You know what the problem is with (other) people? That’s right. They. Just. Won’t. Do. What. I. Want. Them. To. Do. All those stupid (other) people simply refuse to acknowledge that I know what’s best for them. They just won’t do the right thing.
Now . . . is there anyone who has read this far who doesn’t recognize heavy-handed sarcasm? This is the bludgeon, not the rapier. This would need a few upgrades to qualify as satire. Still, if anyone is confused by the above two paragraphs, we don’t think we have the right to force people to do anything, except to prevent them from causing clear and obvious harm to themselves, other individuals, groups, or the common good — and we’d better be able to prove that harm would have resulted.
Further, we are never justified in taking the law into our own hands unless it is clear that the law is unable to prevent harm. Unwilling is a somewhat stickier issue, and gets into an ethical question that would divert us from the point of this posting, although we have addressed it. We just won’t get into it today.
The question today? Can we force people to do what is right, when what is “right” depends on our faith in something? That is, on subjective opinion instead of objective knowledge?
No. Freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right. Someone can believe a piece of rock or the State is divine and worship it, as long as he doesn’t cause harm thereby. He can refuse to give alms. He can even be greedy, nasty, smell bad, and wear the wrong kind of clothes . . . as long as he doesn’t break any human law. He is absolutely safe from any form of coercion from us or anyone else.
Is he breaking God’s law? That’s a matter of opinion. Even if it were an established fact, though, and he agreed that he was breaking God’s law . . . tough. The State is not God, and cannot enforce God’s law based on faith or will, only human law based on reason. Neither are you God, so don’t try to do it yourself.
The only one who can legitimately enforce God’s law is God, so get over it. If you try and force someone to obey what you think God’s law is, including trying to embarrass, humiliate, or ridicule him, you’re in more trouble than he could ever be. Most gods are depicted as being extremely “jealous,” which means that they get upset when anybody else tries to take over their job or position.
This includes the Christian God: “For we know him that hath said: Vengeance belongeth to me, and I will repay. And again: The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews, 10:30-31.) If your faith is as strong as you say, do you really want to risk that?
Is coercion ever justified in anything? Yes — but only in matters pertaining to the natural law, and sometimes not even then. (Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q. 78, a. 1.)
Because the common good is necessary for the perfection (in the sense of completion) of human beings as human beings (political animals), it must remain inviolate (Quadragesimo Anno, § 57). No one may legitimately divert the common good to meet individual interests, no matter how overriding the need may seem.
The State, therefore, has the obligation to enforce the inviolability of the common good with coercion, if necessary, and can demand great sacrifices of the members of society in order to preserve and maintain the common good. This does not extend to State provision of individual goods, except in “extreme cases” as an expedient (Rerum Novarum, § 22).
A just social order can be measured by the degree to which people can meet their own wants and needs through their own efforts, not by the amount of State interference in individual and family life, regardless of the material benefits thereby conferred. “There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” (Ibid., § 7).
The case is different with the Church, understood in this instance as all organized religion. The Church is legitimately concerned not with the common good, except insofar as it provides an adequate environment for the exercise of both natural and supernatural rights by individuals. The Church is not even concerned overmuch with most individual goods, except to the extent that they provide the foundation for that which many organized religions view as the greatest individual good of all: being happy with God in the next world, a matter of faith, not reason.
As the Church is concerned with an individual good and not the common good, and that individual good being based on faith, coercion can never be justified in purely religious or faith-based matters. Compliance in purely religious or faith-based matters must be strictly voluntary, an exercise of free will. Anything less would mean the automatic creation of hypocrites, liars, and “traitors,” as people either went against their consciences to avoid punishment, or were punished for treason for choosing what they believed to be right.