National Catholic Register


Thorny Questions

BY Matthew A. Rarey

December 5-18, 2010 Issue | Posted 11/29/10 at 2:53 PM



How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

St. Pauls/Alba House, 2010

89 pages, $9.95

To order:

(800) 343-2522

Of the documents issued from the Second Vatican Council, none remains more pertinent to the situation of the Church today than Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom).

So argues author Kenneth D. Whitehead in a book that presents its subject with clarity and conviction. It is illuminating reading for anyone who wants to know more about the Church’s teaching on religious freedom, a doctrine that does not dilute the Church’s divinely appointed mission.

“Error has no rights,” as the Church has long taught. Those in error do have rights, however, because they are created in the image of God and have free will that can be oriented toward the truth. For religious freedom — a freedom that also allows the Church to encourage conversions — to flourish, the Church urges the state to maintain a constitutional order protecting religious freedom. It is a freedom to choose the truth, however:

“What the Council actually taught was that the Catholic Church is ‘the teacher of truth,’ and that the faithful are obliged to form their consciences in accordance with the truths that the Church teaches,” Whitehead writes. “This is the real and proper content and message and legacy of Dignitatis Humanae.”

Affirming Religious Freedom raises big questions that a short review can only begin to brook. How can religious freedom function in an age of mass religious confusion and indifferentism on one hand and powerful coercive forces on the other? These can be tricky questions, and Whitehead notes the difficulties. He also identifies two contemporary foes of religious freedom.

First, the “tyranny of the omni-competent state.” Professing the Enlightenment “religion” of anti-religion, Leviathan breaks into all facets of private life. A scandalous misreading of the U.S. Constitution, for example, encourages the beast to strip religion from public life and promote policies that coerce believers into acting against their faith, such as requiring pharmacists to dispense abortifacients on pain of losing their licenses.

Second, militant Islam. How can freedom of religion sanely be granted to a religion which has oppressed Christians whenever it has had the power to do so? In this respect, the Council Fathers were not as prescient as Whitehead rightly notes; they were in other respects concerning contemporary problems.

The pertinence of Dignitatis Humanae may be clear, but will it convince a dark age to walk in the light and seek the truth? Publicly the Church must perform her age-old duty to defend the truth against powers and principalities. But there is also the strictly private role of religious freedom, which, as Whitehead concludes and the Church in Dignitatis Humanae affirms, can operate no matter how restrictive the City of Man: to encourage individual souls to freely embrace the truth, whose supreme teacher is the Church — whether they know it or not.

Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.