Problems with Religious Liberty of Vatican II

By John Salza

The fact that volumes have been written evaluating whether DH is compatible with tradition demonstrates that the document is prima facie ambiguous, if not problematic. Never before in the history of the Catholic Church has a conciliar document caused so much angst and confusion. That being said, any attempts to reconcile DH with pre-conciliar teaching must ultimately be resolved by the pope who is our final authority on earth. In light of the foregoing, I will respond to your inquiry.

We first note that the council at the beginning of the document declares that “it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” It is quite amazing that an ecumenical council had to declare that it was not going to touch “traditional Catholic doctrine,” as if it had the power to change “traditional Catholic doctrine.” This unprecedented disclaimer only goes to show that what was to follow was going to give some the impression that the council actually did in fact alter “traditional Catholic doctrine.”

What is the “traditional Catholic doctrine”? The council properly identified it as the moral obligation for all men to worship the true God through membership in the Catholic Church. This means that no man has the moral right to be a member of another religion or to worship God outside of the Catholic faith. This is the unchangeable doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding religious liberty. After setting forth this unprecedented disclaimer, the document reveals its intention to “develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society” (No.1). It was to do this by “bringing forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old” (No.1). The Church has never been so explicit about its intention to “develop doctrine,” and has never said that it was going to teach “new things” that are in harmony with “old things”, in other words, Tradition. The fact is, “new things” cannot be in harmony with Tradition, because Tradition is the Deposit of Faith that was “once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jd 3).

In the very next section, the document sets forth its understanding of “religious freedom.” It says, “This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of 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” (No.2). The first part of this declaration can be easily squared with traditional Catholic teaching. The council says religious freedom means immunity from coercion, that is, being forced to act against one’s will. The Church has always taught that man cannot be coerced to believe against his will. For example, Leo III in Immortale Dei (1885) said that “No one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will, for as St. Augustine reminds us, Man cannot believe otherwise than of his own free will.” DH is simply reasserting the obvious.

The document’s “development” on religious freedom comes in the second part of the teaching which says, “Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits” (No.2). This includes “honoring the Supreme Being in public worship,” and the “right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith” (No.4). The “development” continues as the document says, “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person” and “in his very nature” (No.2). “Thus, it is to become a civil right” (No.2). These “developments” certainly challenge the traditional teaching of the Church on religious liberty. How?

First, DH is saying that man has a right to adhere to religious error which is based on his “dignity” and “nature.” If man has a “moral obligation” to be Catholic, then how can he have a right not to be Catholic which is based on his nature? What is from nature is God-given. It is true that the document says this right must “become a civil right” and never says this is a “moral right.” However, because it says the foundation for the civil right is based on a person’s God-given dignity and nature, it certainly implies that a person’s right to profess error is a God-given, or moral right. The only thing that saves the document from professing this error explicitly is the disclaimer at the beginning, where the council said it was “leaving untouched” the traditional teaching that man has a moral obligation to the Catholic Church. Needless to say, associating one’s right to adhere to error with one’s dignity and God-given nature flirts with a serious error. The current Catechism specifically says that man does not have a license to adhere to error (2108).

Second, DH essentially says that man has a “civil right” to adhere to religious error. Never before has the Church ever said such a thing. No pope before Vatican II ever stated that a person has a civil right to teach error in public, which threatens the souls of Catholics and runs afoul of Christ’s Great Commission. Rather, the popes have said that the government can tolerate religious error for the sake of avoiding greater evil or preserving greater good (Leo XIII, Immortale Dei (1885) and Libertas (1888)). The Church’s tradition has never been to legitimize what God merely tolerates. Thus, the “development” of religious liberty in DH is to move from State toleration to State legitimization. This is the major discontinuity between DH and pre-conciliar teaching. The propagation of error is an evil, not a good, and it can be tolerated only to preserve the public welfare by preventing a greater evil. If the public welfare is not an issue, the propagation of error should be prevented, not given the status of a “civil right” (which means the right exists irrespective of the common good). Granted, DH confines the propagation of religious error in public to “within due limits,” but it nevertheless elevates it to a “civil right” based on the “dignity” and “nature” of the human person. These are unprecedented developments in the Church’s teaching on religious liberty.

In the Summa, St. Thomas Aquinas emphasizes this distinction between “toleration” and the moral faculty of “right” in his treatment of human law. Thomas says that human law is derived from the natural law, but “if in any point [the human law] deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law” Q.95, Art. 2, I-II. As applied here, if a civil right (which gives a person a right to worship a false god and influence others to do so) deflects from the law of nature (which imposes upon a person the obligation to worship the true God and influence others to do so), then we have a perversion of the law. Thus, the civil right (and not mere toleration) to publicly profess error, and risk corrupting Catholics in the process, is a perversion of the law which DH sanctions.

It is true that human law cannot forbid all vices. Thomas explains that the purpose of human law is to lead all men to virtue gradually, not suddenly. If human law required men to abstain from all evil, Thomas says that men would break into even greater evils, being unable to bear such stringent precepts. Q.96, Art. 2, I-II. However, Thomas never says that men have a “civil right” to engage in lesser evils. Instead, “human law rightly allows some vices, by not repressing them” (ibid). In other words, the State tolerates some evil to avoid greater evil. Augustine says, “The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine Providence” (De. Lib. Arb. i.5). Thus, the focus of Aquinas and Augustine is on the toleration of evil for a greater good, not elevating the evil to a “right,” civil or otherwise. Moreover, the evil that may be tolerated (which DH enshrines as a civil right) – because it is evil and not good – is subject to God’s divine justice.

In short, there is nothing in the writings of the Fathers, doctors, saints or popes that elevates State toleration of evil to a civil right, especially by basing it upon human nature and dignity. There is a distinction between treating evil as a “civil right” (which gives the State the right to allow evil to exist even if the common good weren’t harmed) and merely tolerating evil for the common good (which would allow the State to punish evil even if the common good weren’t harmed). This is why Pope Leo XIII teaches, in Immortale Dei (1885), that “the Church does not condemn rulers who, for the sake of securing some greater good, tolerate false religions.” Again, there is nothing in pre-conciliar teaching about granting civil rights to objectively evil acts (worshiping in and promoting false religions) based on the dignity of the human person. Pope Pius IX similarly condemned the following: “the best condition of human society is that wherein no duty is recognized by the government of correcting violators of the Catholic religion except when the maintenance of the public peace requires it” Quanta Cura (1864).

What is even more astounding is the fact that DH never reaffirms the Church’s infallible doctrine on the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ that Pope Pius XI teaches in Quas Primas (1925). One wonders how the council could have possibly issued a document on the rights of the State without saying one single word about the rights of Jesus Christ. As Pope Leo XIII teaches in Annum sacrum, “the empire of Christ the King includes not only Catholic nations…but all those who are outside the Christian faith.” The State is a creature that is subject to Jesus Christ, who has a double claim upon every individual as both Creator and Redeemer.

Therefore, the State has an obligation to render to Christ the worship that He has revealed to us through the Catholic religion. This truth is reflected in Pope Pius IX’s condemnation of the following in the Syllabus, No. 77: “In the present day, it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the state, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.” States have no right to remain neutral regarding religion or to promote secular policies regarding religion. As Paul says in Romans 13:1, “There is no power but from God.” Because all governments derive their power from God, no government has a right to enact a law that is contrary to the laws of God. Through its glaring omission of the Kingship of Christ (Pax Christi in Regno Christi), DH gives the impression that it has given the rights of contemporary man priority over the rights of Jesus Christ.

The only saving grace in DH’s teaching on the “civil right” to publicly profess error is that the right must be constrained “within due limits.” As we have said, if the greater good is harmed, then the religious freedom falls outside of “due limits” imposed by DH and must be restrained. Because the “common good” is a relative condition based upon the evolution of culture, the Church’s approach to religious freedom and the common good in DH is a policy that can change, not a doctrine that cannot change. The Catechism in paragraph 1906 defines the “common good” as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” Thus, because “social conditions” change, the “common good” and policies relating to it can also change. This also means that DH is not part of the Church’s ordinary and universal infallible Magisterium, and is subject to amendment and reform in the future.