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Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae

Daniel J. Castellano


1. Background
2. Human Dignity and the Demand for Liberty
3. The Church’s Position on Religious Liberty
4. Definition and Scope of Religious Liberty
5. Church-State Relations
6. Religious Liberty in Christian Tradition
7. Rights of the Catholic Church
8. Religious Liberty in the Modern World
Appendix: Dignitatis Humanae and the Syllabus of Errors

The declaration on religious liberty (libertas religiosa)[1] titled Dignitatis Humanae is probably the most controversial document of the Second Vatican Council, as it appears on its face to repudiate papal teaching from Gregory XVI to Pius XI on the social kingship of Christ. Scrupulous Catholics are faced with the dilemma of choosing between two apparently opposing teachings from the universal magisterium. This dissonance is sometimes resolved by denying the authority of one or the other teaching, or even denying that this is a doctrinal matter. Others try to parse the document closely in a way that can be logically reconciled with previous papal teaching, but these interpretations are often strained. Still others, less scrupulously, claim that the Church’s doctrine can simply “evolve” or change with the times, wholeheartedly accepting the modernist error that truth derives from human volition. This diversity of interpretation, if nothing else, shows that the declaration failed to give a clear and complete description of the Church’s teaching on the subject.

1. Background

The reason for the confusion in interpreting Dignitatis Humanae lies in the conflicting interests behind its composition. A large majority of the Council Fathers wanted to make some sort of declaration on religious liberty, but disagreed substantially on specifics. The schema that was eventually submitted to a vote was that prepared by the bishops of the United States, following a text mostly drafted by John Courtney Murray, S.J. It was introduced in the second session (1963), but not voted on. In the third session (1964), it was extensively revised, weakening some of Fr. Murray’s claims, and then tabled by conservatives. In the fourth and final session (1965), it was the first item of business. Objections were raised to the mention of “development” of Church doctrine, but the schema was nonetheless put to a preliminary vote, with 1,997 approving and 224 opposed. After some minor amendments were made to accommodate traditionalist concerns, the declaration was passed by a final vote of 2,308 to 70.

The declaration derives its authority from the universal magisterium expressed by the consent of nearly all the bishops. Yet this consent was contingent upon extensive revisions to Fr. Murray’s draft, so we cannot look to Fr. Murray alone for a definitive interpretation of the declaration. We must instead try to find that common ground that was accepted by all parties, for this alone has the force of the Church’s ordinary universal magisterium.

The composition of the document, however, makes it problematic to discern a single coherent voice. Much of the text retains Fr. Murray’s Americanist opinions, which, if left unamended, would have been certainly heterodox. On the other hand, there are caveats restricting the sense of the main theme, which are in complete opposition to Murray’s position. If each part of the document is considered autonomously, it would contradict itself. The question arises if there even is a coherent common position that can be extracted from the document, or if it is a failed compromise of irreconcilable positions.

Several strains of thought may be identified in the declaration. First and foremost is that of Fr. Murray, who sought to validate the American understanding of religious freedom, expressed in the First Amendment, in terms of Catholic teaching. This enterprise, it must be stressed, was motivated by a desire to oppose secularism. In the 1940’s, Catholics were becoming a dominant cultural force in the United States, to the point that some Protestants, alarmed by the prospects of creeping civic Catholicism, aligned themselves with secularists to obtain court rulings against various forms of religious expression in civic life. This new tendency toward French-style secularism seemed to be motivated by fear of Catholic social doctrine, which called for state preference of Catholicism. Fr. Murray thought that this civic secularization could be averted if Catholics and Protestants agreed to the traditional American understanding of religious freedom, guaranteeing free expression for all sects in both private and public acts.

It must be understood that the American Revolution and the French Revolution took distinct approaches to the question of religious freedom. The French state proceeded on a path of secularization, banishing all religious expression from civic life. In the United States, by contrast, religious freedom was conceived as a constraint on government action, while religious institutions were permitted to act freely in private and public spheres. This policy seemed to be conducive to the flourishing of religion, as proved by the pronounced religiosity and proliferation of churches in the United States through much of the nineteenth century, a fact frequently commented upon by European observers. Unencumbered by state intervention, religion could flourish in a free market of ideas, persuading men by the light of truth. Secularization, the forcible suppression of religious expression in civic life, would effectively promote agnosticism and atheism by distorting the market.

Although the popes recognized that the American system was preferable to secularization, they nonetheless held that this was only a tolerable state. Pope Leo XIII said, “It would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church.” This is precisely the error that Fr. Murray sought to promote, though motivated by good intentions. He was accordingly prohibited from expressing his heterodox views in the 1950’s.

Many Council Fathers recognized similar heterodoxy in Fr. Murray’s original draft. He originally wanted to incorporate both the “free exercise” clause and the “non-establishment” clause of the First Amendment, but the latter was rejected as plainly contradicting the teaching and practice of the Church, especially in Spain, Italy and Latin America. Even the right to religious liberty was circumscribed by caveats, so it remains for us to see how much of Fr. Murray’s thought was accepted by the Council, and whether this can be reconciled with earlier papal teaching. There can be discrepancies, of course, on non-doctrinal matters, but not on the doctrine of faith and morals.

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2. Human Dignity and the Demand for Liberty

In its opening, the declaration observes that a “sense of the dignity of the human person” has impressed itself more deeply on modern man. This notion of human dignity is not an invention of modern liberalism, but is derived from Christian tradition, which calls all men to be received as children of God, without distinction between male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free. Indeed, John Locke derived his political philosophy from the premise that Adam, made in the image of God, was endowed with rational liberty and the power to discern the good. The Church has never accepted Locke’s faulty inference that men are equally endowed with political sovereignty, but she does uphold the inviolable dignity of all men. Thus she upheld the basic rights of Indians in America, even when some tried to deny that they were rational creatures. She has always sought to guarantee the protection of basic rights, including the right to spiritual goods, even for those living in serfdom or slavery.

Note that the Council, neither here nor elsewhere, ever speaks of an “equal dignity.” Humans are equal in some ways, such as with respect to the right to life, but not in all. We have “equal dignity” insofar as we are all entitled to some minimum respect by virtue of being human. Yet we may also have unequal dignities bestowed on individuals beyond this, such as the dignities of public office, authority, or social status. For this reason, the Church has never prescribed a particular form of political constitution or social order for all Catholics, and she has permitted political and social inequality as being consonant with Christianity and with good order. Such inequalities persist even in the so-called democratic nations, as good government requires inequality of office and authority.

A heightened awareness of human dignity has caused modern man to put forth several demands or desires, which the Council declares to be “greatly in accord with truth and justice”:

Note that these demands are conditioned. The exercise of judgment is conceived as a “responsible freedom,” motivated not by selfish desire, but “a sense of duty.” It is this responsible freedom, linked to duty, which governments should not impede. Naturally, governments are permitted, even obligated, to restrain those who would use their freedom irresponsibly, or in a way that is contrary to moral or social duty. Still, such restraint should be imposed only when truly necessary; otherwise, deference should be shown to personal freedom. This freedom of action applies especially to the pursuit of spiritual values, since it is in such values that each man determines his life’s projects. If this pursuit is not free, neither are man’s consequent projects. Thus the free exercise of religion is essential to a notion of man with dignified, responsible freedom.

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3. The Church’s Position on Religious Liberty

To show how these desires are in accord with truth and justice, the Council “searches into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church—the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.” Here is a statement of the ressourcement hermeneutic employed by the Council. It proposes continuity rather than rupture with tradition, as the “new things” in this document will be in harmony with the old.

The Council, being true to its own divine mission, does not ground religious liberty in agnosticism, but insists that there is one true religion that God has ordained for all men:

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. (DH, 1)

As explained in the commentary on Lumen Gentium, the use of the term ‘subsists’ indicates that the Catholic Church is the concrete subject of the formal entity in question—in this case the “one true religion.” The Council says “subsists” rather than “is,” in order to recognize that elements of this one true religion may also be found outside the visible structure of the Church, though the Catholic Church alone exemplifies this religion in its fullness.

The Church does not merely possess the one true religion; she is duty-bound to spread it to the ends of the earth. For their part, men have an obligation to seek the truth about God and His Church, and to embrace and adhere to as much of the truth as they come to know.

This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power. (DH, 1)

Although every man has an objective moral duty to learn about the true religion and adhere to it, this duty binds only the conscience. In other words, it is not for any human power to impose this duty by external coercion. This is consistent with the perennial Catholic teaching that no one should be forced to convert to the faith. Indeed, such forced conversions contribute nothing to the Church’s mission, as they are insincere and false.

Religious liberty, 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)

This caveat was inserted to appease conservative bishops, yet it is fully consonant with what preceded immediately. It was already clear that we were discussing immunity from external coercion, as opposed to man’s objective moral duty. The present statement only makes explicit what was already implied: that none of the traditional teachings about the duty of men and societies to the true religion are in any way abrogated, insofar as those deal with the sphere of moral duty.

This might seem to be an unsatisfactory harmonization. After all, the previous pronouncements of the Popes speak of more than the duties that bind the conscience, but also of the state’s obligation to give legal preference to the true religion, to the maximum extent feasible. Yet Dignitatis Humanae, we will see, does not forbid confessional states. It only forbids state coercion insofar as that pertains to the act of religious assent. As long as the free pursuit of religious truth is guaranteed, other restrictions on the basis of the common good or public order are permitted, even commended.

Over and above all this, the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society. (DH, 1)

This mention of doctrinal development was one of the more controversial clauses of the document. It was considered doubtful by many Fathers whether the Church could actually “develop” new doctrine in the way that Cardinal Newman had suggested a century earlier. Yet the text gives no formal definition of development, as the pastoral Council avoided dogmatics, so we are left only with the ordinary meaning of ‘develop’: to elaborate or expound upon what already exists. It is clear that the Council wants to say something that has not been said before by the magisterium, yet this something is to be built upon the doctrine of recent popes. There is no hint here or anywhere that the Council intended to abrogate any papal teaching.

Some commentators, with unwarranted hyperbole, have said that Dignitatis Humanae singlehandedly confirmed the theory of doctrinal development and made it the basis of the Council’s theology. Yet the Council studiously avoided making doctrinal definitions, so it hardly had the opportunity to apply such a theory if it were so inclined. The cursory mention in this declaration gives no indication of how the term ‘develop’ is intended. We have only the earlier assertion that “the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.”

Well before the Council, the term ‘development’ admitted both orthodox and heterodox meanings. The heretical notion is that dogmas change substantially over time in their content. The First Vatican Council condemned the proposition “that by reason of the progress of science, a meaning must be given to the dogmas of the Church other than what the Church understood and understands them to have.” (Session 3, Canons, “On faith and reason”) In Humani Generis (1950), Pope Pius XII condemned those who would replace the clear teachings of the magisterium, expressed in Scholastic terminology, with “conjectural notions and by some formless and unstable tenets of a new philosophy.” (Art. 17) The Pope remarks that the classical formulas are “not based on any such weak foundation. These things are based on principles and notions deduced from a true knowledge of created things.” (Art. 16) It should be clear that much of post-Conciliar theology, with its contempt for Scholastic concepts and philosophical realism, is formally heretical, since it denies the real truth of dogmas.

There is, nonetheless, an orthodox sense of dogmatic development, whereby there is a progress in the knowledge and ecclesiastical definition of revealed truth. This can occur in four ways: (1) truths that were once only implicitly believed are now expressly proposed for belief; (2) material dogmas are raised to the status of formal dogmas; (3) to facilitate understanding and avoid distortion, ancient truths are formulated in new, sharply defined concepts (e.g., the Christological definitions); (4) questions formerly disputed are explained and decided. (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 7.) In all these developments, there is no increase in the objective content of divine revelation, which ended with the death of the Apostles. Rather, there is an increase of our explicit knowledge and understanding of the deposit of faith.

As we shall see from the remainder of the declaration, there is nothing in Dignitatis Humanae that suggests an addition to the deposit of faith. First, it is not clear that anything in the declaration is proposed as de fide definita.[2] Even if the declaration were de fide, none of its content is absolutely new, but all has precedent in the Church’s teaching tradition. What is new is the form of presentation, with an emphasis on personal liberty, drawing out some implications of past papal pronouncements. There is nothing, in short, to prevent us from interpreting the “development” of Dignitatis Humanae in the pre-Conciliar orthodox sense.

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4. Definition and Scope of Religious Liberty

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious liberty. This liberty 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. (DH, 2)

Were it not for the saving phrase ‘within due limits,’ this definition would seem to be identical with that freedom condemned by Pope Gregory XVI in Mirari Vos (1832), Pope Pius IX in Quanta Cura (1864), and Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei, to cite just the more prominent encyclicals. Pope Gregory condemned “freedom of conscience,” insofar as this was conceived as pure license to act as one sees fit. In Quanta Cura, Pope Pius IX condemned the opinion that:

..freedom 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 freedom, 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.

This “freedom” is conceived in absolute terms, and is nothing more than pure license. Likewise, Leo XIII in Immortale Dei condemned the theory that:

...all questions that concern religion are to be referred to private judgment; that every one is to be free to follow whatever religion he prefers, or none at all if he disapprove of all. From this the following consequences logically flow: that the judgment of each one’s conscience is independent of all law; that the most unrestrained opinions may be openly expressed as to the practice or omission of divine worship; and that every one has unbounded license to think whatever he chooses and to publish abroad whatever he thinks. (Immortale Dei, 26)

Yet the false liberty condemned by the Popes is not the same as the religious liberty praised by the Council. We recall that the Council’s definition of religious liberty was motivated by the necessary freedom of religious assent. The clauses of the definition therefore should not be interpreted in absolute terms. In fact, the remainder of the document will make clear that there are important caveats and limits to the exercise of religious liberty. Immunity from coercion applies only to the act of religious faith and its concomitant acts. An important aspect of the Council’s doctrinal development is that these concomitant acts include public worship, not just private acts. Nonetheless, such public acts may be restricted if the greater public good requires it, and societies still have the duty to seek and adhere to the true religion, even giving it official recognition when possible. It is far from the case, then, that all religious questions are to be referred to private judgment.

The council further declares that the right to religious liberty 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. (DH, 2)

Far from setting aside papal teaching, the declaration’s notes cites Leo XIII’s encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum (1888), where the Pope defines religious liberty in terms of that ancient liberty claimed by the Apostles. It is the right to give due worship to God and to serve him. The Pope offers the key to distinguishing between true and false liberty of conscience:

Another freedom is widely advocated, namely, freedom of conscience. If by this is meant that everyone may, as he chooses, worship God or not, it is sufficiently refuted by the arguments already adduced. But it may also be taken to mean that every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands. This, indeed, is true freedom, a liberty worthy of the sons of God, which nobly maintains the dignity of man and is stronger than all violence or wrong — a liberty which the Church has always desired and held most dear. This is the kind of freedom the Apostles claimed for themselves with intrepid constancy, which the apologists of Christianity confirmed by their writings, and which the martyrs in vast numbers consecrated by their blood. (Libertas Praestantissimum, 30)

Man alone among earthly creatures has the ability to worship God, and it is this capacity for religious duty that is the mark of his special dignity as a son of God. Vatican II’s notion of religious freedom, then, is derived not from license, but from religious duty. It is essential to this duty that it be performed freely; thus the freedom is subordinate to the duty.

The right of religious liberty was affirmed not only by Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, but also by John XXIII in Pacem in Terris (1963): “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.” This strong assertion of religious liberty, mentioning both private and public worship, is nonetheless morally conditioned by the right dictates of conscience. Liberty is still conceived in traditional terms, as Pope John cites Lactantius and Leo XIII.

Therefore the right to religious liberty 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. (DH, 3)

This is the declaration’s first “development” of doctrine; a chain of inferences from existing teaching. Recall that the starting point is Leo XIII’s definition of religious liberty, which is the right to give due worship to God and to seek religious truth. The Council is saying that this right of “seeking,” in order to be effective, must involve freedom from external coercion, since our mode of seeking consists in the free exercise of the will. Thus the right of seeking—religious liberty—is grounded in our nature as free-willed beings. Yet this nature is shared by all men, regardless of their disposition, from which we infer that even those who do not respect their duty of adhering to the truth nonetheless retain the right to seek it freely, “provided that just public order be observed.”

The last caveat, as a practical implication, allows predominantly Catholic countries to restrict minority groups from scandalizing the faith of the Catholic majority. For example, they might be prohibited from public blasphemy, or from proselytizing among Catholics. Naturally, they would also be prohibited from any religious practices that are contrary to natural law; i.e., involving murder, theft, etc.[3]

“Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.” (DH, 3) That is to say, men assent to religious truths personally, not by membership in a political society. Therefore, membership in political society cannot be grounds for coercing religious assent.

The declaration now elaborates the specifics of the religious liberty grounded in human nature, following the principle that “the highest norm of human life is the divine law.” Note that religious liberty has nothing to do with making man the measure of all things.

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. 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 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. (DH, 3)

“Conscience” is not conceived in the libertine sense of “whatever a person feels is right,” but is oriented to the imperatives of divine law. Man is bound to follow his conscience in order to come to God, and it is for this reason—that he should not be impeded from coming to God—that he is exempt from political coercion in his seeking. In other words, this freedom to follow conscience presupposes an authentic seeking of God—it is not a license to do as one thinks is right.

The reason why religious liberty is now more broadly applied to non-Catholics is that the Council recognizes that those who hold religious errors are not necessarily culpable heretics or opposing themselves to divine law. Rather, many of them are authentically seeking God, even if they are falling short in their duty to find and adhere to the truth. In many cases, they actually do find and adhere to much religious truth, even if they lack the fullness of the true faith.

Although man adheres to truth by a personal assent, yet by his social nature, he is compelled to “give external expression to his internal acts of religion” and “profess his religion in community.” (DH, 3) Thus, religious liberty entails a right to communal worship, even when such worship lacks the fullness of truth. Again, this is not out of a notion that error has rights, but it is grounded in the right to seek religious truth.

Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious. (DH, 3)

There is no absolute separation of Church and state—the government should take cognizance of religion and favor it. However, it cannot command or inhibit religious acts—since that is beyond the scope of temporal power. This does not preclude the regulation of public religious acts to the extent necessary for public order.

The liberty 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. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself.

Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim liberty in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honor the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles. (DH, 4)

Again, a ‘public order’ clause allows Catholic countries the discretion to limit public expressions that will scandalize the faithful Catholic majority.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferral of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties. (DH, 4)

An internal autonomy is granted to religious communities, again out of recognition of the limitations of the temporal power.

The erection of religious buildings can be a controversial matter, depending on their specific location and purpose. If their location or purpose is oriented toward corrupting the faith of the Catholic majority, a Catholic state might justly impose limits on such construction, yet at the same time it has a responsibility to allow religious minorities to acquire adequate facilities for public worship in proportion to their numbers.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word. 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. (DH, 4)

Again, these rights are on account of limitations of the temporal power, not an assertion that the promulgation of these faiths are a moral right. Rather, what is a moral imperative is recognition of the liberty to seek God.

The right not to be hindered in public preaching, however, is subject to the above caveats regarding public order. Thus, predominantly Catholic countries may prevent others from proselytizing among Catholics, just as the Catholics in predominantly Orthodox countries do not try to poach believers.

In addition, it comes within the meaning of religious liberty 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)

Any authentic religious liberty must allow believers to try to show the value of their doctrine for the organization of society. This applies most especially to Catholics, who have a relatively well defined social doctrine that follows from their religion. Yet even non-Catholics, if they are to have authentic religious liberty, must be permitted to apply or at least propose the application of their religious principles in various aspects of society. This must be done with regard to public order, and again, not in a way that will scandalize public mores, especially in a predominantly Catholic country.

The right of religious liberty must entail the right to establish educational and social organizations. Note that this right is conceived in opposition to a secularist notion of the state and civil society.

The family, since it is a society in its own original right, has the right freely to live its own domestic religious life under the guidance of parents. Parents, moreover, have the right to determine, in accordance with their own religious beliefs, the kind of religious education that their children are to receive. Government, in consequence, must acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and of other means of education, and the use of this liberty of choice is not to be made a reason for imposing unjust burdens on parents, whether directly or indirectly. Besides, the right of parents are violated, if their children are forced to attend lessons or instructions which are not in agreement with their religious beliefs, or if a single system of education, from which all religious formation is excluded, is imposed upon all. (DH, 5)

Here the opposition to secularism is even more explicit, so no one can suppose that Dignitatis Humanae is a wholesale acceptance of secularism. The autonomy and priority of the family over the state is articulated, so that the right to organize the family along religious principles precedes any intervention by the state.

The Church condemns compulsory secular education, and even finds fault with systems that allow religious education, but impose unjust burdens. In most of the U.S., for example, Catholic parents are forced to pay for public schools, making it prohibitively difficult for many to afford Catholic schooling.

Since religious liberty pertains to the public good, it is a matter of concern for all persons and institutions.

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5. Church-State Relations

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 liberty should be recognized and made effective in practice. (DH, 6)

Dignitatis Humanae does not adopt the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and so it freely allows that a religion may be given special civil recognition. In fact, as previous papal teaching stated unambiguously, it is always preferable that the Catholic religion should receive such recognition. Regardless of such recognition, however, the above defined rights of religious liberty must be guaranteed. This entailed adjustments in the laws of Catholic countries.

Finally, government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens. (DH, 6)

This might seem to be at odds with the previous statement that a religion may be given special civic recognition. Yet equality before the law only means the common juridical notion that a just law must have no regard for persons. The penalty for a given crime cannot be greater for Paul than for Peter. By extension, we cannot make the penalty greater for Paul on account of his religious confession. Such inequity is contrary to natural justice, and it imposes a degree of coercion on his choice of confession.

It is not immediately clear whether this principle should also mean that there should be no religious test for eligibility to public office. Here we are not speaking of equality under the law, but of the constitution of the state, which, may have a religious character in some cases, as the declaration says. Judging from the subsequent practice of the Catholic hierarchy in Latin America, it seems that Dignitatis Humanae may be interpreted as consistent with requiring heads of state and other officials to be Catholic. This is because the state itself has a duty to find and adhere to religious truth, and the state’s continued adherence to Catholic principles, which is a public good, naturally requires it to be administered by professed Catholics who recognize these principles.

The equality before the law enjoined by Dignitatis Humanae is designed to prohibit anything that would coercively discourage a citizen from retaining his religion:

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. (DH, 6)

Burdensome taxes, laws against liberty of movement, lack of access to public services, and other forms of harassment can effectively nullify religious liberty. We might even say that religious minorities should be permitted to hold civil service jobs, especially if denial of such would limit their ability to provide for their economic well-being. Even before the French Revolution, non-Catholics were permitted to hold such positions in confessional states.

All the aforementioned rights of religious liberty operate within social constraints. The Church does not espouse Lockean individualism or an absolutism of rights.

The right to religious liberty is exercised in human society: hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms... In the exercise of their rights, individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all...

Furthermore, society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of liberty 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.

These matters constitute the basic component of the common welfare: they are what is meant by public order. For the rest, the usages of society are to be the usages of liberty in their full range: that is, the liberty of man is to be respected as far as possible and is not to be curtailed except when and insofar as necessary. (DH, 7)

The declaration explicitly defines what is meant by “public order”: “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.” It is in this last clause where we find the right of Catholic states to limit the public expression of religious minorities, only to the extent that this may jeopardize the morality of the Catholic majority. Yet even this must be applied only where there is real necessity, not simply out of hostility to non-Catholics as such.

...not a few can be found who seem inclined to use the name of liberty as the pretext for refusing to submit to authority and for making light of the duty of obedience. Wherefore this Vatican Council urges everyone, especially those who are charged with the task of educating others, to do their utmost to form men who, on the one hand, will respect the moral order and be obedient to lawful authority, and on the other hand, will be lovers of true liberty—men, in other words, who will come to decisions on their own judgment and in the light of truth, govern their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive after what is true and right, willing always to join with others in cooperative effort. (DH, 8)

Religious liberty is not a pretext for disobeying lawful authority or the moral order. Rather true liberty entails acting responsibly, and genuinely pursuing what is true and right. Above all, it entails acting cooperatively: “to act with greater responsibility in fulfilling their duties in community life.” (DH, 8) It is not conceived as something that enshrines the individual judgment as sovereign, something to be detached from social obligation.

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6. Religious Liberty in Christian Tradition

The declaration takes pains to show that this is not a mere adoption of liberal political philosophy, but is grounded in divine revelation:

What is more, this doctrine of liberty has roots in divine revelation, and for this reason Christians are bound to respect it all the more conscientiously. Revelation does not indeed affirm in so many words the right of man to immunity from external coercion in matters religious. It does, however, disclose the dignity of the human person in its full dimensions. It gives evidence of the respect which Christ showed toward the liberty with which man is to fulfill his duty of belief in the word of God and it gives us lessons in the spirit which disciples of such a Master ought to adopt and continually follow. (DH, 9)

Christ constantly proposed the faith, but did not attempt to coerce anyone, though he certainly had the authority to do so. Much less can the Church or any temporal authority presume to coerce religious belief. God wishes to receive men as sons, not as slaves, so He respects them with the free dignity of sons, a dignity which He Himself bestowed on them. This does not abolish the moral obligation to seek and adhere to divine law. The obverse of this liberty is that we are fully responsible for our actions, and so can be called to account for them. The animals, by contrast, have neither this liberty nor any responsibility for their actions. We are dealing with uniquely human dignity.

It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will. This doctrine is contained in the word of God and it was constantly proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act. Man, redeemed by Christ the Savior and through Christ Jesus called to be God's adopted son, cannot give his adherence to God revealing Himself unless, under the drawing of the Father, he offers to God the reasonable and free submission of faith. It is therefore completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded. (DH 10)

The conclusion can be no broader than the doctrinal principle invoked. Here we are speaking of the private, voluntary act of freely assenting to the faith. It is consequent to the nature of this act that no one should ever pretend to coerce such assent in any way. This does not mean that there can be no religious legislation whatsoever. If that were so, the Council would have to renounce all of canon law, which is, strictly speaking, “coercion on the part of men” in religious matters. It is clear that the present text is speaking only about coercing people to join the Catholic (or any other) faith, either through outright compulsion or through legal harassment. As long as the right of the person to seek religious truth freely is respected, it is licit, and even praiseworthy, for the state to legislate with regard to religions, either to give special recognition to one faith, or to prevent minority faiths from causing harm to public order.

Religious liberty actually helps people come to the Christian faith, since such liberty is a necessary precondition of the faith. (DH, 10)

God calls men to serve Him in spirit and in truth, hence they are bound in conscience but they stand under no compulsion. God has regard for the dignity of the human person whom He Himself created and man is to be guided by his own judgment and he is to enjoy liberty. (DH, 11)

Men are morally bound to serve God in the true faith, but they are not compelled to do so. If Christ Himself did not compel people to assent to the faith, then neither should we. Rather, we leave this to the final judgment: “He did indeed denounce the unbelief of some who listened to Him, but He left vengeance to God in expectation of the day of judgment.” (DH, 11)


He acknowledged the power of government and its rights, when He commanded that tribute be given to Caesar: but He gave clear warning that the higher rights of God are to be kept inviolate: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21) (DH, 11)

Note the traditional view that the spiritual power is “higher” than the temporal power.

“Not by force of blows does His rule assert its claims.” (DH, 11) The temporal power is not to be used in order to impose the Catholic faith coercively on those who have not accepted it.

This does not mean that the temporal power cannot be used at all in religious matters. Historically, confessional Catholic states relied on the temporal power in order to enforce obedience to the canons, to remove bishops who were excommunicated, and to compel schismatic Catholics to return their churches to the fold. In the medieval and baroque periods, it was used even to punish heretics, who violated the rule of faith they had freely confessed, and also threatened public order by trying to spread their views to other Catholics. Dignitatis Humanae makes no attempt to define the acceptable range of use for the temporal power, though it is clearly on the side of doing this as sparingly as possible and consonant with public order.

Throughout the ages the Church has kept safe and handed on the doctrine 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. (DH, 12)

The Council acknowledges that there have been times when the temporal power was used by Catholics in a way that was contrary to the religious liberty sanctioned by Christ and the Apostles. These actions are contrasted with the Church’s doctrine, which she has faithfully retained from the Apostles and consistently taught, that no one should be coerced into faith. Thus the Council is condemning only those uses of temporal power that effectively attempted to coerce faith. It is not applicable to the legitimate use of temporal power for the enforcement of ecclesiastical canons.[4]

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7. Rights of the Catholic Church

The declaration now turns to the rights of the Catholic Church specifically: “the Church should enjoy that full measure of liberty which her care for the salvation of men requires.” (DH, 13) This is the medieval concept of libertas ecclesiae, which the Council calls the “fundamental principle” of Church-state relations.

...the Church claims liberty 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 liberty for herself in her character as a society of men who have the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith. (DH, 13)

The Catholic Church is not to be impeded from preaching the Gospel to the whole world, for she has a divine mandate to do so. She is also free in the sense of being a “perfect society,” to use the traditional term. That is to say, she is not a subset of some larger society to which she is subordinate. In particular, Catholics have the right to live in society according to the precepts of faith.

In turn, where the principle of religious liberty 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. (DH, 13)

Wherever there is religious liberty, there is the libertas ecclesiae essential to the Church’s mission, so religious liberty is a desirable, stable situation for the Church. This may seem to be at odds with previous papal pronouncements that states of religious liberty such as exist in the United States or various European nations are not desirable, but merely tolerable. Rather, the Church should prefer that the state recognizes the Catholic Church officially. There is no real contradiction here, when we understand that the “religious liberty” of Dignitatis Humanae is not the state of affairs that was condemned by the popes. What the popes condemned was the religious indifferentism of the state. Such indifferentism is not proposed as an ideal by the declaration. Rather, it proposes only that the pursuit of religious truth should be free from coercion, as its nature requires. The declaration does not deny that state recognition of Catholicism is preferable, nor does it present such recognition as being opposed to or incompatible with religious liberty.

What Dignitatis Humanae praises as the desirable situation is the liberty and independence of the Church.

...the Christian faithful, in common with all other men, possess the civil right not to be hindered in leading their lives in accordance with their consciences. Therefore, a harmony exists between the liberty of the Church and the religious liberty which is to be recognized as the right of all men and communities and sanctioned by constitutional law. (DH, 13)

Again, “this right not to be hindered” in living according to conscience must be interpreted in the context of the entire document. The declaration does not espouse an individualistic notion of conscience, abstracted from social and moral duty. Such an absolute “right of conscience” so called would be destructive of all law and morality. Rather, this refers to the good faith efforts of men to follow God’s will as best they know, even if their worship is sometimes mixed with error. Their right to liberty is grounded not in a supposed right to do what one pleases, but in the duty to pursue the truth, combined with the natural necessity, respected by God Himself, that such pursuit should be free. Since religious liberty is subordinate to the aim of finding and adhering to the true religion, its exercise must be confined by the objective moral order and the common social good.

It cannot be contrary to religious liberty, but rather its most perfect fulfillment, for the state to give special civic recognition to the Catholic Church, so that her divine mission is facilitated. At the same time, it is also consistent with such liberty for the state to prevent other religions from harming the faith of Catholics, thereby preventing them from living out their religious duties. It might even assist the Church in enforcing religious duties among Catholics. Nonetheless, any restrictions on the actions of religious minorities must not entail an effective attempt to coerce religious faith.

The duty to evangelize is not abolished by the recognition of religious liberty:

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. 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. 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 men who are invited freely to accept and profess the faith. (DH 14)

The Christian is duty-bound to defend and proclaim his faith. He should nonetheless be charitable and patient when dealing with those in error or in ignorance of the faith. One must consider not only one’s own religious duty to evangelize, but also the rights of the other person not to be coerced, as well as the measure of grace received by the other person, which affects his ability to come into a more or less perfect communion with the Church.

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8. Religious Liberty in the Modern World

...religious liberty has already been declared to be a civil right in most constitutions, and it is solemnly recognized in international documents. The further fact is that forms of government still exist under which, even though liberty of religious worship receives constitutional recognition, the powers of government are engaged in the effort to deter citizens from the profession of religion and to make life very difficult and dangerous for religious communities. (DH, 15)

The Council praises the first fact and deplores the second. This may give the impression that the “religious liberty” of Dignitatis Humanae is identical with that freedom proclaimed by modern Western governments. We have seen that this is not the case. However, there is some substantial overlap, insofar as both the secular liberal and Catholic conceptions of religious liberty entail freedom from coercion in religious matters. In fact, the liberal conception tends to go much further in exempting state action in religious matters. Such absolute religious neutrality or indifferentism is not what is being praised here by the Council, which allows for confessional states and nowhere calls for abrogation of papal teaching on the duty of the state to the true religion. Rather, from the context it is clear that the Council is praising Western religious liberty as contrasted with the totalitarian secularism of the Communist nations, which actively suppressed religious expression in the public and even private spheres. Thus what is praiseworthy about liberal religious freedom is the absence of any coercive injunction against the conscientious pursuit of religious truth and its manifestation in public life.

The council exhorts Catholics, and it directs a plea to all men, most carefully to consider how greatly necessary religious liberty is, especially in the present condition of the human family. All nations are coming into even closer unity. Men of different cultures and religions are being brought together in closer relationships. There is a growing consciousness of the personal responsibility that every man has. All this is evident. Consequently, in order that relationships of peace and harmony be established and maintained within the whole of mankind, it is necessary that religious liberty be everywhere provided with an effective constitutional guarantee and that respect be shown for the high duty and right of man freely to lead his religious life in society. (DH, 14)

This unprecedented level of concern for a religious liberty applicable even to non-Catholics is motivated by the present condition of the world. People of different confessions now live in greater proximity than ever before. Democratic government emphasizes personal responsibility over collectivist coercion, making it all the more appropriate to bring forth the Church's teaching on freedom from religious coercion, in order that religious duty may be fulfilled. Religious liberty is not conceived as something that atomizes society, but rather it helps secure peace and harmony. It is to be exercised not only by individuals in private, but also in society. Thus, Catholic religious liberty is not to be confused with the more recent secularizing trend that would try to portray any infusion of religious values into political discussion as “theocratic.” Such a radical separation of religion and politics is but another attempt to impose state atheism, this time through deception rather than overt force.

Appendix: Dignitatis Humanae and the Syllabus of Errors

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[1] In contrast with most English translations, I translate the Latin libertas as “liberty” when this is understood as a morally positive power to do good of one’s own accord, and as “freedom” when used in the morally neutral sense of “absence of constraint.”

[2] The document’s status as a declaratio means that it mainly intends to declare or modify Church law, not to define new dogmas of the faith. Solemn dogmatic teaching is typically reserved for dogmatic constitutions. The only dogmatic constitutions in Vatican II are Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum, which accordingly received much more rigorous theological scrutiny prior to voting.

[3] We might also include here the traditional prohibitions against sorcery under pagan and Christian Roman emperors. These laws were enforced not because all believed in the efficacy of such magic—Marcus Aurelius certainly did not—but on account of the fear and disorder it created in the populace.

[4] For example, the Holy See’s 1985 agreement with Italy (modifying the 1929 Lateran Concordat) provides: that the state will recognize ecclesiastical judgments of matrimonial nullity; that canon law will prevail in the administration of ecclesiastical properties; that Catholic educational institutions will remain under ecclesiastical government; and that Catholic religious teaching will be available in all public schools.

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2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org