After a brief hiatus, we now continue our series on the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) during this Year of Faith with the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). While the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy may be considered the most controversial document of Vatican II in terms of its implementation, Dignitatis Humanae is probably the most controversial in terms of what it actually teaches, and it is a “front-burner” issue for the Church today.
The reason Dignitatis Humanae is so controversial are that it (a) reflects new and diverse responses to changing social conditions (notably the contribution of American theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J.) and (b) strikes a very different tone from a series of papal documents from Gregory XVI to Pius XI on the social kingship of Christ and the desirability of a “confessional state” (i.e., what we would call a “Catholic country”).
Let me try to simplify the issue for us: “Religious liberty” looks one way when the Catholic faith is in power and most people are Catholic or at least Christian, and the issue is how to apply religious truth in a manner that is both robust and yet respectful of the rights of non-believers. It looks another way when, as is more typical in our experience, the Catholic faith is a minority position and the issue is to protect the fundamental rights of individuals and religious entities. As the first section Dignitatis Humanae teaches, “Religious freedom, . . . which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.”
Further complicating the situation is American jurisprudence, which today, in my judgment, improperly treats the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment as meaning that there must be an impenetrable wall between Church and State—and really between religion and public life. This distorted emphasis on the Establishment Clause to the detriment of the “Free Exercise” clause has led secularists to narrow the scope of “religious liberty” to what happens in the church building as they bully believers and churches out of the public square.
Exhibit “A” is the HHS mandate.
Another complicating aspect of religious liberty is the widespread misunderstanding of conscience, especially in dissident Catholic circles. I’ve addressed that issue here. The Catechism (no. 1792) acknowledges that “a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience” is a “source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.” Even more to the point, Catechism, no. 2039 teaches that “personal conscience and reason should not be set in opposition to the moral law or the Magisterium of the Church.”
We should not be forced to act against our conscience. By the same token, we are obliged to form our consciences well. Acting according to the dictates of conscience is about doing what is truly good, not whatever I feel like doing at the moment.
Let’s now briefly look at a “top ten” list of principles of religious liberty taken from the opening sections of Dignitatis Humanae. This is not an exhaustive list, but it contains principles that always apply even as cultural conditions change:
(1) We ordinarily cannot be forced to act contrary to our religious beliefs.
“All men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” (no. 2)
(2) Religious liberty is an innate right known to us through both faith and reason.
“The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” (no. 2)
(3) Governments have the duty to respect religious liberty.
“This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.” (no. 2)
(4) We must seek the truth.
“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.” (no. 2)
(5) We must strive to live the 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 truth.” (no. 2)
(6) God’s law is written on the human heart.
“The highest norm of human life is the divine law–eternal, objective and universal–whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.” (no. 3)
(7) The truth must be sought freely.
“Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.” (no. 3)
(8) We must adhere to the truth.
“As the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.” (no. 3)
(9) Personal and societal harm comes from suppressing the free exercise of religion.
“On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind. The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.” (no. 3)
(10) Religious freedom applies to religious communities and groups (i.e., the Church), and not just individual believers.
“The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself.” (no. 4)