Striving for a Better Understanding of ‘Dignitatis Humanae’

Scholars at an October conference will meet in the birthplace of St. Benedict to search for answers on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council declaration.

Dominican Father Thomas Crean
Dominican Father Thomas Crean (photo: Centre for Philosophy and Scholastic Theology)

Dominican Father Thomas Crean, a member of the Priory of St. Michael the Archangel in England, says many Catholics today erroneously believe we should no longer seek to build a Catholic society — that that notion belongs to the past.

But if that were true, where would that leave the social kingship of Christ — the teaching that Pius XI emphasized when he instituted the feast of Christ the King — that Our Lord must reign over both individuals and nations?

This is just one of the questions to be tackled at an Oct. 30-Nov. 1 colloquium of scholars from around the world to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

Hosted by the Dialogos Institute at its headquarters in Norcia, Italy, the birthplace of St. Benedict, it will delve into the “prolonged and often impassioned debate” surrounding the declaration, asking: “What precisely does it teach? What is its authority? How can it be reconciled with the Church's teaching about the kingship of Christ and the duties of Catholic statesmen?”

The Dialogos Institute, says one of its principal founders, Alan Fimister, was established by a group of Roman and Byzantine rite clergy and laity in 2014 for the promotion of Scholasticism. “It is particularly focused on the Scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas because it is above all others firmly rooted in the sources of the faith, provides an intellectual bridge uniting East and West and is the sovereign remedy against modernism and the modern ills afflicting society,” Fimister said. “The Institute promotes its aims through conferences, publications and programs of study.”

Father Crean, one of the main organizers of the Oct. 30 conference, said Dialogos was the Greek nickname for Pope Gregory the Great. “It seems very appropriate that its first public event will be, I hope, a very interesting dialogue about a disputed question by experts from around the world,” he said.

Speakers will include Cardinal Raymond Burke, patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, who was recently appointed to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

In this recent interview, Father Crean discusses the controversies surrounding Dignitatis Humanae, how he hopes the colloquium will help lead to a better grasp of its doctrinal core and how it might lead to a clearer understanding of the Church’s teaching regarding the right of Jesus Christ to reign over individuals and societies.


Why did you decide to hold this conference, and what do you hope it will achieve?

There are theoretical and practical reasons. Theoretically, religious liberty is one of the great unresolved theological questions of modern times. People have been disputing Dignitatis Humanae for exactly 50 years now. There are many different views, among Catholics loyal to the magisterium of the Church, about how to understand it and about how to reconcile it with the teaching and practice of the Church down the ages; and also about the degree of authority enjoyed by these various teachings. I wanted to bring together people who have written interesting and important things about these questions, so that they could, so to speak, hammer it out among themselves. So one of the features of this colloquium is the time set aside for plenary discussion after each talk. I hope this will lead to a genuine theological dialogue. The aim is to understand the Church's teaching as well as possible.

Practically, the question is important because an idea seems to have got about among Catholics that we should no longer seek to build a Catholic society; that that notion belongs to the past. But if that were true, where would that leave the social kingship of Christ — i.e., the teaching that Pius XI emphasized when he instituted the feast of Christ the King that Our Lord must reign over both individuals and nations? We need to understand what the Church tells us about what society should be like; and that means examining the whole gamut of the Church's teaching on the relations of church and state.

Again, Catholics and other Christians who resist the attempts of states to force them to accept same-sex “marriage” have often abstracted from the question of what is true and good and appealed simply to the right to religious liberty. Such appeals, however, have generally proved unsuccessful. This fact poses a challenge for those who would de-couple the right to religious liberty from religious truth. This will be one of the questions explored at this colloquium.

One other important point is that people agitating for a U-turn in the Church’s teaching on this or that question often point to Dignitatis Humanae as a precedent for doctrinal change. It is good that people understand why this is not so.


You have a wide variety of speakers. What do you hope each of them will bring to the debate?

The speakers have expertise in a variety of relevant disciplines: theology, philosophy, Church history and law. That will help us to see why Dignitatis Humanae was promulgated when it was, and using a particular style of rhetoric and argumentation. The focus of the conference, however, will be theological; and the speakers will, I think, be putting forward a number of different theses about what the Church’s teaching on religious liberty and the ideal of the Catholic state actually is. Hopefully, it will be possible to make a synthesis of the insights of all the different speakers; or at least to become clearer about what Catholics ought to believe and what remains a matter for legitimate discussion or disagreement.


Dignitatis Humanae has often been criticized for being a departure from Catholic Tradition. To what extent does this hold true, and how much will this concern be a key feature of the conference?

Dignitatis Humanae is an authentic act of the Church’s magisterium, at least in its properly doctrinal sections. Some people would argue that it even contains an infallible definition of dogma. At the same time, what is problematic for many people is that it is not clear precisely what is being taught, or to what extent the right to religious liberty, which is undoubtedly asserted, is in practice limited by other provisions of the document, for example its own insistence (inserted by Paul VI) in Article 1 that we must retain the traditional teaching on the duty of societies towards the true Church; or with the statements in Articles 6 and 7 that the right to religious liberty is limited by the common good and true morality. For example, what can or should a Catholic nation do if people within it start trying to undermine the faith? From the letter of Dignitatis Humanae, it is not too clear.

Again, people have sometime criticized the document for its omissions, in particular for not mentioning the kingship of Christ over human society and for not proposing the Catholic state as an ideal in any clear way. These are criticisms that a Catholic can legitimately make without being a dissenter or disloyal.

Thus, the purpose of the colloquium is not to mount a challenge to Dignitatis Humanae; nor is it to celebrate it as being necessarily the culmination of the Church’s teaching on this whole subject; it is to come to a clearer understanding of the whole of the Church’s teaching on the right of Jesus Christ to reign over individuals and societies, on the duties of civil governments toward the Church and on the scope and limits of the religious freedom of, respectively, Catholics, non-Catholic Christians and the unbaptized.


In short, what, in your view, has been achieved, in terms of upholding human dignity, since Dignitatis Humanae was promulgated?

The Council Fathers said rather optimistically, “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man.” No doubt they were referring to many people’s determination that the horrors of World War II should not be repeated. But from today’s perspective, one has to say that there has been a widespread collapse of human dignity since then: Our dignity consists in living according to the truth, and the laws of the world are increasingly contrary to the truth about marriage, sexuality and the sacredness of innocent human life.


How much do you think it has helped to inadvertently foster syncretism and religious relativism?

I think those who voted for the document hoped that people outside the Church would respond well to the document’s encouraging language about freedom, dignity and the search for truth. However, a one-sided use of such language lessens people’s sense of Christ as the only Savior and of the fact that no society can be fundamentally healthy where he is not recognized as such. Hence, the need to understand the document’s doctrinal core, while not necessarily following its rhetorical style or all the prudential judgments it made about contingent, historical situations, which are, in any case, now in the past.


Some critics have argued that those who support Dignitatis Humanae should logically support the right of Satanists to build temples, as happened recently in Detroit. Is this a misreading of the document, and if so, why?

On one common reading of the document, I think it would be hard to refuse such a “right.” At the same time, therefore, this is surely a reductio ad absurdum [absurdity] of this common reading. Of course, there can never be a right to do evil. The disputed question is [about] what kinds of evil, or religious error, the state has the right to put down. The so-called liberal view denies that the state is competent to know religious truth and so would say that a state must give equal rights to any forms of worship that don’t cause public disorder or break the existing laws.

The popes before Vatican II insisted that states can know religious truth, since they are composed of men who can know it. This is the basis of the “Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of societies toward the true religion” mentioned by Dignitatis Humanae. Yet how is this compatible with the apparently very wide rights to religious liberty mentioned in the same document? This is what the speakers will be discussing.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.