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According to John Henry Newman, whose two hundredth birthday we celebrated in February 2001, Christianity came into the world as a single idea, but time was necessary for believers to perceive its multiple aspects and spell out their meaning. The Christian idea has gradually taken possession of minds and hearts so that its significance is more precisely grasped as the centuries pass. For this reason the doctrine of the faith undergoes a process of development through time. The Second Vatican Council, endorsing the insights of Newman, devoted an important paragraph of its Constitution on Divine Revelation to the Church’s growth in understanding the tradition handed down from the apostles. 

One of the most striking developments in twentieth-century Catholicism was the doctrine of religious freedom set forth by the Second Vatican Council. The Declaration on Religious Freedom, known by its Latin title Dignitatis Humanae (DH), took up two very sensitive questions, the one dealing with the right of individual persons and groups to religious freedom; the other, with the duties of the State toward religion. Regarding the first point, the Council taught that all human persons have by nature an inalienable right to be free in seeking religious truth, in living and worshiping according to their religious convictions, and in bearing witness to their beliefs without hindrance from any human power. This principle was theologically grounded in the fact that God, respecting the dignity of the human person, invites a voluntary and uncoerced adherence to religious truth. The act of faith, being free by its very nature, cannot be compelled. 

Regarding the second point, the Council taught that the State has an obligation to protect the inviolable rights of all citizens, including the right of religious freedom. It did not teach that the State was obliged to give legal privileges to Christianity or Catholicism, although it did not rule out such arrangements. It did deny that civil government had the authority to command or prohibit religious acts.

If DH is compared with earlier official Catholic teaching, it represents an undeniable, even a dramatic, change. The question must therefore be asked: Was the Declaration a homogeneous development within the Catholic tradition, or was it a repudiation of previous Church doctrine? 

The question is of some importance. At the Council itself some conservative bishops, Marcel Lefebvre most notably, held that DH was contrary to established Catholic teaching and could not be adopted without violence to the Catholic faith. When, notwithstanding his protests, the Declaration was approved by an overwhelming majority of the Council Fathers (2,308 to 70), Lefebvre founded a traditionalist movement that ended in schism from Rome. 

The case for reversal is defended at the other end of the spectrum by theological revisionists who applaud DH. Vatican II’s repudiation of earlier Catholic teaching on religious freedom, they argue, makes it likely that other Catholic doctrines, such as that of Paul VI on contraception, may someday be overturned.

Thus Archbishop Lefebvre and the revisionists, for very different reasons, agreed that DH was a reversal of earlier Catholic teaching. Their thesis, however, receives no support from the document itself, which declares explicitly that it “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.” It also claims to be speaking in harmony with the tradition and doctrine of the Church and to be developing the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and on the constitutional order of society. 

During the Council, Bishop Émile De Smedt of Bruges, as the official spokesman (relator) for the commission that composed the document, defended its compatibility with earlier Catholic teaching. A series of other cardinals and bishops, including Archbishop Gabriel-Marie Garrone of Toulouse and Archbishop Lawrence Shehan of Baltimore, spoke in support of De Smedt’s position. During and after the Council theologians such as Roger Aubert and John Courtney Murray, followed by a host of others, defended the Council’s claim that DH is a harmonious adaptation, not a correction, of previous Catholic teaching. In Murray’s words, DH represented “an authentic development of doctrine in the sense of Vincent of Lérins, ‘an authentic progress, not a change, of the faith.’”

As Newman himself intimated, doctrine of a social or political character does not follow exactly the same course of development as pure dogma. It is not simply spun out of the original deposit of faith, but emerges with a certain irregularity according to the vicissitudes of history. Pope John Paul II explains that the social teaching of the Magisterium is under continual revision insofar as the unchanging principles of the gospel need to be upheld in varying social situations. The fundamental principles are constant, but the judgments and adaptations are ever new. A measure of discontinuity may therefore be expected in successive responses to novel situations. Such discontinuity, however, does not require reversals unless the Church at an earlier time ruled out precisely the development that was to occur under changed circumstances.

The component of discontinuity or innovation may easily be seen by studying the teaching of the popes of the nineteenth century, who addressed the topic of religious freedom in a social, cultural, and political context very different from our own. Gregory XVI (1831-1846) and Pius IX (1846-1878), for example, were speaking within the relatively narrow horizon of Catholic Europe and Latin America, where traditional religion was under attack from militant secularist liberalism represented by the Jacobinism of the French Revolution and the Italian laicism typified by Count Cavour. Gregory XVI in his encyclical Mirari Vos (1832) condemned the extreme liberalism of Félicité de Lamennais, which would allow all kinds of unfounded, libelous, and subversive opinions to be circulated without any legal restrictions. In this context he characterized as “insanity” (deliramentum) the view “according to which freedom of conscience must be asserted and vindicated for everyone whatsoever.” Pius IX in his encyclical Quanta Cura (1864) repeated this condemnation. 

The Syllabus of Errors is a favorite source for those who wish to demonstrate an about-face of Catholic teaching on freedom of religion and on Church-State relationships. It was not a part of the encyclical Quanta Cura but an unsigned appendix to it containing a catalogue of previously condemned errors. According to Newman the Syllabus has no more doctrinal authority in itself than an index or table of contents taken apart from the book to which it refers. While Newman may have minimized the authority, he was right at least to the extent that the propositions must be interpreted in relation to the original documents from which they are excerpted.

Some of the propositions of the Syllabus of Errors, taken at face value, do sound contrary to Vatican II. Regarding personal conscience, Proposition 15 rejects the view that “each individual is free to embrace and profess the religion that he judges true by the light of reason.” DH, however, teaches that “every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek truth in matters of religion, in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, with the use of suitable means.”

Was the Syllabus, then, condemning what would later be approved by Vatican II? Before answering we must inquire what Pius IX meant by the freedom of the individual to follow the light of reason. Proposition 3 of the Syllabus gives the needed clue. It denies that “human reason, without any relation at all to God, is the sole judge of true and false, good and evil, is a law unto itself, and is sufficient by its natural powers to procure the welfare of individuals and peoples.” DH, in harmony with the Syllabus, states that “the highest norm for human life is the divine law—eternal, objective, and universal—whereby God orders, directs, and governs the entire universe.” In a later paragraph DH declares that the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of truth and that all men and women are invited, according to the measure of grace given to them, to accept and profess the faith. Vatican II, therefore, is far from teaching that unaided human reason, without reference to God, is the supreme criterion of truth. 

Several propositions from the Syllabus speak of Church-State relationships in ways that seem problematic today. Proposition 55 condemns the view that “the Church must be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.” But this proposition is taken from Pius IX’s allocution Acerbissimum Vobiscum of 1852 dealing with the persecution of the Church in New Granada (modern Colombia). At that time and place the State, under pretext of separating itself from the Church, imposed a ruthless secularization, denying all public recognition and legal rights to religious organizations. It confiscated all seminaries, reduced marriage to a purely civil contract, suppressed religious schools, and claimed the right to appoint all bishops and pastors. Quite obviously DH does not accept that so-called “separation,” which really amounts to the State’s control of the entire social order. DH, in fact, sets forth a long list of freedoms that the Catholic Church claims for herself. At no point, moreover, does it use the ambiguous expression, “separation of Church and State.”

Proposition 77 of the Syllabus rejects the view that “in our age it is no longer suitable for the Catholic religion to be considered the sole religion of the State, excluding all other religions.” This statement does not imply that the Catholic Church should always and everywhere be the religion of the State. It simply asserts that in the mid-nineteenth century the acceptance of Catholicism as the sole established religion could in some places be suitable—a position that Vatican II does not deny. The Council allows that even today it may be desirable in some places for the State to give special recognition to one religion, but it adds that if this is done “the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom must at the same time be recognized and upheld.” 

Pius IX’s immediate successor, Leo XIII (1878-1903), set forth the Catholic teaching on freedom in an important encyclical, Libertas Praestantissimum (1888). True freedom, he maintained, is a capacity to do not only what we wish but what we ought. The so-called “modern freedoms” of worship, speech, and conscience, he warned, could become destructive unless carefully defined. Liberty of worship might be taken to mean a moral entitlement to choose any religion or none according to one’s fancy. Liberty of speech could be interpreted as a right to make groundless, deceptive, or slanderous statements. Liberty of conscience could seem to imply a license to disobey God and persons who speak with divine authority. Leo’s condemnation of false freedoms, even though it targeted errors prevalent a century ago, retains its validity and relevance today.

DH went beyond Leo XIII in affirming that people in error have certain human rights. In particular, they have the right not to be interfered with by the State in acting according to their religious convictions, unless in so doing they disturb what the Council calls the “just public order.” A significant number of bishops expressed anxiety that DH would affirm the right to hold or disseminate error, thereby reversing the previous teaching of many popes. In his final relatio of November 19, 1965, Bishop De Smedt sought to quiet these fears. He sharply denied that the text he was presenting affirmed any right to error. Confirming De Smedt’s position, the Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts: “The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities” (2108).

Regarding the relations of Church and State, Leo XIII maintained that while the two have different functions, they must act in harmony. In his 1885 encyclical Immortale Dei, for instance, he teaches that society as such, and the government through which it acts, have a duty to recognize and support the true religion. Rulers as well as subjects “are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will.” Later Leo states that “it is not lawful for the State, any more than for the individual, either to disregard all religious duties or to hold in equal favor all kinds of religion.” In most of his social teaching he presupposes a regime in which the civil government exercises quasi-paternal authority in caring for the religious well-being of the citizens.

DH is more reserved in describing the religious responsibilities of the State. It teaches that on the negative side, the State must avoid all coercion, unless religious freedom is being misused to violate the rights of other citizens, to disturb the public peace, or to undermine public morality—three provisos that the Council groups under the rather nebulous heading of “public order.” Positively, according to the Declaration, the State must “recognize and promote the religious life of its citizens,” for it is clear, according to DH, that “society will itself benefit from the fruits of justice and peace that result from people’s fidelity to God and His holy will.” 

These religious responsibilities are in line with what Leo XIII designated as the “care of religion.” Vatican II did not adopt the liberal concept of the religiously or morally neutral State—one that concerns itself only with civil peace and material prosperity. Many bishops at Vatican II feared that the Council would deny the duty of the civil government toward the one true religion as affirmed by a whole series of popes. DH stated explicitly that the one true religion subsists in the Catholic Church and that it accepted “the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” The question was raised whether this meant that the obligation rested on the citizens, as distinct from the State. On this issue, as on the supposed right to profess error, Bishop De Smedt in his final relatio gave a decisive answer. He explained that the text, as revised, did not overlook or deny but clearly recalled Leo XIII’s teaching on the duties of the public authority (potestatis publicae) toward the true religion. These words may be taken as an official commentary on the text-indeed, the only official commentary we have on this particular point. We may therefore conclude that DH does not negate earlier Catholic teaching on the duties of the State toward the true faith.

Speaking to a worldwide community in a period of rapid flux, Vatican II wisely refrained from trying to specify exactly what kind of help the Church ought to expect from the State. That question must be variously answered according to the constitution of the State, the religious makeup of the population, and the traditions of the society. No one formula could be suitable for all countries today, though any legitimate arrangement must, as I have already said, respect the rights of all citizens.

The main difference between the doctrine of the nineteenth-century popes and that of DH is in the means that each envisages. Pius IX and Leo XIII, writing in an age when paternalistic monarchies were still normal in most Catholic countries, evidently preferred to see the Catholic Church in a legally privileged position. Vatican II, speaking within a more democratic and religiously pluralistic situation, placed greater reliance on indirect support. If the State would simply establish conditions under which the Church could carry on its mission unimpeded, it would do more for the Church than many Christian princes had done in the past. On the final day of the Council, December 8, 1965, Pope Paul VI addressed to temporal rulers the question: “What does the Church ask of you today?” And he answered: “She tells you in one of the major documents of this Council. She asks of you only liberty, the liberty to believe and to preach her faith, the freedom to love her God and serve Him, the freedom to live and to bring to men her message of life.”

For a correct interpretation of the shift between the nineteenth-century popes and Vatican II, it is necessary to take account of the intervening history. In the nineteenth century the principal threat to faith came from militant secular liberalism, inspired by the slogans of the French Revolution. In the twentieth century, Christian faith was confronted by oppressive atheistic regimes, such as Soviet Communism and German National Socialism. Beginning with Pius XI (1922-1939), the popes vigorously upheld the rights of the human person against totalitarian systems of government. Pius XII (1939-1958) in his wartime messages and John XXIII (1958-1963) in his social encyclicals became stalwart champions of universal human rights. DH could therefore claim that by amplifying the doctrine of religious freedom on the basis of the dignity of the human person it was developing the teaching of the more recent popes without contradicting previous Catholic tradition. 

Besides the transformation of the political climate, a number of other factors contributed to the adjustments we have noted. Catholic theology in the nineteenth century was dominated by Scholastic ontological categories, but in the twentieth century it was profoundly influenced by personalist phenomenology, which brought with it a keener appreciation of human dignity and freedom. Then again, the twentieth century saw the rise of the ecumenical movement, which made the churches more ready to see one another as allies in a common struggle against secularism and irreligion. The Declaration on Religious Freedom, initially drafted by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, was seen as a help for overcoming tensions among religious groups. 

Even today, religious freedom may suitably be described as “a developing doctrine.” The present participle conveys the idea that the development did not end with Vatican II. In the forty years since the Council the process has continued, especially by way of clarification and application. Pope John Paul II, who enthusiastically welcomed and promoted religious freedom at the Council, has been a leader in bringing its doctrine forward.

The present pope’s first and most important contribution has been to set the teaching of DH in the framework of a comprehensive theory of human freedom based on classical theology and contemporary personalist insights. Using DH in combination with Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, he has insisted that freedom cannot adequately be defined in purely negative terms, as a mere immunity from coercion. More fundamentally, freedom is a power of self-determination whereby the human person actively tends toward, embraces, and adheres to what is perceived as true and good. In this process conscience is a valuable instrument, but is not the ultimate norm. It does not tell us what is right or wrong unless it is properly informed. Conscience itself therefore summons us to seek the true good and to make use of whatever authoritative guidance is available. 

A second contribution of John Paul II is his move beyond individualism. A partial or hasty reading of DH might give the impression that its real concern is to protect the individual person from oppression by social authorities. The present pope has given greater attention to the right of religious groups, including the Church, to enjoy religious freedom. The religious needs of individuals, he points out, are not protected unless freedom is accorded to institutions that serve religion. Besides pressing this claim against Marxist governments in Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba, he has also made a powerful plea for the freedom of Christian churches to carry on their religious ministries in Islamic regions.

Building on the accomplishments of DH, John Paul II has, further, identified and repudiated an error that he calls “integralism”—namely the confusion between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs only to God. Religious integralism, as he defines it, fails to distinguish between the spheres of competence of faith and civil life. Integralists have sometimes excluded from the civil community all who do not profess the established religion. This was notably the case when the axiom Cuius regio eius religio (“The religion of the people is that of their ruler”) was in place. With an apparent reference to some non-European countries, the Pope noted that this confusion of competences still obtains in certain parts of the world. 

Moving beyond Vatican II, John Paul II has gone on to recognize the necessity of repentance for the errors of the past. Especially at the time of the Reformation, Protestant and Catholic rulers often cruelly exiled, imprisoned, or executed those of their subjects who did not adhere to the religion favored by the State. Christians of many different ecclesial traditions have frequently persecuted Jews, Gypsies, and other minorities. Vatican II was aware of this violence, but DH touched on it very lightly in a subordinate clause, as though it were a minor and rare aberration. John Paul II, in the name of all Catholics, asks forgiveness for the wrongs inflicted by their predecessors, and at the same time pledges the Church’s forgiveness for all that Catholics have suffered in persecutions directed against them. This plea for mutual forgiveness was a key element in the program for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. 

Finally, Pope John Paul II has elucidated the difference between mere tolerance and reconciliation. In the civil sphere, it may be necessary to tolerate certain unacceptable practices because the effort to suppress them would bring about greater evils. But mere tolerance is static; it cannot serve as a principle of growth. In interreligious dialogue and in ecumenism, therefore, efforts should be made to move toward unity in the fullness of truth. This endeavor is germane to the quest for freedom, since we have the promise of Jesus, “The truth will make you free” (John 8:32). To settle for doctrinal compromises or a simple agreement to disagree would be a disservice to freedom itself. 

The problem of religious freedom is still a burning issue in the world of our day. In some regions atheistic governments are actively harassing or persecuting all religious believers. Elsewhere Christians and others are being oppressed by governments seeking to impose religious unity by force. The gospel of religious freedom still needs to be effectively proclaimed in various regions of Indonesia, India, the Near East, and Northern Africa. In the former Soviet Union the Orthodox Church is faced by quandaries not unlike those faced by Western European and Latin American Catholics on the eve of Vatican II. 

In countries like the United States, the churches enjoy a blessed degree of freedom to carry out their mission. The greatest threat to religion, in my estimation, is the kind of secularism that would exclude religion from the public forum and treat churches as purely private institutions that have no rightful influence on legislation, public policy, and other dimensions of our common life. When churches speak out on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and divorce, they are accused of transgressing the barrier between Church and State. Even the courts often interpret the non-establishment provision of the First Amendment so as to prevent any public role for religion, thereby inhibiting the free exercise of religion. Legal, fiscal, and regulatory pressures render it difficult for Catholic charitable and educational institutions to maintain their distinctive identity. In the name of free exercise, religious communities should have the means they need to act according to their principles and to transmit their faith to new generations. They are also entitled to argue for laws and public policies that are in conformity with what they regard as sound reason and the law of God. 

While suitable public recognition should be given to the major religions within the body politic, the question of direct government assistance is much more complex. The difficulty is illustrated by divergent reactions of committed believers to President Bush’s efforts to give public funding to faith-based initiatives of a social and charitable character. Some complain that if they do not receive State aid they will be inhibited in their free exercise of religion, while others fear that the embrace of governmental aid, with the regulation that would attend such aid, might suffocate the freedom that the churches now enjoy. These disagreements about matters of policy belong to the prudential, not the doctrinal, order. They can exist among persons who fully accept the current Catholic teaching on religious freedom. 

Over the past fifty years we have seen a strong and welcome development of the doctrine of religious freedom. Articulating the principles of the gospel in new situations, the Church has found a new voice. She speaks with a fresh awareness of the dignity and freedom that God wills for all human beings and with a deeper realization of the limited competence of civil governments. As the Church adapts her social teaching to changing political and social circumstances, she comes to a sharper perception of certain aspects and consequences of the gospel. The teaching of the nineteenth-century popes was not erroneous, but was limited by the political and social horizons of the time. In the words of DH, Vatican II brought forth from the Church’s treasury “new things in harmony with those that are old.” This process of development must continue as the Church faces the new problems and opportunities that arise in successive generations.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University. This essay is adapted from a McGinley Lecture delivered by Cardinal Dulles in New York City.