The following paper, which was prepared for a conference on the relationship between church and state in the early modern period held at the University of Cambridge in 2009, takes a long view of this topic to explain why it is so important for the Church to take responsibility for its rights and liberties. The argument rests on the premise that the history of religious liberty and the liberties of the Church are deeply intertwined. The early modern period witnessed both the state asserting its power over religious matters and churches striving to maintain their autonomy. This co-dependency of religious liberty and the liberties of the Church can help us understand that the Church should recognize its own role in the fight for religious tolerance and freedom.

The Long View – From Concordat to Conscience

This paper takes as its starting point the proposition that the history of religious liberty is indissolubly related to the liberties of the Church, and it aims to show that the early modern period – with its momentous shifts in the dynamics of power between state and church – offers particularly fruitful insight into that relationship. In particular, what follows suggests that if the Church has cause to be grateful for the expansion of toleration in the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, it should also bear a sense of responsibility for that achievement.

When considering the history of religious liberties and ecclesiastical autonomy, chronology can be misleading. It is easy to imagine a procession of progressive steps, each making liberation more easily visible. However, the long view can reveal the complex and inter-dependent relationship between these two features of early modern religious history. It can expose the often ambivalent circumstances under which new freedoms arose. And it can assist us to appreciate the significance and the dilemmas of church agency in promoting and, at times, defending these innovations.

Living memory in this respect can at once extend too far or too little. Memory reaching back to the reformations often emphasizes the plight of the churches, and sees their histories as either the heroic quest for independent verities or as the victim of inexorable state subjugation. But the actual experience of the last half millennium is infinitely more nuanced. It includes periods when churches seemingly relinquished their liberties, and other times when they reclaimed them – often at the price of asserting the rights of others to do the same.

Concordat and conscience, moreover, are not successive chapters in the history book of church-state relations. They are entangled leitmotifs, which summon us to trace the sinuous path through the early modern period. A detailed examination would take us far afield, but key moments in that path, when both the church's interests and religious liberty intersect, invite our attention.

When Catholic Europe emerged from the wars of religion at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the post-Peace of Westphalia world saw the established churches generally reasserting their place within the nation state. The Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1555, and then Westphalia a hundred years later, entrenched a balance where the state was called upon to guarantee ecclesiastical as well as civil peace. The concordats that followed these peace treaties, especially with France, Spain, and Bavaria, ensured that the practice of the faith would conform to state interests, even as they assumed the demeanor of contractual partnership between (troubled) church and (resurgent) state.

This situation is not infrequently interpreted as the state swallowing up the church – a reading that ignores the pressure the churches also placed on these contracts: the necessity of seeking protections for themselves and the persecuted faiths around them, and the readiness to use this need as an opportunity to assert their rights in a new context.

With the early Enlightenment, this dynamic of contest and conciliation became a site of often productive engagement in the name of religious liberty. In the first half of the eighteenth century, many sought to test the implications of the concordatsfor non-established faiths. Diderot's suppressed "Encyclopedie" entry, "Tolérance," or the Chevalier of Rohan's defence of the Jesuit missionaries, are telling examples of the church's double-sided investment in the revolutionary ethos that loosened the links between a homogeneous state church, and the project of national identity. As later critiques of Rousseau's own more trenchant secularism would demonstrate, the Church was not always entirely out of step with the aspirations of those who perceived the old order of privilege as a resource for fresh freedoms.

The struggle, of course, has not always been easy to discern as uniformly benign. The rise of individual conscience came with a cost for church institutions in the longer term. But to dismiss the first battles on behalf of religious liberties as a defeatist capitulation, or as the price of an insidious state penetration of the church, misses a sense in which the church, at least in part, initiated its own liberation and, at times, that of others.

Acknowledging this, as the long view demands, carries responsibilities. If church and state have from the start been entangled, it is a condition for the Church to recognize not only the privilege of religious liberty, but also the accompanying duty to contribute to its nurture and protection.

As the foregoing demonstrates, this may take the form of a double gesture, both assertively defending its own autonomy, and also championing the cause of others. It requires an understanding that church and religious liberty do not stand in a simple master- slave relationship. The history of the last half a millennium has been replete with crises and reversals – but also with hopeful instances of churches contributing to the common good through the recognition and advancement of toleration and freedom of conscience.

If the Church is now a beneficiary and also an agent of these momentous changes, it can make a particular contribution to the ongoing discourse on the place of belief and the state in the future world. It should recall the lessons of history and the weight of the experience of its long, often complex, and sometimes contradictory dialogue with the state over questions of religious liberty. In so doing, it may find a sense of responsibility not only to honor the principles of religious liberty, but also to affirm its share in fostering that project, and to hold itself, where necessary, to account.