Second Vatican Council, 7 December 1965

Declaration on Religious Liberty

English translations in: The Documents of Vatican II, Walter Abbott (ed.), Guild Press, New York 1966; Vatican Council II, Austin Flannery (ed.), Dominican Publications, Ireland 1975; electronic version available from the Vatican website. Subtitles and subdivisions of paragraphs by John Wijngaards.

The fundamental value of religious freedom

§ 2. (a) This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all people are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others within due limits.

(b) The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.

(c) This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

(d) It is in accordance with their dignity as persons–that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility–that all people should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.

(e) However, cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature.

(f) In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

Religious freedom is demanded by Revelation

§ 12. (a) In faithfulness therefore to the truth of the Gospel, the Church is following the way of Christ and the apostles when she recognizes and gives support to the principle of religious freedom as befitting human dignity and as being in accord with divine revelation.

(b) Throughout the ages the Church has kept safe and handed on the doctrine [of religious liberty] received from the Master and from the apostles. In the life of the People of God, as it has made its pilgrim way through the vicissitudes of human history, there has at times appeared a way of acting that was hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel or even opposed to it. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Church that no one is to be coerced into faith has always stood firm.

(c) Thus the leaven of the Gospel has long been about its quiet work in the minds of people, and to it is due in great measure the fact that in the course of time people have come more widely to recognize their dignity as persons, and the conviction has grown stronger that the person in society is to be kept free from all manner of coercion in matters religious.

Freedom of religion for the Church and in the Church

§ 13. (a) Among the things that concern the good of the Church and indeed the welfare of society here on earth– things therefore that are always and everywhere to be kept secure and defended against all injury–this certainly is preeminent, namely, that the Church should enjoy that full measure of freedom which her care for the salvation of men requires. This is a sacred freedom, because the only-begotten Son endowed with it the Church which he purchased with his blood. Indeed it is so much the property of the Church that to act against it is to act against the will of God.

(b) The freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle in what concerns the relations between the Church and governments and the whole civil order. In human society and in the face of government the Church claims freedom for herself in her character as a spiritual authority, established by Christ the Lord, upon which there rests, by divine mandate, the duty of going out into the whole world and preaching the Gospel to every creature. The Church also claims freedom for herself in her character as a society of people who have the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of Christian faith.

(c) In turn, where the principle of religious freedom is not only proclaimed in words or simply incorporated in law but also given sincere and practical application, there the Church succeeds in achieving a stable situation of right as well as of fact and the independence which is necessary for the fulfillment of her divine mission. This independence is precisely what the authorities of the Church claim in society.

(d) At the same time, the Christian faithful, in common with all other people, possess the civil right not to be hindered in leading their lives in accordance with their consciences. Therefore, a harmony exists between the freedom of the Church and the religious freedom which is to be recognized as the right of all people and communities and sanctioned by constitutional law.

§ 14. (a) In order to be faithful to the divine command, “teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19-20), the Catholic Church must work with all urgency and concern “that the word of God be spread abroad and glorified” (2 Thess. 3:1). Hence the Church earnestly begs of its children that, “first of all, supplications, prayers, petitions, acts of thanksgiving be made for all people…. For this is good and agreeable in the sight of God our Savior, who wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1-4).

(b) In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself.

(c) Furthermore, let Christians walk in wisdom in the face of those outside, “in the Holy Spirit, in unaffected love, in the word of truth” (2 Cor. 6:6-7), and let them be about their task of spreading the light of life with all confidence 3a and apostolic courage, even to the shedding of their blood.

(d) The disciple is bound by a grave obligation toward Christ, his Master, ever more fully to understand the truth received from him, faithfully to proclaim it, and vigorously to defend it, never–be it understood–having recourse to means that are incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel.

(e) At the same time, the charity of Christ urges him to love and have prudence and patience in his dealings with those who are in error or in ignorance with regard to the faith.

(f) All is to be taken into account–the Christian duty to Christ, the life-giving word which must be proclaimed, the rights of the human person, and the measure of grace granted by God through Christ to people who are invited freely to accept and profess the faith.

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