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Vatican II on Religious Freedom

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 13, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

One of Vatican II's more controversial teachings is found in the thirteenth document, the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), issued on December 7, 1965. Some Traditionalist groups hold that this document contradicts earlier Magisterial teachings on the responsibility of government to recognize the true religion and suppress error. So that it need not detain us, I have already addressed this issue in Doctrinal Development on Religious Liberty. Here I simply wish to continue our series by summarizing, without unnecessary controversy, what the Council itself taught on the subject.

Dignitatis Humanae actually begins by setting forth five principles which place its own purposes in the context of the Catholic Tradition (1):

  1. The one true religion subsists in the Catholic Church, to which Our Lord committed the duty of teaching all nations.
  2. All are bound to seek truth, to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.
  3. “It is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force.”
  4. Religious freedom relates to immunity from coercion in civil society, and so it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion.”
  5. The Council, then, “intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.”

Then the Council declares its essential teaching:

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. (2)

There are two important things to note here: First, that men and women are not to be forced to act contrary to their beliefs but, second, that this freedom from coercion is operative only within due limits.

This principle of liberty is advanced simply because duties always entail corresponding rights, and persons cannot discharge their obligation to seek the truth “unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom.” This freedom has its foundation “not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature”. Hence it applies even to those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it. But again, there is a limitation: The exercise of this right “is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed” (2). In other words, “within due limits” includes the observance of “just public order”.

The Council teaches that the reason for religious liberty “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.” These acts “transcend by their very nature the order of terrestrial and temporal affairs”. Therefore, government ought to “take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor” but “it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious” (3).

Among the particular freedoms which the Council enumerates within the general heading of religious liberty are the following (again “provided the just demands of public order are observed”) (4-5):

  • Religious communities may govern themselves, worship publicly, assist and instruct their members, and promote institutions for ordering their lives in accordance with religious principles.
  • Religious communities are not to be hindered in selecting, training, appointing, transferring, or communicating with their ministers, or in acquiring funds, purchasing properties or erecting buildings for religious purposes.
  • Religious communities “also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith”, providing that they themselves refrain from acting in ways that are either coercive or dishonorably persuasive.
  • Religious communities “should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine” to society as a whole, and so are free to hold meetings and establish charitable and social organizations “under the impulse of their own religious sense.”
  • The family in particular has the “right freely to live its own domestic religious life under the guidance of parents,” who have the right to determine “the kind of religious education that their children are to receive.” Government must guarantee and protect this freedom.

Since protection of rights is an essential duty of government, “government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens in an effective manner,” and to “help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life”. However, if special civil recognition is given to one religious community, the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom must still be recognized and made effective. Government must never violate the freedom and equality of citizens before the law for religious reasons. Finally, it is “a violation of the will of God” when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion. (6)

Having fleshed out its principle of religious liberty, the Council turns to an explication of the limitations it has already mentioned: “The right to religious freedom is exercised in human society: hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms.” First, all “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.” Second, “society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion.” Government should follow norms for this purpose which, far from being arbitrary, are drawn from the need to “safeguard the rights of all” and for “peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights”, for “adequate care of genuine public peace”, and from the need “for a proper guardianship of public morality.” (7)

The remaining paragraphs of the Declaration on Religious Freedom constitute a brief reflection on the Church’s insistence that man’s response to God be truly free, and on what we can learn from Revelation and Christ himself about God’s patience, His willingness to allow both the cockle and the wheat to grow until the harvest, His sacrifice as a ransom for us, and His refusal to impose the truth by force. These themes are further developed from the Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul’s letters. (8-12)

Finally, noting that “the freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle in what concerns the relations between the Church and governments and the whole civil order” (13), the Council insists on the necessary harmony between this freedom of the Church and that religious freedom which is the right of all. Enjoining the Christian faithful, “in the formation of their consciences”, to “carefully attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church” (14), the Council concludes by stating the necessity that “religious freedom 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.” (15)

Previous in series: Vatican II on the Lay Apostolate: Implementation
Next in series: Vatican II on Missionary Activity: Principles

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 - Sep. 18, 2010 3:30 AM ET USA

    It is tremendously challenging to reconcile parts of this discussion with the Church's teachings regarding the social reign of Christ the King and the rights of His Church. While coercion is not an option, it does not follow that religious freedom is a fundamental right. There is a clear "levelling of the playing field" with regard to the Church's traditional discussion of this topic, and this interpretation is championed in denouncing the teachings of previous encyclicals on the topic.