Rome Conference Revisits Contentious Second Vatican Council Document

ROME — Of all of the Second Vatican Council’s 16 documents, none has proven more controversial than Dignitatis Humanae, the Council’s declaration on religious freedom.

More than any other council document, it was responsible for the schism of the traditionalist followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who maintained that the document was doctrinally unsound. And even among Catholics who do not hold that extreme view, Dignitatis Humanae’s call for respect of the religious rights of non-Catholics has raised questions of whether it represents a doctrinal break with earlier teachings of the Church.

A group of prominent scholars discussed that question, among others, at a one-day conference Dec. 10 at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. Hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the conference gathered Christian, Jewish and Muslim speakers to discuss the legacy of Dignitatis Humanae 40 years after it was proclaimed.

The first group of speakers debated whether or not the declaration represented a change or a development in doctrine. Jesuit Father Kevin Flannery, dean of the Gregorian’s faculty of philosophy, said that rather than a “right to error” about what is true religion — an adverse interpretation given to the declaration by some critics — Dignitatis Humanae advocates the right to be free to seek the truth. That right, he said, is grounded in the intrinsic dignity of the human person.

Father Ian Ker, an Oxford University professor and one of the world’s leading experts on Cardinal John Henry Newman, told the audience that the declaration qualifies under the seven criteria that the 19th-century cardinal set forth as a test to validate a Church document as an “authentic development” of doctrine.

“Those in error do have rights, and that’s essentially the development in doctrine that took place,” Father Ker said after his talk, adding that any fault with respect to the promotion of an unsound conception of religious truth stems not from the document but instead from misinterpretation of its contents.

“To ask these documents to say everything is to ask too much of them,” Father Ker said. “Dignatatis Humanae is carefully worded, and states clearly there is a truth and people have an obligation to try and find it.”

‘Moral Nihilism’

Italy’s minister for culture, Rocco Buttiglione, underlined the declaration’s emphasis on the right to pursue truth and to err in doing so. This freedom, he stressed, was not an endorsement of relativism but a granting of permission to make mistakes.

Said Buttiglione, “In a society where everyone does the right thing not because of conviction, not because of the exercise of freedom, but because of compulsion, then that society would not resemble heaven, it would rather resemble hell,” he explained.

Buttiglione, a philosophy professor who in 2004 was rejected from sitting on the European Commission because of his Catholic beliefs, told the audience that relativism is a threat to religious freedom when it becomes a “dogmatic ideology” that insists “there is only one truth: that there is no truth.” He also warned of a new trend in Europe toward “moral nihilism” that prohibits any strong moral conviction or judgment, although he believes this “second wave of secularism” will not succeed.

Papal biographer George Weigel and Professor Karl Ballestrem of the University of Eichstaett in Germany spoke of the central role of religious freedom in the papacy of Pope John Paul II, and how he drew on Dignitatis Humanae to help bring down Soviet communism.

In a later session, Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, drew attention to the rights of communities and associations and other “forgotten teachings” in the Second Vatican Council declaration.

“It is up to Catholics to bring these teachings to life, and I would say that Dignitatis Humanae, along with the other wonderful Vatican II documents, has been neglected,” Glendon said after her talk. “In some sense, they are victims of very poor formation of Catholics and poor formation of those who do the forming.”

Addressing that problem, Glendon said, “rests with us. We have to start building and re-appropriating what was neglected, and we have to transmit it to our students and our children.”

Other talks were given by Mohammed Fadel, an attorney and expert on Islamic law, who spoke about the openness of Sunni Muslim tradition to religious freedom. He was followed by Rabbi Alan Mittelman, a professor of Jewish philosophy, who outlined the foundations of religious freedom in Jewish tradition.

Truth and Freedom

Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute wrapped up the conference with an examination of the differing approaches to religious liberty in France, the United States and in Islamic nations. Noting the thirst among some Muslims for liberty, Novak suggested democracy and pluralism might be about to flourish within Islam.

Speaking after the conference, Kevin Hasson, the Becket Fund’s founder and author of the recent book The Right to be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America, said what he found most positive in the discussions was the consensus that relativism cannot replace truth as the basis for religious freedom.

Said Hasson, “Only a profound truth claim, and truth about man, can be such a basis, because only then is he freely able to seek the truth about God.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.