Vatican II Declaration of Religious Freedom, Blog 3, American vs European History

We learned in the first blog by studying Pacem In Terris, the last papal encyclical by Pope John XXIII, that the rights that modern man has the right to demand from their governments, such as freedom of religion, are inseparable rights, all of which are guaranteed only if the government is ruling justly, proactively seeking to guarantee that all citizens, no matter how humble, can look forward to a life of adequate opportunity free from tyranny.

We learned in the second blog that the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, or Dignitatis Humanae, teaches us that just governments should not only reluctantly tolerate religious freedom, but should rather seek to encourage a healthy civil environment in which religious worship and institutions can thrive, encouraging the religious and the whole society to live a more moral life.

Dignitatis Humanae decrees that “all men are bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of the truth,” and it is this searching for truth that is cited by the Catechism’s reflections on the commandment, Do Not Bear False Witness to Your Neighbor.

For Americans, what is puzzling is why a Declaration of Religious Freedom not be an obvious right, why would bishops argue over this decree over three sessions of Vatican II, and why would it need to go through six drafts before being approved?  The United States was the first major country to guarantee the freedom of religion in our founding documents, and the American bishops led by John Courtney Murray led the Council in the formulation of the final drafts on religious freedoms.

To understand the controversy over the doctrine of religious liberty we need to review European history from classical times to modern times.  In future years we plan a series of more in-depth blogs in this interesting history, here we will review the broad brush of history as it relates to religious history.  This is general knowledge so we will forgo footnotes, instead I will provide links for the various Great Courses that IMHO best pertain to these topics.  Painting history with such a broad brush may reveal more about my own personal beliefs than the actual history, hopefully it will spark your curiosity to study further these topics so you can come to your own conclusions.

The concept of religious liberty was an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation, before then there was not any separation of church and state, they were one.  In the Old Testament Jehovah is the God who cares for his people Israel, there were strong admonitions to protect the rights of the sojourner, but protecting their religious liberty was not among them.  In the early Roman Empire the worship of the gods was a civic duty, and after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity the Emperor saw himself as the protector and head of the Church.  Following the fall of the western Roman Empire the Kings of Spain, France, and England, and the Holy Roman Emperor continued to see themselves as the protector of the Church and insisted on the right to appoint bishops and abbots in their territories.

This right of appointment was challenged by Pope Gregory VII in the Investiture Controversy, Emperor Henry IV humbly repented in the snow in the Alps so Gregory would lift his excommunication so his princes would not rebel, but a few years later his armies sacked Rome, and Pope Gregory fled.  The Catholic Church would not gain the power to independently appoint bishops and abbots until the rise of the modern secular states, and to this day many European countries pay the salaries of their clergymen.

[amazon_link asins=’B00DTNY8LW’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’39856b6f-d676-11e8-b367-cf9ce5585fc5′][amazon_link asins=’B00DTO415O’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’439f053e-d676-11e8-b4c6-a5229b5087b3′]These binding ties between the monarchies and the Catholic Church were part of the medieval ideal of the three cooperating classes, the nobles, those who fought; the clerics and monks, those who prayed; and the serfs and peasants, those who worked.  All of creation was seen as a great chain of being, all of creation was seen as a hierarchy emanating downward from the Almighty, to the angels, to the kings then the bishops, to the princes and nobles, down to the serfs and peasants, and downward to the rest of creation.  The Church was the sole possessor of the truth of Catholicism, through the authority of the Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers, which only the Church had the wisdom to properly interpret.


Luther tore down the first pillar of medieval society when he denied the legitimacy of papal authority and challenged the validity of many long-standing church doctrines with impunity and often with shocking vulgarity.  To a certain extent his hand was forced when he was ordered to simply recant his beliefs without debate, recant he would not, with his famous “Here I stand, I cannot to otherwise” declaration.  Luther was protected by the Elector of Saxony and many other German princes were sympathetic, many resented the indulgence monies that were flowing from Germany to help build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Many German princes and the King of England, upon renouncing Catholicism, were able to seize church property, and sadly the reformation was solidified by the realization that if they returned to Catholicism all these lands would need to be returned.

[amazon_link asins=’B004271TA2′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’6ca9272d-d676-11e8-bbca-0986832ed807′]Luther was able to keep a lid on the tensions between rulers, but after his death the Thirty Years Wars erupted first as wars of religion and evolved in wars of conquest, causing widespread casualties and suffering in Germany.  These incessant wars and theological conflicts between Catholics also led to the separation of theology and philosophy, giving rise to the Enlightenment, where the philosophers were the enlightened, not the theologians and clerics.  The Treaty of Westphalia which ended these endless cycles of wars with the diplomatic solution that the king or prince would determine the religion of his own state.

After the Reformation various political settlements of disputes between Catholics and Protestants developed the concept of religious freedom.  The Anabaptists and later the Baptists were early proponents of religious freedom.  The Edict of Nantes guaranteeing the rights of Protestants in Catholic France was a major step forward.  Dr Wikipedia has a good discussion of the development of religious freedom:


[amazon_link asins=’B00DTO5054′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’8bff9dd6-d676-11e8-a2ab-b7e74064ecfd’]These binding ties between the Catholic Church and the French monarch Louis XIV proved deadly in the French Revolution.  The king and all the nobility all lived idle extravagant lives in the Palace of Versailles, the top one percent were taking way too much from the other ninety-nine percent, many of whom were trapped in lives of perpetual poverty and misery.  Some peasant priests escaped the carnage, church properties were seized by the state never to be returned, and many priest who refused allegiance to the revolution were executed, and many of those who did not were later executed anyway.

The madness ended somewhat when Napoleon seized power and signed a Concordat with the captive Pope, once again recognizing the role of the Church in society, calling a truce between believers and unbelievers.  The Napoleonic Codes enshrined the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, and provided a common legal framework across continental Europe, protecting the legal rights of all classes.  What were the long-term consequences for Europe?  The Catholic Church was seen as the guardian of monarchial privileges, while the revolutionaries were seen as the guardians of the lower and middle classes.  The French Revolution accelerated the anti-clerical attitudes of many French and Europeans.

The Popes were sympathetic to monarchs and monarchy because until the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy in modern times, the Pope was a monarch himself of the Papal States in the middle of the Italian peninsula.  This was an historical necessity.  In the eighth century the Byzantine army was not able to protect Rome from the sack of the barbarian armies, so the Pope requested protection from the Frankish kings.  But the Frankish court was north of the Alps while Rome was south of the Alps, so Pepin, the first Frankish King, donated the former possessions of the Lombards, whom he defeated, to the Pope so he could field an army that could help protect Rome from the barbarians and other enemies.

The rise of the modern secular state made the old hotly contested issue of investiture disappear.  The reunification of Italy deprived the Catholic Church of her jurisdiction over the papal states meant that the Pope was no longer a worldly monarch.  The Lateran Treaty of 1927 between the Vatican and Mussolini’s Italy


Much happened between Napoleon and the two world wars.  We will concentrate on the Dreyfus Affair, which drug on for over a decade before it was resolved a few decades before the start of the world wars.  The Dreyfus Affair tore apart France almost as much as the issue of slavery tore apart American society in the late 1800’s, and both these issues helped shape the civil rights struggles that help define the modern world.

Alfred Dreyfus was Jewish artillery officer that was accused of treason for passing military secrets to Germany, and was quickly tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.  New evidence revealed that another officer was the guilty party, Dreyfus was clearly innocent, as revealed by the journalist Emile Zola, but it took several years to arrange a retrial, as the Army would rather let an innocent Jew rot in a tropical penal colony than admit it had railroaded an innocent man.  Dreyfus was eventually exonerated and regained his commission in the Army, he eventually died serving France in the trenches of World War I.  The Dreyfus Affair deeply divided French society, the republican anti-clerical liberals convinced of his innocence, the pro-Army mostly Catholic conservatives championing a poisonous anti-Semitism.  Dr Wikipedia has a good summary of the many twists and turns of the Dreyfus affair:

When World War I was triggered by an assassination of Archduke Franz Joseph of Austria in Serbia, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany gambled that his army could conquer Paris and knock France out of the war in four weeks, the Germans advanced deep into France, but the Civil War technology of the time favored the defender and the Western Front was bogged down for years of miserable trench warfare, wasting the lives of tens and hundreds of thousands of soldiers with each major bloody campaign across the killing fields and no-mans land between the opposing trenches.

With the invention and improvement of both the tank and the airplane, Nazi Germany under Hitler succeeded where Kaiser Wilhelm failed, first Poland, then France was quickly knocked out of the war by fast moving blitzkrieg tactics.  Hitler ruled over the whole of continental Europe for several years, losing in part because to Hitler killing communists and exterminating Jews was a higher priority than winning the war.

The response of the Catholic and Protestant Churches to fascism and the murderous anti-Semitism culminating with World War II was mixed.  Before Hitler the Church’s enemy was communism.  The Spanish Civil War, which was a practice run for the Battle of Stalingrad, saw bloody massacres on both sides, but the communists were the ones who massacred the priests.

The Nazis in Germany were a mass movement, and Hitler was every bit as popular then as Trump is today.  Among the Protestants only about a fifth of the churches were Confessing Churches protesting against Nazism, about as many supported Hitler’s policies against the Jews, the rest were like tepid dishwater.  The same sort of split occurred in the Catholic Church in Germany.

Pope Pius XII was pope before and during World War II, many scholars accuse him of being too cautious in his dealings with Hitler, but he faced a dilemma, if he spoke out too forcefully Hitler would simply murder more priests along with the Jews.  Many priests were martyred in the death camps, one famous martyr is St Maximillian Kolbe.  Officially the Vatican was neutral, but during the war he had many German Catholic priests deliver a protest sermon on Easter Sunday against the brutality of the Fascist regime.  Multiple encyclicals were issued protesting against totalitarianism, and the Vatican officials covertly saved the lives of many thousands of Jews.  Hitler planned to execute the Pope and his bishops after he won the war.

The response of the French Catholics to fascism was more problematic.  When France fell the leftist republican government officials fled to form a government in exile, leaving behind the religiously conservative French officials who formed the Vichy wartime government that collaborated with the Nazis.  In contrast, most of the leadership and membership of the French Resistance were communists.  The Vichy government was led by a virulent anti-Semite, the hero of World War I, General Petain.  The French Revolution slogan of liberty, equality, and fraternity were replaced with the Vichy slogan of work, family, and fatherland.  The foundations of the Vichy government were simultaneously pro-Catholic, pro-life, pro-fascist, anti-communist, and were definitely opposed to those who supported the rehabilitation of Albert Dreyfus.  Vichy officials often eagerly hunted down the Jews and helped the Nazis pack them on the death trains headed for the concentration camps.

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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