National Catholic Register


The HHS Mandate and 'Dignitatis Humanae'

BY Omar Gutierrez

June 3-16, 2012 Issue | Posted 5/29/12 at 12:38 PM


 Thanks to the Health and Human Services mandate, the question of religious liberty is now of major importance for Catholics in the United States. Previous generations of Catholics were certainly persecuted, and, yes, anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice in the public square.

Still, our habit has been to associate religious liberty, an aspect of the Church’s social teaching, with the persecutions of Christians in other parts of the world.

We may not yet be used to having to fret about this freedom, but we ought to start. For this reason, it is important that we look at the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the subject; for when the question of freedom of religion was taken up by the fathers of Vatican II, they provided a clarity about the topic that can help us today.

Dignitatis Humanae (The Declaration on Religious Liberty) went through more significant revisions than any other document at the Council, despite its being one of the shortest of the writings. In fact, its history through the process has been called “freakish.” This was due in large part to the fact that the Church was not used to speaking favorably about religious freedom and that it is a complicated subject.

It seems little wonder, then, that Catholics and non-Catholics find it difficult to maneuver the question in the face of a media onslaught that talks about everything else but freedom of religion. In expressing what this right of liberty means, the fathers of the Council were very careful to define it as a freedom “to be immune from coercion” from other individuals or society, so that no one “is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.”

That the Obama administration is forcing Catholic institutions and individuals to act contrary to their beliefs would seem to amount to a violation of religious liberty, pure and simple. Still, some corners of the Catholic world have parted ways with the bishops. They argue that in the bishops’ campaign against the abortion mandate they are ignoring the long-held principles of Catholic social teaching. Individual and corporate rights, they say, are not absolute, so must, on occasion, bend to the competing rights of others. When determining whose rights are to prevail, the guiding principle is always “the common good.” Therefore, so the critics argue, it is much better for Americans to have health-care insurance than for the Church to have its conscience assuaged by avoiding paying for someone else’s pill.

The Council fathers would agree that rights are not absolute. Religious liberty must have boundaries. Otherwise, like the Mormons of old, one could claim the right to many wives under the freedom of religion. Knowing this, the Council fathers wrote that this freedom must be exercised “within due limits.” The rub is how one defines “due limits,” and this is what marks the difference between the bishops and the defenders of the Obama administration. The latter argue that the Church’s right to religious freedom is trumped by the common good of protecting the right to access health care.

The Church certainly appeals to the common good when defending the right to religious liberty; but when it comes to limiting this right, to the limiting principle, the conciliar fathers were much stricter and exacting. The Second Vatican Council purposefully adopted a very narrow definition for the limiting principle to religious freedom in order to avoid exactly the kind of situation in which we now find ourselves. Indeed, the phrase “the common good” appears only once in the 16 pages of the document, and then it is done only in passing. This was a deliberate choice because “the common good” is not widely used in modern civil law and because it was too broad a phrase. Any fascist can appeal to the common good to defend his tyranny, after all. Thus, the fathers chose a narrower aspect of the common good as the limiting principle, namely “the public order.”

Therefore, according to Dignitatis Humanae, limiting the fundamental right to be free from coercion from the state so that no one is forced to act against one’s beliefs is justified only when the public order has been violated. Additionally, the young archbishop of Krakow Karol Wojtyla wanted even further clarification about the meaning of “public order” since, under Soviet rule, a peaceful gathering of aggrieved dock workers praying the Rosary could be seen as a disturbance of the public order. Archbishop Wojtyla argued that this order should be based upon the “objective moral order” and not on the whims of the state, and certainly not upon the pining of Planned Parenthood. This makes the limiting principle to religious liberty even narrower than the defenders of the White House would like.

In short, if the state is going to force us to act against our own beliefs, it ought to be justified not by an appeal to “the common good,” but, rather, to the maintenance of public order founded on the objective moral order. For this reason, the bishops have been arguing so vociferously: because there is no violation of the public order here.

Exempting Catholic institutions and Catholic individuals from having to pay for procedures we find morally repugnant does not violate peace or order. What’s more, forcing us to pay for abortion-inducing drugs violates the objective moral order. Indeed, that moral order is sullied if Catholics comply with the law. Since this is the case, the public order is maintained, the common good is protected and our bishops have remained faithful to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

It is those who are defending the Obama administration who have gone astray of the spirit and the letter of Vatican II. We ought to maintain unity as Catholics and with the bishops defend ourselves against what is by definition a violation of our conscience, our freedom and our Catholic life.

Omar Gutierrez works for the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes about culture and faith at