Vatican II resolved a theological and philosophical dilemma that had perplexed Catholics since the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars that followed in its wake. We have always believed that our Faith is the One True Faith. We believe that error and heresy are destructive of individuals and communities; they can't be considered as on par with truth. "Error has no rights" was the way the point was usually expressed.
And yet we also believe in religious liberty. How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory dogmas?
The answer came through the personalist developments in modern thought. Error has no rights, but conscience does. (Newman put it this way, "Conscience has rights because it has duties.") The locus of liberty is not in dogmas, but in persons.
The social implication of "freedom of religion" isn't that we have to be pluralists, never mind relativists. We don't have to pretend that heresy is as good as orthodoxy or that all religions are equal. Rather, we have to eschew all coercion in religion and morality. We have to supply persons the spiritual space they need to choose for themselves, in freedom and with integrity. We have to understand that religious and moral truth is something to be proposed, never imposed.
I think personalism similarly holds the key to the dilemma Devra discusses in her post below. We believe and proclaim that Love is unconditional, and yet we also insist that there are terms and conditions involved in living the Christian life. There are such things as excommunication and hell. How can this be?
Personalism has the answer here too, I think. It's this: Love is unconditional, but relationships have terms.
What do I mean?
First, what is love? It is, put simply, a recognition and affirmation of the real being of someone—a response to his or her value. "You are good; it is good that you are." It is a response that manifests in a sincere intention and a commitment to do good for that other. Von Hildebrand calls this the "intentio benevolentiae" of love. "You deserve goodness; you are owed goodness; therefore I will give you good; I will do you good." He elaborates another feature of love: the intentio unionis, the desire for union with the beloved.
Every true and authentic love has both these features. Wherever and to whatever extent these are missing, we have a deficit of love.
Another thing follows. Intending the good of another entails intending goods in right order, according to their true hierarchy. Mothers let doctors prick their babies with needles, because the good of vaccination against deadly disease outweighs the bad of fleeting pain. We withhold drugs from the addict because we understand that the high he craves does him harm. We refrain from eating the second helping of dessert, because sound health and the virtue of moderation are better for us than the sensual pleasure of too much food. We tell the truth rather than lie to our friend, because we understand that he deserves truth, even if its painful for him and for us. And so on.
The greatest good for persons is to live in a union and communion of love with others—first with God, and second with other human beings.
But that communion is incompatible with sin and harm, with use and abuse. Love makes real demands exactly because it is genuinely concerned with the good of the other; it wants real union with the other.
So, when Jesus says to the Pharisees, "You viper's brood," he isn't being "unloving". Rather he is—out of love—warning them that they are on the path that leads to misery and death. When He says, "If you love me, keep my commands," He isn't setting limits on His love for us, rather he is setting the terms for a relationship of love with Him. We can't be sinful plus intimate with the Holy One.
The same goes in human relationships. The wife who won't allow herself to be battered or belittled or bossed around, isn't failing to show unconditional love. Rather, she's insisting on what it takes to have a real communion of spousal love.
The person who is wronged by injustice shows true love when she insists that the injustice be repaired before the relationship is restored. The abuser who wants to let bygones be bygones—in other words, let the injustice go unaddressed—is the one who is failing at love, because he is showing a lack of due concern for the true good of the other, as well as himself. Implicitly, what he wants is not communion, but submission.
One of my favorite moments in a movie that's full of great ones—On the Waterfront—takes place on Terry and Edie's first date. Edie is asking Terry to help her find the truth about who murdered her brother. Terry wants her to drop the quest. It's too dangerous. Just let it go; move on; enjoy your life. She won't do it. She needs justice and is imploring his help in getting it. Terry cries out in frustration, "What do you want from me Edie?" She looks at him with passionate intensity and says, "Much more. Much, much, much more," and runs off in pain at his refusal. The "more" she wants from him is for his own good as well as hers.
Her demands on him set the stage for his redemption.
The conditions she sets for the relationship are the ground rules for real love and communion.