One of the thorniest and most important controversies in the half-century since Vatican II issued Dignitatis Humanae (DH), its Declaration on Religious Liberty, is whether this document can be reconciled with the traditional Catholic doctrine on the status of non-Catholics in civil society.
This doctrine was classically expounded in such papal encyclicals as Mirari Vos (1831) of Gregory XVI, Quanta Cura and the accompanying Syllabus of Bl. Pius IX (1864), Immortale Dei (1885) and Libertas (1888) of Leo XIII, and Quas Primas (1925) of Pius XI. In this article I will outline, in a rather schematic form, the main points in the case for continuity.
First of all, certain important distinctions need to be kept in mind:
- The distinction between Church doctrine (teaching proposed as true for all times and places) and Church laworprudential policy judgments (adaptable according to different historical/cultural circumstances).
- The distinction between a Vatican II declaration such as DH and more authoritative conciliar documents such as dogmatic constitutions. Conciliar declarations (of which there are two others, Nostra Aetate and Gravissimum Educationis, on interreligious dialogue and Catholic education, respectively) are not intended to propose universal, timeless, and unchangeable doctrine. All three of them begin with a few basic general doctrinal principles and then go on to give practical applications of those principles that the Church considers appropriate for our own times.
- The distinction between affirming a right to do X and affirming a right to immunity from coercion in doing X. In a juridical or legal document that sets out only what is and is not to be prohibitedand punished by human positive law, this distinction would be inapplicable, even meaningless. But in a theological, doctrinal document such as DH, which in the first place considers moral rights and duties and only secondarily their implications for human law codes, the distinction is crucial. DH specifies that what it affirms as the natural right to religious freedom is only the second kind of right. A theological affirmation that there is a human right to do X simply means that X is itself a kind of action that is morally upright and justifiable. But to affirm a right to immunity from human coercion in doing X—that is, a right not to be prevented by human authority from doing X—does not necessarily imply that X is objectively good behavior. It is simply a reflection of the important distinction between sin and crime; that is, it recognizes the limited jurisdiction of government when it comes to penalizing the errant behavior of citizens.
St. Thomas Aquinas recognized that it is not the function of human law (civil authority) to outlaw and punish any and every kind of sin (cf. Summa Theologiae, Ia, IIae, q. 96, a. 2). A clear example is our Lord’s warning to those who lay their treasure up on earth instead of in heaven, and to those who sin by omission in neglecting the poor. These sins can be mortal: they may lead to eternal punishment. But Jesus wasn’t implying that government can justly punish a man for his “thought crime” of being inwardly too attached to this world’s goods, or that it would be just to send us to jail for failing to donate enough of our income to charitable causes. Extending to government the authority to punish every kind of sin—even every kind of grave sin—would be a recipe for tyranny.
Finally, we need to avoid the wrong assumption that if we say a government should tolerate a certain activity, we are implying or presupposing that it also has a right, in justice, to repress that activity. Saying that a ruler tolerates an activity simply means that, while disapproving of it, he decides not to repress it, even though he disposes of enough police or military force to do so. Whether or not he would also have a true right (i.e., the moral authority) to repress an act is a different issue. In some cases he would, in others he wouldn’t.
Critics of Vatican II are setting up a false dichotomy when they claim to discern an implicit contradiction between DH’s language of “rights” in civil society for those practicing various different religions and the traditional papal language that spoke of mere civil “tolerance” for non-Catholic religious activity.
It follows from all this that the respective concepts of having a right not to be prevented by the State from carrying out a religious activity (which is the language of DH) and of being tolerated by the State in carrying it out (the language of the pre-conciliar magisterium) are not logically incompatible.
Note also that, according to DH 1, the religious freedom this document affirms leaves “intact,” or “whole and entire” (Latin, integram) the “traditional Catholic doctrine concerning the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.” Now, the word societies here certainly includes civil or political communities as such. This was clarified in words Pope Paul VI mandated that were read by the relator (official spokesman for the drafting committee) to the assembled Fathers who were about to vote on the final draft of DH.
The relator told them that this and other last-minute additions to the text were meant to express more clearly the doctrinal coherence of the declaration with “ecclesiastical documents up till the time of the Supreme Pontiff Leo XIII,” especially the “insistence” of these documents on “the moral duty of public authority [potestas publica] toward the true religion.” Hence, any interpretation of DH that places it in contradiction with the doctrine of previous popes cannot, according to the mind of the Church, express the declaration’s true meaning.
A case for non-contradiction
What troubles dissident traditionalists about DH is mainly its assertion in article 2 that, “within due limits,” no one may be prevented from acting publicly in accord with their conscience in religious matters. This assertion, they claim, is irreconcilable with previous papal teaching, notwithstanding the proviso “within due limits.”
Now, taking into account the elaboration of those “due limits” that we find in article 7 of the declaration, this controverted teaching of DHcan be synthesized as the following proposition:
P: “It is unjust for human authority, Catholic or non-Catholic, to prevent people from publicly acting in accord with their conscience in religious matters, unless such action violates legal norms, based on the objective moral order, that are necessary for safeguarding: (a) the rights of all citizens; (b) public peace; and (c) public morality.”(These three benefits are said to make up “the basic component of the common good,” otherwise termed “a just public order.” It is important to be aware that DH defines“public order” in terms of these three factors.)
Now, if indeed P contradicts traditional Catholic doctrine, as dissidents claim it does (by allowing too much civil freedom in religious matters), then, logically, the pertinent traditional doctrine would have to have been the following:
P1: “It is sometimes just for human authority, Catholic or non-Catholic, to prevent people from publicly acting in accord with their conscience in religious matters, even when such activity does not violate any of the three general norms (a), (b), and (c) specified in P.”
But P1wasnot the Church’s traditional doctrine. It cannot be foundin the pre-conciliar magisterium, ordinary or extraordinary.The popes of earlier times who had exhorted Catholic rulers to repress all public manifestations of non-Catholic religions would certainly have answered affirmatively had they been asked whether such manifestations violated one or more of the three norms set out in proposition P. (We will return to this point.)
Ergo, DH does not contradict the Church’s traditional doctrine.
It might be objected, however, that P conflicts with the traditional doctrinal maxim that “error has no rights.” Not so. The maxim is of course a figure of speech; clearly, only persons, not ideas, can possess rights. What it means is that error can never be either the object of any human right (i.e., that to which the right entitles us) or the foundation of any human right (i.e., its reason, grounding, or justification).
But DH says nothing contrary to that. It only emphasizes that government should exercise only a carefully limited role in restricting the religious practice of citizens: it teaches that the object of the natural right to religious freedom is precisely immunity from coercion by government (or other human powers), and not belief in, or propagation of, the doctrinal content of this or that religion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reinforces this point by asserting, with a footnote reference to Leo XIII’s encyclical Libertas, that “[t]he right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error” (CCC 2109).
An open question
Those who claim discontinuity may still object that, in any case, the pre-Vatican II Church often allowed—indeed, exhorted—governments to repress all public religious activity except that of the true religion, Catholicism, and that DH disallows this. Such legal restrictions did indeed obtain in such nations as Spain and Colombia right up till Vatican II. In other words, the traditional ethical line between legally permissible and legally repressible religious activity in public was the line between truth and error, not the three limiting criteria specified by Vatican II (see P above), which prescind the whole truth-versus-error question.
Is this a doctrinal contradiction? No. To prescind a former doctrinal position, or to avoid restating it, does not mean contradicting it. And in any case, traditional doctrine left it an open question as to whether that line between truth and error should always and everywhere be the ethical line between legally permissible and legally repressible public activity.
Indeed, the pre-conciliar magisterium was practically silent about where that line should be drawn by non-Catholicgovernments. And since Vatican II very much wanted to address that issue, it found itself in the position of having to break new doctrinal ground. In keeping with Vatican II’s aim of reaching out to all humanity, this declaration was directed to the rulers of all nations, not just those with Catholic governments and/or majorities.
The key to appreciating this non-contradiction lies in taking note of certain nuances that soften the edges, as it were, of both the old and the new doctrinal positions, thereby enabling their reconciliation. This means taking note of what they abstain from saying, as well as what they actually say.
What is stated—and what isn’t
First:Traditional doctrine was never so rigorous as to affirm that in all countries and at all times—from Pentecost to Judgment Day—it would be within the bounds of justice for civil authority—whether in Catholic or non-Catholic societies—to suppress all public non-Catholic religious manifestations. (Those who have never been members of the Church, we charitably presume, are in most cases probably not violating their own consciences by continuing as non-Catholics.) Some very conservative theologians, including Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, have held that such suppression would never under any circumstances be unjust and that at worst it might be imprudent or uncharitable.
But that unqualified assertion of the universaljustice of such repression never reached the status of Church doctrine, either of the ordinary or extraordinary magisterium.Indeed, other approved traditional theologians (e.g., Suárez, Von Ketteler, and even Pope Gregory the Great) foreshadowed Vatican II to some extent by saying that Catholic civil authorities are obliged by the requirements of justice(not merely of prudence) to tolerate the worship of at least unbaptized monotheists—mainly Jews andMuslims—carried out in synagogues, mosques, or other places of public worship.
Penalizing someone can be unjust under two titles: (a) when he is innocent or when the penalty is disproportionate to his offence; or (b) when he is guilty and deserves the imposed penalty but it is being imposed by someone who has no authority to impose it. (If I succeed in overpowering a burglar who has broken into my house and manage to keep him imprisoned in my basement for three years, I am doing him an injustice. He may well deserve four years’ State imprisonment; but I as a private citizen have no right to administer any such penalty. That is, the burglar, guilty though he is, has a right to immunity from punishment by me.)
Second:Vatican II’s position is not so liberal as to deny that under certain past circumstances, the public manifestation of erroneous religious ideas and practices could have been a justly punishable threat to the common good of society (that is, it would jeopardize the rights of other citizens, and/or public peace, and/or public morality). In short, the pre-conciliar and conciliar doctrines are not so absolute as to exclude and contradict each other.
A change in emphasis
The perennial common thread in the Church’s doctrine has been that, on the one hand, those persons outside the Church, especially those presumed to be invincibly ignorant of the truth of Catholicism, have a right to some degree of civil religious freedom (e.g., at the very least, non-Christians should never be coerced into baptism and Church membership, and should enjoy civil freedom to teach their religion privately to their own children). But, on the other hand, the State also has the right, in the interests of the common good of society, to impose some limitations on the spread of harmful and dangerous ideas. So there are two poles here that need to be kept in equilibrium: respect for consciences that err (toleration) and the need to prevent the spread of dangerous propaganda.
Traditionally, the Church emphasized the negative end of the spectrum—the State’s right to repress error. But since the mid-twentieth century, it has emphasized the human person’s right to immunity from coercion. Changes of emphasis, however—even to the extent of making the rule what was once theexception—are not contradictions. What we have here, rather, are changing prudential judgments as to where to find the right balance between necessary freedom and just restraint.
By the new prudential judgment implied in the conciliar declaration, the Church gives more weight now than it did previously to subjective sincerity and the need to respect erring consciences in civil society, especially under the religiously pluralistic conditions in today’s world. But a shift in emphasis is not a doctrinal contradiction.
We can draw a parallel here with the Church’s developing position on capital punishment. It continues to teach that this is not intrinsically unjust; but it now makes the prudential judgment that capital punishment can rarely if ever be justified under modern circumstances (cf. CCC 2267).
Similarly, Vatican II does not teach that it is or was intrinsically unjust for a Catholic State to repress all public manifestations of non-Catholic religions as being per se a danger to fundamental elements of the common good (which is what Vatican II means by “a just public order”). But the Council clearly implies—by what it says and what it significantly fails to say—the prudential judgment that under modern circumstances, such repression would, in any country on Earth, violate the natural right to religious freedom of those concerned. (The significance of the Council’s failure to say that predominantly Catholic countries would be an exception to this rule is obvious.)
Protecting social values
When the highest Church authorities in former times urged State repression of public non-Catholic religious activity as such, they certainly judged that the propagation of such errors constituted threats to at least one, and often all three, of the social values which DH 7 says must be legally protected against abuses of religious freedom (see proposition P above).
1. Rights of other citizens. The spread of seductive religious errors among a Catholic populace—especially those with little education—was regarded as a grave danger to their eternal salvation, and thus a violation of their right to live in a Christian society that helped, rather than hindered, their pilgrimage toward heaven. (For a Catholic to lapse into heresy or apostasy is mortally sinful and still results in automatic excommunication; cf. CCC 2089, Code of Canon Law c. 751.)
2. Public morality. Sad experience in Western culture has shown repeatedly—and with increasing clarity in recent decades—that once the socially and legally recognized authority of the Catholic Church as the authentic interpreter of the natural moral law is rejected as a result of anti-Catholic propaganda, public morality takes a catastrophic plunge: we get legalized divorce, abortion, artificial procreation, unnatural birth control, so-called gay “marriage,” adoption rights for homosexual couples, etc. And those who promote these deviations, while denouncing the “hate” and “bigotry” of those who dare to voice disagreement, are now increasingly violating the right to religious freedom of traditional believers (cf. 1 above).
3. Public peace. In many periods of history, the spread of heresy was often in fact a menace to the public peace. (The same can be said today of those mosques and madrassas wherein Islamist imams preach the duty of armed jihad against the West.) Heresy led to disastrous wars of religion. Early Protestants were no more tolerant than Catholics were at that time and frequently persecuted the Church once they attained power by force of arms. Again, that violated the Catholics’ right to freedom of worship (cf. 1 above) as well as public peace.
Since Vatican II, given that religious pluralism is increasing throughout the world, the norm of the Church’s policy in her relations with States is that not even in States with a Catholic majority may simple public dissent from Catholic doctrine, without any aggravating factors, be considered a sufficiently serious threat to the common good as to warrant legal repression.
But again, this is not a contradiction of previous doctrine. Indeed, an appreciation of how changing historical conditions can reasonably and legitimately influence the formulation and practical application of Catholic doctrine is arguably the most important element in showing its essential diachronic continuity across the centuries.