Authority and freedom: the medieval roots of an understanding of religious freedom

Authority and freedom: the medieval roots of an understanding of religious freedom

By Rodney Moss

Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae, Volume 34:1 (2008)

San Damiano Cross - photo by Hans Splinter

Abstract: Some regard religious freedom as a product of the Enlightenment. However, the roots of a later understanding of religious freedom as articulated in Dignitatis Humanae of the Second Vatican Council lie in the Middle Ages. These roots are threefold: first, the relative academic freedom of the period together with the scholastic theological method of doubting, secondly, the rise of constitutional government and the dualism of the Church and the State in medieval society and thirdly, the theological speculation on the freedom of conscience all eventually contributed to the idea that everyone has the right to live his or her relationship with God in a freedom that is constitutionally and judicially protected against any form of coercion. However freedom of religion is not simply an affair of the individual. It is also an affair of the community for it is the freedom to commune with others.

Excerpt: In antiquity the political society was an integrally religious organisation: rex and sacerdos were often one. This concept of the sacral society was adopted by the barbarian tribes which invaded the Western Empire in the Dark Ages. However, gradually Christian civilisation began to distinguish between kingship and priesthood so that one of the legacies of the Middle Ages was a distinction between politics and religion and the eventual radical secularisation of politics.

This section will outline the theories of Giles of Rome, Marsilius of Padua, John of Paris and St. Robert Bellarmine as serious attempts to tackle the problems presented by two hierarchies, the political and the ecclesiastical, within the one commonwealth of believers.


Giles of Rome is representative of the papalists who asserted the universal lordship of the Pope and even his ownership of everything. Giles represents a tendency towards an extreme form of the sacralisation of society. Goerner comments

[H]is one of the most consistent and extreme formulations of the power of the … pope as a solution to the interrelated problems posed by human freedom and evil … Giles of Rome went further than most in formulating a doctrine of papal supremacy by means of which the Church was to redeem human freedom from the chaos of evil into which it seemed to plunge the race of man.

While Giles defends the doctrine of the two swords, he effectively holds that the Pope has both swords.14 He understands that the spiritual power (equated here with the priestly hierarchy and the Pope) is superior (concerned with spiritual and divine things) in dignity to the secular power (concerned with material things).

Click here to read this article from the University of South Africa

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