Vatican II Declaration of Religious Freedom, Blog 2, Dignitatis Humanae

We learned in our blog on Pacem in Terris, the last papal encyclical issued by Pope John XXIII which is a primary source for Dignitatis Humanae, or the Declaration of Religious Freedom, that liberties like religious freedom is they do not exist in isolation, they can only persist in a political structure that is respectful of the dignity of all people regardless of wealth, class, race and gender, that not only guarantees them legal rights but also the ability to make a decent wage and live a decent life, and that also enables all people no matter how humble to realize their potential through fair access to education and the marketplace.

[amazon_link asins=’1921472308′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’1c3bbcb3-d0f2-11e8-9768-6fdbf4db520a’][amazon_link asins=’0867165529′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’2187c975-d0f2-11e8-b502-93def3fc27d2′]Dignitatis Humanae was one of the most controversial decrees of Vatican II, discussed in several sessions, the first five drafts were rejected as inadequate or incomplete, over five hundred comments were submitted by bishops or other interested Catholic parties, the sixth draft was finally approved in the third session after many, many hours of debate.

Most Americans would be puzzled that a decree would even be necessary, Doesn’t everyone believe in freedom of religion?  But American history differs from European history.  The American bishops, led by John Courtney Murray, and the Eastern European bishops whose societies suffered under the yoke of Communism supported the right to religious freedom.  But those who live in dioceses that are primarily Catholic, in particular those in Spain, where the government sponsors the Church, competing Protestant churches are discriminated against and discouraged.

In Murray’s words, the final decree denies the concept of a “double standard, freedom for the Church where Catholics are a minority, privilege for the Church and intolerance for others when Catholics are a majority.”  Murray describes freedom of religion as three tiers.  First, religious liberty is a human right and a personal freedom and a collective freedom for the citizenry.  Second, religious liberty is a political doctrine on the functions and limits of government in religious affairs.  Finally, religious liberty is a theological doctrine that governs the relationship between the Church and the state.[1]


[amazon_link asins=’0060641886′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’404533b6-d0f2-11e8-9906-c39df261b4b5′]Cardinal Wojtyla, future Pope John Paul II, because of his experiences suffering under a persecuted church, emphasizes how the Decree on Religious Liberty protects not only individuals but also religious communities.  Reluctant toleration that seeks to suffocate the Church is not religious liberty, a moral society must allow its citizens the freedom to develop as communities, as man is a social animal.  Citizens must be allowed to honor their God in public worship, practice their religion, and be allowed to instruct their children, members, and clergy in the faith.  Citizens must not be forced to send their children to public schools that mock and denigrate religion as happened in most communist countries.[2]

[amazon_link asins=’080914610X’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’edb4eb69-d0f2-11e8-9cb1-6d130f017d81′]Cardinal Ratzinger, future Pope Benedict XVI, summarized the opposing debates regarding the Decree on Religious Liberty.  The conservative side, led by the Spaniards, argued that those who are in error in their beliefs do not have the same right as those who believe in the truth.  Also, “religious liberty was seen as irresponsibility toward truth.”  The deeper argument is whether the concept of religious liberty was “based on a concept of natural law which lacked sufficient scriptural foundation.”  In other words, does the concept of religious liberty run counter to the accepted traditions of the Church?

The opposing arguments is that religious liberty in now way decreases the importance of seeking the truth, nor does it deny the truth of the Gospel and our salvation gained through Christ’s Resurrection.  Cardinal Ratzinger repeats Murray’s argument, “A faith which demands, on the basis of its universality, universal freedom to preach its message to all the nations in the midst of their traditional religions, must also affirm freedom of belief, otherwise it would contradict itself.”  Double standards are not honest.

Cardinal Ratzinger remembers the floor speech by Cardinal Beran, who was imprisoned for many years for proclaiming the Catholic faith in communist Czechoslovakia, who was exiled when he attended Vatican II.  “Beran arose and gave his unconditional support to the text on religious liberty, pointing to the history of his country where violent suppression of the Hussite movement had inflicted wounds on the Catholic faith that still have not healed.”

Cardinal Beran was referring to an historical incident that was a root cause for the radicalism of the Protestant Reformation by Luther.  John Huss was summoned to the Council of Constance to answer to charges of heresy for his proto-protestant beliefs under a guarantee of personal safety issued by the Holy Roman Emperor.  This promise of safe passage was ignored and John Huss was burned at the stake.  A Catholic army sent to the Czech provinces was defeated, and a settlement was negotiated, Catholicism was restored, with much bitterness.

You cannot find in Scriptures any direct quotation on freedom of religion, because that was just not an issue in the ancient world.  In pagan Rome the worship of the gods was a patriotic duty, and after Emperor Constantine the Christian Emperors were the protectors of Christianity, and the educated bishops and priests ran the state bureaucracy and judicial system.  But religious liberty is implied in the many passages that teach us that men must be persuaded rather than forced to accept the faith, that we are saved by choice not force.  Cardinal Ratzinger teaches us that “the New Testament testifies to God’s weakness in that He chose to approach man not with legions of angels but solely with the Gospel of His Word and the testimony of a love ready to die” for the salvation of man.

The final draft that was approved put more emphasis on three main points.  First, “the unchanging claim that the Catholic Church is the only true religion” is affirmed.  Second, religious freedom does not compromise the true faith.  “Freedom is a vulnerable privilege, it can easily destroy itself if used without restriction.”  Freedom should not be abused.  Finally, the decree “leaves intact the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and communities toward the true religion and the only Church of Christ.”[3]


These are excerpts from the decree on the above points:
“The government should create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, so the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties, and so society itself may profit by the moral qualities of justice and peace which originate in man’s faithfulness to God and to His holy will.”(6)
The decree “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”(1) [4]

[amazon_link asins=’B00635I88C’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’04818f93-d0f3-11e8-9f1c-51c354558bb5′]Which brings us back to the section in the decree quoted in the Catechism for the commandment, Do Not Bear False Witness:
“It is in accordance with their dignity as persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility, that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.  They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of the truth.”(2)[5]

So how does religious liberty relate to the commandment, Do Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor?

Just as you can only guarantee freedom of religion in a just society that protects all the liberties of all its citizens, no matter how humble they are, so the individual can only speak well of his neighbor rather than causing him harm through gossip and slander when his whole life is spent searching for and living by the truth.

[1] John Courtney Murray, “Religious Freedom,” in “The Documents of Vatican II,” (New York: Guild Press, 1966), pp. 672-674.

[2] Cardinal Wojtyla, “Sources of Renewal, the Implementation of Vatican II,” translated by PS Falla, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), pp. 408-413.

[3] Cardinal Ratzinger, “Theological Highlights of Vatican II,” translated by Werner Barzel, (New York: Paulist Press, 1966), pp. 206-212.



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.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply