Televangelist and prosperity gospeller Jesse Duplantis recently revealed that God suggested he acquire a $54 million private jet to supplement the three planes his ministry already owns. “It was one of the greatest statements the Lord ever told me,” Duplantis claimed. “[God] said, ‘Jesse do you want to come up where I'm at? I want you to bleed me for a Falcon 7X.’”

Plus ça change, one might say. America has always provided a home for religious quacks, from loveable eccentrics to mendacious hucksters. The rest of the world looks on with amusement, fascination, and sometimes disapproval. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII wrote to the United States, railing against the “confounding of license with liberty” that follows from “the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world.” Leo would have taken a dim view of the prosperity gospel, as he took a dim view of political regimes that enabled the spread of the false gospels of his own era.

Denunciations of religious freedom by nineteenth-century popes were, even by the standards of the times, often intemperate and imprudent. Pope Gregory XVI claimed that freedom of conscience—surely a concept with profound Christian roots—was “a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other.”

Behind the purple prose, however, the popes were concerned with the effect that unrestricted religious liberty would have on those vulnerable to deception—the uneducated, the half-educated, the young, the psychologically wounded, those who are simply naïve or credulous by nature. The pontiffs’ bombast may belong to a bygone age, but the problems they grappled with are those of every era: a fact attested by the continuing need for watchdog organizations like the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based Christian non-profit that fights religious fraud.

Today we are tempted to dismiss Gregory and Leo as paternalists of the old school. It is interesting, therefore, that the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, reasserts their concern for the vulnerable in forceful terms:
Religious communities … have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word. However, in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one's right and a violation of the right of others.

Enormous amounts have been written about Dignitatis Humanae, the most controversial document of Vatican II. Questions about how the teaching of the Council on religious liberty is continuous with what the Church previously taught continue to vex theologians. Perhaps one answer lies in a principle of Catholic social teaching that was as dear to the nineteenth-century popes as the Fathers of Vatican II—the Church’s preferential option for the poor.

The stories we tell ourselves shape our political imagination. If, on hearing the words “religious liberty,” you think of good men and women crushed by an oppressive state (Little Sisters of the Poor, Jack Phillips, sixteenth-century anabaptists), you are likely to favour a broad, unrestricted right to religious freedom in order to protect the vulnerable from tyranny.

But there are other, more disturbing stories: religious-based therapies where unlicensed counsellors prey on the psychologically wounded. Homeless people “who give their last dollar” to prosperity gospellers, believing “that they were going to get a 100-fold blessing or get healed if they gave enough money.” The pastor jailed for “lewd or lascivious conduct and molestation involving two girls younger than 16” allowed to minister to children after his release from prison. The reception of Dignitatis Humanae might perhaps have been less contentious if religious libertarians showed greater willingness to engage seriously with the political questions raised by such cases.

There are many reasons why the Catholic Church has had an historically uneasy relationship with religious liberty. Popes, like all powerful men, are loath to give up the influence they enjoy. More to the point, the popes feared that the liberties of modernity would provide a platform for what Augustine called the libido dominandi—allowing those with capital (financial, political, or intellectual) to dominate and exploit those without it. Leo XIII’s acquaintance with the plight of the working poor taught him that unregulated freedom generally favors the powerful at the expense of the weak. The mountebank preacher who targets the poor and ignorant has much in common with the greedy tycoon who builds his wealth on subsistence wages and unsafe working conditions.

But one reason for papal reticence on religious liberty which has not received sufficient attention is the refusal of the popes to privilege the first kind of story mentioned above (men of conscience oppressed by overweening officials) over the second kind (impressionable people hounded by charlatans while the state does nothing). Instead, the nineteenth-century popes recalled the attention of liberal societies to the second kind of story—the kind of story liberal societies are most in danger of forgetting.

To admire this is not necessarily to admire the contingent political judgments of the nineteenth-century popes, or their prudential assessments of various political regimes. Their writings should be approached as a theological resource for pastors, theologians, and Catholics involved in contemporary public life, not as a political manifesto for those who fantasize about rebuilding the papal states.

Moderns are correct to be more alert to the totalitarian temptations that lurk even in well-meaning attempts to assert political control over religious deception—such temptations are yet another, inevitable result of the libido dominandi. But the popes remind us that religiously libertarian regimes create their own kinds of victim no less than confessional states, and that toward those victims we have social and political responsibilities, not merely an individual duty.