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Talk given by Fr Thomas Crean O.P. to the St John Fisher Society, 5th December, 2005

Religious Liberty  

Why, in this year of grace 2005, should Catholics interest themselves in the question of religious liberty? There seems to be a widespread belief within the Church that the question is in effect settled. I should characterize, or perhaps caricature, this widespread belief as follows: in the first centuries of Christianity, the Church relied on divine grace to make and keep men Christian, and so the rights of conscience were respected; after the conversion of Constantine, Catholic States came into being which finished by using force in the service of the Gospel, thus violating the rights of conscience; finally the Second Vatican Council put an end to this practical denial of the Gospel by proclaiming religious liberty as a doctrine of the Church, and resolving that Christianity must again, as in the first centuries, rely on divine grace alone for its protection, and not on any human force.

   That is no doubt a caricature, in the sense that few if any reputable Catholic theologians would express themselves in so crude a way; yet something very like this view seems to be implied by the frequently heard claim that Dignitatis HumanŠ, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, was a ‘groundbreaking’ or even ‘revolutionary’ document. At the very least it is commonly supposed that the 19th Century popes who wrote on the subject of religious liberty erred, and that their position was rejected by Vatican II. This was the opinion, for example, of the principle author of Dignitatis HumanŠ, the Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray. Even those who do not charge these popes with doctrinal error seem inclined to the belief that their words were relevant only to the particular time in history in which they lived, and hence were not timeless, dogmatic declarations. Such seems, for example, to have been the tenor of some remarks made by the then Cardinal Ratzinger in 1990, at a press conference marking the publication of a document on the relationship between theologians and the magisterium. Yet ever since the promulgation Dignitatis HumanŠ on 7th December 1965, there has been a small body of Catholics who have insisted that the Church has a consistent, timeless and hence irreformable on religious liberty, and that this teaching was at the very least obscured by the Vatican II declaration. It is well known, for example, that his dismay at what he took to be the rejection of traditional doctrine by the Roman authorities was a major cause of Archbishop Lefebvre’s decision to consecrate four successors in June 1988. The debate on religious liberty continues in fact to the present day, and has yet to be resolved by any public, magisterial act.

   This shows us the first reason for Catholics to take an interest in this question. The faith of the Church, as I certainly don’t need to remind anyone here, cannot ‘revolve’; so if a document setting forth Catholic doctrine is perceived by many as being ‘revolutionary’, as Dignitatis HumanŠ has been by otherwise so disparate men as Marcel Lefebvre and Hans Kung, there is, at the very least, something to investigate.

     The other reason why we should want to take an interest in the question of religious liberty is a practical one. I say this, even though we may easily be tempted to think about this whole debate, ‘What does it all really matter? After all, it’s not as if we Catholics are in a position to put legal restraints on other religions, even if we wanted to.’ It is of course true that no state in the Western world seems likely, in our lifetime, humanly speaking, to adopt a policy of vigorously defending the Catholic religion; yet however far we may be away from the ideal, we need to know what the ideal is if we hope to improve our present situation. So even today practical questions arise in the domain of religious liberty which challenge us to know what the teaching of the Church really is. Here’s an example, taken from the Daily Telegraph. It’s a story which appeared on the 1st November this year.

[There followed a short article describing how prisoners claiming to be ‘pagans’ were provided with a publically funded chaplain who would help them to cast spells]

   Here we have an example of religious activity which is properly speaking demonic. The local Evangelical pastor was rather too mild: it’s not dabbling with the occult, it is the occult. Yet the prison governor states, no doubt correctly, that human rights legislation obliges him to fund and facilitate it. The question that interests us is, does the Catholic Church also require this? And if the answer to this question is no, how is this to be reconciled with the central affirmation of Dignitatis HumanŠ, that ‘no one is to be prevented from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters, in private or in public, alone or in association with others’?

   All this was by way of an introduction. For the remainder of the talk I wish to do two things. First, to explain in more detail why so many people have held that there is a contradiction between the teaching of Vatican II and previous Church teaching. Secondly, to look at various possible responses to the difficulty.

   First of all, then, as both defenders and opponents of Dignitatis HumanŠ would accept, the 19th Century popes taught a certain position on religious liberty which was to be found in the standard theological text-books on the eve of Vatican II. This position may be summarized by the following propositions. No one may be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will. No one may be prevented from acting in accordance with his religious convictions in private. Those charged with safeguarding the common good of any society must protect and promote true religion, since this is an essential part of the common good. In a society where all or almost all of the citizens are Catholics, this will normally imply restricting the spread of non-Catholic religions and the circulation of non-Catholic propaganda. Thus Pope Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors condemned the view that it was no longer desirable that the Catholic religion should be the unique religion of a society to the exclusion of all other forms of worship. For some proportionate reason, however, it may be permissible to tolerate the public presence of non-Catholic religions within society. Examples of such proportionate reasons would be the avoidance of civil unrest and the desire not to prejudice non-Catholics against the Church. However, this is simply a toleration granted to non-Catholic religions from prudence or from charity, and not a right owed to them in strict justice. Leo XIII explains this last point in this way in his 1888 encyclical, Libertas Humana:

   The all-provident God Himself, although He is infinitely good and can do all things, yet allows many evils in the world, in part lest greater goods should be obstructed, in part lest greater evils should arise. In ruling societies, it is right to imitate the Ruler of the world: and since the authority of men cannot prevent every evil, it must ‘admit and leave unpunished many things which yet will rightly be avenged by divine providence.’ Nevertheless, in such circumstances, if by reason of the common good, and for this reason alone, the law of men can or must patiently tolerate evil, nevertheless it neither can nor must approve it or will it per se: for evil, since it is a privation of good, is opposed per se to the common good, which the law-giver must desire and watch over as best he may.

Leo XIII was expressly talking in this passage about the attitude of a Catholic state towards non-Catholic religions and philosophies. In the encyclical Immortale Dei, published three years earlier, he had already noted that false ideas about morality and religion were among the things that the State had a duty to suppress: ‘Whatever is opposed to virtue and truth’, the Pope wrote, ‘may not rightly be brought temptingly before the eye of man, much less sanctioned by the favour and protection of the law.’  In other words, the ideal situation is that of a Catholic state where other religions are not allowed the public space to flourish and propagate themselves, and this for the sake of the eternal salvation of all the citizens; but in states where there is already a mixture of religions, prudence and charity may demand the toleration, though no more than the toleration, of non-Catholic religions even in the public domain.

   In giving this teaching, the 19th Century popes were not creating a doctrine ex nihilo. They were on the contrary following the tradition of the Church as expressed for example in the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century. In his Summa TheologiŠ the Angelic Doctor says, setting aside the special case of Jewish worship which must be allowed on account of the witness it affords to the Christian faith, that the rites of infidels are not in themselves to be tolerated by the State. However, he adds that they should be tolerated when doing so will help to avoid some greater evil such as scandal or attain some good, such as gradually bringing the infideles to the faith and so to salvation. He concludes, ‘For this reason the Church has sometimes tolerated even the rites of heretics and of pagans, when they were present in great numbers.

   Nor did this teaching begin in the Middle Ages. In the patristic era, for example, both St Augustine and St John Chrysostom assert the right of the civil power to restrain non-Catholics from propagating their religions whenever this can be prudently attempted. So in his commentary on the parable of the wheat and the tares, Chrysostom notes that our Lord’s words about not rooting up the weeds before the harvest do not ‘forbid all restraint upon heretics, [for] their freedom of speech may indeed be cut off, their synods and their confessions may indeed be broken up.

   Even after the fracturing of mediaeval Christendom caused by the Reformation, great doctors of the Church continued to urge the duty of Catholic princes to keep their domains free from religious pluralism. St Francis de Sales in 1598 spoke in this way to the Duke Charles-Emmanuel: ‘Alas, Sire, to permit Protestant ministers in this country is to lose your dominions and to lose Paradise besides, of which the span of one foot is worth more than all the world.’ On the eve of the French revolution, St Alphonsus Liguori wrote to all the Catholic princes, advising them of their duty of striving against the enemies of the Church. He declared that they must ‘not hesitate in banishing from their kingdom, every preacher of ungodliness, nor in seizing at the border any literary works infected with pernicious doctrines’. It is, the saint says, their pressing duty.

   Such is the tradition which the 19th Century popes, and in particular Gregory XVI, Pius IX and Leo XIII, upheld by their encyclicals and allocutions. Of course as time went by it became increasingly impossible to put it into practice, as the popes themselves acknowledged; but we still find the traditional teaching maintained as the ideal in the approved theology manuals from the first half of the 20th Century and in standard works of reference such as the French Dictionnaire de ThÚologie Catholique. Fr Dominic Prummer, for example, says in his manual of moral theology that non-Christians can be forcibly prevented from promoting their beliefs in opposition to the Catholic Church, and states that a serious reason, gravis causa, is needed for a Christian ruler to allow public non-Christian worship. The Dictionnaire de ThÚologie Catholique in its turn, states that tolerance is not due to non-Catholic religions as a matter of justice, since error of itself has no rights, but that tolerance is granted to them either to avoid a greater evil or to obtain some good end.

   I’m not aware of any approved author who challenged this teaching. Even though later pre-conciliar Popes added some precisions to what their predecessors had taught, none of them ever contradicted it, or suggested that non-Catholic religions could be the object of anything other than toleration by the State. An interesting witness to the state of Catholic doctrine on the very eve of Vatican II is the schema produced for the council by the theological commission chaired by Cardinal Ottaviani. This document is entitled, On the Relations between the Church and the State, and On Religious Tolerance. It clearly expresses the traditional teaching of the Church on the right of a Catholic state to limit the public manifestations of other cults and to defend its citizens against the spreading of false doctrines. It also recognizes that the common good of both the Church and the State can require the toleration of non-Catholic religions.

   This document, of course, along with all but one of the other preparatory schemas, was discarded at the very beginning of Vatican II. In its place was put a document drafted by Cardinal Bea’s Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity and entitled Freedom of Cult. This was the document that would ultimately be promulgated as Dignitatis HumanŠ.  

   Cardinal Bea’s document proved so controversial that the Council fathers sent it back five times for redrafting and emendation before the Pope was ready to promulgate it. The story of its passage through the Council is a fascinating one that we do not have time for here. To those who are interested I would recommend Michael Davies’ study, The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty. What interests us now is the document as it was finally promulgated by the Pope in December 1965, Dignitatis HumanŠ.

   How then does the teaching of Dignitatis HumanŠ differ from what we could reasonably call the traditional papal teaching which I have already summarized? The traditional teaching starts from the duty of those in authority to watch over the common good, and insists on the importance of true religion as an essential component of the common good. It concludes that those in positions of authority have a duty to promote true religion and consequently to check the spread of false religions, insofar as this can be done without endangering greater goods. As Pope Pius XII said in his 1953 discourse, Ci riesce, ‘That which does not correspond to truth or to the norm of morality has objectively no right to exist, to be spread or to be activated.

   Dignitatis HumanŠ, on the other hand, starts from a completely different premise, namely the dignity of the human person. It asserts that one consequence of human dignity is the right to religious freedom. The central declaration of the document, part of which has already been quoted, is as follows:-

   The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power, so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others. The Council further 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. The 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.

A little further on the Declaration notes that included in this general right of religious liberty are the rights of religious communities ‘not to be prevented from publicly teaching and bearing witness to their beliefs by the spoken or written word’ and ‘not to be hindered by the civil authority from erecting buildings for religious purposes.

   That no one must be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his will is of course not a controversial statement, having been taught for example by Pope Innocent III at the start of the 13th Century. Similarly, that the State has no right to interfere with a person’s private religious devotions, provided that these are not manifestly contrary to the natural law, is again uncontroversial, having long been taught by a consensus of Catholic theologians, not least St Thomas Aquinas. What is highly controversial and seems at first sight in contradiction with the traditional teaching is the affirmation that the State’s powerlessness is not confined to the private forum, but extends to the public forum. For as we have just heard, Dignitatis HumanŠ affirms the right to worship in public along with others who share the same religious convictions, the right to build places of worship suited for one’s religion and (perhaps most controversially of all) the right to induce others to join one’s religion by the spoken and written word, not excluding public means of mass communication. Or more precisely, it proclaims the right not to be hindered by the State in doing any of these things, within certain due limits.

   Thus whereas previous papal teaching insisted on the duty of civil rulers to promote the common good by upholding true religion, Dignitatis HumanŠ proclaims the right of citizens to practise ‘religion’ in general, without hindrance from civil authority. The traditional teaching insisted on the right of the true religion, and spoke about the possibility and in certain circumstances the duty of tolerating false religions. Dignitatis HumanŠ abstracts altogether from the notions of truth and falsity and does not once employ the term ‘toleration’. The traditional teaching made a clear distinction between the private and the public forum, teaching that the State had the right to supervise and even repress religious activity in the latter but not the former. Dignitatis HumanŠ recognizes the distinction between these two fora but does not allow that religious activity may be restricted in either of them. Finally, the traditional teaching affirms the right of God, and of Jesus Christ as God made man, to rule not only over individuals but also over societies. Dignitatis HumanŠ does not mention this social kingship of Christ.

   The crux of the matter, then, is this. Dignitatis HumanŠ appears prima facie to say that the State is required by the very nature of things to allow religions of all kinds to exist within itself, whereas the traditional teaching had said that the State is required per se to allow only Catholicism, and may tolerate other religions when particular, contingent circumstances, and hence not the very nature of things, so require it. In an article written for the American Ecclesiastical Review in 1953, Cardinal Ottaviani insisted that there had been no change in papal teaching in this area between the days of Innocent III and Pius XII, and that the principles laid down by the Popes were ‘a part of the patrimony of Catholic doctrine’. Yet only twelve years later, Dignitatis HumanŠ failed to reaffirm this doctrinal patrimony, and seemed to many people to repudiate it.

   Dignitatis HumanŠ claims in its introductory chapter to ‘leave intact’ the traditional Catholic teaching on the duties of individuals and societies towards the true religion, but says nothing about the apparent discrepancy between itself and that traditional teaching. The Relator of the document – the official charged with presenting it on the council floor - himself frankly admitted that this would be a matter for future theological studies to elucidate. So in this final part of my talk I should like to consider various attempts that have been made to reconcile traditional papal teaching with Dignitatis HumanŠ and mention some problems with these attempts, and in conclusion to offer my own suggestion for a possible solution to the problem.

   First of all it is sometimes claimed that the 19th Century popes had condemned a different kind of right from the right affirmed by Vatican II. The popes, it would be said, condemned the moral right to religious freedom, that is the idea that a man has the right before God to practice any religion or none, as he wishes, whereas the Council affirmed not a moral but a civil right to immunity from religious coercion in religious matters. A slightly different way of formulating this suggestion is to say that the popes denied the right to act as one wished in religious matters whereas the council affirmed the right not to be prevented by the State from acting as one wished.

   The problem with this is that while the pre-conciliar popes did condemn the extreme form of liberalism just mentioned – the idea that God Himself had no right to object to a man’s choice of religion – they also condemned the view that there was a natural right to civic freedom for false religions. The reason is, as Leo XIII explains in Libertas Humana, that a right is a moral power that cannot have for its object something untrue or unjust. Just as the State cannot justly recognize any natural right to practise abortion, so it cannot recognize any natural right, for example, to spread Islam. As Pius XII was to say, ‘that which is contrary to truth has objectively no right to exist’; it is in itself an evil, which can be tolerated, as Leo XIII says, for the sake of a greater good.

   Hence, to affirm that a man has no right, let us say, to launch an Islamic radio station designed to make the greatest number of converts but that he does have a right not to be prevented from doing so by the State seems impossible to reconcile with traditional papal teaching. The suggestion that he has a natural right not to be prevented by the State from doing such a thing seems contrary to Leo XIII’s injunction in Immortale Dei that ‘Whatever is opposed to truth may not rightly be brought temptingly before the eye of man, much less sanctioned by the protection of the law.’  

   A second attempt to reconcile traditional and concilar teaching is that made by Bishop de Smedt who was the Relator of Dignitatis HumanŠ mentioned above. While acknowledging that some phrases in earlier papal documents when (in his words) ‘taken out of context’ could seem to contradict Dignitatis HumanŠ, Bishop de Smedt insisted that there was no real contradiction but rather a doctrinal development. He stated that the rights condemned by the 19th Century popes were rejected not in themselves but by reason of the motives with which men of that time were claiming them. Thus, he says, freedom of worship and of propaganda were condemned by Gregory XVI and Pius IX because they were being promoted by rationalists who wished to undermine the Catholic Church. Similarly, he says, the reason that Leo XIII allowed the possibility of nothing more generous than the toleration of non-Catholic religions was that in his time the proponents of religious liberty were anti-clericals, who again desired to harm the Church. But today, concluded the bishop, those who promote religious liberty are moved not by antipathy towards the Church but by esteem for the dignity of the human person. This esteem, he explained, was the result of ‘a slow process of growth which has taken place in the Church under the light of the Holy Spirit’. It follows that the earlier condemnations no longer apply.

   To be quite honest, this argument strikes me as fantastical. The picture it paints is of reactionary popes so infuriated by their enemies that they were no longer able to make the elementary distinction between a philosophical position and the motives of those who uphold it. Was Pope Leo XIII, the great champion of Thomism, so lacking in the power of abstract thought that he couldn’t distinguish a philosophy from a philosopher and decide whether a doctrine was dangerous in itself, independently of the motives with which it was being urged? If Leo XIII said in Libertas Humana that false religions were an evil that might be tolerated by the State for proportionate reasons but no more, it is a little audacious to say that what he really meant was that people promoting the rights of all religions only in order to harm the Church were bad men and should be stopped.  

   The last attempt to reconcile the traditional and conciliar teaching that I should like to consider is that given in the response to the Dubia submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Archbishop Lefebvre. 39 Dubia were submitted to the CDF in October 1985. The following year a private reply, in French, was sent to the Archbishop, written by an unnamed theologian working for the Congregation. This text has never been published, neither by the CDF nor by the Society of St Pius X, and it is not clear what sort of authority it enjoys. I have been fortunate enough to see a copy of the text, and shall comment on it on the assumption (since it has not been officially promulgated by the CDF) that it enjoys no authority beyond what attaches to the anonymous author in his personal capacity as a qualified theologian. In doing so, I do not of course intend to place my own judgement above that of the Congregation.

   The author of the Response does not address any of the 39 dubia directly. However he does try to show the possibility of harmonizing earlier teaching with the conciliar text, a document which he acknowledges to be an undoubted novelty, une indiscutable nouveautÚ. In the course of the response he puts forward several of the arguments which we have just considered and which I have suggested are not conclusive, but also another which I have not seen elsewhere. The Pope up to the time of Pius XII, this author notes, taught that the State had the right and duty to prevent the spread of religious error but that they could also tolerate it for the sake of some greater good. Dignitatis HumanŠ, he acknowledges, does not speak about this right and duty of the State. Why not? Because, he says, ‘the Council’s idea is that the dignity of every human person and the peace of society are always a greater good than the good to be obtained by checking the spread of religious error.

   This is an interesting argument. It seems to be a way of maintaining the principle as taught by the Popes up to and including Pius XII, namely that the State has a fundamental right to check religious error except when toleration is required for the sake of a greater good, but at the same time of ensuring that this principle can never be put into practice. For according to this theologian, whenever a State attempted to exercise its right of checking the spread of religious error, it would find that it was violating a greater good, namely the dignity of those who were spreading the errors.

   I’m afraid to say that I don’t find this argument convincing either. It’s easy to understand the idea of a right that cannot be justly exercised in particular circumstances. For example we might say that a priest has a right to an annual holiday, but that if an epidemic breaks out in his parish so that he has to be on hand to give the last rites to a large number of people then for as long as the epidemic lasts he cannot justly exercise his right to go on vacation. But what are we to think of a right that can never, in principle, be justly exercised? If a bishop were to say to one of his priests, ‘Of course you have a perfect right to an annual vacation, but if you ever actually take one you’ll be violating a greater good, namely the right of the faithful to have their priest in residence every day of the year, and so, dear Father, I’m afraid that you must never take a vacation’, then the priest would be likely to feel somewhat aggrieved. Yet the argument which this theologian makes in his Response to Archbishop Lefebvre seems parallel to this: the State has a right to check the spread of religious error, as earlier Popes said, yet if it ever does so it will be infringing a greater good, and so it must not in fact ever do so. The truth is surely that a right that in the nature of things can never be justly exercised is no right at all – but then the traditional teaching would have been wrong in asserting that the State had the right to check the spread of non-Catholic religions.

   So far we have examined the apparent discrepancy between conciliar and pre-conciliar teaching on religious liberty, and we have also looked at some attempts to show that the discrepancy is only apparent and not real, attempts which I have argued seem unsuccessful. What should we conclude from all this? One option would be to allow that there is a real incompatibility between the conciliar and pre-conciliar teaching, and hence that one of them is wrong. Could it be the traditional teaching which is wrong? Dignitatis HumanŠ itself seems to disallow this possibility, since it proclaims that it leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the duties of individuals and societies towards the true religion. I believe it is also problematic to suggest that so many doctors of the Church, men such as St Augustine, St John Chrysostom, St Thomas Aquinas, St Francis de Sales and St Alphonsus Ligouri, were in error in teaching that God willed Catholic rulers to keep their territories free from non-Catholic religions unless circumstances made tolerance a necessity.

   Could it then be Dignitatis HumanŠ which is in error? Here again, it would seem presumptuous to assert this. Even though we have a statement of Paul VI himself that the documents of Vatican II were not as such protected by the charism of infallibility, they are still apparently magisterial texts to which a religious submission of intellect and will is due.1 Therefore, as promised at the beginning, I should like to offer you my own suggestion for a way out of the impasse. In the quotations which I made from Dignitatis HumanŠ, you may have noticed that the freedoms to pursue one’s religion in public in association with others, to build edifices suited for one’s form of worship and to seek to induce others by the written and spoken word to join one’s own religion were limited by this modest phrase, ‘within due limits’. Further on the document explains that these limits are the ones set by the requirements of public morality and public peace. In other words, if someone claimed to be a sincere follower of a religion which involved human sacrifice, the authorities would still be able to restrain him, and the man in question wouldn’t be able to appeal to the right to act in public according to one’s conscience in religious matters. My question, then, is this: why should the notion of public morality be limited to the natural law? After all, in the actual order of things willed by God, morality is twofold, natural and supernatural. To be simply speaking a good person it’s necessary not just to keep the natural law but also to worship God in faith, hope and love. So does it not follow that a violation of public morality is committed not only when someone publicly violates the natural law, for example by killing the innocent, but whenever they publicly perform some action that violates faith, hope or charity? But to practise a non-Catholic religion and to induce others to join it, whatever may be the subjective responsibility before God of the one who does so, are objectively sins against the true faith. Therefore such religions, it can be argued, are, in the eyes of God, always a violation of public morality. Thus the due limits to religious liberty which Dignitatis HumanŠ affirms must in fact exclude all non-Catholic religions.

   It might be objected that this interpretation of Dignitatis HumanŠ which would bring it into line with traditional teaching goes against the obvious meaning of the text. Yet in fact one of the many striking things about the text is that it never mentions by name any non-Catholic religion. Neither Jews, nor Muslims, nor Hindus, nor Buddhists, nor animists, nor followers of any other religion are mentioned explicitly by the conciliar document. The only religion that it mentions by name is Catholicism, in the passage where it says that the declaration does not derogate from the traditional teaching on the duty of men and societies towards the Catholic Church. It does not explicitly attribute any rights to any actually existing non-Catholic religion.

   On the other hand, it is true that in explaining the natural right of religious freedom the document talks about religions in the plural, yet it never mentions what they might be. So it is possible to argue that its account of this natural right abstracts entirely from the world as it actually is, and simply talks about what follows from human nature as such. What I mean is this. If Almighty God had not chosen to reveal Himself, and if man had not suffered the effects of original sin, then human beings could have established various religions by virtue of their natural intelligence and piety. In this case, the various religions might each have contained different, naturally knowable truths about God and man, and have expressed these truths according to a variety of cultus. Each of these religions would then have had the right to public self-expression, in virtue of man’s natural right to religious liberty. And the letter of Dignitatis HumanŠ does not oblige us to accept anything more than this. In this connection we may note that it has not been customary for the Church’s magisterium to speak of ‘religion’ to mean indiscriminately the Catholic religion and actually existing non-Catholic religions. Therefore, since Dignitatis HumanŠ does not announce a change in this traditional way of speaking, we are entitled to assume that it continues it, and that the word ‘religion’ refers in the Declaration either to the Catholic religion, or else to religions which the natural piety of man might have established, in the absence of a Divine revelation.

   What, finally, of the objection that the Council Fathers did not say that such was their meaning? With all respect to those venerable fathers, I should submit that the tensions within the text of Dignitatis HumanŠ are such that that they would have been hard put to say exactly what their meaning was. What is certain is that the document would not have been passed had not Paul VI inserted the phrase about nothing being changed in the ‘traditional teaching on the duty of societies towards the Church of Christ’, for until this happened almost a third of the council fathers refused to vote in favour of it. It therefore seems reasonable to use this phrase as a kind of hermeneutical key to explain the rest of the declaration. I have argued that this ‘traditional teaching’ excludes the idea of a natural right of public liberty for those practising non-Catholic religions. So in attempting to reconcile this with the rest of Dignitatis HumanŠ, I have argued that one must use the phrase about ‘due limits’ to exclude all actually existing non-Catholic religions. Of course this is a very different interpretation of Dignitatis HumanŠ from the one that is commonly held; but in my very fallible opinion, I cannot see any other way to reconcile it with Catholic tradition.


1. On the other hand, some authors have questioned whether Dignitatis HumanŠ is in the proper sense a magisterial text. They argue as follows. Vatican I taught that the function of the magisterium is not to bring new doctrines to light, but to preserve what has been handed down. Dignitatis HumanŠ does not claim that religious liberty is a doctrine contained in revelation and handed down from the time of the apostles. The most that it claims is that it is ‘consonant with’ revelation, being a consequence of the dignity of the human person, a dignity which is declared by revelation. But if an organ of the magisterium teaches a doctrine but refrains from claiming that it is part of the Tradition handed down from the apostles, the argument runs, that organ is not then acting as an organ of the magisterium, but simply as a theologian or group of theologians, and so its teaching does not bind the faithful to assent (as will be seen in the text, I offer a different suggestion for relieving the apparent tension between Vatican II and earlier tradition.)

Although this article sets forth one possible interpretation of Dignitatis humanae, I now consider that it needs to be further nuanced.  Readers interested in my more developed understanding of the Church's teaching on this question may wish to consult Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy, by Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister, especially chapters six and eleven.  T.C

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Copyright ę; thomas crean O.P. February 2009

Version: 4th January 2021

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