A while back one of our readers made some comment to the effect that what the world needs now is another Inquisition to whip people (and things) into shape, and get some morality back in society. We assume our reader meant the actual Inquisition, not one of the various myths that have grown up around the institution. (Cf. Edward Peters, Inquisition. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1989.)
First and foremost, of course, any sort of compulsion in purely religious matters is . . . we’ll say bad. Second, mixing the functions of Church and State, as medieval and modern governments (and all of them in between) tend to do is . . . also bad, even if Church and State remain separate as stipulated in, e.g., Magna Charta and the U.S. Constitution. People just can’t seem to keep their fingers out of the other person’s pie. Either the State takes over the Church, or the Church takes over the State, both being very bad news.
For the purposes of this discussion, however, we’ll focus on a different problem associated with the Inquisition. This doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the issues of religious coercion or establishing religion as a government agency (or government as a sacrament). It only means we’re looking at a different issue.
Whatever its merits or lack thereof, the Inquisition only addressed symptoms, not the underlying cause, of heresy and deviations from the natural law. The cause, as Aquinas and others have been pointing out for eight centuries or so, is bad ideas about reality, specifically, of natural and supernatural law.
Aquinas dealt with this fundamental issue that has caused massive problems down to the present day in religious society (the Church) and civil society (the State), and is now infiltrating domestic society (the Family). That is the confusion of natural and supernatural law, and the consequent shift in the basis of the natural law from reason to faith, or (as the Scholastics put it) from the Intellect to the Will.
Basically, the natural law consists of the four natural or temporal virtues, prudence, temperance, fortitude, and, above all, justice. The capacity for these virtues is part of human nature, and cannot be separated from human nature without taking away humanity itself. Nor can the natural rights by means of which humanity acquires and develops the natural virtues, life, liberty, and property, be separated from human nature, without making humanity less than human.
The supernatural law, however, consists of the three supernatural or theological virtues of faith, hope, and, above all, charity. The capacity for these virtues is not part of human nature. Instead, the capacity for faith, hope, and charity is infused into humanity as a free gift of God. Where the natural virtues are essential for us to become more fully human, the supernatural virtues are essential for us to become adopted children of God.
Obviously, confusing the natural and the supernatural virtues can cause problems. We can know the natural virtues by “the force and light of human reason alone,” as declared in Vatican I (yes, there was a Vatican I, just as there was a John Paul I, neither of them negligible). That is, we can come to knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law by applying human reason through our intellect and examining empirical evidence. Knowledge is always manifestly true.
We only know the supernatural virtues, however, by faith; as far as humanity as humanity is concerned, all things related to faith, hope, and charity must be regarded as opinion. We accept them by faith as certainly true, but they are not subject to objective proof as are things related to prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. Faith by definition applies to that which is not manifestly true.
We cannot, therefore, include faith, hope, or charity under the natural law, because it inserts opinion into what must be subject to proof, that is, knowledge; it attempts to base things on a contradiction, which violates the first principle of reason. You cannot prove anything by faith, because proof demonstrates the manifest truth of something, where faith accepts as true that which is not manifestly true. You cannot logically demonstrate the truth of that which is manifestly true by that which is not manifestly true, any more than you can logically prove a negative.