Vatican II and Religious Freedom: Rupture or Authentic Development?

The authors of a new book on “Dignitatis Humanae” argue that the Declaration grounds the right to religious freedom in the obligation to seek the truth, especially the truth about God

One of the most contentious and heavily debated topics in the Church during and following the Second Vatican Council is that of religious freedom. In recent years, questions about the nature, parameters, and recognition of religious liberty have become even more timely and pressing in the United States and other Western nations. In Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity (Eerdmans, 2015), Dr. David L. Schindler and Dr. Nicholas J. Healy offer a rigorous and detailed examination of Dignitatis Humanae, the Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom”, providing a new translation, a redaction history, and a rich and provocative interpretation of the text. 

Dr. Schindler, who is the Edouard Cardinal Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, Washington DC, and Dr. Healy, assistant professor of philosophy at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, recently responded to written questions from Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about their book, Dignitatis Humanae, and the situation faced by Catholics today.

CWR: In the Preface to Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, you state that the book “seeks to promote a deeper understanding of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom.” What are some specific reasons that such an understanding is important fifty years after the Council?

Dr. Healy: The Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, was the most controversial document of the Second Vatican Council. A significant minority of Council fathers harbored reservations on the grounds that the Declaration seemed to depart from established Catholic doctrine on the duties of the state toward the Catholic religion. Within the majority that supported an affirmation of religious freedom, there were deep disagreements about the nature and foundation of the right to religious freedom and the relationship between freedom and truth. Although approved by an overwhelming majority of Council fathers and commended by Pope Paul VI as “one of the greatest documents” of the Council, Dignitatis Humanae has remained a source of controversy and debate. Behind Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s schismatic act of consecrating bishops without papal mandate was a conviction that the Declaration represented a departure from Catholic doctrine and a capitulation to the heresy of modernism. Among the supporters of religious freedom, the disagreements that accompanied the drafting of the Declaration have served as a fault line for differing accounts of the nature and ground of religious freedom, and the significance of this teaching for the relationship between the Church and modernity.

One reason why the Declaration continues to generate interest and debate is the central importance of the question of freedom for the Church’s encounter with contemporary culture. “The era we call modern times,” Joseph Ratzinger observed, “has been determined from the beginning by the theme of freedom; the striving for new forms of freedom.” Both Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis Humanae acknowledge the legitimacy of this aspiration for freedom. At the same time, the Council fathers recognized the need for a critical discernment of the modern idea of freedom in light of the truth of human nature and the Christian mystery of redemption in Christ.

Freedom is not simply the capacity to choose between alternatives; it is a sign of the ontological dignity of the human person who is created in love and called to live in communion with the truth. One of the great achievements of the Declaration is to develop an understanding of human dignity and human freedom that is grounded in the human person’s constitutive relation to God. In the words of John Paul II, “the freedom of the individual finds its basis in man’s transcendent dignity: a dignity given to him by God the Creator and Father, in whose image and likeness he was created.” There is no freedom without truth, and no truth without freedom.

In the face of new challenges and new threats to religious freedom, it is important to rediscover the Council’s authentic teaching on the right to religious freedom as grounded in the obligation to seek the truth about God. As Gaudium et spes teaches, once God is forgotten, the creature is lost sight of as well. Especially in our time, it is necessary to uphold the transcendent and relational dignity of the human person, who is created by God and destined to share in the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).

CWR: What are some of the resources that your book provides to help readers understand and interpret Dignitatis Humanae?

Dr. Healy: First of all, our book provides a new translation of the Declaration on Religious Freedom, side by side with the Latin text. Footnotes are provided that indicate alternative translations of important words or phrases from previous English translations.

Secondly, we have published—for the first time in English—the five schemas or draft texts that were debated and discussed during the Council. My chapter on “The Drafting of Dignitatis Humanae,” describes the genesis and redaction history of the document. A better awareness of the changes that were introduced into the final text as a result of the conciliar debate is essential for understanding the document’s continuity with and development of Catholic doctrine.

Thirdly, the book provides the conciliar interventions of Bishop Karol Wojtyla on religious freedom. Speaking of behalf of the entire Polish episcopate, Wojtyla’s interventions on the relationship between freedom and truth proved decisive for the final redaction of document.

Finally, the book includes a major interpretative essay by Schindler that explores the current state of the question and develops an extended argument on the meaning of the right to religious freedom. A passage from Schindler’s chapter sums up the argument:

It is not the case that, with the conciliar affirmation of religious freedom, the Church has signaled a new awareness of the importance of freedom in addition to, or even despite, her traditional emphasis on truth. On the contrary, with this conciliar teaching, rightly understood, the Church rather signals a development in her understanding of the inherent unity of truth with freedom and freedom with truth. While still affirming that the truth alone frees, she now affirms at the same time, in a more explicit way, that truth itself presupposes freedom, and that truth really does free.

CWR: What were some of the key issues debated and discussed by the Council bishops regarding religious freedom? Dr. Healy, what are some important insights that can be found in studying, as you have, the drafting of Dignitatis Humanae?

Dr. Healy: The first and most basic question discussed at the Council was how to understand the nature and foundation of the right to religious freedom. One of the significant shifts that occurred as a result of the conciliar debate was to ground the right to religious freedom in the obligation to seek the truth, especially the truth about God. This conceptual shift entails a further question. Does the person’s relation to God and to truth inform the meaning of human dignity and the content of the right to immunity from coercion? In his book John Paul II and the Legacy of Dignitatis Humanae, Jesuit Father Hermínio Rico frames this question as follows:

The basic issue at [the] level of the foundation of the right to religious freedom has to do with the kind of definitive answer to the following question: Where does human dignity ultimately rest in the person? . . . [Does it rest in] the freedom inherent in every person? . . . Or is it the person’s relationship with transcendent truth?

As suggested by Rico, the underlying question involves the relationship between human freedom and truth. One school of thought—represented by John Courtney Murray and Pietro Pavan—tended to view the right to religious freedom as a formally juridical concept that abstracts from the question of truth. “Religious freedom,” writes Pavan, “does not concern . . . the person’s relation to truth.” More recently, Martin Rhonheimer has endorsed a version of this position.

Another group—made up of bishops especially from France, Italy, and Poland—considered the link between freedom and truth as foundational for human dignity and as informing the right to religious freedom. In a crucial intervention during the fourth and final session of the Council, French Bishop Ancel stated concisely: “the obligation to seek the truth is itself the ontological foundation of religious freedom.” One of the key discoveries that we made while undertaking research for this book was that early drafts of the Declaration were significantly enriched and deepened in response to the concerns of Bishops Wojtyla, Columbo, and Ancel—concerns which Paul VI shared.

A second and related issue that was discussed at the Council involves the “due limits” to religious freedom. This question in turn presupposes an account of the nature and purpose of political authority. Consider, for example, two very different proposals regarding the responsibility of the state:

The civil power also, and not only each of the citizens, has the duty of accepting the revelation proposed by the Church itself. Likewise, in its legislation, it must conform itself to the precepts of the natural law and take a strict account of the positive laws, both divine and ecclesiastical, intended to lead men to supernatural beatitude. . . . It devolves seriously upon the civil power to exclude from legislation, government, and public activity everything it would judge to be capable of impeding the Church from attaining its eternal end.

Religious acts, in which men and women privately and publicly order themselves toward God out of a personal, intimate conviction, transcend the temporal and earthly order of things. In performing these acts, therefore, man is not subject to the civil power, whose competence, on account of its end, is restricted to the earthly and temporal order, and whose legislative power extends only to external actions. The public power, therefore, since it cannot pass judgment on interior religious acts, likewise cannot coerce or impede the public exercise of religion, provided that the demands of public order are preserved. . . . The public power completely exceeds its limits if it involves itself in any way in the governing of minds or the care of souls.

The first text, taken from the preparatory schema De Ecclesia drafted under the direction of Cardinal Ottaviani, presupposes the traditional Catholic view that the purpose of political authority is to care for the temporal common good. According to this view, responsibility for the common good includes an acknowledgment of the truth of the Catholic religion and allows the suppression of public manifestations of false religions. The second text, taken from an earlier draft of Dignitatis Humanae (the 3rd draft or “textus emendatus”), suggests the total incompetence of the state in religious matters. Instead of the traditional idea of responsibility for the common good, the “textus emendatus” presents the purpose of political authority in terms of “protecting, cultivating, and defending the natural rights of all citizens.”

The final text of the Declaration on Religious Freedom differs from both of these earlier drafts. Dignitatis Humanae describes the purpose or “proper end” of political authority as “the care of the temporal common good” (DH, 3). At the same time, the Declaration develops the idea of the common good in light of a new awareness of the dignity and freedom of human persons. In terms of the disputed question of the state’s responsibility for the truth and practice of religion, the Declaration acknowledges the transcendent nature of religious acts. Accordingly, political authority “would be said to exceed its limit if it presumes either to direct or to impede religious acts” (DH, 3). At the same time, care for the common good requires that political authority should “acknowledge and show favor to the religious life of its citizens” (DH, 3). It is not possible for the state to be neutral or simply to abstract from questions about the truth of human nature and the truth of religion.

A third issue, which presupposes and implicates the preceding questions, concerns the development of doctrine. Can the affirmation of a right to religious freedom be interpreted as an authentic development rather than a reversal or contradiction of earlier teaching by popes Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII? Most commentators agree that Dignitatis Humanae represents a shift or new development with respect to the teaching and practice of these nineteenth century popes. Does the novelty of the Declaration represent an authentic development or a rupture with the preceding tradition? Despite their obvious differences, “traditionalist” theologians such as Marcel Lefebvre and Michael Davies, and “progressive” theologians such as Charles Curran, Richard McCormick, and John T. Noonan share a common assumption: the Declaration on Religious Freedom represents a break with or contradiction of earlier papal teaching. The former argue that the teaching of the Delcaration is erroneous, while the latter theologians often adduce the example of the Declaration to support other possible changes in Catholic doctrine.

In our view, both of these positions represent a false hermeneutic for a conciliar text, and both positions overlook the true significance of the Declaration.

CWR: Today, what are some of the more common or influential misunderstandings or misrepresentations of the Declaration? What are some examples of their influence in contemporary debates or situations?

Dr. Schindler: The most common misinterpretations of the Declaration are tied to ideas regarding the human being that are generally operative in the culture. The right to religious freedom, in the prevailing view, is essentially “negative”; it has to do primarily with each person’s immunity from coercion by others. It is of course true that a right entails such a “negative” immunity. The crucial question, however, arises when we ponder its foundation. The Declaration roots the right to immunity in man’s nature and in his moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth (par.2). ‘[E]verybody,” it says, “has the duty and consequently the right to seek the truth in religious matters. . .” (par. 3). The right to religious freedom has a primarily positive meaning: because I am by nature made for the truth, and am thus morally obliged to search for it, therefore I must not be restricted by others in this search. My (negative) right to immunity from coercion takes its first meaning from within my natural (positive) relation to the truth.

When the foundation and nature of the right to religious freedom are conceived in this way, we are able to affirm such a right for every human being without exception—since every human being, exercising his own intelligence and freedom, is bound to seek the truth about God. And at the same time we uphold the negative right to immunity—because this immunity remains the necessary condition for, even as it remains tied to, the obligation to seek the truth.

The Declaration, in a word, bases the right to religious freedom on a human dignity that consists in man’s spiritual faculties of reason and free will, as these are ordered to and bound by the truth regarding the nature and destiny of the human being.

We can offer a second example of why Catholics often tend to misinterpret the Declaration. In liberal cultures, the tendency is to conceive the truth mostly as a limit and thus a burden to freedom. We typically conceive freedom in terms of simple freedom of choice—what the late Fr. Servais Pinckaers called “freedom of indifference.” On this view, the more options I keep open, the freer I am; the more I permit freedom to be shaped by truth, the less free I am. Needless to say, this view lends itself to a definite conception of political order. Given such a view, the tendency will be to order political society in terms of a freedom abstracted from truth. Why? Because ordering society around truth would by definition—for those who follow this view—threaten the political freedom of those who have different versions of what counts as true. It is hardly surprising, then, that Catholics living in liberal societies incline toward what is called the “juridical” interpretation of religious freedom. The juridical approach understands the hallmark of constitutional order to lie in freedom, or the right to immunity, in abstraction from questions of truth and moral obligation to the truth. Catholics often take for granted that it was just this juridical approach that was enshrined as the authentic teaching of the Council. But this interpretation misses the express burden of the significant changes made in Schema 5 of the Declaration, which are discussed in detail in our book.

Polish Auxiliary Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, wearing sunglasses, is pictured in St. Peter's Square in 1963 during the Second Vatican Council. The future Pope John Paul II helped draft council documents on religious liberty and the church in the modern world. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

CWR: Is it correct to say, Dr. Schindler, that in your interpretive essay you argue that the Declaration does not, as some insist, mark a break with the Church’s previous teaching about truth and freedom, but advances a deeper and integrated development of her understanding of the two? What are some essential aspects of your interpretation?

Dr. Schindler: If one assumes that the central teaching of the Declaration lies in its affirmation of an individual’s negative right to immunity, then of course this teaching will appear to represent a significant break from the past: formerly the Church emphasized the need for truth in the social-political order; now she has caught up with modern civilization, with its emphasis on “negative” freedom. But the claim that the Declaration displaced the Church’s perennial concern for truth essentially with a concern for freedom simply cannot be sustained on a proper reading of the text.

Is there a sense in which we can—or rightly must—say that the Declaration’s defense of religious freedom involves a genuine development in Church teaching? Yes—in the sense that the Church now draws out more explicitly how the realization of truth itself demands interiorization by a human-spiritual subject. Truth does not lie merely in an external correspondence between the mind and reality–which would open the door more readily to the use of coercive measures in effecting this correspondence. Truth consists rather in the mind’s interior “re-presencing” of reality, which requires the active participation of the person’s mind and will. My essay unfolds this claim especially in light of the work of philosopher Josef Pieper.

For the Council, a truth that is coerced does not measure up to what is understood as truth in the ancient-medieval sense. In the phrasing of John Paul II, the truth is to be proposed, not imposed (Redemptoris Missio, 39, 46). But let us be clear: the Declaration does not thereby deny the need for good laws, or abandon the essentially pedagogical purpose of the juridical order of society affirmed by St. Thomas. The Declaration re-affirms the Church’s perennial concern for the common good. While employing the more juridically conceived term, “public order,” to characterize the end of political authority, the Declaration consistently adds substantive qualifiers—in the name of the common good, justice, objective moral order, and the like (cf. DH, a. 7).

According to the Declaration, freedom is indeed to be vigorously protected in the political order, but only as ordered to the objective common good—at the heart of which is the dignity of the human person in his relation to truth, especially as it concerns God. Karol Wojtyla, for example, argued strongly that failure to qualify the meaning of “public order” in this way would leave society logically vulnerable to relativism, and the final text of the Declaration reflects these concerns. We may say, then, that Vatican II, in its Declaration on Religious Freedom, provides a key example of the continuity within discontinuity that Pope Benedict XVI affirmed as characteristic of the Council’s teaching, when properly interpreted.

My chapter also looks at the question of doctrinal development in connection with Brian Tierney’s well-known historical argument regarding rights. Tierney defends a continuity between the ancients and the moderns in the matter of rights’ theories. But he does so in terms of the priority of rights in their modern sense—as immunities. Tierney thus claims that rights as immunities are already implicit in classical-medieval thinkers, and that the emphasis by moderns on the negative meaning of rights can be interpreted to respect man’s positive social responsibilities as emphasized by the pre-moderns. My chapter, however, argues that Dignitatis Humanae in fact affirms something closer to the inverse of Tierney. The Declaration does indeed presuppose a continuity within discontinuity between medievals and moderns regarding human rights, but the continuity is established first in the terms developed in the medieval period by thinkers like Aquinas. The difference lies in the priority of truth, in a double sense: it is truth itself that demands the right to the religious freedom; and the right to religious freedom is intrinsically affirmed, but as always informed by freedom’s ordering to truth.

The teaching of the Council thus demands conformity with the modern notion of rights only insofar as it demands transformation of such rights: affirming the negative meaning of rights as shaped by the positive meaning of what rights are for.

CWR: There is, of course, much discussion today in the U.S. and the West about religious freedom and liberty. How might Dignitatis Humanae and your study of it help make sense of the conflicts between Church and state and between religious faith and secular/civil law?

Dr. Schindler: The Declaration doesn’t formally engage the question of the Church-State relationship, but its teaching clearly implies principles that are crucial for understanding this relationship. What are these principles?

The perception prevalent in liberal societies today, with their “”juridical” approach to rights, is that the separation of Church and State implies neutrality regarding religious truth and practices. The position taken in the Declaration implies rejection of such neutrality.

The idea of neutrality is invariably tied to the view that freedom is an “empty” act of choice that can be legitimately considered in abstraction from any order toward transcendence. But such a view does not avoid a definite conception of freedom; on the contrary, it embodies the conception of freedom called freedom of indifference—as already mentioned. Freedom of indifference by definition makes over all claims of religious truth into optional, or arbitrary, claims.

The idea of religious neutrality on the part of the state thus falls into two basic errors. It governs in the name of fair procedures designed to protect freedom conceived as freedom of indifference. This results in what is often termed procedural relativism—but it is important to note that the relativism is a function of the specific kind of (false) freedom guiding the procedures. At the same time, the “juridical” approach favors religions or churches that are voluntaristic in nature: that take relation to God to be primarily a function of choice. All traditional world religions, on the contrary, understand man’s relation to God to be already initiated in man in the act of creation. According to these religions, the human being is by nature religious (homo religiosus), even as the realization of the truth of one’s religious nature of course presupposes the exercise of freedom. The “juridical” approach to church-state questions in this way legally (even if only unconsciously) favors “sects” in preference to traditional world religions—like Roman Catholicism.

Regarding religious faith and civil law, then: the language of “competence” was used in Schema 2, and it is sometimes still said in discussions regarding the Declaration that the state is incompetent in matters of religion. But the final draft omitted the language of incompetence, and in fact the term can be problematic. For, as indicated, every state will necessarily favor some idea of man vis-à-vis religious truth. The state will operate “competently”—even if not in an explicit sense: it will treat religious activity either as primarily optional for man or as primarily natural to him (and thus as something that is necessary for him if he is to live with integrity, also in his political life).

The teaching of the Declaration regarding religion and the competence of the civil power (potestas civilis), then, carries two claims. On the one hand, the civil power cannot be the first or final arbiter of religion and religious truth and practice, and in this sense the state must remain “incompetent” in religious matters. At the same time, this negation of competence itself already indicates a kind of competence, inasmuch as it implies some positive conception of religion in its transcendent nature: that is why the state can never presume to be a proper arbiter of religion, qua religion (cf. DH, 3)! Indeed, the Declaration goes further in the matter of religious competence: it says that the state should “show favor to the religious life of its citizens” (DH, 3), and “effectively undertake . . . to provide favorable conditions for fostering religious life” (DH, 6). The negative prohibition implied by “incompetence,” therefore, according to the Declaration, would always, at least tacitly, presuppose a (positive) recognition of the transcendent nature of religion on the part of the state, and any defense of the state’s “incompetence” can be rightly understood only in terms of such (positive) recognition.

This reading of the Declaration carries surprising implications in the face of the common perception that the Declaration demands a posture of religious neutrality from the state. In fact, on a proper reading of the document, there is no problem in principle for the state to promote conditions favoring claims of truth regarding religion—for neutrality in such matters is in any case logically impossible! Indeed, there is no problem in principle for Catholics to promote conditions favoring the Catholic understanding of the nature and destiny of man. On the contrary, the Declaration rightly interpreted entrusts Catholics with the task of undertaking precisely this mission of truth regarding the ultimate meaning of man. (“All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it”: DH, 1). The crucial point is simply that this missionary service, elicited by the truth of the “Catholic and Apostolic Church” (DH, 1), be carried out in a way that is vigilant in protecting the right to immunity from coercion for all citizens. It is indeed the hallmark claim of the Church that the truth of Jesus Christ liberates human freedom in the fullest sense, as a core implication of its own truth (cf. DH, Ch. 2).

CWR: In that same context, what mistakes should Catholics avoid in addressing issues of religious freedom? And what ways in which Catholics can advance a robust and orthodox understanding of the same?

Dr. Schindler: Perhaps the simplest way to reply to these questions is recall the summary judgment of John Courtney Murray regarding the Declaration. (As is well-known, Murray was the “first scribe” of Schema 3 of the Declaration.) Murray had two major concerns regarding the document in its final form. First, he worried that founding the right to religious freedom on the obligation to seek the truth could provide justification for states to impose the truth, in order thereby to hasten citizens’ arrival at the truth they were meant to seek. Second, he thought that the Council Fathers’ insistence on binding freedom explicitly with truth reflected a failure to distinguish Anglo-American liberalism’s formal-juridical approach to rights adequately from French-Continental liberalism’s repressive-secularist approach. Finally, notwithstanding these two reservations, Murray believed that the hallmark claim of the final Declaration remained its “negative” conception of the right to religious freedom as an immunity.

In response our book argues, regarding the first: that the Council Fathers were at pains to insist that, on a Catholic understanding, it is truth itself that demands freedom, even as freedom retains its essential link with truth—even in the civil-political order. Regarding the second: the Council Fathers perceived that the would-be purely juridical notion of freedom logically implies a freedom of indifference that leads to relativism, despite its apparently innocent “procedural” intentions. Regarding the third: the effort of our book is to show that, if truth and freedom are indissoluble, also-even in the political order, it follows that a negative right to freedom can be properly secured, always and everywhere, only from within the human person’s positive ordering toward and by the truth.

If Catholics are going to avoid mistakes in addressing issues regarding religious freedom, and promote a faithful interpretation of the Church’s teaching regarding religious freedom, it seems to us that they will have to achieve clarity especially with respect to these issues raised by Murray in his concluding judgment regarding the Declaration.

About Carl E. Olson 1043 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.