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Pius IX, Vatican II and Religious Liberty

by Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.


In this essay, Fr. Brian Harrison discusses the question of religious liberty and whether or not Vatican II's teaching as found in Dignitatis Humanae is incompatible with preconciliar Catholic doctrine.

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Roman Theological Forum, January 1987

Part I. The question of religious liberty, so hotly debated more than twenty years ago amongst the Bishops and periti of Vatican Council II, has been in the news again during the last year or two. Rather surprisingly, we have seen Fr. Charles Curran coming out – on one issue – on the side of none other than Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. These two dissidents at opposite ends of the Catholic spectrum have joined forces for once in maintaining that Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, is irreconcilable with preconciliar Catholic doctrine. This alleged conflict pleases Fr. Curran (since he thinks it provides a precedent for his own proposed 'revisions' of Catholic morality), while it scandalizes the Archbishop (who sees it as a reason for rejecting Vatican II).

Whence arises the difficulty? It would need a whole book to cover this question adequately, but of the pre-conciliar doctrinal statements of the Magisterium which are supposedly incompatible with the teaching of Vatican II, the most commonly cited is probably Pope Pius IX's very emphatic teaching, in the 1864 encyclical Quanta Cura, on the duties of civil authorities towards "violators of the Catholic religion." He condemns as an "evil" opinion – one, in fact, which he "commands" to be "absolutely held (omnino haberi) as reprobated, denounced, and condemned by all the children of the Catholic Church"1 – the view that in the "best" condition of society, such persons are not to be penalized by the government unless they endanger the "public peace" (pax publica).2 Governments can and should be more restrictive than that towards non-Catholic propaganda, teaches the Pope.

To understand precisely what Pius IX had in mind here we need to be aware of the historical background of the encyclical. Quanta Cura was largely a reaffirmation of what Gregory XVI had said thirty years earlier in the 1832 encyclical Mirari Vos. The principal target in that case was the French philosopher-journalist H.F. de Lamennais, whose newspaper, L'Avenir, was demanding from the State, as a matter of universal principle, a liberty for the diffusion of error which it admitted would be virtually unlimited ("on laisse à 1'erreur la faculté illimitée de se produire"). 3 The State, according to L'Avenir, should be totally secular, and may limit propaganda of any sort "only in the order of material interests" ("ne ... que dans l'ordre des interêts matériels").4 Total liberty of propaganda must be granted, so that

The Constitutional power possesses only the right and duty to repress crimes and other offences which would materially attack these liberties (qui attenteraient matériellement à ces libertés) – or other civil and political rights of the citizens.5

In other words, Lamennais would not allow the State to recognize in any effective way the existence of God or a transcendent, spiritual nature in man – much less the unique truth of the Catholic faith or of Christian moral values. "Total separation" of Church and State was demanded (even in overwhelmingly Catholic countries)6 along with the abolition of all concordats between governments and the Holy See.7 In this system, the avowedly "materialistic" criteria required of the State would allow it to exercise censorship or coercion only in order to prevent incitement to riots, sedition, or revolution, or to forestall physical harm or annoyance to persons or property. In other words, to preserve "public peace."

Lamennais was condemned and eventually left the Church, but his influence remained strong, especially in France, and Pius IX eventually felt constrained to renew his predecessor's condemnation. It is clearly the same extreme liberalism which Quanta Cura has in mind: the kind which demands that

citizens have the right to all kinds of liberty, to be restrained by no law, whether ecclesiastical or civil, by which they may be enabled to manifest openly and publicly their ideas, by word of mouth, through the press, or by any other means.8

This historical background is essential for an accurate understanding of what Gregory XVI and Pius IX had in mind when they condemned "liberty of conscience and of worship." Admittedly, the concordats which they and their pre-conciliar successors established with nations such as Spain and certain Latin-American states were a good deal more restrictive towards other religions than any agreement which the Holy See would now be prepared to countenance;9 but all that the early encyclicals condemned as incompatible with Catholic doctrine (that is, with divine law) was this totally permissive and secularist vision of the State which was fashionable, then as now, amongst certain Catholic intellectuals. (It was the pre-conciliar public law of the Church, not pre-conciliar doctrine, which held that in predominantly Catholic countries non-Catholic propaganda as such could be seen as a threat to the common good, and therefore restricted by law.)10

Now, Vatican II's teaching is not nearly as liberal as that of Lamennais and his followers. It therefore does not fall under the ban of the 19th-century encyclicals which were aimed precisely at those gentlemen. In fact, Dignitatis Humanae, far from contradicting Pope Pius IX, explicitly repeats his teaching that "public peace" is not the only criterion which governments may appeal to in restricting religious (or anti-religious) manifestations or propaganda. According to article 7 of the conciliar Declaration, "public peace" is only one of three criteria which the State may invoke for that purpose. The other two are "the necessary protection of public morality", and "the effective protection of the rights of all citizens" (and the "peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights"). Thanks to an intervention by the young Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, a statement was added to this paragraph insisting that these limits are to be decided and imposed on the basis of the "objective moral order". And it is, of course the Catholic Church which is the unique interpreter of what is objectively moral or immoral.

Is the Council implying, then, that governments ideally ought to recognize the Catholic Church's unique role in that respect? Yes it is. Not only does article 1 of the conciliar Declaration reaffirm the "traditional Catholic teaching" about the "moral duty" of "societies" (not just individuals) towards the true religion; but the official relator for the schema on religious liberty, Bishop Emil de Smedt, explained to the assembled Fathers that this first article definitely must be understood to reaffirm the duty of "public authority" towards the Catholic Church as the true religion. He pointed out that the previous draft had been revised precisely in order to bring the document more clearly into line with the teaching of the 19th-century Popes. (Until this and other last-minute revisions were made to the schema, persistent conservative criticism – and, we might add, the power of the Holy Spirit – had repeatedly prevented a solid consensus of positive votes from being gained, whenever earlier drafts had been submitted to the judgment of the Council Fathers.)11 Bishop de Smedt's vitally important official commentary (which as far as I know has never been published before in English) is worth quoting. During the 164th general congregation of the Council (19 November 1965) he gave the following explanation:

Some Fathers affirm that the Declaration does not sufficiently show how our doctrine is not opposed to ecclesiastical documents up till the time of the Supreme Pontiff Leo XIII. As we said in the last relatio, this is a matter for future theological and historical studies to bring to light more fully. As regards the substance of the problem, the point should be made that, while the papal documents up to Leo XIII insisted more on the moral duty of public authorities towards the true religion, the recent Supreme Pontiffs, while retaining this doctrine, complement it by highlighting another duty of the same authorities, namely, that of observing the exigencies of the dignity of the human person in religious matters, as a necessary element of the common good. The text before you today recalls more clearly (see nos. 1 and 3) the duties of the public authority towards the true religion (officia potestatis publicae erga veram religionem); from which it is manifest that this part of the doctrine has not been overlooked. However, the special object of our Declaration is to clarify the second part of the doctrine of recent Supreme Pontiffs – that dealing with the rights and duties which emerge from a consideration of the dignity of the human person.12

Here are the last two sentences of Dignitatis Humanae, article 1, in which we have underlined the words added in this final revision to which Bishop de Smedt was referring:

So while the religious freedom which men demand in fulfilling their obligation to worship God has to do with freedom from coercion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ. Over and above this, the sacred Council, in dealing with this question of liberty, intends to develop the teaching of recent Popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and on the constitutional order of society.

The addition to article 3, mentioned by Bishop de Smedt, comes in the last sentence of that section, and makes it clear that governments should not be merely "neutral" or "agnostic" about the value of religious activity. On the contrary, because of its "transcendent" character, they have a duty to "recognize and favour the religious life of citizens."

In the light of these additions, which were certainly not sought by liberal periti such as Fr. John Courtney Murray, the comment by Murray in Abbott's edition of the Council documents must be seen as both exegetically and doctrinally equivocal. He says there:

The Church does not make, as a matter of right or of divine law, the claim that she should be established as the "religion of the state".13

We should distinguish two propositions:

(a) Divine law requires the civic community as such to recognize the Catholic Church as the "religion of state" explicitly, in a written Constitution or law-code;

(b) Divine law requires the civic community as such to give at least de facto recognition to the Catholic Church as the true religion, and to reflect that recognition in its laws and communal decisions.

Neither Vatican II nor pre-conciliar magisterial teaching insisted on (a) above, because written constitutions and legal documents are only one historically-determined form of "recognition". Divine law concerns what is true always and everywhere; and in earlier centuries (or theoretically even today) a less modern, less developed, or very small society might have no written laws or Constitution at all. (As the Church's Code of Canon Law recognizes in canons 27 and 28, custom – especially ancient or long-established custom – is a very respectable form of law.) Vatican II deliberately refrained from passing judgment on whether the Catholic Church ought to be constitutionally recognized as the "State religion": article 6 simply makes a brief, very general statement that, if one religion (Catholic or non-Catholic) is given special recognition "in the constitution of a State" (in iuridica civitatis ordinatione), then the religious freedom of others must be respected as well.

However, proposition (b) above is equivalently reaffirmed in article 1's teaching that "societies" (a general term that covers everything from the most simple nomadic tribe to a modern superpower) have a moral duty towards the true religion – a duty set out more fully in the "traditional" teaching of earlier Pontiffs, which the Council says it intends to leave "intact". With societies, as with individuals, Almighty God is more fundamentally interested in what we actually do than in what promises or guarantees we may happen to make on paper; and as history amply bears out, nations without a constitutional, legal, "establishment" of the Church have sometimes been more favourable in practice towards Catholic principles than some other nations where Catholicism, on paper, is described as the "religion of the State". (Ireland and the Philippines are arguably commendable examples of this). This unchanging Catholic doctrine about the duty of societies as such towards the true religion allows, of course, for the fact that in societies with a plurality of religions, as well as unbelievers, the fulfilment of this social duty will often be politically difficult, or even impossible. Much more so will that be the case, obviously, where some other religion – or even atheism – is firmly "established".

Part II. Let us return to the question of legal limits on religious liberty. Vatican II, as we saw, teaches that governments can and should restrict activity carried out in the name of religious freedom not only when "public peace" is endangered, but also when public morality or any other rights of citizens are jeopardized by such activity. "All these matters", says the Council, "constitute the fundamental part of the common good (partem boni communis fundamentalem constituunt) and belong to what is called public order".14 These "other rights" of citizens are not defined exhaustively, but the Council itself gives some examples. Any kind of religious propaganda – especially amongst the poor and uneducated – which even "seems to savour" (sapere videatur) of what is "coercive, dishonest, or unworthy" must "at all times" be avoided.15 Then, in another last-minute "tightening-up" of the document, a statement was added that such propaganda is "an infringement of the rights of others".16 This addition made it clear that governments might justly ban such coercive, dishonest, or unworthy activity as an offence against public order, as defined in article 7.

It should be clear by now that Dignitatis Humanae, that alleged precedent for radical doctrinal change which Fr. Curran finds so encouraging (and Archbishop Lefebvre so alarming), escapes quite unscathed from the thunderbolts hurled by Pio Nono against Lamennaisian liberalism. A very significant range of "violations of the Catholic religion" could in fact be penalized by governments acting in line with Vatican II, over and above the kinds of propaganda which might disturb or endanger the "public peace".

Atheistic and anti-religious propaganda, for instance, can scarcely appeal to Vatican II in seeking to justify a "right" to legal protection. What the Declaration intends to protect are "the private and public acts of religion by which men direct themselves to God according to their convictions".17 That clearly does not include acts of irreligion, by which men direct themselves (and others) away from God.

Not only pornographic material, but what Msgr. John McCarthy has aptly termed "pornology", could be legally suppressed, according to Vatican II, insofar as it undermines "public morality". ("Pornology" means literature which, while it may not be directly lurid or erotic and may purport to be serious and scholarly – nevertheless sets out to persuade people that they may justifiably engage in certain kinds of sexual activity which, in point of fact, are contrary to the "objective moral order").

Someone may object that the Council would not want governments to let the Catholic Church be the arbiter of what is (or is not) in accordance with this "objective moral order", since it says that in deciding what limits to set, they should avoid "the unfair practice of favouritism" (to use the translation given in the Flannery edition). However, apart from the fact that it would be impossible for a Council of the Catholic Church to insinuate that some authority other than the Church herself might be a better judge of what is "objectively" right or wrong, the Latin text does not carry Flannery's possible hint that favouring one side is, as such, necessarily unfair. It just says that in deciding what sort of activity to forbid or permit, governments are to avoid "unfairly favouring one side" (uni parti inique favendo).18 That the chief signatory of Dignitatis Humanae, Paul VI, did not understand the Declaration to teach that it is "unfair" to favour the Catholic "side" (or what is popularly seen as the "Catholic side") became clear three years later. Most people are unaware that the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae did not merely reaffirm the immorality of contraception as a private activity, but also exhorted "Rulers of Nations ... not (to) tolerate any legislation" which would permit the distribution of contraceptives.19 His call found receptive ears in Ireland, at least until a year or two ago.

The more virulent forms of Protestant and other propaganda against the Catholic Church could certainly be legally banned in accordance with Vatican II's strictures against "dishonest" and "unworthy" forms of promoting religion. As we saw, religious publicity, according to the Council, should not even "seem to savour" of such defects. But some current expressions of fundamentalism are positively reeking with "dishonesty" and "unworthiness"! Jack Chick's anti-Catholic comic books, for instance, contain at least one travesty of Catholic doctrine per page. They also accuse the Jesuits of brain-washing would-be converts to Protestantism while keeping them locked in padded cells; while Catho1ic Action, we are told, sends attractive girls to infiltrate Protestant seminaries and parish congregations, spurred on by promises of generous mitigations of their time in Purgatory for every pastor or seminarian they can seduce and corrupt!

Blasphemy, too, is an obviously "unworthy" form of "religious" expression. As recently as 1985, Pope John Paul II aligned himself with Gregory XVI and Pius IX in calling for action against this particular form of "violating the Catholic religion": he protested against the public showing in Rome of the notorious film "Hail Mary", even though neither he nor anyone else tried to claim that it was a menace to "public peace".

Let us summarize. With Vatican II, Catholic doctrine, or divine law, remains as always that societies and their public authorities are morally obliged to act, legislate, and govern in accordance with the principles of the true religion. (The Council's Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity also reaffirms that teaching in its article 13, which says that Catholics should "strive to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures" of their community). This same unchanging divine law entails the right and duty of public authorities to penalize those who attack the true religion – to the extent that the common good requires.

But to what extent, precisely, does the common good require such coercive measures? That can vary a great deal according to historic, social, and political circumstances; and the Church's infallibility does not extend to this area, which is one not of basic principle, but of deciding on proportionate means towards a given end. The Church's pre-conciliar public law applied the above doctrinal principles by ruling that in overwhelmingly Catholic countries, all non-Catholic religious activity in public should, as such, be considered a danger to the common good, and hence as deserving of legal prohibition.

Vatican II, however, in highlighting another aspect of divine law – the natural right of all men to be left free (within due limits) to practice their own religion without human interference – has in effect substantially changed this earlier ecclesiastical law (not doctrine). In the same way, the Church has often changed many other aspects of her previous legislation or discipline when they no longer seemed appropriate, or appeared to be giving rise to injustices in practice.20 Since Vatican II, understood especially in the light of how the Holy See has applied the conciliar Declaration, the new law is that even in the most predominantly Catholic countries, the right of at least the more moderate and upright non-Catholic groups to immunity from government interference takes precedence over the right of Catholics not to be "led into temptation" towards sins against their faith, as a result of the public diffusion of heresy or infidelity.21 This immunity, according to the Council, is itself an aspect of the common good – understanding that term in the broadest sense. As far as civil restriction goes, then, the Church now interprets and applies the divine law less severely than before: in matters of religion, the common good now permits and requires coercive measures only if its most fundamental features are assailed – the features which are grouped together in Dignitatis Humanae: 7 under the term "public order". In other words, even in a strongly Catholic country, the public diffusion of non-Catholic ideas or practices should not now (according to Vatican II) be considered a punishable threat to the common good simply insofar as they are non-Catholic. Rather, in order to merit that classification they would usually have to be the kinds of anti-Catholic propaganda which also assault or threaten (by virtue either of their content or their methods) those norms of truth, honesty, civic responsibility, sexual morality, and respect for other persons which can be validly argued and established on human and rational grounds alone, without appealing to the supernatural authority of divine revelation.

In short, all Catholics who love and honour the Church's Magisterium can take heart. We do not have to rest content with the none-too-reassuring position that Vatican II has not been "proven guilty" of contradicting Pope Pius IX's Quanta Cura. Once we read the relevant documents with due care, in the original Latin, with a correct historical understanding of what they intended by the choice of certain expressions, and bearing in mind the crucial distinction between the Church's doctrine on the one hand, and her mutable public law on the other, only one verdict is possible: the Council is "proved innocent" of that charge.


1. Denzinger-Schönmetzer 2896.

2. Quanta Cura 3. Latin text from p. Gasparri (ed.) Codicis Iuris Canonici Fontes, Vol. II. Rome, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1924, p. 995. In two recent articles, Fr. William G. Most has quoted from an inaccurate translation of Quanta Cura, which wrongly attributes the expression "public order" to Pius IX in this passage. Cf. Fr. Most's articles, "Religious Liberty: What the Texts Demand", Faith & Reason, Vol. IX No. 3, Fall 1983, pp. 201, 206; and "Vatican II on Religion and the State", The Wanderer, 23 October 1986, p. 4. This faulty translation creates needless difficulties for the Catholic who wishes to defend Vatican II from the charge of having contradicted previous doctrine, because Vatican II does in fact teach very clearly that a "just public order" (iustus ordo publicus) is the only admissible criterion for limiting religious liberty (cf. Dignitatis Humanae: 2, 3 and 7).

3. L'Avenir, cited in Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, Vol. IX, Part I, Paris, Librairie Letouzey et Ané, 1926, s.v. "Libéralisme Catholique", column 536.

4. Ibid., c. 550.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., c. 539.

7. Ibid., c. 541.

8. Quanta Cura: 3, loc. cit. (emphasis added)

9. The Holy See's 1953 concordat with Spain, for instance, recognized article 6 of the then Spanish constitution which forbade public manifestations of any non-Catholic religion. Cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, Vol. 45 (1953), pp. 651-52.

10. See, for instance, Fr. F. M. Cappello's standard pre-conciliar manual of the Church's public law: Summa Iuris Publici Ecclesiastici. Rome, Gregorian University Press, 1936 (4th edition), p. 369.

11. When the second-last draft was voted upon, for instance, on 27 October, 1965, there were 65 "no" votes and 534 "yes-with-reservations" votes on articles 1 to 5 of the schema on religious liberty. That meant that nearly three out of every ten Council Fathers – a significant minority – were still more or less uneasy about that vital section of the document (cf. Acta Synodalia S. Conc. Vat. II, Vol. IV, Part VI, p. 724.) After hearing Bishop de Smedt's explanation of the revised draft a month later, they were asked to vote again – this time a straight "yes" or "no" only. The result was 89% "yes" and 11% "no". When it became clear that Paul VI was going to approve that draft, the opposition dropped to 70 Bishops – about 3% – in the final, formal vote. (After the Pope actually signed it, I believe that only Archbishop Lefebvre refused to add his signature).

12. Acta Synodalia, op. cit., p. 719.

13. Note 53, p. 693, W.M. Abbot (ed.) The Documents of Vatican II.

14. Dignitatis Humanae: 7.

15. Ibid., 4.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 3.

18. Ibid., 7.

l9. Humanae Vitae: 23.

20. Bishop de Smedt pointed this out to the Council Fathers, mentioning by way of illustration and precedent the fact that Pope Benedict XIV, in 1745, had repudiated explicitly the mediaeval discipline which had not always respected personal liberties, and had sometimes allowed undue pressure or coercion on persons, in connection with embracing the priesthood or religious life. Cf. Acta Synodalia, Vol. IV, Part V, p. 101.

21. Someone might object that, in approving the recently revised Concordat with the Italian Republic, which no longer recognizes Catholicism as the "religion of State", the Holy See is implicitly adopting the position that constitutional separation of Church and State is now the preferred model, or ideal, even in Catholic countries. This inference would be quite unwarranted. The Holy See's decision in this case – obviously a prudential, practical, and non-infallible one – has to be seen in the light of the fact that Italy is now de facto a quite pluralistic society, embracing not only minority groups of Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims, but large numbers of people with no real religious commitment at all. (Italy has the largest Communist Party of any Western nation). Cardinal Casaroli, the chief architect (from the Vatican side) of the revised Concordat, doubtless had in mind Vatican II's teaching in Gaudium et Spes: 76, which observes that the Church "never places its hopes in any privileges accorded to it by civil authority", and that it is prepared to "give up the exercise of certain legitimate rights whenever it becomes clear that their use will compromise the sincerity of its witness, or whenever new circumstances call for a renewed approach". However, it is quite clear that the Holy See is not suggesting that what it deems best in the case of Italy is necessarily the best constitutional arrangement for all other countries. On the contrary, the Vatican's post-conciliar (1973) concordat with Colombia – probably the most solidly Catholic nation in Latin America – continues to give a much more positive constitutional recognition to the Church. In fact, it reflects in no small measure what Dignitatis Humanae reaffirms about the "moral duty" of "societies" towards the true religion. Article 1 of the new Colombian concordat reads, "The State, out of regard for the traditional Catholic sentiment of the Colombian nation, considers the Catholic, and Roman religion as a fundamental element of the common good, and of the integral development of the national community".

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