Dignitatis Humanae (english | latin) is the Vatican II document on religious liberty. It is one that radical traditionalist general take as a slam dunk against Vatican II. I read it a few years ago and I didn’t notice any heresy in it then, but that was before I knew anything about the traditionalist movement and the arguments against it. Indeed the backdrop of my reading it at the time was defending the Church against radical liberals (call to action types). Anyway, now that I am very much involved in the traditionalist movement I have been exposed to many arguments from the other end of the spectrum (including sedevacantist). I thought it was time to give a fresh read to this document and see what I thought in light of the traditionalist arguments against it.

I am hesitant to do this because I am no theologian, just a regular layman. So I’ll start by saying this just my best effort with regards to this document. I am open to correction. I will try to be careful to always keep in mind Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity in my examination of this document.

In brief, my take is that the document is problematic due to certain ambiguities and self contradictions. However, the document does not contain out right heresy and can be given a traditional interpretation. The minimal doctrinal content in this document can be reconciled with traditional doctrine.  Most of the document focuses on the pastoral approach to religious freedom, and after forty years it would be reasonable to reconsider that approach. The tug of war between traditionalist Council Fathers and liberal Council Fathers is very apparent in this document.

The document starts by diagnosing modern man’s aspirations for freedom to use his own judgment in all matters. As with many council documents this one assumes the most virtuous motives for these desires, and based on that assumption whole heartedly endorsed them (”[the council] proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice.” paragraph 1). Unfortunately I think recent decades have shown that this desire for freedom was really a desire for license to do whatever one wants without interference from the Church. Regardless this isn’t really the crux of the matter so we’ll move on.

The document then reasserts that Catholic Church is the one true Church and that all men are bound to seek the truth, and once found to embrace it. Shortly after that comes the most important paragraph in the whole document so I will quote it in full.

Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ. (DH 1:4)

Note that religious freedom is defined as freedom from civil coercion period. It also explicitly states that all Catholic doctrine regarding the states duty toward the Church is untouched. So all those papal encyclicals regarding the Social Reign of Christ are still in effect (i.e. Libertas by Leo XIII and Quas Primas by Pius XI) and, in a sense, reaffirmed by the council. This paragraph is critical to understanding the rest of the document.

Section two starts by restating the definition of religious freedom as regarding coercion. It adds 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.” (DH 2:1) Note the qualifier at the end. It then explains that acts of religious expression must be freely done in order to be authentic, which is just common sense.

Section three goes on to explain that while every man has an obligation seek the truth of Christ, this search must be carried out freely and according to his own conscience. This is where some of the difficulties start. In paragraph 3:4 it says,

“In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious… The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.”

Here there seems to be a reversal of the traditional understanding of what should be allowed by the state. This says that whatever religion a man’s conscience prompts him to accept, he should be allowed to practice and share that religion (or even proselytize) publicly. However, there is another qualifier at the end. It seems that one faction pushed for more of an American approach to religious freedom, but to placate the more traditional faction the allowance for “just public order” is added. That gives the Catholic state wiggle room to restrict proselytism and other public religious acts.

But then the next paragraph (3:5) says, “it [the government] would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.” So maybe a Catholic state can’t restrict proselytism? Section four goes on to explain that all this applies not just to individuals, but to communities and groups of religious people too (never making any distinction between the Church and any other religion) and ends by expanding the definition of religious freedom given in above:

In addition, it comes within the meaning of religious freedom that religious communities should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity. Finally, the social nature of man and the very nature of religion afford the foundation of the right of men freely to hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense. (DH 4:5)

So, do the qualifiers above about allowing this “within due limits” and providing for “just public order” still apply here? Since those sections seemed to be giving an overview for these more detailed statements I think so, but it’s not clear. Regardless, this is all a little difficult to square with the teachings of previous papal encyclicals. For example in Immortale Dei Leo XIII deplores the following modern ideas about government:

…it follows that the State does not consider itself bound by any kind of duty toward God. Moreover. it believes that it is not obliged to make public profession of any religion; or to inquire which of the very many religions is the only one true; or to prefer one religion to all the rest; or to show to any form of religion special favor; but, on the contrary, is bound to grant equal rights to every creed, so that public order may not be disturbed by any particular form of religious belief. (ID 25)

But if equal rights are not to be granted to every creed then non Catholic religions do need to be restricted in some way. Or at least the Catholic faith has to be held as superior, and have greater rights. The clear teaching of the pre-concicular popes is that the state has a duty to give preference to the Catholic Church. Indeed section six of DH says special recognition could be given to a particular religious community (6:4), but again there is no distinction between the the Catholic faith and any other. Also there is no indication if this preferable or not.

It is regrettable that DH is not more clear on this point, but the only recourse is to fall back on previous Church doctrine, keeping in mind paragraph 1:4 that prior doctrine is left untouched. The only conclusion then is that it is still the duty of the state to grant special status to the Church even though this document does not reiterate that explicitly.

The next several sections of Dignitatis Humanae are dedicated to restating over and over that everyone should have complete freedom of religious expression, and that no one should ever be forced to accept, leave, or stay in a religion. To some extent I think this is directed at Communist countries and other places where the Church was being oppressed, but a lot of it is said in the context of not forcing people to embrace Christianity. For example 10:1 says “no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will.” And 11:3 notes that, “the disciples of Christ strove to convert men to faith in Christ as the Lord; not, however, by the use of coercion.”

The volume of words spent on this is puzzling because, to the best of my knowledge, no one every said otherwise. Indeed Leo XIII taught that, “The Church is wont to take earnest heed that no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will.” (ID 36) My gut feeling is that liberals wanted to justify their position that no limits should be imposed on any religion even in a constitutionally Catholic state.

Section 13 of DH finally gets back to some worthwhile commentary on the freedom of the Catholic Church in particular. Section 13 is the only one in the whole document that calls out the rights of the Catholic Church specifically. “This certainly is preeminent, namely, that the Church should enjoy that full measure of freedom which her care for the salvation of men requires.” (DH 13:1) Presumably this “full measure of freedom” is something distinct from the freedom all religions are supposed to enjoy. But again, DH is not at all clear on this point. It goes on to say in 13:1 that Jesus “endowed with it [the freedom of the Church] 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.” So again the Church’s freedom is presented in a distinct way. Given Pope Benedict’s instruction the proper interpretation of Vatican II documents, this paragraph can only be taken to mean that state should give the Church special recognition and status. The rest of section 13 (three more paragraphs) reiterates the Church’s claim to this freedom. I suspect these paragraphs (13:2-4) were aimed at Communist governments.

Section 14 is about the importance of following the doctrine of the Church, but it doesn’t add much to the discussion on religious freedom. Section 15 wraps up the document by exhorting all nations to embrace religious freedom constitutionally.

The majority of the document simply makes the point that there should be no coercion for any religion, and that restricting religious expression in any way is to be avoided. Since all prior doctrine is left untouched, it must be concluded that the state still has the duty to grant special recognition and privileges to the Church, and to grant due honor to God. However the state should not restrict other religions in any way, with the possible exception of maintaining just public order.

In an excellent article Michael Davis points out that:

The traditional Catholic teaching is that in religious matters: 1. No one must be forced to act against his conscience in private. 2. No one must be forced to act against his conscience in public. 3. No one must be prevented from acting in accordance with his conscience in private. 4. The right of acting in accordance with one’s conscience in public can be restricted.

Where Dignitatis Humanae departs from that tradition is on point four. And even at that there is the qualifier for maintaining “just public order.” In any case I don’t see that either the traditional practice of curbing public expressions of false religions or the DH directive to allow them are matters of doctrine. The only doctrine in this document is that coercion can’t be used.

The specifics are a matter of pastoral approach. Now, that doesn’t mean the council can be ignored. An ecumenical council said, “things should be done like this,” and so they were. But now several decades later I think the pastoral advice of the council can be revisited. Laymen can certainly have their own opinion on the matter but only the appropriate authority can make a definitive judgment on this document.

My opinion is that this document is poor for several reasons. It is unclear on a number of points, it is overly repetitive, it borders on indifferentism, the document seems to speak with “two voices,” and although it says all prior doctrine is untouched, it does not explicitly reaffirm that doctrine.

However, to say this document changed or reversed the doctrine of the Church is false. It does change the common practice of Catholic countries with regard to non-Catholic religions. Section 10:1 even seems to argue that loosening the restrictions on non Catholics will make them more amenable to conversion, “the principle of religious freedom makes no small contribution to the creation of an environment in which men can without hindrance be invited to the Christian faith.” Very optimistic. This is plainly at odds with Leo XIII and Pius IX-XII who all taught that the state should act to suppress the spread of error, but again, I don’t see this as a matter of doctrine.

In Summary, Dignitatis Humanae contributes virtually nothing in terms of doctrine. To learn the social teaching of the Church one must go back to prior papal teaching which is still in full effect. DH does demand changes to traditional practices regarding false religions in Catholic countries. Those changes are questionable at best, but can possibly be circumvented in order to maintain “just public order.” These changes are also presented as a means to make it easier for men to convert to the true faith. At the same time it ignores the possibility that faith of Catholics could be corrupted. Since these changes are not matters of doctrine they can be reviewed by the proper ecclesiastical authority.



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