On Religious Liberty: An Objection ConsideredOct 15th, 2013 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
One common objection to the Catholic Church raised by some inquiring Protestants has to do with religious liberty. The objection I have in mind is the claim that the Catholic Church has contradicted her own doctrine on this subject by previously condemning religious liberty and then affirming religious liberty at the Second Vatican Council in the declaration titled Dignitatis Humanae. This objection has also been used more recently in some circles to challenge the legitimacy of the opposition by the US Catholic bishops to the HHS mandate “requiring employee health insurance for contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs, and female sterilization.” Having opposed religious liberty in the past, goes the objection, the Catholic Church is only appealing to the right to religious liberty now when she does not have the political influence to get what she wants. Here in this post I address this objection briefly first by presenting the relevant Church documents, and then by explaining why there is no contradiction between the doctrines they contain.
The Documents Condemning Religious Liberty
In his encyclical Mirari Vos (August 15, 1832), Pope Gregory XVI wrote the following:
This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. “But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error,” as Augustine was wont to say. When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. Then truly “the bottomless pit” is open from which John saw smoke ascending which obscured the sun, and out of which locusts flew forth to devastate the earth. Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws — in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty. (Mirari Vos , 14)
Thirty two years later, in 1864, Pope Pius IX wrote the following in Quanta Cura:
For you well know, venerable brethren, that at this time men are found not a few who, applying to civil society the impious and absurd principle of “naturalism,” as they call it, dare to teach that “the best constitution of public society and (also) civil progress altogether require that human society be conducted and governed without regard being had to religion any more than if it did not exist; or, at least, without any distinction being made between the true religion and false ones.” And, against the doctrine of Scripture, of the Church, and of the Holy Fathers, they do not hesitate to assert that “that is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require.” From which totally false idea of social government they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an “insanity,” viz., that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.” But, while they rashly affirm this, they do not think and consider that they are preaching “liberty of perdition;” and that “if human arguments are always allowed free room for discussion, there will never be wanting men who will dare to resist truth, and to trust in the flowing speech of human wisdom; whereas we know, from the very teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, how carefully Christian faith and wisdom should avoid this most injurious babbling.” (Quanta Cura, 3)
On that same day, December 8, 1864, Pope Pius IX promulgated the Syllabus of Errors, among which were the following four condemned propositions:
15. Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true. — Allocution “Maxima quidem,” June 9, 1862; Damnatio “Multiplices inter,” June 10, 1851.
77. In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.
78. Hence it has been wisely decided by law, in some Catholic countries, that persons coming to reside therein shall enjoy the public exercise of their own peculiar worship.
79. Moreover, it is false that the civil liberty of every form of worship, and the full power, given to all, of overtly and publicly manifesting any opinions whatsoever and thoughts, conduce more easily to corrupt the morals and minds of the people, and to propagate the pest of indifferentism.
From these documents, we can see that the Church has taught the following five claims: (a) it is false that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone, (b) it is false that the best society is one in which the civil authority recognizes no duty to restrain offenders against the Catholic religion, (c) it is false that absolute liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right that ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society and restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, (d) it is false that in the present day (1864) it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship, and (e) the civil liberty of every form of worship and the full power given to each citizen to manifest publicly any opinions whatsoever, tends more easily to corrupt the morals and minds of the people, and to propagate the pest of indifferentism.
The Document Affirming Religious Liberty
In 1965 the Second Vatican Council said the following in its Declaration on Religious Freedom, titled Dignitatis Humanae and promulgated by Pope Paul VI:
2. This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men 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.
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. 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.
… Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. 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.
3. … [Man] is not to be forced to act in a 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. … 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. …
4. The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. …
6. …It follows that a wrong is done when government imposes upon its people, by force or fear or other means, the profession or repudiation of any religion, or when it hinders men from joining or leaving a religious community. All the more is it a violation of the will of God and of the sacred rights of the person and the family of nations when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion, either in the whole of mankind or in a particular country or in a definite community.
From this document we see that the Church teaches the following five propositions: (f) the human person has a right to religious freedom such that he, whether acting individually or within a group, is to be immune from coercion against his conscience by any human power, within due limits, (g) this right to religious freedom has its foundation in the dignity of the human person and is to be recognized within the constitutional law of a society as a civil right, (h) injury is done to the human person and to the very order established by God when the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed, (i) this right to religious freedom is retained even by those who fail in their obligation to seek out the truth, and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded even in such cases, provided that the just public order be observed, and (j) it is wrong for a government to impose upon its people, by force or fear, the profession or repudiation of any religion, or to hinder persons from joining or leaving a religious community, or to destroy or repress religion.
III. The Apparent Contradictions and Their Resolution
When we lay the first five claims (a)-(e) beside the second five claims (f)-(j), we find what initially seem to be the following contradictions: (k) it is false that liberty of conscience ought to be maintained for everyone, and it is true that liberty of conscience ought to be maintained for everyone, (l) it is false that liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, and it is true that liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, (m) when civil liberty of every form of worship is given to each citizen this tends more easily to corrupt the morals and minds of the persons within that society, and when the civil liberty of every form of religion is denied within society, injury is done to the human person and to very order established by God. This last pair of statements is strictly speaking not a contradiction, but it does seemingly imply that harm is done to society when civil liberty of every form of worship is granted and also when it is withheld. This alleged contradiction can also be formulated as a contradiction regarding which society is best, namely, a contradiction between the claim that the best condition of civil society is one in which a duty is recognized by the civil power to restrain offenders against the Catholic religion, and the claim that the best condition of civil society is one which a duty is recognized by the civil power not to restrain offenders against the Catholic religion but instead to recognize freedom of conscience for all citizens, even those who choose some other religion or no religion.
So why aren’t these contradictions? As I have worded them, they surely seem to be contradictions. When approaching this question it is essential to recognize that the errors being addressed in the earlier documents are not the errors being addressed in Dignitatis Humanae. The appearance of contradiction is formed by abstracting the words from the historical and intentional contexts in which they were written.
A. Liberty of Conscience
Let’s start with liberty of conscience. The erroneous “liberty of conscience” referred to in the nineteenth century documents above is built on the error of indifferentism, according to which no religion is better than any other, and no form of Christianity is better than any other form of Christianity. The cause provoking the liberty of conscience section of Mirari Vos was the writing of a French journalist named H.F. de Lamannais, who advocated that the State be entirely secular and grant its citizens absolute liberty to diffuse any idea, intervening only when necessary to preserve the public peace. Lamannais sought an absolute separation of Church and State, and an absolute liberty on the part of citizens to believe whatever they wanted, without the State taking any position on matters of religion.
This was the indifferentism Pope Gregory XVI was addressing in Mirari Vos. Immediately before discussing “liberty of conscience” in Mirari Vos, he defined ‘indifferentism’ with the following statement:
This perverse opinion is spread on all sides by the fraud of the wicked who claim that it is possible to obtain the eternal salvation of the soul by the profession of any kind of religion, as long as morality is maintained. (Mirari Vos, 13)
This indifferentism therefore implicitly denies either that Christianity is the true religion, or that one form of Christianity (e.g. Catholicism) is the true one among all the others. Indifferentism as so defined is a repackaged form of the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, the notion that man can attain salvation through morality without grace. It is also a form of the modernist notion that there is no supernatural divine revelation we are morally obliged to believe. It is also thereby a denial both of Christianity, according to which God has spoken to us in His Son and grace is needed for salvation, and of Catholicism, according to which the Church is the ark of the New Covenant in which through the sacraments Christ established within her He gives the grace by which we may be saved. So this “liberty of conscience” built on indifferentism entails that under all circumstances the government must never advance one religion over others, must never treat divine revelation as divine revelation, and must never endorse one form of Christianity over others. But that is contrary to Church teaching, as Pope Leo XIII made clear in 1885 when he wrote:
Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its teaching and practice-not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion — it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, would hold in honor the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favor religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule. For one and all are we destined by our birth and adoption to enjoy, when this frail and fleeting life is ended, a supreme and final good in heaven, and to the attainment of this every endeavor should be directed. Since, then, upon this depends the full and perfect happiness of mankind, the securing of this end should be of all imaginable interests the most urgent. Hence, civil society, established for the common welfare, should not only safeguard the well-being of the community, but have also at heart the interests of its individual members, in such mode as not in any way to hinder, but in every manner to render as easy as may be, the possession of that highest and unchangeable good for which all should seek. Wherefore, for this purpose, care must especially be taken to preserve unharmed and unimpeded the religion whereof the practice is the link connecting man with God. […]
The authority of God is passed over in silence, just as if there were no God; or as if He cared nothing for human society; or as if men, whether in their individual capacity or bound together in social relations, owed nothing to God; or as if there could be a government of which the whole origin and power and authority did not reside in God Himself. Thus, as is evident, a State becomes nothing but a multitude which is its own master and ruler. And since the people is declared to contain within itself the spring-head of all rights and of all power, 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. (Immortale Dei, 6, 25)
Pope Leo XIII explains that when it is known publicly that there is a God and that He has revealed Himself and how He is to be worshipped, it is a public crime for the society or the State to act as if there is no God. The State has an obligation to give to God the worship He is due, in the manner He is known to have prescribed. Civil rulers must therefore favor, protect, and shield the true religion, insofar as they know it, and insofar as they are able to do so in their capacity. Among the principles of the Enlightenment that had their roots in the religious controversies of the sixteenth century, is a notion of government according to which “the authority of God is passed over in silence,” as if men owe nothing to God, and as if the government is not obliged to make any public profession of faith or show any form of religion special favor. But this philosophy has false implications, as Pope Leo XIII goes on to explain:
To hold, therefore, that there is no difference in matters of religion between forms that are unlike each other, and even contrary to each other, most clearly leads in the end to the rejection of all religion in both theory and practice. And this is the same thing as atheism, however it may differ from it in name. Men who really believe in the existence of God must, in order to be consistent with themselves and to avoid absurd conclusions, understand that differing modes of divine worship involving dissimilarity and conflict even on most important points cannot all be equally probable, equally good, and equally acceptable to God. […]
Thus, Gregory XVI in his encyclical letter “Mirari Vos,” dated August 15, 1832, inveighed with weighty words against the sophisms which even at his time were being publicly inculcated-namely, that no preference should be shown for any particular form of worship; that it is right for individuals to form their own personal judgments about religion; that each man’s conscience is his sole and all-sufficing guide. (Immortale Dei, 31, 34)
Indifferentism, according to Pope Leo XIII, is an implicit form of atheism. And it was this form of atheism, hidden under the language of ‘liberty’ of religion, that Pope Gregory XVI opposed in Mirari Vos. According to the conception of “liberty of conscience” proposed by the indifferentists, the best society is one in which there is no publicly held or publicly recognized religious truth or religious practice, but instead each man’s reason and conscience must be his sole and all-sufficing guide in deciding which religious beliefs, if any, he will believe while the government remains absolutely mute on the matter of religion and engages in no particular religious practice.
As Pope Pius IX makes clear in Quanta Cura, and Pope Leo XIII confirmed subsequently, the conception of liberty of conscience Pope Gregory XVI condemned follows from the indifferentist conception of the best condition of civil society. Hence this “liberty of conscience” refers to a freedom not only from coercion but also from guidance, teaching, or influence by both civil and ecclesial authorities toward religious truth, and from restriction, impedance, or opposition by such authorities toward religious error. It includes the notion of freedom from the influence or idea or existence of public religious truth and from public religious practice by the civil authority or the endorsement of religious practice by the civil authority. Each man’s guide in matters of religion must be his reason alone, and his reason must not be informed or influenced by civil authorities as such, whether through word or actions, or by ecclesial authorities publicly recognized as such by the civil authority. According to this notion any such informing or influencing would be an abuse of power because there is no true religion and no true form of Christianity. More generally, this conception of freedom of conscience views authority and freedom as opposed, such that the action of a civil authority in its capacity as civil authority to advance a particular religion is ipso facto a violation of the freedom of the citizens with respect to religion. Religion can have no place in the public square, because there can be no publicly recognized religious truth; there can be only private religious decisions. Hence there are no possible social conditions in which upholding the common good requires or allows action of this sort by civil authorities.
The freedom of conscience referred to in Dignitatis Humanae, by contrast, is a more specific definition of freedom, namely, freedom from coercion to act against one’s conscience in matters of religion, within due limits in relation to the common good. The freedom of conscience affirmed in Dignitatis Humanae is not a freedom to form one’s conscience apart from any guidance or direction toward the truth by the civil authority or by an ecclesial authority recognized as such by the civil authority, but instead a freedom to act according to one’s conscience with regard to religion, without coercion, within due limits in relation to the common good.1 This liberty of conscience requires that no government may impose on its citizens the profession or repudiation of any religion such that any citizens are compelled or coerced to act against their conscience with regard to religion. But this liberty of conscience does not disallow a publicly recognized religion, or the promotion and defense and practice of that public religion by the civil authority as such.2
So the “liberty of conscience” condemned in the earlier document is not the same “liberty of conscience” affirmed in Dignitatis Humanae, and for that reason there is no contradiction between the two teachings.
B. The Right of Religious Liberty
What then of the seeming contradiction between the older teaching that it is false that liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, and the teaching in Dignitatis Humanae that liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right? Here too, the position condemned is not the same position affirmed, because the ‘right’ condemned in the older documents is not the right affirmed in Dignitatis Humanae. The position condemned is the notion that human persons have a right not only to follow their conscience in matters of religion without coercion from the civil authority, but also to form their conscience without any influence by the civil authority as such in matters of religion, through endorsement or promotion or practice of any particular religion, or opposition to any particular religious claim or practice. The ‘right’ of religious freedom as conceived by the indifferentists entails that the civil authority has no obligation to promote and defend religious truth, oppose false religious claims, and practice the true religion. Rather, this proposed ‘right’ entails that the civil authority has an obligation not to do each of those, and thus violates this right if it does them.
In contrast, the right to religious freedom affirmed in Dignitatis Humanae is the right to be immune from coercion to act against one’s conscience in matters of religion, within due limits in relation to the common good.3 This right does not entail that the civil authority has no obligation to promote and defend religious truth, oppose false religious claims, and practice the true religion. This right does not entail that the civil authority has an obligation not to do each of those. The civil authority can defend and practice one particular religion, and oppose false religious claims or practices, while upholding and respecting the right to religious freedom as this right is defined and affirmed in Dignitatis Humanae.
So here too the false right of liberty of conscience and worship rejected in the earlier documents is not the same right of liberty and conscience affirmed in Dignitatis Humanae, and for that reason there is no contradiction between the two teachings. This is also why there is no contradiction between the claim in Quanta Cura that it is false that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society” (QC, 3) and the claim in Dignitatis Humanae that “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” (DH, 2). The liberty that Pope Pius IX teaches should not be legally recognized is not the same liberty that the Second Vatican Council teaches should be recognized.
C. The Perfection of Society
What then of the third alleged contradiction, namely, between the earlier claim that when civil liberty of every form of worship is given to each citizen this tends more easily to corrupt the morals and minds of the persons within that society, and the claim in Dignitatis Humanae that when the civil liberty of every form of religion is denied within society, injury is done to the human person and to very order established by God? Here too the form of civil liberty said to tend toward the corruption of society is not the same as the form of civil liberty the denial of which injures both the human person and the order established by God.
Once again, the civil liberty that the older documents teach as tending to the corruption of society is a conception of liberty that presupposes indifferentism. Intrinsic to this conception of liberty is a denial of the possibility of the public discovery, preservation, and dissemination of religious truth. In order for the citizens to have this ‘liberty,’ the society as a whole and civil authority as such must act as though no religious truth has been discovered. Clearly this conception of liberty presupposes that God has not spoken publicly or publicly revealed Himself or how He is to be worshipped. In this way this conception of liberty denies the possibility of divine revelation to man in his social dimension and thereby denies the historicity and objectivity of divine revelation altogether. The forced privatization of religion is not a religiously neutral position, because it carries with it the docetic notion that God did not become man in time and space, but speaks at most only directly to individual human hearts in the privacy of their own homes or houses of worship.
The Church’s rejection of that conception of liberty does not entail that civil authorities who come to know religious truth must coerce citizens to accept religious truth. In 1888, Pope Leo XIII, wrote the following:
For this reason, while not conceding any right to anything save what is true and honest, the Church does not forbid public authority to tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, or of obtaining or preserving some greater good. . . . But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake. . . .
But, to judge aright, we must acknowledge that, the more a State is driven to tolerate evil, the further is it from perfection; and that the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare requires. . . . (Libertas, 33, 34)
The civil authority may tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, or of obtaining or preserving some greater good. But the more a State is driven by the condition of its citizens to tolerate evil and falsehood, the further it is from perfection, all other things being equal. Inversely, the less that evil and falsehood must be tolerated, without violating human conscience, the more perfect the society, all other things being equal. But in a society following the standard of false religious liberty such that there is no public recognition of religious or moral truth, the citizens are more likely to fall into all sorts of error and immorality, and in that respect such a society tends to its corruption and demise.4
By contrast, the conception of religious liberty in view in the claim within Dignitatis Humanae that “Injury . . . 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,” does not presuppose indifferentism or docetism or the denial of divine revelation, because it does not presuppose that religious truth cannot be known publicly and promoted publicly by the civil authority. Rather, this religious liberty is the freedom to act according to one’s conscience regarding religion without coercion, provided the just public order is observed. According to Dignitatis Humanae, the reason why coercing others to act contrary to their conscience in matters of religion is wrong lies in the very nature of our duty to pursue and adhere to religious truth:
The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind. (Dignitatis Humanae, 3)
[M]en cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion. (Dignitatis Humanae, 2)
Because the exercise of religion consists before all else in internal, voluntary and free acts, when a society loses the recognition of religious freedom, and the civil authority coerces its citizens to profess or repudiate some particular religious doctrine or practice, it fails to permit its citizens to discharge their religious obligations before God. And this mistreatment of its citizens thereby harms society.
So here too the false conception of religious liberty said in the earlier Church documents to be harmful to society is not the same conception of religious liberty affirmed in Dignitatis Humanae as part of the very order established by God, and which when denied injures the human person. The false conception of religious liberty is not merely a freedom from coercion when following one’s conscious in matters religious, but is a much broader concept that includes within itself a denial of the possibility of the public discovery, preservation, and dissemination of religious truth, and thus includes within itself a denial of the incarnation. The religious liberty affirmed in Dignitatis Humanae, by contrast, entails no such thing.5 Rather, Dignitatis Humanae acknowledges that society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion, and that this responsibility belongs especially to the civil authority, not only for the sake of preserving public peace, but also for a “proper guardianship of public morality:”
Furthermore, society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion. It is the special duty of government to provide this protection. However, government is not to act in an arbitrary fashion or in an unfair spirit of partisanship. Its action is to be controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order. These norms arise out of the need for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality. (Dignitatis Humanae, 7)
The claim that Dignitatis Humanae contradicts prior Church teaching takes another form regarding the perfection of society. According to that objection, the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae that civil authorities ought not coerce citizens to act against their conscience in matters of religion, within due limits, contradicts the falsehood of the statement condemned by Pope Pius IX in Quanta Cura that the best condition of civil society is one in which no duty is recognized by the civil power of restraining offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require. However, that the best condition of society is one in which the civil authority does recognize a duty to restrain offenders against the Catholic religion does not entail that anyone should be subject to coercion to act against his conscience in matters of religion beyond due limits. The moral duty by civil authorities to defend religious truth for the sake of the common good is compatible with the moral duty by civil authorities not to coerce citizens to act against their conscience in matters of religion, beyond due limits. For that reason, here too there is no contradiction between the two teachings.
IV. Points of Continuity
It is worth pointing out the continuity of the two documents, first by noting that the relevant errors addressed by the older documents are repudiated positively in the second paragraph of Dignitatis Humanae:
First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you” (Matt. 28: 19-20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it. (Dignitatis Humanae, 1)
Notice the following five claims: (1) God has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him and come to salvation, (2) there is one true religion, (3) this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, (4) by divine commission the duty of spreading the gospel to all men belongs to this Catholic and Apostolic Church, and (5) all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know and to hold fast to it. Hence the Council goes on to say that its affirmation of religious freedom “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”6 These five claims in direct continuity with the previous teaching deny the falsehoods implicit within the false conception of religious liberty rejected within the older documents, and are conjoined with an explicit statement affirming the continuing validity of the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.
Second, the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae is a development of a doctrine that the Church has always held. Dignitatis Humanae notes that “the doctrine of the Church that no one is to be coerced into faith” has always been the doctrine of the Church even through times when other ways of acting appeared in the history of the Church.7 And Pope Leo XIII testifies to this when in 1885 he writes:
The Church, indeed, deems it unlawful to place the various forms of divine worship on the same footing as the true religion, but does not, on that account, condemn those rulers who, for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, allow patiently custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the State. And, in fact, the Church is wont to take earnest heed that no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will, for, as St. Augustine wisely reminds us, “Man cannot believe otherwise than of his own will.” (Immortale Dei, 36)
The continuity and development of the Church’s doctrine explains both the need for Dignitatis Humanae as well as its compatibility with older Catholic doctrine opposing an anti-Christian and even atheistic conception of religious freedom.
Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, 2013
- This freedom of conscience is to be respected not only by the civil authority, but also by all others:
However, in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s right and a violation of the right of others. (Dignitatis Humanae, 4)
- This freedom of conscience is fully compatible with the civil recognition of one religious community above others:
If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society, it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice. (Dignitatis Humanae, 6)
- In 1963 Pope John XXIII, in Pacem et Terris, 14, wrote, “Also among man’s rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public.” [↩]
- See also Pope Pius XII’s 1953 address titled “Ci Riesce,” in which he says:
The duty of repressing moral and religious error cannot therefore be an ultimate norm of action. It must be subordinate to higher and more general norms, which in some circumstances permit, and even perhaps seem to indicate as the better policy, toleration of error in order to promote a greater good. (Ci Riesce, V)
- Dignitatis Humanae affirms just the opposite, teaching:
The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. (Dignitatis Humanae, 3)
- Dignitatis Humanae, 1. [↩]
- Dignitatis Humanae, 12. [↩]