “sharing in the light of divine mind, rightly affirm that by their intellect they surpass the realm of mere things.”  But human intellect in turn “finds at last its perfection. . .in wisdom, [drawing] the human mind to look for and to love what is true and good.”  This is not a notion of humans finding their dignity by floating free, insulated from any moral judgment on the way they have led their lives.

On the matter of that “religious sense” as the source of dignity, we can always be brought back to sobriety by reading again that searing commentary offered by the Blessed Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, Pius X.  It is never out of season to read his penetrating critique of the Modernists of his period Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907).

Among their other subtle heresies, Pius X found a “religious sense” that unravels religious truth altogether.  For the Modernists the “religious sense” was “a kind of intuition of the heart which puts man in immediate contact with the reality of God.” But every man is the sovereign authority on whether he has feelings and what he thinks they mean; and if we credit these claims of religious experience, then with “this doctrine of experience united with that of symbolism, every religion, even that of paganism, must be held to be true.” And if they are all true, then none of them may be true.

The Modernists moved in the path of doing “history” in the fiercely secular mode of a science of history:  they would write only of phenomena, with an empirical record.   Matters of faith in the story of Jesus were then “removed from the world of sense” and the things we can claim to know as we know of the Battle of Waterloo.  Hence, said the Holy Father, “whether Christ has wrought real miracles, and made real prophecies, whether he rose truly from the dead” are strangely removed from the story. And yet they are empirical matters that can be judged for their truth.

For Pius X, it was a matter of discovering anew the fallacy of disconnecting faith from reason.  “Take away the intelligence,” he wrote, “and man, already inclined to follow the senses, becomes their slave.”  The “fantasies of the religious sense,” he warned, “will never be able to destroy common sense, and common sense tells us that emotion and everything that leaves the heart captive proves a hindrance instead of a help to the discovery of truth.”

The lingering mystery of our own time is why that deep reliance of the Church on reason still comes as news to the “educated,” if it comes at all.


*Image: Pope St. Pius X by Neilson Carlin, 2011 [Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Kansas City, MO]. The Latin words at the bottom of the painting, INSTAURARE OMNIA IN CHRISTO, mean “To restore all things in Christ,” and the Hebrew lettering means “Jehovah.”

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.