Latin Phrases Redux



A while back, I posted about the difference between freedom of conscience and freedom of religion suggesting that the old Augustinian idea of “capax dei,” or the capacity (sometimes interpreted to mean desire) for God, could help us answer those who would rather do away with freedom of religion and stick to freedom of conscience.

Greg responded with the below comment, which I’d now like to answer. (This is what you get when you sign up to blog with Greg. He responds in 30 seconds, you stop and think about it for 2 weeks. Sigh.)

Obviously I agree that we must not only follow our “consciences” simply as such, but God himself. But I’m not sure your argument here answers the other side’s case, and it may actually reinforce their position. You argue that human beings must follow not only their “consciences” simply as such, but God. Yet you accept Thomas’s locating of the desire for God in the intellect. Doesn’t that reduce the capax dei to merely the conscience? The intellect is irreducibly individual and subjective; there can be no such thing as a social or objective intellect. I would say the key reason we need freedom of religion and not just freedom of conscience is precisely because we desire God, and find him, not only in the intellect but in action – not only in contemplation but in life as we actually live it – and that means we must find him socially and objectively, in institutions (as well as elsewhere). If I’m right, the Thomistic location of the capax dei in the intellect is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Thoughts?

So, Greg would like to know if I’m really just circling back to defending conscience, not religion. I’ve written about this before, but there I argued that freedom of religion had to be preserved over and above freedom of conscience because religious institutions themselves both are a part of religion and have formative influences on the conscience:

“I think we are starting to see that religion has perhaps always been more than a matter of just what one person believes; he or she is always standing on the shoulders of giants who have, very often, worked as members of a body (ecclesia). With or without formal members of the clergy, churches and other religious institutions have established some sorts of structures and corporate identities that bear on but are not synonymous with the religious identities of their members. And I think it is important that we grant religious institutions the freedom – the libertas ecclesiae – to continue to do so.”

But I don’t think that the addition of the capax dei is either redundant with conscience, as Greg suggests, or trivial, as one might be inclined to think from the fact that, as Latin and authentic and thereby a candidate for hipster theology, “you probably haven’t heard of it.”

The capax dei resides, yes, in the individual’s mind, at least to the extent that we can say that any desire is in the mind. So it is individual in that sense. But we aren’t talking about something that exists only in the individual’s mind, since this is a capacity for God, capital G. Something that exists objectively, for which we as individuals have a capacity. True, with fallen human minds and desires, we don’t all either really seek Him or know Him. But it is an individual’s capacity for universal objective thing, not for goodness or justice or beauty.  As such, I think that this aspect of human beings points us to the role for religion, for religions mediate the individual and God, one way or another.

(Disclaimer: that last sentence needs a lot more space than I have here.)

St. Thomas More’s life – and death – gets at the distinction pretty well. Here was the king’s Lord Chancellor who was put to death rather than support the king’s self-appointment as the King of England, which ran contrary to his Catholic faith. It is absolutely the case that his objection resided in his conscience. But of course, his conscience also reminded him that he was “the king’s servant.” So there was another influence that was not purely individual in nature, an influence that convinced him that he was “God’s [servant] first.”

My original argument for religion over conscience, quoted above, reminds us that the conscience relies, in part, and both knowingly and not, on institutions for its formation – as we see with More. To deny religion its role would be grossly unfair, favoring secular institutions’ influence in forming the conscience. But the added point about the capax dei means that that thing that More died for, that final-instance conscience arbiter, is something in all of us. And if that’s something in all of us, then all of us are meant to be God’s – not an isolated conscience’s – servant first.