Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom

It is known by the first two Latin words of the text, Dignitatis Humanae. We’ll be taking a close look at this document over the next week or two, at the suggestion of my friend and colleague David.

The subtitle of the document reads: On The Right Of The Person And Of Communities To Social And Civil Freedom In Matters Religious. It was one of the last documents to emerge from the Council, its fortieth anniversary being next month.

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary (humanity), and the demand is increasingly made that (people) should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty.

Two important principles in play: freedom must be a responsible state and that internal motivation of the person supercedes coercion. It’s not a stretch to say that in practice these notions would have been foreign to Catholics of previous centuries. A demand are made of governments to uphold basic human rights, including that of association:

(C)onstitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations.

The Council underscores this is not a new teaching.

This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society. This Vatican Council takes careful note of these desires in the minds of men. It proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice. To this end, it 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.

Everything in DH derives from Scripture and Tradition. Some groundwork principles are laid out:

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 …

There’s that word again, “subsists.” It’s a great word, especially that Catholics seem to hold a variety of meanings about it.

On their part, all (people) 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.

If the Church is tolerant of other religions, so the query goes, does that mean it’s all relative and I can join any Church I want? Not according to this. People are obliged to embrace the truth they know. Why do schismatics seem to get treated worse than Protestants and non-Christians? Simply because the Church presumes being a Catholic means a person has “embraced the truth.” To subsequently deny it would be a willful act of apostasy. People who have never been Catholic are presumed to have a flawed view of the truth. I presume the Church is gentler with such folks because of the inherent gentle nature of eliciting conversion. In other words, to those whom much has been given, much is expected. Or, putting it crassly, “If you leave the Church, you shouldda known better!”

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.

For a Catholic, the presumption is that truth has taken us. For the rest, this piece says it clearly:

Religious freedom, 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.

And the Council has a reason for looking at this basic religious freedom as a separate thing from human duty to the Church and to Jesus Christ. More than that, the Council recognized that this area of theology was underdeveloped. So with regard to Catholics reading this document, we witness a theology in transition. Or a theology perceived to be in need of elaboration so that Catholics would approach their faith more fully informed and effective.

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.

Should be good, right?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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