Religious Liberty & Vatican II

Mgr. Lefebvre's opponents have accused him of rejecting the documents of Vatican II. The truth is that he signed fourteen of the sixteen documents and declined to sign two. The first of these, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), does not directly contradict Catholic teaching but is so uncatholic in its ethos that it is hard to understand how any self-respecting bishop could have put his signature to it. A few of the deficiencies of this document can be discovered by referring to the entry Gaudium et Spes in the index of Pope John's Council.

Mgr. Lefebvre also refused to sign the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). In this case his objections were doctrinal. The documents of Vatican II come within the category of the Church's Ordinary Magisterium which can contain error in the case of a novelty which conflicts with previous teaching.1 The Declaration contains a number of statements which it is not easy to reconcile with traditional papal teaching and in Article 2 there are two words, "or publicly," which appear to be a direct contradiction of previous teaching.

Paul H. Hallett of the National Catholic Register is probably America's most respected and erudite Catholic lay- journalist. On 3 July 1977 he noted that:

The Declaration on Religious Liberty is not a statement of faith. Neither does it appeal to the traditional teaching of the Church on religious freedom. Hence it is not disloyalty to faith to seek a clarification of its ambiguities. Nothing is gained by pretending that they do not exist.

Mr. Hallett then went on to examine some of the unsatisfactory passages in the Declaration and concluded that "it is necessary that some things be made clearer and more in accord with tradition than they have been in the Religious Liberty Declaration." Unfortunately, the majority of Mgr Lefebvre's critics, including "conservative Catholics, have been so eager to denounce the Archbishop that they made no attempt to examine his case. Had they followed Mr. Hallett's example they would have found that there is good deal to be said in favor of the Archbishop's position, and not only on the religious liberty issue. However, strident denunciations cost far less effort than careful research.

Pope Leo XIII warned in his encyclical Libertas Humana that there are certain so-called liberties which modern society takes for granted that every man possesses as a right. This is due to the fact that Liberals have been so successful in promoting their doctrines that some of their basic tenets are now accepted as self-evident truths even by Catholics. The essence of Liberalism is that the individual human being has the right to decide for himself the norms by which he will regulate his life. He has the right to be his own arbiter as to what is right and what is wrong. He is under no obligation to subject himself to any external authority. In the Liberal sense, liberty of conscience is the right of an individual to think and believe whatever he wants, even in religion and morality; to express his views publicly and persuade others to adopt them by using word of mouth, the public press, or any other means. The only limitation to be placed upon him is that he should refrain from causing a breach of public order. This means that the state must grant equal rights to all religions.

Pope Leo XIII condemned this theory in Libertas Humana when he taught that reason itself forbids the state ?to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness - namely to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges." Thus, a state in which Catholicism was the religion of the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants should be a Catholic state. In such a state civil law should be based upon the law of God, religious ceremonies at state functions should be conducted in accordance with the Catholic liturgy, and the Catholic Church should be given a privileged status in such spheres as education. This is because all authority is derived from God. Pope Leo XIII wrote in lmmortale Dei:

For God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the world. Everything, without exception, must be subject to Him, and must serve Him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern holds it from one sole and single source, namely God, the Sovereign Ruler of all.

This is the teaching that forms the basis of the papal condemnation of democracy in the sense that this word is used today. The Popes have condemned democracy if by that term it is meant that those who govern do so as delegates of the people, that authority derives from the people, and that the law of the state must reflect what the majority of the people desires. According to this view, if the majority of the people wishes to permit divorce, abortion, euthanasia, or the sale of pornography, then the laws of the state must be adjusted accordingly. The teaching of the Church, as has just been shown in the quotation from lmmortale Dei, is that authority is derived from God and that those who govern do so as His delegates. The Church is not opposed to democracy in the sense that the people choose those who govern them by means of a vote based on national suffrage. The Church is not committed to any particular form of government. She will co-operate with an absolute monarch or a parliamentary democracy. What She insists upon is that those who govern, however they are chosen, exercise their authority in accordance with the law of God, which no individual and no state can possibly have a right to violate. Given that God is, as Pope Leo XIII taught, "the Sovereign Ruler of all," the idea that a breach of His law can be a right and not an abuse is nonsensical. All men are subject to the power of Jesus Christ. Commenting on this in his encyclical Quas Primas, Pope Pius XI explained:

Nor is there any difference in this matter between the individual and the family or the state; for all men, whether individually or collectively, are under the dominion of Christ. In Him is the salvation of the individual, in Him is the salvation of Society.

Given the existence of a Catholic state, there arises the question of the correct attitude of the civil authorities to minority religions. Writing in the September 1950 issue of the American Ecclesiastical Review, Mgr. George W. Shea explained:

Before another word is said on this subject, let it be noted at once that no Catholic holds or may hold that the state would be called upon to impose the Catholic faith on dissident citizens. Reverence for the individual conscience forbids this, and the very nature of religion and of the act of faith. If these be not voluntary they are nought.

It is a fundamental principle of Catholic theology that no one must ever be forced to act against his conscience either in public or private (unfortunately this principle has not always been respected in the history of the Church). It is equally true that no one must be prevented from acting in accordance with, his conscience in private (providing that no breach of the natural law is involved). Thus, for the most part, a policy of toleration towards the Jews was followed in the papal states. Jews were allowed to meet together for private worship but were not allowed to hold ceremonies in public or to proselytize among Catholics.2 This last point brings us to the crucial issue in this appendix , i. e. that it has been the consistent teaching of the Popes that a Catholic state has the right to restrict the public expression of heresy . Thus, in a Catholic state, members of a Protestant sect could not be compelled to assist at Mass but they could be prevented from holding outdoor services, putting up notices outside their places of worship designating them as such, or advertising their services. This was the case in Malta when I served there with the British Army. Protestant ministers were not so much as allowed to wear a Roman collar in the street- a ruling which even applied to military chaplains. Similarly, in a Catholic state, a Protestant could not be compelled to profess belief in transubstantiation but could be prevented from attacking the doctrine in public, either by the written or the spoken word. Thus Father Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R., explained in 1949:

Hence, just as the state can prohibit people from preaching the doctrine of free love, so it can prohibt them from preaching, to the detriment of Catholic citizens, the doctrine that Christ is not present in the Holy Eucharist.3

Father Connell also pointed out that although Catholic states had the right to repress heresy this was not a duty. Where a large minority religion existed within a Catholic state more harm than good might result from attempting to limit the public expression of heresy .In such cases heresy would be tolerated as the lesser of two evils, e. g. to avoid the type of civil war which occurred in attempting to suppress Protestantism in France. However, the distinction between what is tolerated and what is a right is both obvious and important.

To sum up, the consensus of papal teaching is that a Catholic state has the right but not the obligation to restrict the public expression of heresy. Where repression would cause more harm than good, toleration is the better policy. The criterion which Catholic rulers must use in deciding their policy towards religious minorities is the common good. The purpose of civil society is to promote the common temporal good of its citizens-that is, the good of its citizens in the present life. But in view of the elevation of man to the supernatural life the common good must take account of man's supernatural destiny. Hence, a Catholic government must do all in its power to assist its citizens to observe the supernatural law of Christ. This can include measures to protect them from exposure to heresy or immorality. Liberals claim that any citizen has the right to propagate his views by any outlet of the media providing this does not result in a breach of public order. Paul Hallett noted that this can have too restricted a meaning. In his article of 3 July 1977 he noted:

It could and should include protection against anything that seriously threatens the welfare of the people. Thus a truly Christian state would repress the televising of a play denying the divinity of Christ, even though no palpable disturbance resulted.

In his encyclical of 1864, Quanta Cura, Pius IX reprimanded those who, "contrary to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the Fathers, deliberately affirm that the best form of government is that in which no obligation is recognized in the civil power to punish, with specific penalties, the violators of the Catholic religion, save insofar as the public peace demands."

There are few Catholic countries today in which any attempt to restrict the public expression of heresy would not do more harm than good but this does not change the fact that a Catholic government has the right to take such action where the common good demands it. Father Connell writes:

But it is fully within their [civil rulers] right to restrict and to prevent public functions and activities of false religions which are likely to be detrimental to the spiritual welfare of the Catholic citizens or insulting to the true religion of Christ. Nowadays, it is true, greater evils would often follow such a course of action than would ensue if complete tolerance were granted; but the principle is immutable.4 (My emphasis.)

The Church has frequently been accused of observing double standards by claiming the same rights as other religions in such countries as the U.S. A. where She is in a minority and demanding a privileged status in such countries as Malta or Spain where She is in the majority. Even those who do not accept Her claim to be the One True Church should at least be able to see that, in virtue of this claim, Her attitude is consistent and is based upon the rights of truth. Pope Pius XII taught in his discourse Ecco che gia un anno, of 6 October 1946, that

The Catholic Church, as we have already said, is a perfect society and has as its foundation the truth of Faith infallibly revealed by God. For this reason, that which is opposed to this truth is, necessarily, an error, and the same rights which are objectively recognized for truth cannot be afforded to error. In this manner, liberty of thought and liberty of conscience have their essential limits in the truthfulness of God in Revelation.

This principle that "error has no rights" has been attacked by Liberals, Father John Courtney Murray in particular, on the grounds that error is an abstraction and hence cannot have rights. It was claimed that as only persons or institutfuse could have rights the formula "error has no rights is meaningless." This argument is not simply specious, it is silly. Father Connell demolished it in an article in the American Ecclesiastical Review in 1964:

Some have tried to argue that while error has no rights, persons inculpably holding erroneous doctrines have the right to hold them. But it must be borne in mind that error can be believed, spread, and activated only by persons and so it is difficult to see what it would mean to say "error has no right to be spread" if one held at the same time "persons can have a right to spread error"- that is if "right" be taken in the same sense in both statements. ...How can one have a genuine right to believe, spread, or practice what is objectively false or morally wrong? For a genuine right is based on what is objectively true and good.5

Such authors as Mgr. Shea and Father Connell faithfully reflect the teaching of the Popes who have condemned in the most forceful terms the belief that the state has no right to repress public heresy and that truth and error should be accorded equal right. Pope Pius VII termed it "disastrous and ever-to-be deplored heresy" (letter to Mgr. de Boulogne); Pope Gregory XVI condemned it as "the insanity" (Mirari Vos); Pope Pius IX termed it ?a monstrous error? (Qui Pluribus), ?most pernicious to the Catholic Church, and to the salvation of souls? (Quanta Cura), ?the liberty of perdition? (Quanta Cura), something which will ?corrupt the morals and minds of the people? (Syllabus of Error), something which propagates ?the best of indifferentism? (Syllabus); Pope Leo XIII termed it ?a public crime? (Immortale Dei), ?atheism, however it may differ from its name? (Immortale Dei), ?contrary to reason? (Libertas).

Obviously, the insistence of the Popes upon the rights of truth is anathema to contemporary Liberalism in which unrestricted Liberty, including the liberty to propagate error, is the supreme norm. This liberty had been proclaimed in the Masonically inspired Rights of Man of the French Revolution and was subjected to one restriction only, the demands of public order. Papal teaching on the right of a Catholic state to repress error was embarrassing to such Catholic Liberals as Father Murray who wished to make Catholicism acceptable to contemporary American society. He was, no doubt, sincere in his efforts and considered them to be for the good of the Church. His principal argument was that the teaching of the Popes which has just been cited was related to a particular period in the history of the Church and was not of permanent validity. He was answered by no less an authority than Cardinal Ottaviani in an important article which appeared in the May 1953 issue of the American Ecclesiastical Review:

The first fault of these persons consists in their failure to accept fully the arma veritatis and the teaching which the Roman Pontiffs during the past century, and particularly the reigning Pontiff Pius XII, have given to Catholics on this subject in encyclical letters, allocutions and instructions of various kinds.

To justify themselves these people assert that in the body of teaching imparted within the Church there are to be distinguished two elements, the one permanent, and the other transient. The latter is supposed to be due to the reflection of particular contemporary conditions.

Unfortunately, they carry this tactic so far as to apply it to the principles taught in pontifical documents, principles on which the teachings of the Popes have remained constant so as to make these principles a part of the patrimony of Catholic doctrine. (Mv emphasis.)



The Declaration on Religious Liberty 
of the Second Vatican Council

This Declaration is one of the most important documents of the Council. The ecumenical euphoria which followed Vatican II would not have been possible without it. No substantial ecumenical progress could have been made while the Church still insisted upon the right of a Catholic state to repress the public expression of heresy.

Paul Blanshard was America's most virulent anti-Catholic polemicist in the years preceding the Council. His particular bete noire was the Church's teaching on religious liberty. The fact that he had much to say in praise of Dignitatis Humanae (which will be abbreviated DH from now on) is a damning indictment of the extent to which the traditional teaching has been compromised. Blanshard claimed that DH "marked a great advance in Catholic policy, perhaps the greatest single advance in principle during all four sessions of the Council."6 He was sufficiently perceptive to note that Article Two of the Declaration contained "the best paragraphs."7 This is also the view of Mgr. Pietro Pavan, one of the theologians who collaborated with Fr. Murray in drafting and defending the Declaration. Mgr. Pavan wrote the commentary on DH which appears in Father Vorgrimler's highly praised Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II. (This commentary is highly praised because it endorses all the standard Liberal assumptions on the merits of the Council.) Mgr. Pavan states in his commentary that: "Article 2  is undoubtedly the most important article of the Declaration."8 It could certainly be considered the most important article in any document of the Council as, until it is corrected by the Magisterium, it represents not simply a contradiction of consistently reiterated, and possibly infallible, papal teaching but an implicit repudiation of the Kingship of Christ. Article 2 reads:

This Vatican Synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.

Up to this point everything can be reconciled with the traditional doctrine. Article 2 continues:

Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately?

The traditional teaching has still not been violated-but now comes the break with tradition:

?or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The phrase ?within due limits? could have maintained harmony with previous papal teaching had these ?due limits? been specified as ?the common good.? However, in conformity with the Masonic Declaration of the Right of Man the ?due limits? are later specified as ?public order.?

The Declaration continues:

The Synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known throerifthe revealed word of God and by reason itself.

It is important to bear in mind that from the moment the words ?or publicly? were used, the term ?religious freedom? in this Declaration includes freedom from restraint in the external forum, subject only to the requirements of public order. The sentence just cited is, then, neither in harmony with the revealed word of God nor reason. If there is one doctrine which is taught clearly throughout the Old Testament, it is that no one has a right to express religious error in the public forum - the penalty, mandated by God, was death. Are we to believe that God commanded men to be put to death for exercising what He had established as a human right? Nor is there anything reasonable in claiming that men have a natural right to teach error in public as long as this does not result in a breach of public order. The civil laws of slander and libel make this clear.

Mgr. Pavan comments:

...the right to religious freedom must be regarded as a fundamental right of the human person or as a natural right, that is one grounded in the very nature of man, as the Declaration itself repeats several times. 9 (Emphasis in original.)

Contrast this with a statement by Father Connell:

Beyond doubt, the expression "freedom- of worship " is ordinarily understood by our non-Catholic fellow-citizens, when they advocate the "four freedoms,? in the sense that every one has a natural God-given right to accept and to practice whatever form of religion appeals to him individually. No Catholic can in conscience defend such an idea of freedom of religious worship. For, according to Catholic principles, the only religion that has a right to exist is the religion that God revealed and made obligatory on all men; hence, man has a natural and God-given freedom to embrace only the true religion. One who sincerely believes himself bound to practice some form of non-Catholic religion is in conscience obliged to do so; but this subjective obligation, based on an erroneous conscience, does not give him a genuine right. A real right is something objective based on truth. Accordingly, a Catholic may not defend freedom of religious worship to the extent of denying that a Catholic government has the right, absolutely speaking, to restrict the activities of non-Catholic denominations in order to protect the Catholic citizens from spiritual harm. 10

The Vatican II Declaration continues

This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed. This is to become a civil right.

Contrast this with the proposition condemned by Pope Pius IX in Quanta Cura, censuring those who:

?fear not to uphold that erroneous opinion most pernicious to the Catholic Church, and to the salvation of souls, which was called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI (lately quoted), the insanity (deliramentum) (Encyclical 13 August 1832): namely, ?that liberty of conscience and of worship is the peculiar (or inalienable right of every man, which should be proclaimed by law?.?

What Fr. Connell had stated no Catholic may defend is precisely what the Declaration defends and proclaims as a right. Thus Mgr, Pavan states in his commentary that: ?In the religious sphere no man may be compelled to act against his conscience; and no one may be presented from acting according to his conscience.? (My emphasis.)

It is not simply traditionalists who fail to see how the teaching of Quanta Cura and Dignitatis Humanae can be reconciled, how the latter can be said to be a development of the former. It is also very significant, in view of the important place held by Quanta Cura and the Syllabus in papal teaching on the subject of religious liberty, that neither is referred to in any of the footnotes to Dignitatis Humanae . In the many references to the teachings of ?recent popes?not one of  the texts cited affirms the right to religious freedom in the external forum. The breach with the traditional teaching can be narrowed down to two words in the Latin text of Dignitatis Humanae, ?et publice? (?and in public?). Among the many non-traditionalists who have admitted the difficulty of proving a legitimate development between the traditional teaching and that of Vatican II are four Council periti (experts) whose testimony is of the very highest importance-the first three being the experts most influential in drafting the text of the Declaration itself. These experts are Fr. John Courtney Murray, S. J., Mgr. Pietro Pavan, Fr. Yves Congar, 0. P., and Fr. Hans Kung.

Father Murray admitted openly that no one had been able to supply an explanation of how the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae constituted a development. He simply asserted that it was a development:

The course of the development between the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and Dignitatis Humanae Personae (1965) still remains to be explained by theologians. 11

Mgr. Pavan concedes that no previous papal teaching agrees with Dignitatis Humanae. The best he can come up with is that the teaching of some recent Popes "tended towards" it, including in this list Popes Pius XI and XII who had specifically re-affirmed the traditional position.

Mgr. Pavan writes:

...there had, of course, been a doctrinal development, but that its last phase tended towards what was said in the Council documents, if Fra did not actually agree with it.

Fr. Congar writes, apropos Article 2 of Dignitatis Humanae:

It cannot be denied that a text like this does materially say something different from the Syllabus of 1864, and even almost the opposite of propositions 15 and 77-9 of the document.12

An interview with Hans Kung published in the National Catholic Reporter on 21 October 1977 contained the following passage:

In recent books he has stated that while conservatives do not have the right answers, they are often asking the right questions. And Lefebvre is no exception.

"I think he is wrong, but nevertheless what he's arguing are theoretically unresolved questions. "

Lefebvre has every right to question the Council?s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Kung says, because Vatican II completely reversed Vatican I?s position without explanation.

?The Council evaporated the problem, ?Kung insists, because it called into question the doctrine of infallibility?. He reminisces over the late night conversations with Father John Courtney Murray (the American who guided Council thought on religious liberty):

?The Council bishops said, ?It?s too complicated to explain how you can go from a condemnation of religious liberty to an affirmation of it purely by the notion of progress.? ?

For Kung the issue is still unresolved and cannot be settled without looking at permanence, continuity and the infallibility of doctrine. And to do that the bishops may well have to say that what they uttered infallibly in the 19th century or before simply does not hold in the twentieth. (My emphasis.)

Perhaps the most damning indictment of Dignitatis Humanae is the praise it received from the virulently anti-Catholic Paul Blanshard, who described it as making ?a great advance in Catholic policy, perhaps the greatest single advance in principle during all four sessions of the Council.?13

The Declaration is commended by Blanshard because:

Catholicism after centuries of delay has finally caught up at least in part to the United Nations, to Western Protestantism, to Western democracies, and to the social democratic parties of Europe in advocating what had been written into the American Constitution more than 175 years before?. The final statement on religious liberty was an important achievement. It will make the struggle for religious liberty throughout the world easier. From now on every libertarian can cite an offical Catholic pronouncement endorsing the principle of liberty.14

But Blanshard positively exults in the fact that what has taken place is not a development but a change in doctrine. Vatican II had adopted Blanshard?s position, he is pleased, but he is justifiably insistent that it can only have done this by reversing previous Catholic teaching. Having dedicated himself to opposing that teaching no one was better placed to know precisely what that teaching was. Blanshard writes with contempt of attempts to cover up a change in doctrine under the pretext of development. Such attempts are specious at the best and dishonest at the worst. Blanshard writes:

The star of the American delegation was John Courtney Murray, whose chief function was to give the pedestrian bishops the right words with which to change some ancient doctrines without admitting that they were being changed. He built verbal bridges to the modern world very effectively, and the American bishops crossed over them joyously, delighted that they could be good American democrats and Catholic scholars at the same time. Murray argued that certain teachings of past leaders of Catholicism were not applicable at the present time in their original sense, since they had been designed to meet certain historic situations, and those situations had changed. Doctrine, he alleged, could "develop," a polite way of saying that it could change without any necessary admission that it had changed.

This adroit formula for a "changeless" Church was frequently used at Vatican II by theologians who were bound by their Church's veneration for tradition, but it was not always accepted as worthy of honest men even by Jesuit leaders whose institutional past is commonly associated with such linguistic manipulation. In another connection, Father John C. Ford, S. J., of the Catholic University of America, declared after the end of the Council: "I do not consider it theologically legitimate or even decent and honest; to-contradict a doctrine and then disguise the contradiction under the rubric : growth and evolution."15 (My emphasis.)

Blanshard remarked that:

I am often asked: Have you changed your opinion about the Catholic Church? The answer is "Yes," but only to the extent that the Catholic Church has changed.16

Although my treatment of this important issue has necessarily been brief, sufficient evidence should have been presented to make it clear that Paul Hallet was perfectly correct to state in his National Catholic Register article that: ?Hence it is not disloyal to faith to seek a clarification of its ambiguities. Nothing is to be gained by pretending they do not exist.? It should also be clear that the many Catholics (not all of them Liberals) who sneer at Mgr. Lefebvre, and reject his criticisms of the Declaration without having the courtesy and fairness to examine them, are acting most unjustly. It requires little effort and little integrity to condemn the Archbishop unheard simply because he criticizes Vatican II. Nor does it take much courage to do so, particularly when those who attack him can be virtually certain that nofuseortunity will be provided in the offical Catholic press for the Archbishop?s side of the case to be presented. Ironically, the Declaration of Religious Liberty is being defended by denying the Archbishop the liberty to express his views in public. In order to assist those who are fair-minded enough to study both sides of the case I have written a book on the subject of Dignitatis Humanae which should be published in 1980.

This appendix can best be concluded by quoting the final paragraph from Paul Hallett?s 3 July 1977 article .

The Religious Liberty Declaration contains many excellent statements of principle, which need to be asserted against the rampant atheism that threatens all religion. All this is to the good. But for the protection of religion and not exclusively the Catholic religion - it is necessary that some things be made clearer and more in accord with tradition than they have been in the Religious Liberty Declaration.


The American Ecclesiastical Review has been abbreviated as AER.

1. See the Approaches supplement, The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church Theologically Considered by Dom Paul Nau, 0. S. B.

2. See the article "Toleration" in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

3. "Discussion of Government Repression of Heresy," Proceedings 111 (March 1949), pp. 98-101.

4. AER, No.119, October 1948, p. 250.

5. AER, No.151, February 1964, p. 128.

6. Paul Blanshard on Vatican II (Beacon Press, Boston, 1966), p. 339.

7. Ibid., p. 89.

8. H. Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, IV,64.

9. Ibid., p. 65.

10. AER, No.109, October 1943, p. 255.

11.  W. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II (America Press, 1967), p. 673.

12. Challenge to the Church (London, 1977), p. 44.

13. Blanshard, p. 339.

14. Ibid., pp. 88-89.

15. Ibid., pp. 87-880

16. Ibid., Preface.