The Second Vatican Council fathers promulgated 16 important teaching documents between 1962 and 1965, and, half a century later, every one of them deserves another look. But one among them offers American Catholics in particular good reasons for gratitude and a healthy pride.
On Dec. 7, 1965, the council issued its Declaration on Religious Freedom, commonly known by its Latin title Dignitatis Humanae (“Human Dignity”). Pope Blessed Paul VI said publicly on that day that the document would “undoubtedly remain one of the greatest documents of the council.” With it, the Catholic Church placed itself firmly in support of the right of all people to choose and practice their own religion without interference from government laws.
Its teaching was seen by many at the time as “the American contribution to the council.” That’s because it drew much from the American Catholic experience of living cooperatively in a pluralistic society, and also because one of its primary architects was the famous American theologian Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray.
But the document did not come easily. The experience of drafting and approving it was, in fact, one of the most difficult and controversial experiences of the council fathers. But it was a challenge that bore great fruit. Indeed, Father Joseph Ratzinger, who served as a peritus (a theological expert) at the council and later went on to become Pope Benedict XVI, wrote at the time, “The debate on religious liberty will in later years be considered one of the most important events of the council.”
A Challenging Process
To understand the difficulty, one must realize where things stood prior to the council. Since the fourth century, religious unity in society was seen as essential to peace and public order. The state was understood to have a “right” to support one religion over others. Church and state were intertwined in the wider conception of Christendom.
The idea of religious freedom only appeared with the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, and was imposed violently during the French Revolution. At the time, most of the people promoting religious freedom were also fierce critics of the Church. In reaction, the Church tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater; into its condemnation of the Revolution it swept almost everything related to it, including religious freedom.
By the 1940s the “traditional” Catholic approach on this issue was understood to be that in a truly just society the government would support the Catholic Church and limit public worship and teaching of non-Catholic religions. Indeed, predominantly Catholic countries such as Spain, Italy, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador had laws which said only Catholics could be full citizens and that Protestant public worship was illegal.
Beginning in 1948, Father Murray began to argue that this arrangement did not reflect Catholic teaching, but rather had developed in reaction to a specific set of historical circumstances. Under pressure from the Vatican, Father Murray was ordered by his Jesuit superiors in 1954 to stop writing on the topic of religious freedom, a directive he strictly obeyed. But less than a decade later, he was called to work as a theological expert at Vatican II at the insistence of Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York.
Father Murray’s influence at the council was strong. He addressed the U.S. bishops as a group several times, explaining how support of religious freedom in modern times was consistent with previous papal teaching and helping them prepare interventions on the council floor. These interventions met with strong opposition from some bishops who were determined to maintain the previous understanding, and the debate was at times heated and stressful.
In the end, Father Murray’s thinking prevailed among the world’s bishops. The result was Dignitatis Humanae, approved by a vote of 2,307 in favor and 70 opposed.
“Truth and Justice”
The document is short, about 5,000 words in all. It includes an introduction and two chapters, divided into 15 articles. (Curiously, the version of the document available on the Vatican website does not include chapter divisions.)
The document opens by acknowledging the widespread demands for religious freedom of many peoples around the world, saying that such demands are “greatly in accord with truth and justice.” Drawing on “the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church — the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old,” the council supports the call for such freedom.
In Chapter One (Articles 2-8), the document makes its key affirmation in its opening: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that 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.”
This right, the council insisted, extends even to those who may be mistaken in their judgments about religious truth; they, too, have a civil right to believe and worship publicly according to their beliefs. Governments have an obligation to protect the religious freedom of all citizens and also “to help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties” (No. 6). The council condemns efforts by any government to use force or fear to limit the religious expression of anyone (an assertion understood at the time mainly to refer to the world’s Communist governments).
Chapter Two (Articles 9-15) explains that this teaching of the council “has roots in divine revelation.” Acknowledging that the right to religious freedom is not explicitly taught in Scripture, it says that revelation does however offer clear evidence of “the respect which Christ showed toward the freedom with which man is to fulfill his duty of belief in the word of God and it gives us lessons in the spirit which disciples of such a Master ought to adopt and continually follow” (No. 9). Religious freedom, therefore, “is entirely consonant with the freedom of the act of Christian faith.”
Jesus himself taught with patience and humility, never forcing the truth on anyone, and His apostles followed His example, the document says. In a powerful passage, the council insists that the Church is indeed the teacher of the truth about God, but acknowledges that at some moments of its history Christians have at times defended this idea through “means that are incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel. At the same time, the charity of Christ urges [Christians] to love and have prudence and patience in [their] dealings with those who are in error or in ignorance with regard to the Faith” (No. 14).
The document ends with a prayer “that the human family, through careful observance of the principle of religious freedom in society, may be brought by the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to the sublime and unending and ‘glorious freedom of the sons of God’ (Rom 8:21).”
Dignitatis Humanae was a landmark in Catholic social teaching. In the decades that followed, the Church became an important voice for religious freedom and Pope St. John Paul II — who had supported the document as a bishop at the council — became one of its foremost defenders. Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have also lent their voices to the same cause. In our own day, the world faces challenges to religious freedom that the fathers of Vatican II could never have imagined. These challenges ensure that Dignitatis Humanae will remain relevant and inspiring in the years ahead.