Left: Pope Paul VI. Right: Five U.S. cardinals pose for a photo in St. Peter's Square following a meeting of the second session of the Second Vatican Council in 1963. From left are Cardinals John E. Ritter of St. Louis, James McIntyre of Los Angeles, Francis Spellman of New York, Richard Cushing of Boston and Albert Meyer of Chicago. The American bishops had a notable influence on the Council's teachings on religious liberty. (CNS file photos)
Of all the documents produced by the Second
Vatican Council, none had more revisions, saw more debate, or garnered more
controversy than the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” Dignitatis Humanae. This is in part because the document’s 15
tightly-packed paragraphs had the burden of boldly defending the rights of
conscience while at the same time respecting the teaching of the embattled
Church of the 19th century. This was no easy task, so we should be ever
grateful to the conciliar Fathers for the declaration as we face challenges to
our religious liberty today.
Change in doctrine?
The controversy stems from the accusation by both progressives and ultra-traditionalists that the
Council Fathers reversed earlier Church teaching. The
strange bed-fellows of Father Charles Curran and the late Archbishop Marcel
Lefebvre agree that the declaration is a break from doctrine and that it is a
break with significant consequences for the Church.
For Father Curran, who advocates for changes
in the Church’s teaching on contraception, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and
divorce, the perceived break is a welcome example with which to argue for more
change. If the Church can totally reverse her teaching once, she can do it again.
For Archbishop Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X, the break is a
betrayal. He went so far as to call the declaration outright apostasy and,
because of it, the Second Vatican Council a “robber council.” So his followers
today point to Dignitatis Humanae as
exhibit “A” in their dissent from the teachings of Vatican II.
Not everyone agreed with this assessment. The
great Dietrich von Hildebrand thought the declaration “marvelous,” and
indicated that it was overdue. He did not think it was a break from previous
teaching, but rather a natural consequence of the Gospel.
This was also the position of the drafters of the
document, the members of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. They wrote and
scrapped and rewrote version after version of the declaration in their conscientious
effort to proclaim the truth about the rights of conscience. They worked so
hard because a key aspect of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s vision was at stake.
The perception of the Church’s teaching by many
was that whenever she found herself in the minority, the Church would cry
religious liberty. However, if the Church was in the majority, the state would
be obliged to suppress other faiths. If that perception was not addressed,
argued the Secretariat, the desire of Blessed Pope John XXIII to make inroads
with non-Catholic Christians would be impossible.
This was a tension particularly acute in the
Catholic Church in America. Paul Blanchard’s 1949 anti-Catholic book American Freedom and Catholic Power
portrayed the Church as a menace to the US Constitution and real religious
freedom. Thus Father John Courtney Murray, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston,
Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, and other American prelates agreed and
worked to advance the declaration at the Council.
The 19th century
An objective eye must admit that Dignitatis Humanae’s language does at
least appear to run counter to the language of the 19th-century popes. Those
popes had witnessed numerous massacres and open persecutions of priests,
religious, and laity in Europe and elsewhere. They witnessed the overthrow of
the Papal States and found themselves locked up in the Lateran. Bishops,
empowered by hostile governments, were in open rebellion against the popes.
At the root of all this hostility was the new
philosophy of the age, a philosophy that argued that reason was the only
measure of truth, while tradition and religion were enemies of freedom. Instead
of freedom being at the service of truth, truth was at the service of a nearly
unbridled freedom. Kant may have believed in a moral order, but with Nietzsche
came Beyond Good and Evil. It was the
birth of liberalism.
As a result, the idea of a right to liberty of
consciencepermitting one to believe whatever one wanted or nothing at allwas
condemned as “insanity” by Pope Gregory XVI. The notion that the State had no
obligation to ensure the triumph of truth was likewise condemned. And since
Catholics believed that the ultimate truth of life is found in relationship
with God, then the idea that the State had no obligations to protect the Church
was pure folly, according to Pope Leo XIII.
Pope Leo argued in Immortale Dei, “On the Christian Constitution of States,” that the
State is responsible for maintaining the common good. Eternal life is good for
man. Thus, the State has an obligation to maintain the conditions possible for
the pursuit of eternal life, and that means at least some form of protection
for religion in general and the Church more specifically. In fact, ideally it
means some prudential State restriction of the public expression of
From the start, therefore, the reason for
addressing the issue of religious liberty at the Council was radically
different from previous attempts. The previous popes were combating liberal
excesses that denied any limits to freedom. The Council was laying out what
justice demands for human dignity. The popes were writing to Catholic bishops.
The Council was speaking to the whole world. The popes were writing on the
duties of the State. The Council was focused on the rights of individuals. Is
it any wonder the language was so different? Still, the difference is only
A new teaching from the old
Article one of Dignitatis Humanae begins with the observation that the modern man
has, with a new-found sense of freedom, realized a duty to pursue the truth.
That truth rests with the one true Church of Christ. Thus, the interior drive
within us to seek out the truth must correlate to a freedom to seek and wrestle
with that truth in all sincerity.
In a crucial passage, the Council Fathers write
that they search “in the sacred traditions and doctrine of the Church” in order
to bring “forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.”
For this reason, they leave “untouched the traditional Catholic doctrine on the
moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one
Church of Christ.” This is no attempt at remaking anything. They mean simply to
“develop the doctrine of recent popes.”
From the start, as if using the very “hermeneutic
of continuity” that our current Pope Benedict XVI has asked we use, the Fathers
precluded any reading of the declaration that would allow for a direct
They go on to argue that it is precisely because
of the sacrosanct nature of a sincere conscience that “the human person has a right to religious freedom” wherein “all men
are to be immune from coercion…, in such wise that no
one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether
privately or publicly…, within due limits.” This definition of religious
liberty is what the Church teaches, for this right is “in the very dignity of
the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and
by reason itself.” That is, Divine Revelation and logic require that we adhere
to this teaching.
The declaration, in the tradition of
other social doctrine texts, links rights and responsibilities by tying the
right to religious freedom to the corresponding duty to seek out objective truth.
This is unlike the rights claims of the 19th-century liberal. Dignitatis Humanae states that “the
highest norm of human life is the divine law itself,” so the pursuit of one’s
own private faith does not fulfill one’s responsibility. One must pursue truth
and the divine law, not mere personal whim.
Still, faith must be free. For one to
properly adhere to the one true faith, he must be free “to follow his
conscience faithfully in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of
his life.” This is an echo of the teaching of the Apostles and the Patristic
age. Faith must be entered into freely. Love expressed in faith cannot be
The declaration continues by arguing
for a freedom of public worship from State suppression.
Like the young lover who desires to tell the whole world of his romance, the
believer naturally yearns to spread the good news of his faith. To this, the
Council Fathers say that while the State must “take account of religious life,”
it would “clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to
command or inhibit acts that are religious.”
This language in article three of Dignitatis Humanae was changed in nearly
every draft of the document. The 19th-century popes taught that the State could
inhibit public acts of religion. To avoid a direct contradiction, the Council
Fathers argued that the State could not presume to inhibit such acts as if it
were the arbiter of the true religion. The State could only inhibit religious
acts if those acts violated public order and thus the common good.
As the argument develops, the Fathers
apply their principles to groups of believers. As social beings it is only
normal that we should seek out and gather with others. This is why the right to
religious liberty is one that extends to groups and not just individual
persons. This is also why religions ought to enjoy the right to build churches
and schools and to administer their own structures without State interference.
Article five of the declaration is
particularly interesting as it deals with the rights of parents to educate
their child as they see fit. The document says that the State must “acknowledge
the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and other means
of education.” It goes on to say that “the rights of parents are violated if
their children are forced to attend lessons or instructions which are not in
agreement with their religious beliefs.” The recent cases of parents being
forced to have their children submit to same-sex curricula is a clear case of
the violation of religious liberty as defined by the Second Vatican Council.
Within due limits
The Council upholds the teaching that
the State has an obligation to protect religious practice in general. This
section of the document, article six, is in part a repeat of the teaching of
Pope Leo XIII, who taught that the State’s responsibility for
the common good meant the protection of religious practice. But what if the
religion in question is harmful to society?
Dignitatis Humanae’s definition of religious liberty at
the start has it that “all men are to be immune from
coercion…, within due limits.” That last phrase is most important, for here the
Council Fathers had to walk a very narrow line. Article seven of the document
starts to unpack the meaning.
Pope Leo XIII criticized the notion
that citizens could worship whatever and however they wanted just so long as
“public peace” wasn’t disturbed. In other words, condemned is the notion that
you’re free to say and do and believe whatever you want so long as you don’t
prohibit another from saying and doing and believing what they want. That was
too low a bar for Pope Leo.
He taught that the common good should
be the standard for State intervention. Practically, this meant that even if no
public peace has been violated, the State may at times repress error to
maintain the common good.
Some argue that because the phrase
“common good” is replaced with “public order” there is a contradiction. But the
drafters had a good reason to avoid using “common good.” Bishop Emile de Smedt,
the official spokesperson for the drafters, argued that the term was not used
by modern governments. So the drafters chose “public order” as “the more basic
component of the common good” but were careful to define “public order” to
include not just “public peace” but “public morality.”
This was still not satisfactory to
some. Archbishop Karol Wojtyłalater Pope John Paul IInoted that the
Communists appealed to the “public order” all the time as they suppressed and
persecuted the Church. He insisted that a reference be made to an objective
moral standard. As a result, the drafters decided to define “public order” as
the “objective moral order.”
Therefore, according to the declaration
and in line with Pope Leo XIII, a right to religious liberty is necessary for
the common good, but if one were going to limit religious liberty one would
have to demonstrate that the religion was violating the objective moral order.
Our situation today
This is important in our own context
today because there are those who have attempted to defend the Obama
administration’s HHS mandate by arguing that in the name of the common good,
the bishops should give up on battling the administration. The Patient
Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is social policy enacted for
the common good. When competing rights like the right to access to health care
and the right to religious freedom collide, the State determines what the
common good requires. Thus, the argument goes, health care can trump religious
liberty for the common good.
But those who make that argument are
betraying the Second Vatican Council. Infringing on a faith community’s
religious liberty would be acceptable only if the objective moral order were
violated. The US bishops wish to avoid having to pay for other people’s sexual
choices and consequences. This is not a violation of the objective moral order,
but in fact the opposite. It is a defense of the moral order.
They are also wrong who argue that
even if the Church should be exempt from the mandate, individual Catholic
business owners should be forced to participate. Dignitatis Humanae is crystal-clear, however, that religious
freedom is a right not just for groups but for individuals.
The crucible of the Council produced
the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” after a whole series of debates and
additions, tweaks and subtractions. The document is the fruit of long and
careful conversation and consideration between the old teaching and the new way
of expressing what was already there in our tradition. In the words of the declaration,
“The Church is following the way of Christ and the apostles when it recognizes
and supports the principle of religious freedom.”
is, as Dietrich
von Hildebrand said, a triumph of “the most elementary of human rights.” We are
blessed to have it and to be reminded of its importance during this Year of