RORATE CÆLI: “The Council and the Eclipse of God” by Don Pietro Leone – Part XV:The Church and the State: Religious Liberty – part 2 of Chapter 4

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The present installment concerns the Council’s doctrine on Religious Liberty, which represents one of its most important departures from Tradition. The Church has always taught that Religious Liberty is the liberty of a Catholic to profess the one true religion; whereas the Council teaches that it is the liberty of any-one to profess and practice the religion he chooses. The Council bases its teaching on the excellence of man’s freedom to which it ascribes some sort of god-like quality; it insinuates that God respects man’s use of freedom, even to the extent of acquiescing in its misuse. It claims moreover to justify this doctrine in Revelation. Don Pietro here seeks to unravel the threads of its tortuous argumentation with the same subtlety with which it tangled them together.      F.R.

RORATE CÆLI: “The Council and the Eclipse of God” by Don Pietro Leone – Part XV:The Church and the State: Religious Liberty – part 2 of Chapter 4

The Council and the Eclipse of God

Part  XV


Don Pietro Leone

Chapter 4 –  part 2

The Church and the State: Religious Liberty

(Daedalus and the Fall of Icarus)
‘For the Church to preach religious liberty is as absurd as a company that fabricates the only type of parachute which is guaranteed never to fail, to promote in its publicity brochure the type of parachute fabricated by another firm, which is guaranteed always to fail.’

II     The Right to Religious Liberty

i) ‘The Vatican council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom…’ (DH 2);

ii) [The Church has a right to] ‘… freedom of action which its responsibility for human salvation requires’ [as also to] ‘freedom for itself as a society of people who have the right to live in civil society in accordance with the demands of the Christian Faith’ (DH 13);

iii) ‘The freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle governing relations between the church and public authorities and the entire civil order’ (DH 13).

In text (i) the Council declares that every-one has a right to religious freedom, in other words to practice the religion that he chooses. In texts (ii) and (iii) it accords the same right to the Church, without however granting Her any further, special privileges. This represents a regression to the status quo effected by the Edict of Constantine in 313 A.D., as though the Church ‘were simply an association comparable with others existing in the state’ [1]. Pope Paul personally advocates this same reductionist, purely negative, freedom for the Church in his closing speech to the Council: ‘What does the Church ask of you to-day?  In one of the major texts of the Council she has told you: she asks of you nothing but freedom – the freedom to believe and to preach her faith, the freedom to love God and to serve Him, the freedom to live and to bring men her message of life.’

Far from teaching that this negative freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle governing relations between the Church and the State, as text (iii) asserts, the Church has always declared [2] that the principle in question is the subjection of man to God [3]. 

Texts (i), (ii), & (iii), as well as this extract from the Pope’s closing speech, express the political vision of Jacques Maritain who wished to promote a modern society which would be Christian in a solely humanitarian, rather than religious, sense. ‘A vitally and truly Christian political society would be Christian by virtue of the very spirit that animates it…. Such a political society would not require of its members a common religious creed…’ [4]. Maritain exercised a powerful influence on both Father Courtney Murray and Pope Paul VI, who together succeeded in introducing his heterodox vision of society into the Council documents.

These same Council texts, as well as those of Pope Paul VI and Maritain, oppose the constant teaching of the Church, which is most authoritatively and concisely expressed in the Syllabus Errorum of Bl. Pius IX by the following Condemned Proposition: ‘Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true’ [5].

Speaking in greater detail, Pope Leo XIII states [6]: ‘Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness – namely to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engraved upon it.’

By extending the right to religious liberty to all religions, the Council in effect illegitimately relinquishes the Church’s special privilege and obligation to protect citizens from religious and moral error, and thereby effects a separation between Church and State.

III          The Justification of the Right to Religious Liberty

In this subsection we examine the Council’s:

a)     General Justification;

b)    Philosophical Justifications;

c)     Theological Justifications.

a)    General Justification

‘The council… declares that the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right’ (DH 2) [7].

We have seen above that Tradition has always accorded religious liberty to the Church alone, namely on the basis that She alone professes the one true religion. The Council, by contrast, accords religious liberty to every-one, on the basis of the ‘dignity of the human person.’ So we again encounter the false principle of subjectivism, which, together with the naturalism (which we have mentioned in the first subsection), and with scepticism (which we shall discuss later in the present subsection), constitute the three false principles particularly manifest in Council teaching on the relations between Church and State.

Now the shift from the objective to the subjective order comprises a shift from God to man. The former shift, in greater detail, is a shift from Objective Truth to the individual subject: a shift, more precisely, from objective reality in which there is only one true religion, to man’s subjective, free choices independent of this reality. Later in this chapter we shall see how the Council’s failure to promote Objective Truth encompasses a failure to exercise all the Church’s special duties and privileges which this Objective Truth entails. The net result is to subordinate the Faith to the whims of man, and to sacrifice its prerogatives to the cause of peaceful co-existence between Church and State; the latter shift is a shift from God Himself as he is known by Catholics, and Who in fact constitutes that Objective Truth in its deepest sense and intimate nature, to man [8].

Now while Tradition takes God’s nature, that is the objective Truth that God is, as the basis of religious liberty; the Council takes man, that is to say the ‘dignity of the human person’, as its basis.

The Council offers two types of justification for religious liberty on the basis of man: a philosophical and a theological type. We shall first examine the philosophical type.

b)    Philosophical Justification

i) ‘…the right to religious freedom is based not on subjective attitude but on the very nature of the individual person’ (DH 2);

ii) ‘It is in accordance with their dignity that all human beings, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore bearing responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth’ (DH 2);

iii) ‘…people share with each other the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered…’ (DH 3);

iv) ‘… immunity [from external coercion] continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it’ (DH 2);

v) ‘ genuine freedom is an exceptional sign of the image of God in humanity’ (GS 17).

General Analysis

The texts purport to justify the right to religious liberty on the basis of the dignity of the human person, more precisely on the basis of his ‘nature’ (text i), and yet more precisely on the basis of his ‘reason and free will’ (text ii).

In answer to this, it should be said that it is a principle of the natural law that man has a right to possess only that which is a good for his nature. Clearly the primary good for a man is the knowledge of truth, since his intellect is created for that very purpose, and without the knowledge of truth he is unable to direct his actions to any particular end; without the knowledge of supernatural truth in particular he is unable to attain his final end. Man has, then, a right to direct his reason to the truth, and moreover, as the Council states, has an obligation to use his free will to seek the truth.

If man has a right to choose truth in that truth is a good for his nature, then he has no right to choose falsehood, for falsehood is an ill for his nature. Consequently, he has no right to choose the religion that he wishes, but only the right, and duty, to choose the one that is true.

By grounding man’s right to Religious Liberty in his faculties of reason and free will, the Council in effect claims that man’s choice of religion should be respected however he uses these faculties. Indeed in text (iii) the Council accords dignity to man even for thinking that he has discovered the truth, and in text (iv) even for only possessing the faculties of reason and free will, despite misusing them.

We reply that a man’s dignity in the possession of a given faculty is lost when he abuses it. For the dignity that a man has by possessing a given faculty derives from the finality of that faculty: from the finality, or end, to which the faculty is ordered. But this dignity will clearly be forfeited if he uses the faculty for a contrary end. This may be illustrated in regard to free will as follows: The dignity that a man has by possessing free will derives from the faculty of free will being ordered to choosing the True and the Good. But if a man, instead of choosing the True and the Good, chooses Falsehood and Evil, then clearly he can no longer lay claim to the dignity that derives from the possession of free will.

To give an example from another domain of ethics: man has a certain dignity in possessing the sexual faculty, in that this faculty is ordered towards the conservation of the human race; but clearly he will lose this dignity by abusing the faculty. Indeed by abusing the faculty he will be abusing his dignity; and by abusing the faculty (or indeed any human faculty) to a sufficient degree, he will in fact lose his dignity altogether [9]. In summary, if a man’s dignity derives from his potential to do good, then he will lose this dignity if he uses the potential to do evil. The metaphysical error of the Council here is to ignore the principle of finality.    

Detailed Analysis

We proceed to ask what motivates the Council to respect man’s choices, even when they involve a misuse of his mental faculties. There are two motivations for this which are substantiated by the Council documents: one is the Council’s esteem for man’s freedom; the other is its scepticism in regard to Truth. Since both elements have an important rôle to play in the Council, it is fair to assume that both of them exercise an influence on its doctrine concerning Religious Liberty.

We proceed then to examine:

1.      The Council’s Esteem for Man’s Freedom;

2.      The Council’s Scepticism regarding Truth.

1. The Council’s Esteem for Man’s Freedom

One motivation for the Council’s respect, indeed great respect, for man’s choices is, then, the great respect that it accords to his freedom. Text (v) in fact presents man’s freedom as god-like in stating that ‘genuine freedom’ is an ‘exceptional sign of the image of God’ in man. Now if man’s faculty of freedom is god-like, then it is reasonable to suppose that the exercise of the faculty corresponds to the faculty [10] and is therefore also god-like, and hence intrinsically good and deserving of unconditional respect [11].

We may reply that man’s freedom cannot be described as a sign of the image of God in an unconditional sense, in that man’s freedom is only a relative perfection, as a capacity to do good or evil, whereas God’s freedom is an absolute perfection, as a capacity always to do good [12]. For this same reason man’s freedom cannot be considered as an intrinsic good either, deserving of unconditional respect.

Some-one might object that the phrase ‘genuine freedom’ in the context of GS 17 refers to man’s freedom to do good, which is indeed a sign of the image of God in him and an intrinsic good deserving of respect. But here we would no longer be comparing man to God from the point of view of his freedom to do good which always involves the possibility of doing ill, but rather from the point of view of his capacity to do good, which is another thing altogether.

But quite apart from this point, we should stress that the phrase ‘genuine freedom’ is of itself unclear and can be understood, particularly when taken out of its context, to mean that man’s freedom tout court is an image of God’s freedom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church will in fact itself quote text (v) out of context two times, one time at n. 1712 [13] , and another time at n. 1705 [14]. In the latter instance the word ‘genuine’ is left out, so that the Catechism gives the reader to believe that man’s freedom is an image of God simpliciter.

2.      The Council’s Scepticism regarding Truth

The other motivation for the Council’s respect for man’s choices is its scepticism towards objective Truth, that we have described in the Introduction as the Council’s first principle of metaphysical error. For if the Council holds that the Church does not possess objective Truth, or is unable to express it, or is not authorized to communicate it, then it follows that She has no power or right to evangelize, so that every-one is free to choose the Religion that he wishes.

Is this scepticism not the very root of the Council’s Ecumenism in regard to other Christians and Indifferentism in regard to members of other religions? If the Council Fathers had had a strong Faith and had believed that the Church was the one Ark of Salvation, how could they have ever relinquished Our Lord’s mandate to evangelize them?

If a number of mountaineers are on the way across a mountain and there is only one pass which only one of them knows, and every-one apart from him is heading in directions which will lead to their death; then the one mountaineer that knows the pass will do his utmost to bring the others through the pass with him. If he does nothing to save them, then one can only assume that he does not know that he is on the right path, the only path which is safe.

c)      Theological Justification

The declaration Dignitatis Humanae is an example of a syncretist conciliar document, containing, as it does, both traditional and modernist doctrines. We have already considered examples of such traditional doctrines above [15]. Here we are of course looking at the modernist doctrine of Religious Liberty, and asking how the Council purports to derive it from man’s dignity with the aid of Revelation. We may here discern an appeal to the following principles in order to justify Religious Liberty theologically:

      1.  The Respect due to Man;

2.  The Immunity from Coercion.

1. The Respect due to Man

i) ‘[Revelation]… shows us Christ’s respect for the freedom with which people are to fulfill their duty of believing the word of God…’ (DH 9);

ii) ‘God has regard for the dignity of the human person which he has created; human persons are to be guided by their own judgment and enjoy freedom.’ (DH 11);

iii) ‘Christ… is meek and humble of heart, acted patiently… he left vengeance in God’s hands until the day of judgment… he accomplished on the cross the work of redemption by which he achieved salvation and true freedom for the human race’ (DH 11).

To analyze these texts, we must first ask how the Council understands God’s respect for man’s dignity and freedom. It holds that God gave man freedom (free will) in order that he might choose between True and False, Good and Evil; it holds that God desires that man choose the True and the Good, but that He permits him to choose Falsehood and Evil. In the latter case the Council views Him as indulgent – meek, humble, patient, and not avenging man’s error or evil (or at least not Himself). In synthesis, the Council suggests that God’s respect for man’s dignity and freedom has an exclusively positive sense, involving acquiescence to a certain measure in man’s misuse of freedom. This is seen in the positive, generic terms in which the Council presents God’s regard for man in texts (i) & (ii), and in the positive, Christological terms in which it does so in text (iii). In such a way the Council seeks to corroborate with the aid of Revelation what it has purported to argue from reason: namely the right of all men to religious liberty.

In reply, it is true that God gives man free will to choose between True and False, Good and Evil, and that He permits him to choose Falsehood and Evil. But when man chooses in this way, God’s respect for him is not invested with a positive, but rather with a negative sense: it does not involve any degree of acquiescence in man’s wrongful choices, but stands rather in what can only be described as diametrical opposition to them: How can the Absolute True and the Infinite Good that is God in any way countenance error and evil? God teaches the one true Faith through His Church and permits man freely to choose whether to accept or reject it, and yet His reaction will always be without compromise: ‘He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned’[16].

It is true that our Lord is gentle, meek, and patient, but not in His acquiescence in their sin, but rather in His desire that the sinner should repent and return to Him. Does St. Paul not say: ‘… despisest thou the riches of his goodness and patience and longsuffering? Knowest thou not that the benignity of God leadeth thee to penance?’ [17] St. Pius X states explicitly: ‘Then, if Jesus was kind to those who had gone astray and to sinners, He did not respect their erroneous convictions, however sincere they might appear; He loved them all in order to instruct, convert, and save them… If He raised up the humble, it was not to inspire in them the sentiment of a dignity independent and rebellious to authority.’ [18]

If sinners do not repent, He will judge them as they deserve. Here He will not leave judgment ‘in God’s hands’ either (text iii), in the sense that ‘God’ were some-one other than He, for Christ Himself is God and it is He Himself that will judge man on the day of Universal Judgment  – and also indeed at their Particular Judgment, on the day of their death [19]. 

2.     The Immunity from Coercion

i) ‘One of the key truths in catholic teaching… is that human beings should respond to the word of God freely, and that therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against their will. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.’ (DH 10).

ii) ‘… it has always remained the teaching of the church that no one is to be coerced into believing. Thus, the leaven of the Gospel has long been at work in people’s minds and has contributed greatly to a wider recognition by them in the course of time of their dignity of persons. It has contributed too to the growth of the conviction that in religious matters the human person should be kept free from all manner of coercion in civil society’ (DH 12).

iii) ‘It is certain that the people of to-day want to profess their religion freely in private and in public… there are forms of government under which…the public authorities themselves try to deter the citizens from professing their religion… this sacred council gladly welcomes the first of these two facts as a happy sign of the times. In sorrow, however, it denounces the second as deplorable… religious freedom must be given effective constitutional protection everywhere and people’s supreme right and duty to be free to lead a religious life in society must be respected.’ (DH 15).

Text (i) expresses clearly the Catholic doctrine that no coercion may be applied to make men convert to the Catholic Faith. Such coercion is neither allowed by the Church, nor is it effective, since, as the text rightly states, the act of adherence to the Faith is an act which is of its very nature free.

Text (ii) starts by advocating that no-one should be coerced into believing, and ends by advocating that in religious matters no-one should be coerced in any way at all. In so doing it passes from a principle always taught by the Church to a principle rejected by the Church. For, as noted in our introduction to this discussion of Religious Liberty, the Church teaches that when Catholics are in the majority, they should ensure that the State suppress moral and religious error, which includes heresy and the public practice of non-Catholic Religions.

The Council effects the transition from one principle to the other by insinuating that dogma develops in some way [20], as the ‘leaven of the Gospel’ [21] works ‘in people’s minds’ in such a way as to contribute to their wider understanding and growing conviction of the putative truth of this new principle.

Text (iii) adds to the arguments for religious Liberty from Reason and from Revelation an argument based on popular opinion: the Council, returning in this last paragraph of the document to the theme of the first paragraph, asserts that the ‘people of to-day’ desire to profess their religion in private and public; it expresses its approval thereof as a welcome development, it denounces the State’s attempts to oppose such actions, and finally declares religious liberty as a ‘supreme right and duty’ of man.

In reply, we have already stated that the Church and the State exist to promote the eternal good of man which is endangered by the public profession of falsehood and heresy. For this reason, when the Church is in power, She has the duty to obstruct the public profession of false Religions. It is normal that the adherents of such religions would wish to profess them publically, but this is clearly no argument that they should do so: the Church is not a democracy but a monarchy; She does not obey the voice of the people but the voice of God; Her doctrines are not mutable but immutable. In this regard we quote the following doctrines condemned in the Syllabus: Error 77: ‘In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the state, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship’; Error 78: ‘Hence it has been wisely decided by law, in some Catholic countries, that persons coming to reside therein shall enjoy the public exercise of their own peculiar worship.’

We observe here that it is hardly surprising that the Council does not produce any convincing argument for Religious Liberty from Revelation, since Revelation was given to man so that by the use of his free will he might choose the one Religion that it revealed: because only this Religion is true, and only by this Religion he might be saved.

In short, the Council attempts to justify religious liberty on the basis of the dignity of man, which it derives ultimately from his faculty of free will. The Council’s glorifies this faculty, holding that it is god-like and holding that God respects man’s use of it and acquiesces in his abuse of it. Its arguments to this thesis, which are both philosophical and theological in nature, turn out on analysis to be without substance. For the Church to preach religious liberty is as absurd as a company that fabricates the only type of parachute which is guaranteed never to fail, to promote in its publicity brochure the type of parachute fabricated by another firm, which is guaranteed always to fail.

[1] Immortale Dei, 27

[2] as we shall see in section (e) below

[3] Mgr. Lefebvre commented on this text as follows: ‘NO!… the fundamental principle which governs the relations between Church and State is the ‘He must reign’ of St. Paul: oportet illum regnare … the reign that applies not only to the Church, but must be the foundation of the temporal City’ (MD rl p.181) see also Immortale Dei and the Letter on the Sillon of St. Pius X.

[4] The Rights of Man, pp. 16-17 op. cit.

[5] Condemned Proposition 15. For earlier documents see: Pope Pius VII’s criticism (1814) of art. 22 of the French Constitution of the time concerning the liberty of cults, the support offered to this liberty and to the ministers of the cults, its mingling of truth with falsehood and its demeaning treatment of ‘the Holy and Immaculate Bride of Christ’; the encyclical Mirari vos (1832) of Pope Gregory XVI against indifferentism, which is the heresy that ‘it is possible, by the profession of some sort of faith, to procure the soul’s salvation’, and which leads to the insanity – deliramentum – of ‘liberty of conscience’ which leads in its turn to ‘liberty of opinions’ that is to liberty of expression; the encyclical Qui pluribus of Bl. Pius IX where he condemns as a ‘monstrous error’ the theory that equal rights in the public forum should be accorded to all cults, which is used to attack ‘the Catholic religion, the divine authority of the Church and her laws, and to trample underfoot the rights of both civil and ecclesiastical authority’, where ‘the apostles of error suppress every distinction between virtue and vice, between truth and error, between honesty and baseness.’   

[6] Libertas Humana, 21

[7] The Council text is furnished with a footnote which refers to 4 Papal documents in purported support of it. Yet it must be countered that Pacem in terris of Pope John XXIII, even if inclining to toleration of heresy, is reconcilable with traditional doctrine (cf. MD rl p.121); that the Radio Message of Pope Pius XII of Christmas, 1942 and Mit brennender Sorge of Pope Pius XI, 1937 both demand religious liberty, but only for the Church and in face of Nazi aggression; Libertas praestantissimum of Pope Leo XIII (1888) explicitly condemns liberty for all religions, namely that: ‘…liberty in individuals which is so opposed to the virtue of religion, namely the ‘liberty of worship’ as it is called. This is based on the principle that every man is free to profess as he may choose any religion or none…’ (19). Later, referring to the public domain, he adds: ‘that religion must be professed which alone is true [that is to say the Catholic religion]… This religion therefore the rulers of the State must preserve and protect.’ (21). We conclude that none of the Papal documents referred to support the Council text.

[8] as Michael Davies points out, we see the same shift from God to man in the document Gaudium et Spes, and in Sacrosanctum Concilium,  the declaration on the liturgy. In the latter case he notes: ‘the criterion for regulating the celebration of the liturgy is not what is fitting to honour God to Whom worship is offered, but what will appeal to man who offers it.’ (MD rl p.154).

All [9] see St. Thomas Summa II II 64. 2

[10] by the principle of agere sequitur esse

[11] without doubt the rejection of the objectivity of Good and Evil, the adoption of moral relativism, the refusal to take a moral stand characteristic of modern man are all consequences of the contemporary deification of man’s freedom , to which the Council itself has clearly contributed.

[12] see the discussion on free will in chapter 8 of this book in our analysis of the natural dignity of man.

[13] ‘Genuine freedom is “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image” in man.’

[14] ‘By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image” ’. We take the opportunity of warning the reader of the heterodoxy of much in the said Catechism. Pope John Paul II stated in the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum that the catechism was intended to renew ‘the whole life of the Church, as desired and begun by the Second Vatican Council’. Not only does the work contain many of the errors of the Council, but, as in the example just given concerning man’s freedom, develops them yet further in the direction of heresy. The catechisms to be recommended without reservation are that of Trent and that of St. Pius X.

[15] as quoted in the same Introduction above: ‘We believe that this one true religion exists in the Catholic and Apostolic church, to which the Lord Jesus entrusted the task of spreading among all peoples when he said to the apostles: ‘Go therefore…’  (DH 1); and ‘… the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. It is its duty to proclaim and teach with authority the Truth which is Christ…’ (DH 14)

[16] Mk 16.16

[17] Romans 2.4

[18] ‘Puis, si Jésus a été bon pour les égarés et les pécheurs, il n’a pas respecté leurs convictions erronées, quelques sincères qu’elles parussent; il les a tous aimés pour les instruire, les convertir et les sauver… S’il a appelé a lui, pour les soulager, ceux qui peinent et qui souffrent, ce n’a pas été pour les inspirer le sentiment d’une dignité indépendente et rebelle à l’obéissance.’ St. Pius X against the Sillonists, Notre Charge Apostolique.

[19] ‘Neither does the Father judge any man, but all judgment he has given to the Son…’ (Jn 5. 22); ‘… the Lord Jesus.. will come from Heaven with the angels of his power, in flaming fire, to inflict punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2. Thess 1.7-8). We observe that the latter passage, at least in part, is misleadingly referred to by the Council to substantiate its assertion that Our Lord Jesus Christ will leave judgment ‘in God’s hands.’

[20] The doctrine of dogmatic development is a heresy. We have quoted the relevant anathema of the First Vatican Council in the Introduction to this book

[21] The mention of the ‘leaven of the Gospel’ as a principle of evolution recalls Pascendi s.20 which speaks of: ‘…the law of evolution which requires for the development of germs a certain time and a certain series of circumstances.’ It equally recalls Lamentabili, condemned proposition 54: ‘Dogmas, sacraments, and hierarchy, both the notion and reality, are only interpretations and evolutions of the Christian intelligence, which have increased and perfected, by an external series of additions, the vital germ latent in the Gospel.’

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