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Book Review

The Pope’s Vital Preoccupations

Mary Shivanandan

John Paul II and the Legacy of Dignitatis Humanae
Hermínio Rico, S.J., Georgetown University Press, 273 pages, $59.95

There is a temptation in reviewing this book to see it as just another evaluation of Pope John Paul II by a theologian who apparently disagrees with his approach to morality, particularly sexual morality. But that would not do justice to its scholarship or to its attempt to grapple with the whole issue of the Church’s encounter with secular pluralism. Hermínio Rico, editor of the Jesuit cultural monthly journal
Brotéria—Cristianismo e Cultura and guest lecturer at the Faculdade de Teologia, the Catholic University of Lisbon, sees three “moments” in the unfolding of the concept of religious freedom within the Church. The first moment culminated in the Vatican Council II document Dignitatis Humanae (1965), which, according to Rico, brought “a very important change in the whole disposition of official Roman Catholicism toward modernity.” This change took place as the Church learned from the American secular experience of constitutional democracy, but it was also based on the fundamental commitment to the rights and dignity of the human person—a commitment intrinsic to the Christian tradition.

Dignitatis Humanae formalized three basic principles of religious freedom: rejection of the Church’s claim to direct political power, equal rejection of any interference of political powers in Church affairs, and insistence that the government guarantee freedom of religion and worship. The state itself was declared incompetent in matters of religion unless public order was affected, while the Church became the defender of the human dignity of all rather than seeking to defend only itself. Dignitatis Humanae, Rico says, “has effected a definitive break, set an irreversible direction of openness and dialogue in the attitude of the Church toward the World.” Rico shows how two major historical experiences, the American and the European (particularly French), influenced the final text of Dignitatis Humanae. The tension between these two perspectives carried over into the interpretation of the document. In Rico’s second historical moment, the confrontation between the West and Soviet Communism, this tension was not as evident, but it has again come to the fore in the third moment, as liberal Western democracies succumb to ethical relativism.

In Rico’s view, John Courtney Murray offered the most cogent framework for religious freedom, one drawn from the Anglo-Saxon tradition’s respect for religion and commitment to pluralism. The argument Murray favored in the council debates centered on the limited power of the state, since the transcendent order is beyond its jurisdiction. Government has no role in promoting or defending religious truth but does have a duty to protect and promote religious freedom, because that freedom is inherent to the dignity of the person.

French theologians, on the other hand, wanted to ground religious freedom theologically. They tried to show that all religious freedom was related to the freedom required to make an act of faith, an attempt Rico does not consider successful. Rico pays special attention to a book by André-Vincent that represents “the more radical tendencies” of the French school. In André-Vincent’s view, freedom and truth are intimately connected. The human intellect is naturally oriented to truth, but it has been distorted by sin and needs the grace of Christ to restore its orientation. Although André-Vincent regarded the “ontological connection of the person to God-Truth” as still the “mother-idea of
Dignitatis Humanae,” he criticized the document for drawing too little support from revelation and, in particular, Scripture. He feared that a narrowly political argument would open the door to philosophical indifferentism, which ends by excluding religion from public life. Rico argues that André-Vincent’s emphasis of truth over freedom risks nullifying Dignitatus Humanae’s recognition of religious freedom “as an inalienable and universal demand of human dignity.”

Rico ends the first part of the book with his own interpretation of
Dignitatis Humanae. For Rico, as for John Courtney Murray, individual freedom is paramount. He applauds the Church’s new willingness to learn from experience and its openness to the signs of the times. But he warns that old methodologies will weaken a dynamic interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae. Much of the rest of the book is devoted to showing how John Paul II’s approach, especially in the area of ethics, risks this very reversal.

Rico praises the pope’s forceful defense of the right to religious freedom in the Church’s confrontation with Communism, and he acknowledges his contributions to the document itself before and during the Second Vatican Council. But while he has much to say in favor of John Paul II’s commitment to the principles of
Dignitatis Humanae, his underlying attitude is negative. He refers to the pope’s “basically pessimistic” or “tendentiously pessimistic” theological anthropology. He describes the pope’s views as “uncompromising” and “dogmatic.” He takes issue with the pope’s “most extreme positions” and his “willfulness” in rebuking dissenting theologians. Finally, he accuses the pope of an “acute preoccupation with morality.”

Rico uses the encyclical
Evangelium Vitae to illustrate what he sees as the pope’s regression to the old paternalistic attitude of the Church. According to Rico, that document is characterized by a “top-down” approach rather than an emphasis on changing consciences. Rico charges that John Paul II is not open to dialogue (in principle and fact, John Paul II is committed to dialogue). The pope, the author tells us, puts undue emphasis on the magisterium and distrusts the moral conscience of individuals. He gives disproportionate attention to one issue, abortion, and calls for “a greater role of the civil law in the promotion of public morality.”

Gift and Mystery, John Paul draws from his experience with Nazism and Communism to express his “deep concern for the dignity of every human person and the need to respect human rights beginning with the right to life” (the pope’s emphasis). If the right to life is not respected, all other rights—and democracy itself—are in danger (cf. Evangelium Vitae #96). This explains the pope’s “preoccupation” with life issues. It also helps us to understand his commitment to a theological anthropology that grounds the fundamental rights and dignity of the human person in the fact that human beings are created in the image of God. It was this Christian conception of human equality that eventually led to the development of modern democratic rights.

Rico describes the Church’s dialogue with society under John Paul II as “not a dead end, as it was a century ago, but reaching a crossroad.” Whereas
Dignitatis Humanae addressed the question of religious freedom, the Church must now face another challenge: public advocacy of moral standards in a pluralistic society. Rico recognizes that the state does have some competence and power of coercion in this area, but for the Church, he insists, persuasion is the only legitimate path. He argues that it is wrong for the Church to exert influence over Catholic political officials. He also rejects appeals to civil law in an effort “to overturn the losing of a cultural debate.” Rico seems to forget that law was an important instrument for the overturn of the prevailing Judeo-Christian ethic by antilife forces in the 20th century. Or perhaps Rico believes that secular humanism should be allowed to employ political solutions and strategies denied to Catholics. In general, Rico ignores the role of the law in influencing society’s view of the human person and the common good. He leaves no room for the prophetic witness of the Church to oppose unjust laws.

Rico has provided a service in his analysis of
Dignitatis Humanae and in his record of its development. But his study is gravely flawed by an uncritical preference for the liberal model of society “based on a social contract between originally separated individuals.” This approach keeps him from seeing that democracy itself is imperiled when the unborn or an ethnic group are excluded from the social contract. Rico has ignored the whole question of the anthropology underlying secular liberalism. But without an anthropology that is grounded in truth, our modern freedoms are ultimately illusory.

Mary Shivanandan is a professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America.

Reprinted with permission from CRISIS Magazine whose website is www.crisismagazine.com

This version: 16th February 2004

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