In the nineteenth century, in encyclicals from Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos in 1832 to Leo XIII’s Libertas in 1888, the Catholic Church taught that the state should not only recognize Catholic Christianity as the true religion, but should use its coercive power to restrict the public practice of, and proselytization by, false religions—including Protestantism. Yet in its declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council declared that the state should not use coercion to restrict religion—not even on behalf of the true faith. Such coercion would be a violation of people’s right to religious liberty.

This looks like a clear change in Catholic doctrine. The Church once endorsed state coercion on behalf of religious truth, and now she denounces such coercion as immoral. If doctrinal change is possible on religious liberty, why not on matters like sexual morality and marriage? Some Catholics have sought to celebrate Dignitatis Humanae as setting a precedent for further changes in teaching. Other Catholics, like some followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, have agreed that there has been doctrinal change—and denounced the Second Vatican Council for introducing it, defending against the Council the earlier teaching of “eternal Rome.” How to understand the Second Vatican Council in relation to the Catholic past? This is a theological problem that, for the modern Church, has also turned into something of an internal crisis about the authority and integrity of the Catholic magisterium.

Those who believe that Dignitatis Humanae did change Catholic teaching see in the declaration a new vision of the dignity of the human person. The human person possesses a natural right not to be subject to any form of religious coercion. This is a right against coercion by any authority, whether state or Church, save where such coercion is required to protect just public order. This teaching, though new, is based on the traditional doctrine of the essential metaphysical freedom of the act of faith, which always ruled out the use of coercion as a means of evangelization. On this reading, the Church used the traditional doctrine about faith to support a new, hitherto denied doctrine of a comprehensive right to religious liberty. With Vatican II, the Church’s opposition to modern liberalism, central to nineteenth-century Ultramontanism, was finally ended through a decisive change in doctrine.

But this interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae as a revision not just of policy but of doctrine is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. The declaration is not a statement about religious liberty in general but about a specifically civil liberty: religious liberty in relation to the state and other civil institutions. It does not oppose religious coercion in general, but coercion by the state. The state is forbidden to coerce in matters of religion, not because such coercion is illicit for any authority whatsoever, but because such coercion lies beyond the state’s particular competence.

As the declaration says, “those private and public acts of religion by which people relate themselves to God from the sincerity of their hearts of their nature transcend the earthly and temporal levels of reality. So the state, whose peculiar purpose it is to provide for the temporal common good, should certainly recognise and promote the religious life of its citizens. With equal certainty it exceeds the limits of its authority if it takes upon itself to direct or prevent religious activity.”

The temporal ends served by the state, and the fact that religion transcends those ends, limit state authority over religion. This account of why the state has no authority to coerce religious practice clearly does not apply to the Church at all. Well before Vatican II, the Church had already denied the state’s authority to do that on the terms articulated by Dignitatis Humanae. And that was certainly not because the Catholic Church opposed religious coercion as such. Rather, religious coercion might be legitimate, but only on the authority of the Church. The Church was the only body with the right to coerce on behalf of religious truth: to issue directives, and to back those directives up by the threat of punishments. The state could act only as the Church’s agent. It had no authority of its own in this matter.

We can now see how Dignitatis Humanae does not change doctrine after all. Religious coercion by the state is now morally wrong, and a violation of people’s rights, not because religious coercion by any authority is wrong, but because the Church no longer authorizes it. The Church is now refusing to license the state to act as her coercive agent, and it is from that policy change, and not from any change in underlying doctrine, that the wrongfulness of religious coercion by the state follows.

The nineteenth-century papacy clearly taught that the Church is as much a coercive authority as the state, with a like right to make laws and to enforce those laws by punishments, and this teaching has never been reversed. The coercive authority of the Church, and in particular her authority punitively to enforce obligations to Catholic faith and practice on the baptized, is still fundamental to modern canon law. But despite this papal teaching, even in the nineteenth century, well before Vatican II, the idea of the Church as a genuinely coercive authority was disappearing from general Catholic consciousness and understanding. With secularization, legitimate coercion was increasingly being associated only with state activity in the public sphere.

Dignitatis Humanae is very carefully drafted not to address the coercive authority of the Church, not even her authority to use the state as her coercive agent. But with diminished consciousness of the Church as a coercive authority, the significance of this fact has been generally ignored. The change in what the Church declares morally permissible for a state to do has been misinterpreted as a change in teaching about the fundamental permissibility of religious coercion as such.

Far from being new, this Catholic view of the state’s lack of authority to coerce its citizens on behalf of religion goes back at least four centuries. We find it already stated in the Counter-Reformation theologian Francisco Suárez’s Defensio Fidei Catholicae of 1613, commissioned by Paul V and directed against James I of England. The state may punish crimes only “in so far as those crimes are contrary to political ends, public peace, and human justice; but coercion with respect to those deeds which are opposed to religion and to the salvation of the soul is essentially a function of spiritual power,” and so the authority to punish for religious ends belongs to the Church, not the state.

Suárez’s view, though it had papal approval, was not yet magisterially taught. Clear magisterial endorsement eventually came—not at Vatican II, but shortly after Vatican I. In Immortale Dei, issued in 1885 (fifteen years after the close of the First Vatican Council), Leo XIII expressly denied, as a matter of doctrine, the state’s possession of any jurisdiction over the religious and the sacred as such. That jurisdiction belonged only to the Church. The Church is a coercive authority in her own right, he insisted: “In truth Jesus Christ gave his Apostles free authority in matters sacred, together with a true power to legislate and what follows therefrom, the twofold power to judge and to punish.”

The Church has jurisdiction over the baptized, who have an obligation of fidelity to the Church, to believe her doctrine and to obey her laws, including a duty to assist her mission when she requests it. And, according to traditional doctrine, the Church has the right and authority to enforce this jurisdiction coercively, with temporal or earthly penalties as well as spiritual ones. The Church has no right to punish unbelief among the unbaptized, who are outside her jurisdiction and have no obligation of fidelity to the Church. But the Church still has the authority to use coercion to defend her jurisdiction against those unbaptized who interfere from without, proselytizing on behalf of false religions. As for the baptized, who do have obligations of fidelity to her, the Church has the authority to punish culpable unbelief through penalties for heresy, apostasy, and schism. The point of such sanctions is punitively to reform heretics, apostates, or schismatics, or at least to discourage others from sharing their errors.

And, according to Leo XIII, in matters of religion the Church is the only authority with the right to coerce: “Hence, it is the Church, and not the State, that is to be man’s guide to heaven: and it is to the same Church that God has assigned the charge of seeing to, and legislating for, what concerns religion.” God, he wrote, “has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, the other over human, things . . . . Whatever, therefore, in things human is in any way of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls or to the worship of God, is wholly subject to the power and judgment of the Church.”

How then did this Leonine model justify involving the state in religious coercion on behalf of the faith? Amongst those historically seen as having obligations of fidelity to the Church are the baptized officials of Christian states, whose obligations to assist the Church can include using their office to enforce and defend the jurisdiction of the Church when and as the Church directs. As the 1917 Code of Canon Law put it: “Offenses against the law of the Church alone, are, of their nature, within the cognizance of the ecclesiastical authority alone, which, when it judges it necessary or opportune, can claim the help of the secular arm.”

The Ultramontane period saw then a continued assertion of the Christian state’s ancient obligation to coerce her members’ religious practice on behalf of the faith—but now, and as a matter of official doctrine, as an obligation based not on the state’s own authority but arising from the direction of the Church and based on her authority.

There was a second nineteenth-century development in general Catholic understanding, which in some ways contradicted or challenged the first. Despite official papal teaching, coercion increasingly came to be seen as something done by states. In general theology and apologetics, the authority of the Church was less and less seen in coercive terms. Her canon law came to be understood as something like a mere condition of membership, and not as punitively enforced directives. Punitive coercion designed to pressure individuals into conformity was a matter for the state and involved, even in matters of religion, the public sphere alone.

Yet the Church maintained her official teaching on her jurisdiction over the baptized. Indeed, in Libertas Leo XIII formally condemned views of the Church as no more than a voluntary association with mere rules of membership but no genuine power of the kind the state possesses to legislate and punish. Still, in everyday apologetics and the Church’s canon law, the Church’s punitive coercion came increasingly to be presented in just the minimizing terms Leo XIII rejected.

Consider a bishop in semi-Protestant Germany, Ketteler of Mainz. In 1867, just before Vatican I, he argued that canonical penalties for heresy were not at all like the coercive punishments that states might impose. Rather, these canonical penalties were typified by the spiritual sanction of excommunication—a form of membership exclusion that was really about protecting the institution from those opposing its rules, not pressuring individual belief or practice. “The Faith is the foundation of the Church,” he wrote. “Therefore, as every organization which wishes to survive has the right to protect its basic constitution by expulsion of those members who attack that constitution, so the Church too must have the right to expel members who make an assault against her foundations.” For Ketteler, the authority of the Church was less about coercing individuals’ religion and more about applying rules of membership.

And so we arrive at the view of religious coercion current before the Second Vatican Council, one that still shapes much post-conciliar “traditionalist” opinion. Religious coercion is really the business of the state. There is no question of the state coercing belief or private practice. But the state must publicly recognize the Catholic faith as true and restrict the public presence of other religions. That behind all this state activity lay another authority, the Church, truly coercive in her own right—whose authority in the case of the baptized extended to coercing even private religious belief and practice—tended to be forgotten.

As a result, by the time of Vatican II, John Courtney Murray could assume without much contradiction that the only plausible coercive authority in matters of religion was that of the state: “If an authority exists that is empowered to restrain men from public action in accord with their religious beliefs, this authority can reside only in government, which presides over the juridical and social order.” Despite the continued existence of the canonical sanctions on heresy, there really was no question of the coercive direction of belief. The Council’s “truly groundbreaking argument,” Russell Hittinger has argued, “did not concern the idea of rightful immunity from coercion of interior acts, for this issue was never in serious dispute.”

But the Church’s formal teaching on her own coercive authority, and her canon law, remained unchanged. Indeed, her right to discourage heresy, apostasy, and schism by punishments was in 1941, shortly before the Council, affirmed in a notable theological treatment both learned and extensive: volume one of L’Église du Verbe Incarné by Charles Journet, who was made a cardinal by Paul VI in 1965, and who played an important role in the passage of Dignitatis Humanae.

And the Church’s coercive authority has been affirmed since the Council as well. The 1983 Code of Canon Law still teaches that the Church has a coercive authority over the baptized, with the authority to direct and to punish, by temporal as well as spiritual penalties, for culpable apostasy or heresy. Pope Benedict XVI has recently reaffirmed the Church’s right to punish culpable heresy, referring to the traditional symbol of the Church’s coercive authority, the bishop’s pastoral staff, considered as a punitive and disciplinary virga or rod. “The Church too must use the shepherd’s rod, the rod with which he protects the faith against those who falsify it, against currents which lead the flock astray,” he said in a homily preached for the solemnity of the Sacred Heart in 2010:

The use of the rod can actually be a service of love. Today we can see that it has nothing to do with love when conduct unworthy of the priestly life is tolerated. Nor does it have to do with love if heresy is allowed to spread and the faith twisted and chipped away, as if it were something that we ourselves had invented. As if it were no longer God’s gift, the precious pearl which we cannot let be taken from us.

Nevertheless, as we have seen, even before the Council the mainstream of Catholic thinking increasingly saw the liberty of individual belief and practice as sacrosanct. This was a view of religious liberty deriving from liberal political theory, which understands religious liberty as entirely person-centered. Any right not to be religiously coerced is set directly by the character and dignity of the human person, and the right holds, at least within the sphere of what is private to the individual, against any authority. True, before Vatican II that right to liberty was indeed limited to the private sphere, with public practice and proselytization still remaining subject to some coercive state regulation on behalf of the truth. But even so, the right to liberty was increasingly understood in these person-centered terms.

But formal Church teaching and canon law have historically assumed a quite different, jurisdiction-centered model. People certainly do have some right not to be coerced in matters of religion, a right based on their personal dignity as bearing the image of God, in particular, as people who are metaphysically free and so able to determine for themselves their response to religious claims. But the extent of this right depends on what kind of juridical authority is behind the coercion and on whether the person falls under that authority’s jurisdiction. People have a right not to have their religious practice coerced by the state. They do not have the same right not to be coerced by the Church, especially if they are baptized and fall within the Church’s jurisdiction. Where the baptized are concerned, the Church possesses a right to punish that can extend even to individual belief and practice.

It is crucial, then, to understand that Dignitatis Humanae was carefully drafted to bypass all questions of the coercive authority and jurisdiction of the Church herself. This was insisted on in replies to requests for amendments (modi) when the declaration was being prepared. In reply to the suggestion that the declaration affirm as compatible with religious liberty that the Church use sanctions to impose her doctrine and discipline on those subject to her, the commission preparing the declaration declared, “This [proposal] is not admitted, since ecclesial obligation or right are not treated here, nor is the question of freedom within the Church herself.”

This avoidance of the question of ecclesial authority and jurisdiction is effected within the declaration by that famous clause at its beginning that preserves unchanged traditional Church teaching: “Indeed, since people’s demand for religious liberty in carrying out their duty to worship God concerns freedom from compulsion in civil society, it leaves unchanged (integram) the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ.”

Included in the “moral obligation of individuals and societies” towards the Church are the moral obligations to the Church of the baptized. These obligations are the basis of the Church’s coercive jurisdiction and authority and, as traditionally understood, include obligations to aid the Church in enforcing her authority. One effect of the clause is to ring-fence what was supposed to be ring-fenced: the coercive authority of the Church.

The part of the declaration titled “The General Principle of Religious Freedom” relies primarily on appeal to natural reason in addressing the authority of the state—not to revelation, on which any account of the coercive authority of the Church herself would depend. The Council admits that “revelation does not expressly affirm the right of immunity from external coercion in religious affairs.” Only in a final section titled “Religious Freedom in the Light of Revelation” does the Council make some appeal to revelation and to the history, past teaching, and official conduct of the Church, but not to enunciate a comprehensive doctrine about the authority of the Church. The appeal is being made only to support and reinforce a case that has already been made from reason for what is a civil liberty.

The declaration emphasizes two points. First, the Council fathers insist on the metaphysical freedom of the act of faith. Second, having announced as a chief traditional doctrine that no one may be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will, they emphasize the fact that from the apostles on, the Church never, at least officially, relied on coercion to evangelize the unbaptized.

Why did the Council fathers concentrate on the Church’s conduct specifically towards the unbaptized? The answer is obvious. It supports an account, based in natural law, of the state’s lack of any authority for religious coercion by appealing to one area where, according to tradition, the Church too lacks an authority to coerce. The Church cannot coerce the belief of the unbaptized because, as unbaptized, they lack any obligation of fidelity to the Church. But no one has any religious obligations to the state, and so everyone stands in relation to the state as unbaptized believers stand in relation to the Church. The incompleteness of the declaration’s account of Church teaching and history is not a problem; or, at least, it is not a problem as part of an argument about the coercive authority of the state primarily based on natural reason.

Indeed, Dignitatis Humanae supports its claim that the Church historically forbade coercion into the faith by references in a footnote to the Church’s canon law before the 1917 codification. The material cited does nothing to limit the Church’s coercive authority over the baptized, but only specifically condemns the use of coercion to evangelize the unbaptized, such as forbidding the coercive baptism of Jews and Muslims. Indeed, one canonical authority referenced was traditionally used to justify the religious coercion of baptized heretics and apostates. The Fourth Council of Toledo condemns coercion into baptism and then, in the very passage referred to by Dignitatis Humanae, in the same terms and with the same force, demands coercive measures to retain within the faith those who, having been baptized, then attempt to leave. The declaration is clearly not telling a story about how Church teaching has always opposed the coercion of religious belief as such”that would be utterly false.

The declaration simply does not address the authority on which religious coercion on behalf of the Catholic faith was based, at least as far as such coercion was endorsed by the magisterium up to Vatican II. Nothing is taught doctrinally about the extent and nature of the Church’s authority to direct or to coerce those subject to her jurisdiction, and in fact the declaration itself explicitly prevents traditional teaching on this from being changed.

In contrast to the way the declaration is often understood and explained, Dignitatis Humanae in no way impugns religious coercion as such. The declaration teaches the moral wrongness of religious coercion by the state. And that wrongness plainly follows, given two things. First is the state’s lack of any authority of its own for such coercion—hardly a new idea, but one articulated by Counter-Reformation theologians and then stated magisterially by Pope Leo XIII. Second is the Church’s present and evident refusal to license such coercion by states on her authority. This is a refusal made evident by Dignitatis Humanae in itself; by the Church’s subsequent diplomatic policy toward states, which now excludes state coercion to support Catholicism; and by the absence from the 1983 Code of Canon Law of the requirement on the state to act as a coercive agent that the 1917 Code had contained.

Is this refusal to call on the state’s assistance relevant? Was the Church not wrong in the past to license state involvement in religious coercion and even demand that Christian states coerce on her behalf and on her authority? Opinions will differ on what is a very complex question. But this is a question concerning the coercive authority of the Church herself, and not one that Dignitatis Humanae actually addresses. All the declaration states is that, as things stand, and given rights against the state attaching to human nature, state coercion of religion cannot be justified.

Dignitatis Humanae constitutes a great reform in the policy of the Catholic Church. For the first time since late antiquity, the state is no longer directed to act as the Church’s agent to enforce and defend her jurisdiction. What the declaration does not constitute is any statement of, still less any reform of, the doctrine on which the Church’s previous use of state agency had been based: the doctrine asserting the coercive authority, not of the state, but of the Church.

It is not at all surprising that Dignitatis Humanae did not address the coercive authority of the Church. In 1965 there was simply no theological consensus about the Church’s own coercive authority. Opinion ranged from Murray, who did not really understand the Church as a coercive authority at all, to Charles Journet, faithful to formal teaching and canonical tradition, who had very much emphasized and explored the Church’s possession of a coercive authority over the baptized as traditionally understood.

The reasons for this lack of theological consensus went back to the nineteenth century. While papal statements and canon law continued to insist on the Church’s right to coerce, theological opinion had begun to minimize the Church’s coercive role. Catholics increasingly began to associate legitimate coercion with the activity of the state in the public sphere alone. They began to assume the normative inviolability of individual belief and practice as something private, though this assumption was foreign to the Church’s canonical tradition, and would have been entirely unintelligible to Suárez or Bellarmine.

The Second Vatican Council involved, then, no break with the Church’s past magisterial teaching. Nor did it change the wider theological landscape as much as is often supposed. Even in the nineteenth-century Church there was a profound tension between much theological opinion and everyday apologetics that assumed a person-centered model of religious liberty, and a doctrinal and canonical tradition still committed to a different, jurisdiction-centered model—a model that Dignitatis Humanae seems, on examination, to respect rather than contradict. This tension remains still unresolved.

The modern Catholic debate about religious liberty has been conducted without clear recognition of this tension, and largely as a debate about the state and its competence and authority in matters of religion. Change in the Church’s attitude to state involvement in religious coercion has been generally interpreted as if it were change in Church teaching about the authority of the state. And if the Church could change her doctrine on this subject, why not on other subjects? Hence all the liberal joy and all the traditionalist dismay.

But the Church did not base her past endorsement of religious coercion on any teaching about the authority of the state. What Dignitatis Humanae taught about the state’s lack of authority to coerce religiously was already taught before, while the declaration changed no teaching about the Church’s own right to coerce.

The Catholic debate about religious liberty needs to move on from what is, where religion is concerned, the secondary issue of the authority and competence of the state, and address what is fundamental: the authority of the Church over those subject to her. We particularly need what is currently lacking—a theology of the Church that properly addresses her traditionally claimed authority to coerce individual belief and practice while explaining the doctrinal basis of and limits to the Church’s power of coercion. This will involve an appropriate theology of baptism and in particular of the obligations to the Church incurred through baptism. These are the very obligations that, as traditionally understood, could take political form and thus underpin state involvement in coercion, and which Dignitatis Humanae so carefully undertakes to preserve, but not to explain.

Thomas Pink is professor of philosophy at King’s College London.

Articles by Thomas Pink

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