Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary
The Philosophical Dictionary
Selected and Translated by H.I. Woolf
New York: Knopf, 1924

Scanned by the Hanover College Department of History in 1995.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

The Ecclesiastical Ministry

THE institution of religion exists only to keep mankind in order, and to make men merit the goodness of God by their virtue. Everything in a religion which does not tend towards this goal must be considered foreign or dangerous.

Instruction, exhortation, menaces of pains to come, promises of immortal beatitude, prayers, counsels, spiritual help are the only means ecclesiastics may use to try to make men virtuous here below, and happy for eternity.

All other means are repugnant to the liberty of the reason, to the nature of the soul, to the inalterable rights of the conscience, to the essence of religion and of the ecclesiastical ministry, to all the rights of the sovereign.

Virtue supposes liberty, as the carrying of a burden supposes active force. Under coercion no virtue, and without virtue no religion. Make a slave of me, I shall be no better for it.

The sovereign even has no right to use coercion to lead men to religion, which supposes essentially choice and liberty. My thought is subordinate to authority no more than is sickness or health. In order to disentangle all the contradictions with which books on canon law have been filled, and to fix our ideas on the ecclesiastical ministry, let us investigate amid a thousand equivocations what the Church is.

The Church is the assembly of all the faithful summoned on certain days to pray in common, and at all times to do good actions.

The priests are persons established under the authority of the sovereign to direct these prayers and all religious worship.

A numerous Church could not exist without ecclesiastics; but these ecclesiastics are not the Church.

It is no less evident that if the ecclesiastics, who are part of civil society, had acquired rights which might trouble or destroy society, these rights ought to be suppressed.

It is still more evident that, if God has attached to the Church prerogatives or rights, neither these rights nor these prerogatives should belong exclusively either to the chief of the Church or to the ecclesiastics, because they are not the Church, just as the magistrates are not the sovereign in either a democratic state or in a monarchy.

Finally, it is quite evident that it is our souls which are under the clergy's care, solely for spiritual things.

Our soul acts internally; internal acts are thought, volition, inclinations, acquiescence in certain truths. All these acts are above all coercion, and are within the ecclesiastical minister's sphere only in so far as he must instruct and never command.

This soul acts also externally. External actions are under the civil law. Here coercion may have a place; temporal or corporal pains maintain the law by punishing those who infringe it.

Obedience to ecclesiastical order must consequently always be free and voluntary: no other should be possible. Submission, on the other hand, to civil order may be coerced and compulsory.

For the same reason, ecclesiastical punishments, always spiritual, do not reach here below any but those who are convinced inwardly of their fault. Civil pains, on the contrary, accompanied by a physical ill, have their physical effects, whether or no the guilty recognize their justice.

From this it results obviously that the authority of the clergy is and can be spiritual only; that it should not have any temporal power; that no coercive force is proper to its ministry, which would be destroyed by it.

It follows from this further that the sovereign, careful not to suffer any partition of his authority, must permit no enterprise which puts the members of society in external and civil dependence on an ecclesiastical body.

Such are the incontestable principles of real canon law, of which the rules and decisions should be judged at all times by the eternal and immutable truths which are founded on natural law and the necessary order of society.

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