‘Dignitatis Humanae’ Sets Standard for Defending Religious Freedom

Key document was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Dec. 7, 1965

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Dignitatis Humanae

Declaration on Religious Freedom

Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Dec. 7, 1965


WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama welcomed Pope Francis to the United States at a Sept. 23 White House ceremony, the pilgrim from Rome offered a pointed defense of religious liberty.

“With countless other people of goodwill, [U.S. Catholics] are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty,” Pope Francis told the president. “That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions.”

In some quarters, the Pope’s remarks were viewed as an implicit critique of the Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate. Further, his words echoed the Catholic Church’s ongoing defense of religious freedom amid hostile secular forces in the West and Islamic extremism in the Middle East and Africa.

But Pope Francis’ striking support for religious liberty in the land where it has long been celebrated as the “first freedom” also marked the prophetic legacy of one of the most controversial documents to be approved by the Second Vatican Council a half century ago: Dignitatis Humanae, the Church’s declaration on religious freedom.

Forged in a 20th century scarred by collectivist ideologies that sought to liberate human beings from the yoke of religion and sent millions to the gas chambers and gulags, Dignitatis Humanae affirms the right to religious freedom by individuals, parents and churches, and it calls on the state to defend their public witness of faith in education, charitable work and other aspects of civic engagement.

Dignitatis Humanae teaches that no person should be coerced by any human agent in matters religious. Religious freedom, in short, constitutes an immunity from coercion in civil society,” Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, told the Register.

“However, this does not mean that the Church is indifferent to the way a person exercises his freedom. To the contrary, Dignitatis Humanae does not change the Church’s teaching on who she is — the Church left by Jesus for all mankind — and what is required of us.”

The document’s drafters were concerned with developing “the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person.” But they also laid the groundwork for a more complete defense of this right within the “constitutional order of society.”

“What the Church demands is libertas ecclesiae, the freedom to make its claims in civil society unrestrained by the state or any other human agent,” explained Farr.

“At the same time, it demands the same freedom for all religious groups to make their claims, within due limits,” he said. “In this sense, Dignitatis Humanae stands for full equality under the law for all religious communities in civil society. This is a key aspect of its teaching.”

Today, Church leaders still celebrate Dignitatis Humanae as one of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council. But the drafting of the document ignited a fierce debate that has never been completely laid to rest.

At the time, some Church leaders, including Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the Society of St. Pius X, which currently has no canonical status in the Church, believed the drafters had repudiated the teaching of previous popes, who insisted that the state was obligated to defend true religion.

“Over time, and especially after the wars of religion and the French Revolution, the ‘confessional state’ — a state committed to advancing the true Catholic religion and suppressing religious error — became the standard Catholic model for government,” noted Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia in a March 2015 commentary on Dignitatis Humanae.

“That’s the history Dignitatis Humanae sought to correct by going back to the sources of Christian thought. The choice to believe any religious faith must be voluntary. Faith must be an act of free will or it can’t be valid.”

Echoing the teaching of Pope Leo XIII, the declaration on religious freedom affirms the responsibility of the state to secure the right to religious worship.

But the document, which offers ground rules for the protection of religious freedom in secular and confessional states, also builds on Leo’s teaching by sharply limiting the right of the state to “inhibit acts that are religious.” The state can only intervene if the public order is threatened in a way that directly challenges objective truth.

The document further directs the state to “acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and other means of education.”

The 19th-century popes also spoke out against modernity and its dismissal of Catholic teaching as mere superstition. Thus, many Council Fathers pressed the drafters of Dignitatis Humanae to affirm the need for freedom to be rooted in a respect for objective truths that guard human dignity and arise from a God-given order.

“Equally important, but less well known, was the divide among supporters of the document about the nature and foundation of the right to religious freedom — especially the relationship between freedom and truth,” noted Nicholas Healy, the co-author of Freedom, Truth and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, which includes a new translation of the approved text as well as the first English-language versions of the five drafts of the document.

During the Second Vatican Council, the debate over religious freedom was on full boil. Reformers embraced the pivot away from the confessional state. And after the Council, Father Charles Curran and other theologians who dissented from Catholic teaching on sexual ethics would frame the document as an endorsement of the primacy of conscience.

Concurrently, a small minority of Church leaders determined that the drafters of the declaration had “capitulated to the winds of modernity, with a false view of human dignity and the duties of the state,” said Healy, an assistant professor of philosophy and culture at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington.

“Archbishop [Marcel] Lefebvre believed that the declaration on religious freedom represented a departure from established Catholic doctrine on the duty of the state to acknowledge and uphold the truth of the Catholic religion.”

“One of our discoveries while researching the conciliar debate and the redaction of Dignitatis Humanae is that the final revisions to the document emphasized the relationship between freedom and truth as foundational for religious freedom,” said Healy. In the words of French Bishop Alfred Ancel, who represented French bishops’ concerns about the direction of Dignitatis Humanae, “The obligation to seek the truth is itself the ontological foundation of religious freedom.”

“Archbishop Lefebvre’s claim — which is shared by some proponents of religious freedom — that Dignitatis Humanae affirms the liberal idea that the state can be neutral about the truth of human nature and the truth of God misrepresents the actual teaching of the document,” Healy said.

As the debate progressed, and some Council Fathers lobbied to delay a vote on the document, then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was among those who advocated for a stronger relationship between truth and freedom in the final draft.

Dignitatis Humanae states that “religious freedom … has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore, it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (1).

Further, the document makes clear that the “one true religion subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church” and that “all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know and to hold fast to it” (1).

Thus the right to religious freedom is closely linked to each person’s responsibility “to follow his conscience faithfully in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of his life.”

Decades later, after he was elected pope, Pope John Paul II called on Catholic theologians to clarify the vital connection between truth and freedom.

Religious freedom “is the most fundamental of rights in relation to a person’s primary duty; that is to say, the duty to draw closer to God in light of the truth with the movement of the Spirit, which is love,” noted John Paul in his March 1964 address to the Colloquium on Juridical Studies.

David Schindler, the co-author of Freedom, Truth and Human Dignity and a professor of fundamental theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, underscored the document’s fresh relevance as the U.S. government and courts address dueling views of religious freedom. But he also suggested that the document’s core message is often misunderstood.

“People say, ‘The Church now recognizes religious freedom,’” observed Schindler. “But they don’t see that the freedom the Church recognizes is not the idea of freedom that we are accustomed to in liberal cultures — freedom of choice, with truth as something that limits or burdens our freedom.”

Likewise, the current application of U.S. jurisprudence “does not see truth as relevant to freedom. But in a liberal, pluralistic society that enshrines freedom, conflicts are adjudicated on the basis of the balance of interests, abstracted from truth.”

At the Council, Schindler said, Karol Wojtyla warned that a position of neutrality toward objective truth could leave the judicial order “open to a kind of relativism that privileges freedom of choice rather than a freedom linked to the objective truth about the human person.”

Now, the Polish Pope’s warnings seem especially prescient, as secular forces in Western democracies seek to constrain the religious freedom of individual believers and churches that oppose the redefinition of marriage and so-called sexual and reproductive rights.

“Secularization could well lead to a loss of the sense that religion does represent a real good for human beings” and also a diminished “sense of the need to protect religious freedom,” said Bradley Lewis, an associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

Lewis expressed concern about the Obama administration’s weak record of defending religious freedom abroad and its “policies within the U.S. that have increasingly threatened the freedom of religious groups, especially Christian groups, to carry out their witness in a way that preserves the integrity of that witness.”

Such policies parallel the advance of new legal theories, which “hold that the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom is superfluous, that this freedom should not have been explicitly mentioned, but considered protected by the protections of freedom of speech and assembly,” Lewis told the Register.

“The Supreme Court rightly brushed this aside in the Hosanna Tabor case (2012),” he said, in a reference to the landmark free-exercise case that resulted in a unanimous ruling in favor of a Lutheran school’s right to employ teachers free of interference from the courts.

At present, the U.S. Constitution still affirms the free exercise of religion, and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides a bulwark for legal challenges to the HHS mandate.

But as Lewis sees it, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom continues to set the gold standard: “Dignitatis Humanae remains the most complete and important defense of religious freedom.”