Vatican II Declaration of Religious Freedom, Blog 4, Debates at Vatican II

Pope John XXIII wanted Vatican II to be a council of all Catholics, including both the traditional Catholics and the new reforming Catholics, those reforming Catholics who so often had been silenced in the years preceding Vatican II.  The original schemas for Vatican II were mostly drafted by the traditional cardinals and bishops of the Curia in Rome.  The Pope and the Church sought consensus and overwhelming majorities for all the Vatican II constitutions and decrees.

[amazon_link asins=’B017PNRUZC’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’8924f8df-e6e9-11e8-9018-61c78ac5e0e4′] [amazon_link asins=’0674047494′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’3c0e51f4-e6e9-11e8-913e-d9bd0f5e3dd4′]The original Vatican II schema on Ecumenism included a chapter on religious liberty.  Cardinal Bea and many bishops knew if the Catholic Church wanted to be included in the ecumenical discussions between the churches, it would have to affirm the rights of Christians to practice their faith.  We saw in our previous blog that the Catholic Church had not supported religious liberty in its long European history, in part because this was not an issue in ancient and medieval times, religious liberty first became an issue after the Protestant Reformation.  In his opening speech to the Council, Pope John XXIII distinguished between ancient doctrine and how it was presented, the former never changed, the latter evolved according to changing political realities.[1]

The Vatican II schema on Ecumenicism made one major break from the Catholic past, missing was the call for the other Christian communities “to return” to the mother Catholic Church.  The Council Fathers felt that the Catholic Church needed to be less polemic and more ecumenical when reaching out to their fellow Christian brethren.  The Catholic doctrine on matters like ecumenicism and religious liberty was not fundamental to the core moral and theological beliefs of the Church, and indeed the Church was sometimes at fault when overly polemic fervor overwhelmed the underlying Christian message of the Good News of the Gospel.

Religious liberty was a controversial topic, religious liberty was either comforting or threatening to the faith, depending on the region.  In America, religious freedom was a guaranteed constitutional right that helped Christianity thrive.  In Latin American, aggressively polemic American evangelicals were eager to poach the Catholic faithful.  In the communist Eastern bloc, the persecuted Church dreamed of guaranteed rights to religious liberty so the Church could thrive.  In continental Europe, many Catholics equated religious liberty with the ideas of the French Revolution and its hatred of all things religious.  In Italy and Spain the Catholic Church was granted preferential treatment by the state, would a new emphasis on religious liberty lead to a loss of faith in these countries?

During the debate Ruffini, an opponent, summed up five points that at that time were listed in every seminary textbook:
1. “Christ founded only one church, the Roman Catholic Church.”
2. “Faults cannot be attributed to the church as such but only to its members.”
3. “To leave the church because of its sinful members is itself a sin.”
4. “The one true church fervently hopes for the return of the Protestants.”
5. “Dialogue with non-Catholics is good only if done according to the guidelines published by the Holy See.”[2]

Pope John XXIII had published his encyclical, Pacem In Terris, which would be the foundation of the finished decree on Religious Liberty, Dignitas Humanae.  He also appointed the American bishop, John Courtney Murray, as peretis or theological advisor on Religious Liberty.

[amazon_link asins=’0742549011′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’b669de51-e6e9-11e8-95f0-8d0e954312e3′]Like many theologians who led the debates of Vatican II, Murray had been silenced by the Vatican for his teachings and writings on religious liberty.  We like to read the books that heavily influenced Vatican II, but although Murray’s book, “We Hold These Truths,” is an important book historically that defends the American Proposition of religious liberty, the book does not add to what is learned in any good American history course.  Murray emphasizes Lincoln’s assertion that all men are created equal.  Murray explains the main difference between American and Europe, in America “pluralism was the native condition of American society,” while in Europe pluralism was caused by the decay of Catholic unity.  Also, American political philosophy was influenced by the more conservative British legal tradition that respects the sovereignty of God, the American experience is very different from the radical Jacobin laicist tradition that became hostile to religious influence of any sort.[3]

There is a difference between freedom in the American perspective and in the Catholic perspective.  In the American perspective, freedom from tyranny, freedom from governmental interference, freedom to what I wish as long as I do not harm others.  In the Catholic prespective, freedom comes with responsibility, the responsibility to work for the good, to love a godly life.  As Pope Benedict teaches, freedom is not so much concerned with I want, but rather freedom concerns itself with what God wants.[4]

Religious liberty is not absolute, neither in America nor in Europe.  In America you cannot shield the practice of polygamy nor can you smoke peyote or indulge in other psychotic drug as an exercise of religious liberty.  Likewise, in Europe you are not allowed to deny the reality of the Holocaust.


The debate continued in the third session of Vatican II in 1964.  Arguing for the decree on Religious Liberty, De Smedt argued that the human dignity granted by the redemption of Christ means that all men are called to seek their conscience to seek and follow the will of God in their lives, and that it has always been the teaching of the Church, reaching back to the teachings of the ancient Church Fathers, that genuine faith must be free and sincere and cannot be coerced.  Governments should honor this religious freedom so religious organizations are not only simply tolerated but are encouraged to grow and thrive.

Arguing against religious liberty, Ruffini argued that since there is only one true religion, it does not admit freedom of choice.  We are only truly free if we embrace the true teaching of the Church.  Cardinal Ottaviani clarified the opposition, “I do not understand why a person who errs is worthy of honor.  I understand that the person is worthy of consideration, of tolerance, of cordiality, of charity.  But I do not understand why he is worthy of honor.”  Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of France, who later would leave the Church rather than support the Vatican II decrees, predicted ruin for the Church if this decree were adopted.[5]

Murray contributed to the further revisions of Dignitas Humanae, it was once again debated at the Fourth Period of Vatican II in 1965.  The Canadian and American bishops enthusiastically supportive, while the Spanish bishops were nearly unanimous in their opposition.  The Spaniard bishops argued that only the Catholic Church had the right to preach the Gospel, the proselytizing Catholics was illicit and should be forbidden by both church and state.  Cardinal Arriba Y Castro added, “let the council take care not to declare the ruin of the Catholic Church in nations where Catholicism is the only religion practiced.”  Marcel Lefebvre was also adamantly opposed.

The speech by the unrelated Joseph Lefebvre helped sway many bishops to support the decree.  His argument as summarized by O’Malley is that “first, the decree would not foster subjectivism and religious indifference; second, it would not mean that the council abdicated the position that the Catholic Church was the only church of Jesus Christ; third, it would not have a bad effect because of the dissemination of error; fourth, it would not diminish missionary spirit; fifth, it does not exalt human beings at God’s expense; and sixth, it does not contradict the tradition of the church.”

Finally, a vote was taken on the revised Dignitas Humanae, the Pope wanted a strong majority to vote for Religious Liberty, Pope Paul IV felt he would be embarrassed if it barely passed when he would soon be speaking before the United Nations.  The vote on the schema passed by a healthy majority of ninety percent.  Controversially, the final vote was delayed until the fifth session, where the revised and final decree, Dignitatis Humanae passed by an overwhelming majority.[6]


[amazon_link asins=’B01LP4D024′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’e97cf91a-e6e9-11e8-923e-b93075a62427′]Many years later Cardinal Ratzinger would comment on the status of missions in Africa, that though Vatican II introduced necessary changes in its affirmation of religious liberty, that the effect of this decree and the broader decree on ecumenism did lead to a lessening of missionary zeal.  Cardinal Ratzinger observes that “hand in hand with the weakening of the necessity of baptism, went the overemphasis on the values of the non-Christian religions, which many theologians saw not as extraordinary paths of salvation but precisely ordinary ones.  Naturally, hypotheses of this kind caused the missional zeal of many to slacken.  Many began to wonder, ‘Why should we disturb non-Christians, urging them to accept baptism and faith in Christ, if their religion is their way to salvation in their culture, in their part of the world?”  The risk is we lose the link between the truth of the Gospel and salvation.[7]

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre balked at signing this decree, and with some followers left the church to found the Society of St Pius X rather than agree to the decrees of Vatican II.  They could not accept the decrees on Religious Liberty, the new openness to non-Christian religions, and the reform of the liturgy.  After ordaining bishops without papal authorization, Marcel Lefebvre was formally excommunicated from the Catholic Church.[8]  In the years following Lefebvre’s death Pope Benedict lifted the excommunication.  Dr Wikipedia lists legal status of the Society of St Pius X as “canonically irregular, with some recognition from Vatican.”  Pope Benedict was embarrassed when one of their bishops was convicted by a German court of denying the holocaust.[9]


The Catholic Catechism teachings on the Commandment, Do Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor, first teaches us that for us to speak truthfully in our dealings with our neighbor, we must first seek what is true and respect what is true, allowing the truth of the Gospel to rule our lives.  Love for our neighbor, love for our God, love for the truth, these loves must first show respect for the dignity of our neighbor, for our God, and for the truth.

We learned that the Church Fathers of Vatican II viewed that the Catholic guarantee of Religious Liberty was crucial for gaining this respect.  History had evolved so that the Catholic Church was not on the side of truth regarding religious liberty.  From ancient times the Catholic Church was supported first by the Roman emperors starting with Constantine, and then the royalty of medieval Europe, but the absolute monarchies had all disappeared, giving way to dictators and republics, some of which were constitutional monarchies.  The Jacobism of the French Revolution and its grandchild communism were the enemies of the church, and the church supported fascism to combat communism.  World War II totally discredited fascism, now the Catholic Church saw democracy as the bulwark opposing communism, and religious liberty was a cornerstone for democracy.

The memories of World War II are key to understanding the teachings of Vatican II and the Catholic Catechism.  Just because Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were defeated in World War II, there were still many in Europe who were sympathetic to the fascist ideology.  Numerous rogue priests were active in running the ratlines which secreted former Nazis to Latin America, with toleration or cooperate from US Intelligence officers.[10]  The defeat of the Axis powers and the publicity about the concentration camps may have discredited anti-Semitism, but it did not totally destroy such evil in the hearts of men.  Few traditional Catholic priest or bishops were anti-Semites, but the few that were anti-Semites were all “traditional” Catholics.

Many influential Catholics were no doubt disappointed that Bishop Lefebvre would cause a schism in the church mostly over the issue of religious liberty.  This schism sowed seeds of weeds and tares which grow amongst the wheat of the faithful up to the current day.  Could this rebellion against the overwhelming majority consensus of the Church Fathers of Vatican II be considered a rebellion against the truth set forth by the Church?  Definitely these unpleasant memories of this schism were on the mind of the bishops drafting the Catholic Catechism.

[1] Edward Hahnenberg, “A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II” (Cincinnati: St Anthony Messenger Press, 207), pp. 147-153.

[2] John O’Malley, “What Happened at Vatican II” (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 194-197.

[3] John Courtney Murray, “We Hold These Truths, Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition” (New York: Image Books, 1960), pp. 39-44.

[4] Edward Hahnenberg, “A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II”, p. 154.

[5] John O’Malley, “What Happened at Vatican II,” pp. 211-218.

[6] John O’Malley, “What Happened at Vatican II,” pp. 254-257, 287-88.

[7] Cardinal Ratzinger with Vitterio Messori, “The Ratzinger Report,” translated by Salvator Attonasio and Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), pp. 192-197.

[8] Edward Hahnenberg, “A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II”, p. 154.



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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