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Doctrinal Development on Religious Liberty

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 23, 2010

One of our generous supporters, Jonathan Liem, has asked me to examine the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious liberty in order to resolve the questions some have expressed about how the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) can be reconciled with certain preceding elements in Catholic Tradition. I had addressed this question briefly in Conflicting Teachings of the Magisterium?, pointing out that a number of scholars have shown different ways in which the various Magisterial teachings can be reconciled, but the Church herself has not approved one explanation over another. Therefore, in this essay, I can only indicate what I believe the best solution to be.

Setting the Stage

This is a complex topic, and I will propose that anyone wishing to understand its resolution completely must be willing to read two longer essays available in our library, which I believe are the best things yet written on the subject. These essays demonstrate conclusively, in my judgment, first that there is no conflict between past teaching and the teaching of Vatican II once one carefully parses what each really requires Catholics to believe; and second that the Council actually provided a legitimate doctrinal development of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, a development which makes that teaching clearer and more complete. As an essential preliminary, however, it is necessary to consider the proper method to be followed in cases of this kind, and to clear away factors which, while possibly clouding our judgment, ought to have no real bearing on the question.

Whenever we perceive a conflict or confusion between two Magisterial teachings, the proper approach demands that we recognize that the deficiency is in our own lack of perception, not in the truth of the Magisterial teachings. This lack of perception may consist in a misunderstanding of one or the other teaching because we have jumped to a conclusion about “what it must mean” without analyzing it with sufficient care to determine what it specifically requires us to believe. Or it may consist in a confusion of common theological opinion or even widespread Catholic practice with what the Magisterium actually teaches. Or it may simply consist in our own personal inability to perceive how two or more statements can be reconciled. For example, it took theologians centuries to understand how the Scriptural statements which emphasize Christ’s omniscience could be reconciled with His statements of apparent limitation, such as not knowing the time of the end of the world. Yet none of the Church Fathers held that some passages were true and others false.

In any case, the proper attitude is one of acceptance of the Church’s Magisterium in all its manifestations, confident of their truth even when we do not wholly understand them. It is not possible to prefer the authority of one statement to another, if both are properly Magisterial, as if the Magisterium is protected from error in some eras but not in others. In the right spirit, therefore, one must lay out all the relevant statements and closely analyze what each says, striving to come to an understanding which admits the truth of all.

Four Difficulties with this Particular Issue

The Second Vatican Council upheld the right of all persons to be free from coercion by the State in religious matters, within due limits. Some have taken this to contradict an earlier emphasis by the Church on the duties of the State to acknowledge the truth and to suppress error in religious matters. In the continuing debate, it is possible to identify four particular difficulties which have made the relevant questions more difficult for many people to resolve.

Category Mistakes: The first difficulty is the tendency to get bogged down in irrelevant matters. This has been the case, for example, with those commentators who have applied principles appropriate to Canon Law to the elucidation of doctrine, which is a category mistake. Thus we cannot resolve doctrinal problems by appealing to other statements made at the time of the doctrinal formulation which shed light on what the formulators (either pope or council) had in mind, or from the common practice of the Church at the time. No, what they may have had in mind—or how most Churchmen acted—is doctrinally irrelevant. It is only what the Magisterium succeeded in writing down and promulgating that matters, for it is precisely at this stage that the Holy Spirit ensures that mistaken aspects of the human understanding do not bleed through to the final draft.

As an example, Fr. Brian Harrison, who has written many good things about the issue of religious liberty, has sometimes fallen afoul of this methodological difficulty, and his critics have done the same. Indeed, the long and still ongoing debate between Fr. Harrison and Arnold Guminski (some of which is available in our library) is extremely difficult to follow because it quickly gets lost in arguments over intention (irrelevant), the “practical infallibility” of ecclesiastical practice in earlier times (an infallibility which does not exist), and other similar confusions. These are highly relevant to the interpretation of law, but they have no bearing on doctrinal questions whatsoever.

Preconceptions: A second difficulty has often afflicted both modernists and traditionalists in their handling of the religious liberty issue. I refer to preconceptions and predispositions. Modernists don’t accept the consistency and stability of Church teaching, so they find no problem in what others may perceive as innovation. Their understanding of religioius truth is risible and cannot possibly interest us in resolving the concerns before us now. Traditionalists have an unfortunate tendency to assume that they know what older Magisterial statements “must mean” without parsing them precisely and in light of more recent and equally authoritative statements. There tends to be a traditionalist animus against newer doctrinal developments in favor of older emphases, and this apparent willingness to accord the Magisterium supreme authority in one era but not in another too often leads to sloppiness of interpretation.

I will dwell on this particular predisposition for just a moment because it is, in fact, the traditionalist inability (or refusal) to see how the older and more modern texts fit together that continues to fuel a controversy which, for everybody else, was laid to rest by scholarly work done within 20 years of the Council. Essentially, the traditionalist view of the matter is lifted from the work of the late Michael Davies, an extremely articulate scholar who was uniformly critical of the Council and the post-conciliar Church, and who had the unfortunate habit of appearing to master extensive traditional references while failing to understand their precise meaning, their authoritative weight, or the irrelevance of his own inability to imagine a satisfactory reconciliation of what he perceived as divergent statements.

It is one of the best services of Fr. Harrison on this subject that he has made these problems of understanding eminently clear in the case of Davies’ treatment of the religious liberty controversy, by his review of Davies’ book on the subject. It is worth noting in this context that the one article referenced by Jonathan Liem in asking me to address this issue was taken from a traditionalist newspaper, The Remnant, and written by a guest columnist, John Salza, who apparently follows Davies in every respect. In some circles, Michael Davies tends to be regarded as more authoritative than the pope, but I honestly cannot over-emphasize the need to detach oneself from the shortcomings of his traditionalist (not to say traditional) perspective as a precondition for fully understanding the problem of religious liberty.

Rights: The third problem which afflicts this issue is a misunderstanding of human rights. Human rights are never absolute in and of themselves, but always entail corresponding duties, the failure of which nullifies the right. Even the most basic right, the right to life, can be forfeited if we fail in our duty to refrain from attacking innocent persons. So too with lesser rights, such as the right to freedom of speech (one may not shout “Fire!” in a crowded room). This is also the case with the right of the State to suppress error (it depends on how the error has been determined and what the consequences of attempting to suppress it are). Finally, this also applies to religious liberty, which carries a corresponding duty to engage in one’s quest for God in a manner that neither subverts the common good nor does violence to the Catholic religion. Thus Vatican II talked about religious liberty “within due limits”, and the nature of those limits is highly relevant to our discussion.

Divine Brinkmanship: A fourth and final major difficulty which applies in a special way to the problem of religious liberty is what Fr. William Most has called “divine brinkmanship.” Freedom is built into God’s creation of man, because the decision to love is inescapably a free decision. This means that God (from His own love) is constrained to do everything He can to ensure man’s salvation without violating man’s freedom. Therefore, in all matters touching human liberty, we see God’s “brinkmanship” at work, that is, His perfect ability to give exactly what is due to His effort to bring man to salvation (and no more) and to give exactly what is due to human freedom (and no more)—two trajectories which are held, in ways often obscure to ourselves, in a precise balance which compromises neither. We should not be surprised, then, to find that the question of religious liberty with respect to the authority of the State participates in this same delicate balance, and that God’s requirements as expressed in Catholic doctrine on this subject are similarly characterized by a delicate balancing of the twin trajectories in yet another instance of Divine brinkmanship.

Resolving the Issue

The first task in reconciling apparent contradictions among magisterial texts is, as we have seen, to examine the texts and determine carefully what each one enjoins or prohibits, and then to seek an understanding of the doctrinal question which satisfies the requirements of each of the texts. We might refer to this exercise as “finding the overlap”, for whenever a series of statements, all known to be true, appear to contradict each other, a close examination will reveal that there is some confluence in their requirements within which, by expressing the doctrine within this overlapping region, all statements are understood to be true. It is in fact exactly this process which permits us to clarify doctrine over time, understanding it more precisely as divergent aspects of the issue it represents are considered under different circumstances and in the face of different problems.

Back in 1983, when I was a professor at Christendom College and the editor of the College’s academic journal, Faith & Reason, I requested several scholars of noteworthy intelligence and unimpeachable orthodoxy to contribute articles reconciling the older Magisterial pronouncements on religious liberty with the newer teachings in Dignitatis Humanae at Vatican II. The two most successful treatments I have ever seen were submitted and published in response to this request, and so you can see why I have not been overly concerned about this topic since that time. These are the two articles referred to above which I insist must be read for a complete understanding of the problem of religious liberty at Vatican II.

The first, by the late Scripture scholar and theologian Rev. William G. Most, did a superb job of setting forth the proper method to be used (some of which I have summarized above), of marshalling the relevant Magisterial texts, of showing what each formally enjoins or excludes, and of demonstrating the “overlap” within which we find an understanding of religious liberty which recognizes all the Magisterial statements as true. Not coincidentally, Fr. Most was the foremost scholar in the world on the question of grace and free will, having made breakthroughs on this topic in the 1950’s when he published his masterwork Grace, Predestination and the Salvific Will of God: New Answers to Old Questions. While his article is not overly long, and is exceedingly easy to follow, it is certainly too much to repeat here. Instead I present it as required reading number one: Religious Liberty: What the Texts Demand.

Clarifying the Statements

Exploring the texts of Pope Gregory XVI, Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, and Pope Pius XII, Fr. Most first seeks to set forth their teachings according to the strict requirements of what these texts enjoin or prohibit. He draws out seven definitive statements which represent a precise and proper understanding of the Church’s full teaching on religious liberty prior to Vatican II:

  1. No one has a right to just any wrong belief or worship. (Gregory XVI)
  2. It is wrong to say that one can be saved precisely by false beliefs. (Gregory XVI)
  3. It is wrong to say that no authority at all, church or state, has any right to restrain manifestation and publication of errors no matter how gross or immoral they are. (Gregory XVI)
  4. It is wrong to say that those who do violence to the Catholic religion should not be restrained unless public order demands it. (Pius IX)
  5. The state has the obligation to worship God, and to do it in the way God wills. (Leo XIII)
  6. But it is necessary, for the common good, to permit some errors, as God Himself does. (Leo XIII)
  7. Moreover, God does not give a right to repress certain kinds of errors at all. (Pius XII)

Fr. Most then concludes by examining the teachings of the Council in order to find an understanding which satisfies not only Vatican II but earlier teachings, in particular the potential source of conflict in proposition number 4. He finds that a consideration of what it means to “do violence” to the Catholic religion (Pius IX) and the exercise of religious liberty “within due limits” (Vatican II) present plenty of room for an accommodation of all teachings, as indicated by “the nicely balanced teaching of Pius XII in Ci riesce: In some cases, God does not even give a right to repression, and the good of the universal Church would exclude repression.”

Again, to get the full force of the examination, with all aspects of the problem duly considered, it is necessary to read the article.

Doctrinal Development at Vatican II

In my own ideal solution to the questions we have been discussing, I wish to take the matter one small step farther than did Fr. Most. I believe that the teaching of Vatican II on religious liberty is not only something that can be understood to fit within the already established tradition. Rather, in one particular way it extends that tradition through a legitimate development of doctrine—that is, as Newman put it, a change which makes Catholic doctrine more precise while corroborating, rather than obscuring, the teachings from which it springs. We saw exactly this kind of development in the case of the Church’s teaching on capital punishment during the pontificate of John Paul II, who pointed out that the traditionally-acknowledged right of the State to execute for a grave reason was legitimately exercised only when it was necessary to protect society.

The same thing, I believe, occurred with respect to religious liberty at the Second Vatican Council, and it is very important to examine a compelling review of the Church’s teaching which includes a formulation of exactly how the Council developed it. This is the contribution made by the second critical essay in my arsenal, by Dr. William H. Marshner, entitled Dignitatis humanae and Traditional Teaching on Church and State, published in the same Fall 1983 issue of Faith & Reason. Dr. Marshner is one of the founders of Christendom College, the first chair of its Theology Department, and still a professor of Theology there. He is an acknowledged expert not only in theology but in the intersection between theology and politics. For a full understanding, his article is required reading number two.

Identifying the Development

There is one point on which I disagree with Dr. Marshner as he expresses himself in the article in question, though I do not know whether his opinion has changed since that time. He held then that the new ground broken at Vatican II “is non-infallible teaching” but still part of the Church’s Magisterium, meaning that “the kind of religious assent which Catholics owe to that teaching is the kind of assent which does not exclude the logical possibility that the teachings is wrong; rather, our assent excludes any probability that the new teaching is wrong.” I have never been comfortable with this distinction (not that it is a matter of personal comfort), but it makes no practical difference to Marshner’s effort to understand the texts, and he concludes that “the new ground can be given an adequate rationale within the framework of the old”. Nonetheless, I wish to state again my own view that as an ecumenical council (i.e., a full expression of the Church’s authority in the body of bishops confirmed and promulgated by the pope), Vatican II actually is infallible in everything it intended to teach to the whole Church on faith or morals.

Be that as it may, Dr. Marshner demonstrates the unfolding of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty with unrivalled lucidity. Reading his analysis will reinforce, clarify, and make even more coherent and memorable the lessons drawn from Fr. Most’s preliminary textual analysis. Marshner enumerates first the principles which Vatican II clearly teaches which are obviously compatible with previous doctrine:

  • No one ought to use force to change another’s beliefs (especially his religious beliefs).
  • No human authority may set penalties for non-conversion to Catholicism or for failure to elicit the first assent of supernatural faith.
  • God obligates all men to obey the natural Moral Law; and beyond that, God obligates all men to seek and embrace the religious truth which He has revealed.
  • Since God obligates all men to seek and embrace the religious truth which He has revealed, it follows that man has, over against any human government, a right to seek and hold that truth.

Dr. Marshner then seeks to properly express the special teaching about these matters which Vatican II “projects into the social sphere, onto the terrain of exercise”—that is, the “rights affirmed” in the preceding principles—and he does so as follows:

  • No one ought to interfere with anyone’s doing those acts which (a) he believes he ought to do on religious grounds and which (b) cannot justly be treated as crimes because they conform to Natural Law norms of intellectual probity and moral innocence.


Like Fr. Most, Dr. Marshner concludes that Pius XII in Ci riesce had already provided the key to understanding that the State’s duty to suppress moral and religious error is limited. As Marshner puts it, Pius XII taught that “the duty to suppress moral and religious error, though genuine, is not the Catholic State’s ultimate norm of action.” He explains what he means by quoting Pius XII: “It must be subordinated to higher and more general norms which, under certain circumstances, permit, and may even show that the best choice for promoting greater good is, the toleration of error.” Thus, Pius XII established what Marshner calls a “must-do” law of toleration—teaching, in effect, that when the Church notifies the State of errors on the part of its citizens, then if repression of such errors would harm the common good, the State “will have a genuine right to tell the clergy to carry out their own evangelical mission to immunize the faithful, and stop asking the police to solve their problems for them.”

Finally, Dr. Marshner concludes that “all Vatican II does” is add another “must-do” law of toleration, which he expresses thus: “To the precise extent that those holding a religious error nevertheless profess something rationally defensible and practice what is morally inoffensive, they enjoy an immunity from civil penalties by virtue of which the State has a second ground for telling the Church that it cannot justly use its force against them.” He is quick to point out that this does not revoke the State’s obligation, authority and power to protect supernatural truths. Rather, the right of religious liberty enjoyed by every human person simply requires that the State’s actions be determined by reason of injurious natural consequences rather than by reason of supernatural error itself.

This, I believe, is the development of doctrine on religious liberty which occurred at the Second Vatican Council, and it is completely consistent with the Magisterial statements on these issues which preceded the Council. I grant that it would be very helpful to many if the Church would authoritatively clarify the matter, presumably along these lines, in order to lay to rest needless worries. Until that happens, however, those who wish to get the entire picture firmly in mind really should complete my “required reading”. Or, you could simply rest assured that the Church does not contradict herself, and so put your mind at rest. I am also happy to note that, when we come at length to the Declaration on Religious Liberty in my ongoing series on the documents of Vatican II, this exposition is going to save us all a great deal of time.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 28, 2010 12:27 PM ET USA

    "Vatican II finally reversed the Catholic Church's teachings on religious liberty" or very similar words were those of KSU professor of Reformation history. The vast numbers of scholars who have similar beliefs is astonishing. The Church typically speaks with clarity and elucidates truth. If one compares the writings of the pontiffs above as well as Pope Pius XI with the words and actions of recent members of the hierarchy, one encounters "difficulties." I agree- we need "clarification."