Vatican II Declaration of Religious Freedom, Blog 1, Pacem In Terris

The Catholic Catechism’s teachings on the commandment, Do not bear false witness against your neighbor, which also warns us against the evils that will come down all of us when we slander or gossip or lie to harm our neighbor, especially our most powerless neighbors, have several surprising references to decrees of Vatican II.  The decree first referenced is Dignitatis Humanae, or Declaration of Religious Freedom, which reaffirms the American constitutional position on the freedom of religion.

Which leads to the question, what does the right of freedom of religion have to do with bearing false witness, slanders, gossiping and lying?  To answer this question, when we read Dignitatis Humanae, the puzzling first sentence reads: “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man.”  The Vatican II decrees repeatedly teach us that we should concern ourselves with the human dignity of all people no matter their wealth or class or race or gender, but it raises yet another question, what does concern of the dignity of persons have to do with religious freedom?

This sentence has a footnote, and we scroll to the end of the document and notice that much of the beginning and end and some of the middle of this document references Pacem in Terris, known also by its English title of Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty.  This was the last encyclical released as an Easter gift to the world before Pope John XXIII passed away, the pope who called the Vatican II Council.  It was the first papal encyclical to be published in full by the New York Times, radically influencing Catholic social teaching up to the present, leading to a UN council on social justice attended by theologians and statesmen from around the world.[1]


Pacem in Terris was written in the long tradition of Catholic teachings on social justice, starting with Rerum Novarum, the papal pronouncement on the need to provide a living wage and safe working conditions to the working poor, and was an influence on the policies of the New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  The decree starts with the ringing declaration, “Peace on Earth—which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after—can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order.”

Church doctrine does not change, church teaching do not change, but political systems do change, and technology continues to advance with remarkable inventions and processes.  Pacem in Terris celebrates “that a marvelous order predominates in the world of living beings and in the forces of nature, which is the plain lesson which the progress of modern research and the discoveries of technology teach us. And it is part of the greatness of man that he can appreciate that order,” and harness those forces to benefit mankind.  What had not changed, but which modern man often forgets, is that man was created in the image of God, entrusted to be the lord of creation.

What has also not changed is the fact that the moral laws apply to all people, no matter their rank in society.  Many modern men are deluded into believing that the moral law only binds individual men to behave properly to one another, but Pacem in Terris reaffirms that the moral law also applies to relationships between men and the state, and to international disputes and behavior between states, and between states and international institutions like the UN and the World Bank and the IMF.

Also affirmed, “man has a right to live,” he has a right to live with dignity, with sufficient “food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and necessary social services,” to be cared for when he is sick, disabled, widowed, elderly, or when he cannot earn a living through no fault of his own.  Man should be guaranteed freedom from harassment, freedom of speech, and be enabled to get a good education and realize his potential regardless of his class or wealth.

The right of freedom of religion is not seen as a freedom in isolation, it is listed among a series of many other freedoms.  Man has the right “to worship God according to the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public.”

“Hence, too, Pope Leo XIII declared that ‘true freedom, freedom worthy of the sons of God, is that freedom which most truly safeguards the dignity of the human person. It is stronger than any violence or injustice. Such is the freedom which has always been desired by the Church, and which she holds most dear. It is the sort of freedom which the Apostles resolutely claimed for themselves. The apologists defended it in their writings; thousands of martyrs consecrated it with their blood.’”  Worker rights championed by Rerum Novarum are reiterated, workers should be paid a living wage and labor under safe and humane conditions, and just as important, private property rights should not be violated, but with these property rights come a social obligation to treat the workers and the poor fairly.

Pacem in Terris teaches us that men should be guaranteed most of the rights in the American Bill of Rights and the Four Freedoms, FDR’s New Deal declaration that every man should be granted the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in his own way, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.  Also, men should be guaranteed the right to emigrate and immigrate when there are just reasons for it, and refugees should be treated with kindness, since we are all citizens of the world-wide community of men.  With these rights come the responsibility to protect these rights for others, treating all with dignity.

The last half of Pacem in Terris discusses both how the citizen should obey authorities and how the state should serve its citizens.  Governments should be responsive to the needs of their citizens through a representative government, there should be a functioning and fair judicial system and a fair system of law, the world of nations should disarm and live in peace.[2]

We learn from Pacem in Terris that freedom of religion, like all other freedoms, like freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from being held in jail without being charged of a crime, that none of our freedoms exist in isolation, that they can only be guaranteed in a society that is free in all respects, where all citizens are governed equally under the rule of law, where the dignity of all citizens is respected and protected.

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About Bruce Strom 143 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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