Rough Draft

Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae
Part I: Commentary on the Text

By Jeremy Hausotter
March 15, 2020

Chapter 0: Introduction

0.1: Outline of the Problem


Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom promulgated by St. Pope Paul VI is perhaps the most controversial document of Vatican II. The text went through a long series of debates over the four sessions of the Council.[1] Dignitatis Humanae was one of the main reasons for Bishop Lefebvre’s eventual showdown with the Magisterium.


Dignitatis Humanae in some respects remained infamous, drawing attacks from both the far left and the far right. What is perhaps worse is that the document itself appears to contradict the teachings of the 19th century papal encyclicals on political theology; for when reads Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos or Pius IX’s Quanta Cura for example, statements can easily be found condemning religious liberty.


Due to superficial understandings of both Leonine political theology and Dignitatis Humanae, Catholics who have appropriated the adjective “traditional”  in their conscience reject the Council’s teachings on religious liberty in Dignitatis Humanae. These peripheral contradictions force them to stop, exclaim discontinuity, and forge a departing trajectory away from the Church, even if only at an unconscious existential-intellectual plane.


Such careless readings of the Vatican documents is analogous to those who read the Old Testament and likewise exclaim discontinuities between the Old and New Testaments, between the Old Testament and the Christian God, or even farther that the Old Testament depicts God as the arbitrary tyrant man must overthrow to discover his freedom. In these cases, colloquially, the baby is thrown out with the bath water.


Many of the problems surrounding Vatican II are enmeshed in the problem of hermeneutics. This requires its own separate undertaking. We here restrict ourselves to a commentary on Dignitatis Humanae following John Paul II as our model.


0.2 St. Pope John Paul II


Contrary to the far right and left we wish to follow St. Pope John Paul II’s understanding of the Council. John Paul II’s pontificate is unintelligible without the Council. One cannot claim to follow John Paul II’s teachings while rejecting or being severely critical of the Council. Vatican II is central, a foundation stone for him. In Fidei Depositum he wrote:


For me… Vatican II has always been, and especially during these years of my pontificate, the constant reference point of my every pastoral action, in the conscious commitment to implement its directives concretely and faithfully at the level of each Church and the Whole Church.[2]


On Dignitatis Humanae in particular John Paul II states in a letter that religious freedom “is the basis of all other freedoms and is inseparably tied to them all by reason of that very dignity which is the human person.”[3] In Redemptor Hominis he states that the Church attaches great importance to Dignitatis Humanae.[4]


John Paul II placed such importance in Vatican II because he saw the Council as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, man, and the whole world. This is the spirit one needs to adopt in order to correctly understand the Council, that it originated out of the movement of the Spirit and as such it is a gift from God which demands acceptance and reception. 


0.3 The Structure of Dignitatis Humanae


Dignitatis Humanae has an introduction of one article and two chapters for a total of fifteen numbered articles. The first article is the preface and outlines the entire document. The first chapter outlines the right to religious freedom from a more philosophical mode of inquiry and the second chapter adopts a more theological mode. This immediately informs us that the Council intends to show that its teachings on this matter are sourced in both reason and Revelation, making it accessible to all men.


A note on this essay: The section numbering corresponds to the numbering of Dignitatis Humanae itself except for the preceding sections. The article citation DH 1.3 for example, means article one, paragraph 3. The convention used for numbering multiple paragraphs in an article is based on the Latin paragraphs which does not correlate with the English translation on the Vatican’s website. All quotations come from the Vatican’s website unless otherwise stated. All chapter and article headings are from Dignitatis Humanae itself. The individual paragraph headings I have added are my own.


The Declaration on Religious Freedom

1.1 The Introduction of the Introduction


The first paragraph of article 1 begins with a description of modern man’s striving for freedom. This conscious striving for freedom has found its way into many modern states and their constitutions.[5] Others, namely the many totalitarian regimes like Communist Russia suppressed freedom. World War II can be described as a war for freedom. The world in the twenty year period between WWII and the Council saw the two greatest nations with hands on the trigger to nuclear armageddon. Communists led revolutions globally. John Paul II, Paul VI, and Benedict XVI all saw first hand the terrors of totalitarian regimes, of the communist takeover of Poland, Italian fascism, and Nazi Germany. These three popes also participated in the debates drafting Dignitatis Humanae.


In this climate modern man saw his striving towards freedom as a “quest for the values proper to the human spirit.” (DH 1.1). The Church and Council observed “these desires” of modern man and makes its first of three declarations in the text, declaring that these strivings, this quest, are “greatly in accord with truth and justice.” (DH 1.1). These desires for freedom therefore raise the question of natural law for this is a matter about truth and justice concerning the human spirit, and therefore the topic falls under the purview of the teaching authority of the Magisterium.


In modern man’s search for freedom we read that the modern man is impelled not “by coercion but moved by a sense of duty.” (DH 1.1). This situation sets off one of the dialectics of Dignitatis Humanae between the threat of coercion and man assuming responsibility for his freedom. Man cannot be coerced into freedom by external forces because he has a duty, a responsibility towards freedom whose content implies the antithetical nature of coercion in this domain. The Council Fathers will later ground the object of this responsibility in truth, for it is truth we will learn which precludes coercion.


We next learn that this search of modern man includes the demand that there are appropriate constitutional limits that are not “exclusively restricted” (DH 1.1). This somewhat ambiguous statement informs us that governments have a legitimate role in regulating freedom. Freedom is hence not absolute. Secondly, it also tells us that there have been government abuses that infringed on man’s freedom. We are not told, however, how a state can in fact appropriately restrict man’s freedom. This remains to be developed later.


Next the Declaration states that this striving for freedom is “chiefly concerned with the goods of the human spirit” and first amongst these goods is religious freedom (DH 1.1). The first introduction to our theme of religious freedom is here linked to freedom and is considered as a good of the human spirit.


The last sentence of this paragraph dispels one of the common misconceptions Catholics have about Vatican II, especially among those who appropriated the title “traditionalist”. There is a general misconception that Vatican II “taught nothing” citing reasons such that the Council was “pastoral” or that Paul VI stated that there was no new teaching.


The reference to Paul VI comes from his speech closing the Council within which he states that the Council did not issue extraordinary dogmatic pronouncements, i.e. infallible teachings. Those who argue thus betray a twofold ignorance of both what Paul VI stated and what Vatican II taught. Here is the full quote by Paul VI:


But one thing must be noted here, namely, that the teaching authority of the Church, even though not wishing to issue extraordinary dogmatic pronouncements, has thoroughly made known its authoritative teachings on a number of questions which today weighs upon man’s conscience and activity, descending, so to speak, into dialogue with him, but ever preserving its own authority and force; it has spoken with the accommodating friendly voice of pastoral charity…”[6]


There are many important points Paul VI makes in this paragraph concerning Vatican II, but we will only point out the two related to this criticism. First, even though Vatican II did not make any infallible statements Paul VI stated that the Magisterium “thoroughly made known its authoritative teaching”, meaning that Vatican II did intend to give new teachings. Second, even though the Council spoke with a “pastoral voice”, that voice according to Paul VI still carried the Magisterium’s “own authority”.


If Vatican II gave new authoritative teachings as Paul VI stated, what were they? Dignitatis Humanae gives one answer. The last sentence of article one states: “to this end, it [the Council] searches into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church - the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.” (DH 1.1).[7] The Council here makes two points: first, that the Council Fathers intend to give a new teaching, its teaching on religious freedom, and second, that these teachings stands in continuity with the deposit of faith, in harmony with previous teachings and Sacred Tradition.


This claim of Dignitatis Humanae was and continues to be a major source of conflict. Avery Cardinal Dulles noted that Dignitatis Humanae was the only Vatican II document to claim to be a development of doctrine.[8] John Courtney Murray wrote that it was Dignitatis Humanae’s claim to develop doctrine that was the real source of opposition, not religious freedom itself.[9] Likewise in discussing the history of the fourth session Routhier wrote: “The most threatening specter seemed to be the development of the traditional Catholic teaching.”[10]


1.2 The Nature of the Church and the Role of Truth


The next paragraph describes in summary fashion the nature of the Catholic Church. The Council teaches that God made known to man the way of salvation through Christ. This means that God has made known what is the true religion. The true religion is something that man can know. This is a message of hope to man. Even though there are several thousand Christian denominations today this cannot legitimize despair over Christianity or of ever knowing it in the fullness of truth.


The Council next teaches “we believe that this one true religion” revealed by God “subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church…” (DH 1.2). This word “subsists” is a point of contention in interpreting Vatican II. In Pius XII’s Mystici Corpus Christi the term used is "est" whereas here in Dignitatis Humanae and Lumen Gentium it is "subsistere". Some authors interpret this change in terminology as Vatican II breaking away from Mystici Corpus Christi.[11] This concept of subsist is developed in Lumen Gentium 8 and deserves its own investigation.[12]


For our purposes we can note that the change from est to subsistere represents a development in the Church’s self-understanding. Joseph Ratzinger notes that the vocabulary change was intentional. Est simply means is, and its usage implies only that the Catholic Church exists as the Church established by Christ. Subsistere has a narrower meaning, for it implies first the uniqueness of this Church and secondly that the Church is an active agent.[13] “The Council Fathers,” Ratzinger notes “who were trained in neoscholastic philosophy and theology, were quite aware that subsistere is a narrower concept than that of esse:... esse includes the whole realm of being in all its modes and forms, subsistere is the form of existence of a being resting in itself, as in particular occurs in the case of an active agent.”[14] The term subsistere means nothing less than that the Catholic Church is fully in her identity the true religion and Church established by Christ and that this Church is unique.[15]


This leads us to a new insight. If God revealed the true religion to man and if this revealed religion subsists in the Catholic Church, then God revealed the Catholic Church to man as the way to salvation and union with Christ. We can formulate this syllogistically:

  1. God revealed to man the way to salvation which is the true religion

  2. The true religion subsists in the Catholic Church as the way to salvation

  3. Therefore God revealed to man the Catholic Church as the way to salvation

In the very same sentence wherein Dignitatis Humanae teaches the subsistence of the Catholic Church, it is immediately followed with a clause on missionary work. Jesus commissioned the true religion, the Catholic Church with the duty to evangelize the world. The Church as the revealed content to man must now go out and preach that content, Christ himself.


The text brings here to the fore not only the duty of the Church as the revealed way to salvation to evangelize all men, but also implies a duty of all men and especially non-Christians to seek the truth. All of humanity are receivers of this revelation of truth, meaning that all have a vocation for truth. Truth places three demands or duties upon man. He must “seek the truth”, “embrace the truth”, and “hold fast to it once it is known” (DH 1.2).


The syllogism’s conclusion has another important consequence. Since the Catholic Church is the true revealed religion that can lead man to salvation, it is Christ through the Church that man is saved. The Church “is the life of mankind” as Paul VI stated in the closing address of Vatican II.[16] It is precisely because of the Church’s privileged position as the true Church that it contains the knowledge for man to know himself.

The Catholic Church is man’s life because it determines life’s nature and destiny; it gives life its real meaning, it establishes the supreme law of life and infuses it with that mysterious activity which we may say divinizes it.[17]


1.3 The Duty to Seek Religious Truth


The Second Vatican Council “proclaims that these [three] obligations” to seek the truth, embrace the truth, and persevere in it “binds man’s conscience.” (DH 1.3). Truth demands a threefold duty upon man to which he is in conscience bound. The pursuit of truth is therefore a fundamental moral obligation. These three duties imply a fundamental existential attitude towards truth and reality, namely reverence towards being and values.


Reverence frees the human spirit to respond to values. It is the fundamental prerequisite existential attitude such that man possesses the capacity to freely “grasp values, to affirm them, and to respond to them…”[18]


The three duties towards truth are not only morally requirements but epistemic ones as well. This implies that these three duties are likewise epistemic or intellectual virtues responding to the value of truth. Man must respond to truth in conscience and through the intellect.


Not only does truth demand that we seek it but further to affirm and embrace it. After embracement one must persevere. All three actions, seek, embrace, persevere, are not only mere moral obligations but demands a threefold existential attitude of the person. I must seek, I must embrace, and I must persevere and do so ungrudgingly and freely out of my personal center.


The Council teaches that “truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” (DH 1.3). In order for the truth to “impose itself” with its power one must be existentially receptive according to the threefold moral-epistemic obligations truth demands. It is only with receptivity, i.e. reverence, that truth can convict the person.


This places a great demand on the interpreter of Dignitatis Humanae itself. The reader must himself humbly in reverence be open to the truths the Council wishes to teach in its searching the deposit of faith here. The truths within Dignitatis Humanae bind all readers with these three duties.


The Council now introduces the concept of religious freedom. Religious freedom is given its formulation as “immunity from coercion in civil power.” (DH 1.3). This is a negative conception of religious freedom, freedom from as opposed to freedom for or freedom to. It also possesses juridical connotations. Civil authorities cannot coerce in the domain of religion. Whether this is the exhaustive meaning of religious freedom is a point of contention.


The Council next makes an important claim for interpreting Dignitatis Humanae, that religious freedom as introduced with this negative juridical meaning “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” (DH 1.3). This means that in particular the Council is claiming consistency with the pre-Vatican II papal encyclicals and their teachings on religious freedom and political theology.


There are various ways one can interpret this claim: first, religious freedom strictly has a negative juridical meaning and this understanding does not contradict previous Catholic teaching; second, religious freedom strictly possesses a negative meaning and does contradict previous Catholic teachings; third, religious freedom cannot be understood as strictly juridical and whatever this meaning is, it does not contradict previous teachings; fourth, regardless of how one interprets religious freedom it contradicts previous papal teachings.


The second and fourth interpretations in denying continuity with previous teachings of the Church thereby claim that the Magisterium is fundamentally in error here since the Council is claiming the exact opposite, contradicting the Magisterium. It is tantamount to declaring that the Church is lying since the Council has clearly stated it was going to develop new teaching (DH 1.1) on religious freedom.


Dignitatis Humanae rejects interpretations one, two, and four. Two and four are rejected due to the interpreter’s hermeneutic of discontinuity which the Declaration explicitly rejects. The first and second are rejected because Dignitatis Humanae will later teach that religious freedom cannot be strictly interpreted as a negative juridical concept, but that it possesses a positive content of freedom for and not only freedom from. The claim is, hence, that this positive meaning will ground the negative freedom from.

We have already cited two passages of the text which reject the hermeneutic of discontinuity. The final sentence of the paragraph is a third statement linking the Council’s already stated intention to develop doctrine and religious freedom. We read “the Council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.” (DH 1.3). Dignitatis Humanae does not leave the issue of religious freedom as a statement of non-discontinuity, but explicitly states its intention to develop the very doctrines that appear to some interpreters as antithetical to any affirmation of religious freedom. This sentence further informs us the direction the Council will go to explicate the positive content of religious freedom, namely that it has its source in the dignity of the human person.


This sentence is important in another respect in that it is an affirmation of rejecting indifferentism. The minority group of bishops who objected and heavily criticized Dignitatis Humanae during the Council leveled the serious charge that the text would logically imply indifferentism. Against this interpretation the Council fathers included the sentence stating the Council’s intention to develop the teaching of recent Popes.[19] The sentence is also meant to be taken as a rejection of laicism and neutralism.[20]

The introduction gives us a schematic view of the themes of the remainder of the document that will be addressed, themes such as truth, responsibility, the role of the state, the limits of religious liberty, and the consistency between the Declaration and the pre-conciliar Magisterium.


Section Endnotes

[1] See Nicholas Healy’s essay “The Drafting of Dignitatis Humanae” in Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, 211-235, and Giovanni Micoli’s article “Two Sensitive Issues: Religious Freedom and The Jews” in History of Vatican II, vol 4, ed. Guiseppe Alberigo, 96-135.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), p. 2.

[3] Message to Dr. Kurt Waldheim, secretary of the UN Dec 02, 1978.

[4] Redemptor Hominis 12.

[5] The Council here in noticing these trends give reference to John XIII’s Pacem in terris and Pius XII. “But the aspirations We have mentioned are a clear indication of the fact that men, increasingly aware nowadays of their personal dignity, have found the incentive to enter government service and demand constitutional recognition for their own inviolable rights. Not content with this, they are demanding, too, the observance of constitutional procedures in the appointment of public authorities, and are insisting that they exercise their office within this constitutional framework.” Pacem in terris 79.


Cf. “Man's personal dignity requires besides that he enjoy freedom and be able to make up his own mind when he acts. In his association with his fellows, therefore, there is every reason why his recognition of rights, observance of duties, and many-sided collaboration with other men, should be primarily a matter of his own personal decision. Each man should act on his own initiative, conviction, and sense of responsibility, not under the constant pressure of external coercion or enticement. There is nothing human about a society that is welded together by force. Far from encouraging, as it should, the attainment of man's progress and perfection, it is merely an obstacle to his freedom.” Ibid, 34.


The footnote in reference to Pius XII states: “Concerning civil dignity, by which human dignity is extended into the public sphere, cf. Pius XII, Radio message, 24 December 1944: AAS 37 (1945), 14: ‘In a people worthy of the name, the citizen feels within himself a consciousness of his personhood, of his duties and rights, of his own freedom together with respect for the freedom and dignity of others.’ Here the pope commends also the ‘ideal of freedom and equality’ (loc cit.) that it is necessary to maintain in a democratic state organized according to sound principles of reason, which demands that man’s right to the free exercise of religion in society be fully acknowledged, cultivated, and defended.” Quoted from Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, 27.

[6] Address of Pope Paul VI During the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council Dec 7, 1965. Emphasis mine.

[7] Emphasis mine.

[8] Nicholas Healy, “Dignitatis Humanae” in The Reception of Vatican II, p. 368.

[9] Ibid, p. 368-369. See also Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 4, 99.

[10] Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 5, 69. See also ibid, 71-72.

[11] Komonchak, Francis Sullivan.

[12] See Guy Mansini “Lumen Gentium” in The Reception of Vatican II.

[13] Ibid, p. 51.

[14] Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, p 148n18.

[15] Mansini, p. 52-53.

[16] Address of Pope Paul VI During the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council Dec 7, 1965.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living 3. “Reverence is the indispensable presupposition for all deep knowledge - above all, for the capacity to grasp values. All capacity to be made happy and uplifted by values, all sanctioned abandonment to values, all submission to their majesty, presupposes reverence. In reverence the person takes into account the sublimity of the world of values - in it is to be found that upward look toward that world, that respect for the objective and valid demands immanent to the values that, independently of the arbitrary will and wishes of men, call for an adequate response.


Reverence is the presupposition for every response to value, every abandonment to something important, and it is, at the same time, an essential element of such response to value. Each time one gives oneself to the good and beautiful, each time one conforms to the inner law of value, the basic attitude of reverence is implied.” Ibid, p 6-7.

[19] “Furthermore, in the last paragraph of the Preface the word ‘recent’ was added to ‘Popes’. This was done because some fathers asserted again and again that the doctrine of the document contradicted the doctrine of the Popes on religious freedom. This addition was meant to suggest to these fathers that they should consider not only the doctrine of Leo XIII and his immediate predecessors, but also that of his successors, especially Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI.” Pietro Pavan, Declaration on Religious Freedom in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol 4, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler, 61.

[20] “A third difficulty concerned the question whether the Declaration did not imply a laicistic and and neutralistic conception of the State, which would also contradict the Christian social doctrine that had already been accepted. Hence the last sentence of Article 1 mentions the teaching of recent Popes on the constitutional order of society.” Pavan, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol 4, 64.

Chapter 1: The General Principle of Religious Freedom


Article 2 outlines the content of religious freedom. The remainder of the chapter builds off of this article. Article 3 describes the manifestation of this right for individuals while articles 4 and 5 connect religious freedom with communities and in particular the family. Articles 6,7, and 8 concern the relationship of religious freedom to civil authority and the exercise of religious liberty.


2 The Object and Foundation of Religious Freedom

2.1 The Positive Meaning of Religious Freedom


In the first sentence of paragraph 2.1 we find the second declaration clause: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.” (DH 2.1). The content of this right we are told consists of a negative freedom from or immunity from any coercion originating from any source, whether “individual, social group or any other human power” including civil governments on religious matters such that no one is forced to act contrary to his or her conscience or is prevented from acting according to his or her conscience (DH 2.1). This incorporates both the public and private spheres as an individual and as a religious community. Religious freedom as immunity from coercion has two basic functions of preventing forced actions and allowing free exercise in religious matters. An exegetical problem arises here as to whether Dignitatis Humanae here by mentioning the term “conscience” is thereby invoking the notion of liberty of conscience that was condemned by the pre-conciliar Magisterium. Such a reading will prove infeasible but remains a topic for later. This right to religious freedom is limited however by “due limits” which will be elaborated later. Religious freedom is thus not an absolute liberty. Who possesses the authority to limit this liberty the document will later ascribe to the government.


This paragraph also contains the third declaration, that this “right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.”[1] (DH 2.1). The footnote in the text here gives the historical background for this declaration.[2] This declaration makes two points: first, religious freedom has positive content and is not merely a negative juridical concept since it has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person; second, this positive content of religious freedom can be discovered within the deposit of faith and as a valid conclusion of reason, i.e. a philosophical truth.


This has two consequences for man. The Christian is duty bound to accept and defend this positive meaning of religious freedom because it originates from the deposit of faith. Furthermore, religious freedom is itself not strictly a theological question like the Trinity or Mariology but is accessible to all men by being discoverable through reason as a subject of proper philosophical analysis. All men therefore are duty bound to defend religious freedom as a great truth of man. We can press further and state that since all men have the duty to seek the truth in religious matters and that the Catholic Church is the teleological end of this search for truth, all men if faithful to this vocation to truth will discover and accept religious freedom as a philosophical and theological truth.


Since religious freedom is grounded in the dignity of the human person, to reject religious freedom entails at some level a rejection of man’s dignity and vocation towards the truth. Civil governments hence have a responsibility to give religious freedom constitutional recognition such that it too becomes a protected civil right. The term “rights” within the text here is used in two meanings. The term is first introduced as a natural right, a right grounded in man’s dignity and nature, and secondly as a civil right which should be recognized in the civil constitutions.[3]


The Council made three declarations: 1) that modern man’s striving for freedom is in conformity with truth and justice; 2) that man has a right to religious freedom; and 3) the foundation of this freedom is the dignity of the human person. At this point two questions remain concerning these declarations: what is the authority of these statements and what is meant by the term “rights”? The problem of authority we will return to later.


Rights are not mere juridical terms empty of positive content or lacking of any authority beyond what the will of the people decide upon, a view which has been condemned.[4] Rather rights are grounded in the dignity of the human person.[5] We offer the reader Leo XIII’s definition of right as a “moral power” that is grounded in man’s nature and hence not opposed to natural law.[6] Rights in this meaning therefore possess Divine authority which demands man’s obedience since natural law is grounded in the eternal law. Rights imply the duty that they ought to be respected and recognized.[7] Since rights are grounded in the dignity of the human person they are universal, inviolable and inalienable.[8]


This notion of rights was one of major debates in the drafting of Dignitatis Humanae. Opponents to the text argued for a traditionalist understanding of pre-Vatican II theology which understood the question of religious freedom in terms of rights of truth versus error. Error had no rights whereas truth does have a right. The claim of the opponents (such as the Council Fathers Lefebvre, Velasco, Cari, Florit, Pereira, Ottaviani) was that religious freedom placed both truth and error on an equal footing.[9] Against this the defenders argued that truth is not a rights bearer, only persons are. This is the view found in Dignitatis Humanae and Vatican II.[10]


Against this view of truth being a rights bearer Heenan pointed out in the debates that this view leads to a double standard.[11] In a state where the Catholic faith is the majority the non-Catholic can be suppressed since he or she does not possesses the fullness of truth found within the Catholic faith, and yet if Catholicism is a minority the Church would claim freedom to profess the faith. This double standard would hence undercut the legitimacy of the Church and her divine mission and effectively silence any ecumenical dialogue, reasons why the Council rejected this view.[12]


The term “coercion” here carries a double meaning.[13] On the one hand no one is to be forced to act against his religious beliefs, and on the other, one is not to be restrained from acting in accord with his or her beliefs.


It must also be pointed out that in the first article the historical situation was first discussed about modernity’s yearnings and striving towards freedom. This double declaration in article 2 informs us that the right to religious freedom is not based on historical conditions and facts alone, but is instead grounded in the dignity of man.[14] The Council fathers certainly were concerned about the right to religious freedom due to the historical circumstances but they avoided a modernistic theologizing which cites the changing vicissitudes of history to justify doctrinal changes; rather the reasoning of the Council here is grounded in the truths of human nature.


2.2 Religious Freedom and Truth


Paragraph 2.1 declared that religious freedom is grounded in the dignity of the human person. Since man is a person endowed with reason and free will, a bearer of responsibility, he has the duty to seek the truth.[15] This seeking of truth is twofold; first, the Council teaches that man is impelled by his nature to do so. Man is made for the truth and has a natural urge or desire for truth that originates out of human nature. This natural desire is found in all men since all share a common nature, which makes this seeking a universal need of man. Furthermore, since man is a moral agent (for man is a person) he has a duty to seek the truth and this includes religious truth.


The obligation to seek truth is fundamentally grounded in the fact that man is a person. This is the first of three duties man has toward truth. Man’s second obligation to truth is that he must also embrace the truth. Truth demands assent, not only discovery. This assent is not a single event in a man's life history but a continuous occurrence in his daily life which leads to the third obligation.


Man’s third duty towards truth is perseverance in the truth. Perseverance can be taken in a negative sense as only a clinging to or mere adhesion what was received, which while can be admirable still possesses a lack. It is not enough to only hold onto what was received for perseverance in truth demands a continuous ordering of one’s daily life in conformity with the truth. Man’s whole life must be ordered to truth and its demands (DH 2.2).[16] This adherence is an inward subjective appropriation of the truth such that man in his daily life becomes ever more conformed to Truth, to Christ.[17]


This pursuit of truth with its three obligations necessarily requires that man has immunity from coercion. Coercion here is distinguished into two basic forms: psychological and external. Since man is a person he must be allowed to pursue truth as a person and follow its demands and perform its duties in a truly personal way. The personal mode of seeking truth necessarily precludes any coercion. This is why the Council Fathers state that man “cannot satisfy this obligation in a way that is in keeping with [his] own nature” unless man enjoys immunity from both forms of coercion (DH 2.2).


Since religious freedom is grounded in man’s dignity the Council teaches that “the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature.” (DH 2.2). The history of Catholic political theology has three dominant trends: political Christendom, neutralism, and cuius regio. This statement of the Council is an explicit rejection of neutralism.[18]


Neutralism views religious freedom as a negative freedom granted to the Church by civil authorities. This can be interpreted in two manners: first, civil government constitutionally lacks authority in religious matters; second, the government must take an active approach on principled grounds to remain neutral in religious matters. This second approach has many negative consequences in how the government views religion.[19]


The question within the neutralist position is what is the foundation for religious liberty? There are two possible solutions. One is that the government is incapable of making judgments on religious matters (which we will discover is rejected by Dignitatis Humanae 3, 5, and 6).[20] A second solution is that individuals enjoy self-expressive autonomy similar to freedom of speech. Dignitatis Humanae explicitly rejects this view as well, for it states that the foundation of religious liberty is “not in the subjective disposition of the person…” (DH 2.2). Instead religious liberty is grounded in the dignity of the human person.


This view taken by Dignitatis Humanae has a radical corollary. Since religious freedom is essentially rooted in human dignity, it is an inviolable right of man. Syllogistically:

  1. The right to religious freedom is grounded essentially in human dignity

  2. Human dignity is inviolable

  3. Therefore the right to religious freedom is inviolable.

The inviolability of religious freedom carries with it the consequence that “this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it…” (DH 2.2). This means that even those who choose not to pursue religious truth out of indifference towards it, those who attack religion in the name of secular humanism and atheism, and those who worship in religious communities outside the Church, all still possess and retain this right because each person equally dignified in their personhood and each does not lose his or her dignity if he or she assents to false propositions.


The phrase “subjective disposition” is important in another respect when we look back upon the teachings of the pre-conciliar Magisterium. Religious freedom was rejected by many Popes when it is interpreted as grounded in relativism. Some thinkers placed this right in the will of the people, in human reason, or sentiment, all of which directly led to adopting relativism. The Declaration on the other hand rejects explicitly the possibility of grounding religious freedom within man’s subjective disposition, whether it is the will, intellect, or passions. The document is thus in continuity with the pre-conciliar Magisterium in its condemnations of indifferentism.


Since each person retains the inviolable immunity of religious freedom Dignitatis Humanae teaches that this freedom cannot be impeded by civil authorities as long as it is conducted within the parameters of just public order (DH 2.2).


The concept “due limits” is now indirectly qualified as the boundaries of religious freedom. The invocation of “just” informs us that religious freedom operates within the boundaries of natural law. It is not an unlimited, absolute freedom nor can one violate natural law in the name of professing their religion. Religious adherents cannot promote anarchy, for example, in the name of religion. On the other hand the government cannot invoke “just public order” to arbitrarily suppress public religious expressions. The Church as a duty to condemn public immoralities such as abortion and euthanasia. Christians have a right to publicly demonstrate against these evils in the name of truth and goodness. It was concerns such as these that the Council fathers explained that the notion of public order must be explicitly stated as operating within natural law.[21]


Religious freedom is essential to this seeking of truth. John XXIII called this right the pathway that leads man towards truth. It is by following this pathway that man discovers his freedom and truth, which are the foundation stones of society.[22] Religious freedom is hence an element of society’s very foundation that cannot be rejected without seriously undermining man’s ability to freely seek truth.

Section Endnotes

[1] See Paul VI’s Homily on Sept 12, 1965 wherein he states that man has a sacred right to his own freedom which includes religion and conscience.

[2] The Council cites the following John XIII’s Pacem in terris 14: “Also among man's rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public. According to the clear teaching of Lactantius, "this is the very condition of our birth, that we render to the God who made us that just homage which is His due; that we acknowledge Him alone as God, and follow Him. It is from this ligature of piety, which binds us and joins us to God, that religion derives its name.''


Pius XII’s Radio message, Dec 24, 1942 wherein he states that amongst the fundamental rights of man include the right to worship God publicly and privately. One can also refer to his Radio message, Dec 24, 1944 as well.


Pius XI’s Mit brennender Sorge 31: “The believer has an absolute right to profess his Faith and live according to its dictates. Laws which impede this profession and practice of Faith are against natural law.”


Leo XIII’s Libertas 30: “Another liberty is widely advocated, namely, liberty of conscience. If by this is meant that everyone may, as he chooses, worship God or not, it is sufficiently refuted by the arguments already adduced. But it may also be taken to mean that every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands. This, indeed, is true liberty, a liberty worthy of the sons of God, which nobly maintains the dignity of man and is stronger than all violence or wrong - a liberty which the Church has always desired and held most dear.”

[3] Pavan, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol 4, 65.

[4] See for example Leo XIII’s Diuturnum 5, 23, Libertas 5-10 and Immortale Dei 3. “We must, however, reject the view that the will of the individual or the group is the primary and only source of a citizen's rights and duties, and of the binding force of political constitutions and the government's authority.” John XXIII, Pacem in terris 78.

[5] Gaudium et Spes 26, 29, 41; Nostra Aetate 5; DH 2. “Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable.” John XXIII, Pacem in terris 9.

[6] Libertas 23.

[7] “One man's natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right. Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one's rights and ignore one's duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.” John XXIII, Pacem in terris 30.

[8] John XXIII, Pacem in terris 145.

[9] Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 5, 72.

[10] See Gaudium et Spes 26, 29, 41; Nostra Aetate 5.

[11] Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 5, 73.

[12] It was precisely these two problems of insincerity and inability to establish ecumenical dialogue that Gran objected to the double standard. See Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 5, 93.

[13] Pavan, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol 4, 66.

[14] Cf. Pavan, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol 4, 86.

[15] Man has a “right to freedom in investigating the truth…” John XXIII, Pacem in terris 12.

[16] The right to seek truth implies “the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it.” John XXIII, Pacem in terris 29.

[17] Cf. Soren Kierkegaard’s The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments.

[18] Hittinger “The Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae” in Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, p 364, 367-369.

[19] Ibid, p. 364.

[20] Ibid, p. 367.

[21] Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 5, 75-76. This was one of the points of Wojtyla’s intervention. Ibid, 108.

[22] “The Church claims the right to religious freedom, ‘which is not simply freedom of worship.’ The Church must demand this freedom in order to ‘place man upon the path of truth. Truth and freedom are the building-stones upon which human civilization is raised.” Giuseppe Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 1, 438.

3 Religious Freedom and Man’s Relationship to God

3.1 The Foundation For the Duty to Seek Truth


The highest law and order for man is the Divine Law which has the three properties of eternal, universal and objective. It is by the Divine Law that God governs the world through His Providence and orders the flourishing of human communities.[1] Man in his very created being has been made a participant by God in the Divine Law, hence why earlier man is described as being impelled by nature to seek truth (DH 2.2). Man through the “gentle disposition” of God’s Providence can encounter truth and perceive its unchanging objectivity.[2]


This point addresses those who interpret Dignitatis Humanae as teaching that religious freedom necessarily implies that the document places the different religions on equal footing and possesses the same truth value, which would relativize the truth claims of Catholicism and religious truths in general. Dignitatis Humanae has already taught that God revealed to man that the Catholic Church is the true religion, for the true religion subsists in the Church, and now the text reinforces this point by directing man towards transcendent truth (DH 1.2). Truth as something objective, unchanging, and transcendent to spatiotemporality cannot be rightly understood as relative or subjective alone. The different religions are not on equal footing.


Now because man participates in the Divine Law he has the duty to seek the truth and especially for religious truth. This authentic seeking of truth forms man’s judgment of conscience.


These duties of seeking truth demand personal responsibility on each human person. Man “must seek to know”.[3] He must be existentially open and ordered towards this pursuit of truth. This demands self-honesty. Man must be honest with himself in his seeking of truth, and especially of religious truth.[4] If one is honestly seeking out the truth, embracing it, and persevering in it, then this individual can only approach ever closer to the True Church of Christ, and once the identity of this Church is recognized, an submission of faith required.


3.2 The Essence Structure of the Act of Seeking Truth

Man is a person and as a person there are personal and antipersonal ways of coming to knowledge. The seeking of truth must be sought in the personal mode, “in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person…” (DH 3.2). The 20th century gave rise to new forms of mass communication which can propagandize populations in unparalleled ways from previous human history. Totalitarian regimes have propagandized populations to the genocide of millions. Propaganda is always an imposition of views of the propagandist onto the individual without reference to the student’s personal center.[5] It is always antipersonal since the propagandist ignores and or rejects man’s dignity. Propaganda is a manifestation of coercion and hence radically opposed essentially to religious freedom.


This also implies, contrary to some religiously pessimistic “thinkers”, that religion, religious truth and their authentic pursuit liberates man from propaganda, that religion itself is antithetical to propaganda. One objectively entirely misunderstands religion when religion is conceived of as opium for the masses. Religion is properly personal.


This search for truth has two essential features rooted in man’s freedom: free enquiry and personal assent. There cannot be any coercion in the pursuit of truth and assent; doing so violates the dignity of the one seeking truth and of the propagandist himself. Once truth is assented to, it demands personal adherence. This personal mode of inquiry requires free inquiry, education, and dialogue, in such a way that men and women can freely communicate, discuss and seek the truth together. 


3.3 The Essence Structure of the Search for Religious Truth


The Council teaches that it is through conscience that “man perceives and acknowledges the divine law…” (DH 3.3). Man has the duty to seek truth which implies above all the duty to seek religious truth. Conscience is taught to have two mediating functions in discerning the Divine Law. First, conscience mediates perception of the eternal law in moral values and secondly it recognizes moral values as coming from somewhere beyond man and his subjective dispositions. Perception and recognition are similar yet distinct operations. The perception of values does not yet imply an acknowledgement of their objectivity, validity, and the due response to them, for one through habitual sin can render their conscience “practically sightless.”[6] Through value blindness one may either not recognize values or may recognize but misunderstand them and hence deny their objective validity.[7]


The theoretical background as to what conscience is is found in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes 16. Conscience detects a law which originates outside of man himself, the Divine Law. Even though conscience is a faculty of the person and speaks to the person “to his heart”, conscience is still a voice declaring with objective validity to which man is bound. Since conscience addresses the heart, it “is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”[8]


It follows from this that “man is duty bound to follow his conscience in order he may come to God…” (DH 3.3). Positively, man is duty bound to follow God in his conscience because it is God’s voice addressed to the human heart and resonates within his depths. Negatively, this duty to respond to God through man’s conscience requires that all other men do not coerce the individual contrary to his conscience and that the individual acting through his conscience is not to be restrained, which especially applies to religious matters (DH 3.3).[9]


The believer has an absolute right to profess his Faith and live according to its dictates. Laws which impede this profession and practice of Faith are against natural law.[10]


The nature of religious exercise consists first as an interior action which is voluntary and free (DH 3.3). This means that the exercise of religion is a spiritual act since it is an interior act, and secondly that this originates out of the will since this act is also voluntary and free. The will is the founding source. Man must give a free, voluntary response to God in religious expression which no human power can command or prohibit. Only God can command such. Man has no authority over the inner spiritual actions of another.[11]

But since all men are equal in natural dignity, no man has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for He alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart.[12]


Man however is not a mere isolated monad but by nature a person and hence a social being. Man is a communal creature. The act of religion itself is a social act and requires community. Therefore due to man’s social nature it is required of him to “give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he shall share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community.” (DH 3.3).[13] Hence there is no separation of public and private worship, only worship of God which occurs in both public space and private space.[14] The denial of the free exercise of religion therefore violates man’s dignity and God’s Divine Law. Dignitatis Humanae qualifies this with “provided just public order is preserved”, i.e. that religious groups act in accord with natural law (DH 3.3).


3.4 The Distinction Between Religious and Civil Acts


Religious acts are directed towards God, and so transcend terrestrial and temporal affairs. This seemingly obvious point is not something unimportant or trivial when we consider the three historical models of political theology at the time of the Council.


Cuius regio, eius religio translates as “whose realm, his religion”, which was the principle utilized to settle the 16th century religion wars between the Catholics and Lutherans. This model claimed religion to be only an extension of the civil government and continued in some form into the 20th century, especially in communist countries.[15] By acknowledging the separation between religion and civil authority with the superiority of the former over the latter, Digntatis Humanae stands with tradition in rejecting cuius regio. Vatican I and elsewhere in Vatican II reject this principle.[16]

The next sentence is remarkably striking for Americans. The Council Fathers teach that the government ought to take into account its citizen’s religious life and “show favor to it…” (DH 3.4). For the neutralist model as found in American jurisprudence the separation of Church and state is such that state neutrality has to take the attitude of remaining opposed to religion if any religion upsets neutrality. The state must ignore the transcendent claims of religion and religious truth.[17] Dignitatis Humanae teaches the opposite in continuity with the tradition.


Consider now the following argument:

  1. The end of the state is to promote and provide for the common good.

  2. Religion is an element of the common good.

  3. Therefore the state has a duty to promote religion.


This is a complete rejection of the neutralist model.



The final sentence of this paragraph reemphasizes the affirmation of religion’s transcendence over civil authority and law. Governments do not possess the authority to preside over religious matters (and so another statement rejecting cuius regio). The state can neither direct nor impede religious acts (DH 3.4).


This formulation of the state’s duty to promote religion historically was given negatively in that the separation of Church and state is an erroneous opinion.[18] The state has a duty towards religion such that:


As soon as the State refuses to give to God what belongs to God, by a necessary consequence it refuses to give to citizens that to which, as men, they have a right; as, whether agreeable or not to accept, it cannot be denied that man's rights spring from his duty toward God.[19]


Section Endnotes

[1] The Council cites here St. Thomas: “As stated above (I-II:90:1 ad 2; I-II:91:3-4), a law is nothing else but a dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs a perfect community. Now it is evident, granted that the world is ruled by Divine Providence, as was stated in I:22:1 and I:22:2, that the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason. Wherefore the very Idea of the government of things in God the Ruler of the universe, has the nature of a law. And since the Divine Reason's conception of things is not subject to time but is eternal, according to Proverbs 8:23, therefore it is that this kind of law must be called eternal.”  STh. I-II, 91,1.


“Just as in every artificer there pre-exists a type of the things that are made by his art, so too in every governor there must pre-exist the type of the order of those things that are to be done by those who are subject to his government. And just as the type of the things yet to be made by an art is called the art or exemplar of the products of that art, so too the type in him who governs the acts of his subjects, bears the character of a law, provided the other conditions be present which we have mentioned above (Article 90). Now God, by His wisdom, is the Creator of all things in relation to which He stands as the artificer to the products of his art, as stated in the I:14:8. Moreover He governs all the acts and movements that are to be found in each single creature, as was also stated in the I:103:5. Wherefore as the type of the Divine Wisdom, inasmuch as by It all things are created, has the character of art, exemplar or idea; so the type of Divine Wisdom, as moving all things to their due end, bears the character of law. Accordingly the eternal law is nothing else than the type of Divine Wisdom, as directing all actions and movements.” STh. I-II, 93, 1.

[2] The Council cites St. Thomas again: “A thing may be known in two ways: first, in itself; secondly, in its effect, wherein some likeness of that thing is found: thus someone not seeing the sun in its substance, may know it by its rays. So then no one can know the eternal law, as it is in itself, except the blessed who see God in His Essence. But every rational creature knows it in its reflection, greater or less. For every knowledge of truth is a kind of reflection and participation of the eternal law, which is the unchangeable truth, as Augustine says. Now all men know the truth to a certain extent, at least as to the common principles of the natural law: and as to the others, they partake of the knowledge of truth, some more, some less; and in this respect are more or less cognizant of the eternal law.” STh. I-II, 93, 2.

[3] Pavan, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol 4, 69.

[4] “Thus the right to religious freedom is rooted in the profound claim of man to be honest with himself also in this delicate sphere.” Ibid, 69.

[5] Cf. Martin Buber’s “Elements of the Interhuman” in The Knowledge of Man, 62-78.

[6] Gaudium et Spes 16.

[7] See Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Ethics Ch 34, 35, Graven Images, especially Ch 2.

[8] Gaudium et Spes 16.

[9] On the history of this question the Council cites Joseph Lecler, SJ’s Histoire de la Tolérance Religieuse au Siècle de la Réforme.

[10] Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge 31.

[11] The Council here cites the following:

“Man can make laws in those matters of which he is competent to judge. But man is not competent to judge of interior movements, which are hidden, but only of exterior acts, which are apparent.” St. Thomas, STh. I-II, 91, 4. “In matters touching the interior movement of the will man is not bound to obey his fellow man, but God alone.” St. Thomas, STh. II-II, 104, 5.


And also John XXIII, Pacem in terris 48 and Paul VI’s Radio message, Dec 22, 1964.

[12]John XXIII, Pacem in terris 48.

[13] Cf. Pacem in terris 13.

[14] “As to those who imagine that they can reconcile exterior infidelity to one and the same Church, let them hear Our Lord's warning: - "He that shall deny me before men shall be denied before the angels of God" (Luke xii. 9).” Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge 21.

[15] Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, 364-365.

[16] “Since the apostolic office of bishops was instituted by Christ the Lord and pursues a spiritual and supernatural purpose, this sacred ecumenical synod declares that the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority.

Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the Church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities. The civil authorities, on the other hand, whose favorable attitude toward the Church the sacred synod gratefully acknowledges and highly appreciates, are most kindly requested voluntarily to renounce the above-mentioned rights and privileges which they presently enjoy by reason of a treaty or custom, after discussing the matter with the Apostolic See.” Christus Dominus 20. See also Pastor Aeternus 3,7-8.

[17] Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, 364.

[18] Leo XIII, Au Milieu des Sollicitudes 28, Libertas 39, Immortale Dei 27-28.

[19] Leo XIII, Au Milieu des Sollicitudes 28.

4.1-4.5: Freedom of Religious Communities


In order to understand the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae on community, one needs to refer to Gaudium et Spes. God created man to have a social nature. Meditating on this the Council concluded that “God did not create man for life in isolation, but for the formation of social unity…”[1] God so chose to save mankind by “making them into a single people.”[2] Indeed, “God has willed that all men should constitute one family…”[3]


Given that man is a social being the telos of community is man and the promotion of man: “For the beginning, the subject and the good of all social institutions is and must be the person…”[4] Community must advance man’s good, be a culture leading man to the truth, in short promote the fulfillment of his personal destiny.


The political community arises out of spatiotemporal terrestrial concerns for the “realization of the common good.”[5] “The political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its legitimacy.”[6] The common good is defined as “the sum of those conditions of the social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection.”[7] Dignitatis Humanae defines the common good similarly.[8] Hence all men have the right to share in the common good.[9] Given this, “the common good, since it is intimately bound up with human nature, can never exist fully and completely unless the human person is taken into account at all times.”[10] This definition of the common good therefore rejects those views which define it in terms of material prosperity, the will of the people, or in other terms.[11]

Dignitatis Humanae argues that religious communities arise necessarily from man’s social nature and the nature of religion itself. Religious freedom grounded in man’s nature becomes inseparably linked to religious communities, for it is the same human nature which grounds both. It logically follows that the right to religious freedom necessarily entails the right for religious communities to likewise be immune from coercion (DH 4.1).


The Declaration hence has three basic points to make concerning religious communities.[12] First, since they are grounded in man’s social nature, man has a right to the external, public profession and exercise of his faith. Secondly, since man is a social being this legitimizes religious communities. Thirdly, religious communities are also moral bearers and subjects of rights and duties.


Religious communities are autonomous in matters of religion, which the state cannot intervene into; hence religious communities have a right to self-governance. The restriction to this autonomy is natural law, that “provided the just laws of public order are observed…” (DH 4.2). This autonomy implies that religious communities have freedom from government intervention. Civil authorities cannot hinder various community activities including education, promotion of religious leaders, communications within religious communities, and establishing places of worship (DH 4.3).[13] Religious communities are to be governed by their own norms (within the limits of natural law), allowed to hold public worship, and assist and instruct members according to their own religious principles (DH 4.2).


The external expression of religion into civil space likewise means that government cannot hinder public religious education and bearing witness to one’s faith publicly, whether as an individual or community (DH 4.4). The public manifestation of religion demonstrates the special value in religious communities and organizations in helping order culture and society. Furthermore, communities and individuals have a right to meet and discuss world engagement from their religious perspective (DH 4.5).


Section Endnotes

[1] Gaudium et Spes 32.

[2] Gaudium et Spes 32, Lumen Gentium 9.

[3] Gaudium et Spes 24.

[4] Ibid, 25.

[5] Ibid, 74.

[6] Ibid, 74. Cf. “The attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of civil authorities.” John XXIII, Pacem in terris 54.

[7] Gaudium et Spes 74.

[8] “Since the common welfare of society consists in the entirety of those conditions of social life under which men enjoy the possibility of achieving their own perfection in a certain fullness of measure and also with some relative ease, it chiefly consists in the protection of the rights, and in the performance of the duties, of the human person.” DH 6.1.

[9] John XXIII, Pacem in terris 56. John XXIII quotes here Leo XIII: “Furthermore, the civil power must not be subservient to the advantage of any one individual or of some few persons, inasmuch as it was established for the common good of all.” Immortale Dei 5.

[10] John XXIII, Pacem in terris 55.

[11] The common good “can neither be defined according to arbitrary ideas nor can it accept for its standard primarily the material prosperity of society, but rather it should be defined according to the harmonious development and the natural perfection of man. It is for this perfection that society is designed by the Creator as a means.” Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus 59.

[12] Pavan, Commentary on The Documents of Vatican II, vol 4, 70.

[13] “Whoever wishes to see banished from church and school the Biblical history and the wise doctrines of the Old Testament, blasphemes the name of God, blasphemes the Almighty's plan of salvation, and makes limited and narrow human thought the judge of God's designs over the history of the world: he denies his faith in the true Christ, such as He appeared in the flesh, the Christ who took His human nature from a people that was to crucify Him; and he understands nothing of that universal tragedy of the Son of God who to His torturer's sacrilege opposed the divine and priestly sacrifice of His redeeming death, and made the new alliance the goal of the old alliance, its realization and its crown.” Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge 16.

5.1: The Religious Freedom of the Family


Families are societies of their own under the guidance of the parents. Parents therefore possess a right to give their children religious education and freely choose the school of their choice for their children. “Parents… have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.”[1] This entails that if a state requires parents to contribute to an education system, there must be allowance for the parents to choose a religious education for their children if so desired.[2] The domain of family religious life is also protected from civil authority.[3] Parental religious freedom is violated if children are forced to attend courses or lectures against their religion or if the state imposes a single education system that excludes all religious formation.


Parents who are earnest and conscious of their educative duties, have a primary right to the education of the children God has given them in the spirit of their Faith, and according to its prescriptions. Laws and measures which in school questions fail to respect this freedom of the parents go against natural law, and are immoral. The Church, whose mission it is to preserve and explain the natural law, as it is divine in its origin, cannot but declare that the recent enrollment into schools organized without a semblance of freedom, is the result of unjust pressure, and is a violation of every common right.[4]


Section Endnotes

[1] Gravissimum Educationis 6.

[2] “These rights of the parents - which are also their duties - are also violated if they are formally recognized by law but are prevented from being exercised in fact. This is the case if all members of a society without distinction are forced to contribute to an educational system designed for all, without being given the opportunity to education their children according to their particular religious belief.” Pavan, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol 4, 71. 

[3] Cf. Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum 12-14, Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus 61-74 on the rights of the youth and family.


“It has always been the duty of Christian married partners but today it is the greatest part of their apostolate to manifest and prove by their own way of life the indissolubility and sacredness of the marriage bond, strenuously to affirm the right and duty of parents and guardians to educate children in a Christian manner, and to defend the dignity and lawful autonomy of the family. They and the rest of the faithful, therefore, should cooperate with men of good will to ensure the preservation of these rights in civil legislation and to make sure that governments give due attention to the needs of the family regarding housing, the education of children, working conditions, social security, and taxes; and that in policy decisions affecting migrants their right to live together as a family should be safeguarded.” Apostolicam Actuositatem 11.

[4] Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge 31. Further “If the State organizes a national youth, and makes this organization obligatory to all, then, without prejudice to rights of religious associations, it is the absolute right of youths as well as of parents to see to it that this organization is purged of all manifestations hostile to the Church and Christianity.” Ibid, 33.


“The crime of high treason against the "King of kings and Lord of lords" (I Timothy vi. 15; cf. Apocalypse xix. 6) perpetrated by an education that is either indifferent or opposed to Christianity, the reversal of "Suffer the little children to come unto me" (Saint Matthew xix, 14), would bear most bitter fruits.” Pius XII, Summi pontificatus 68.


“Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, "at least equal rights"; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.” Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum 13.

6: The Care of Religious Freedom

6.1 Defining Common Good


Dignitatis Humanae first restates the definition of common good found in Gaudium et Spes, that “the common good of society consists in the sum total of those conditions of social life which enable men to achieve a fuller measure of perfection with greater ease.” (DH 6.1).[1] The duties the common good thus demand chiefly consists in the protection of rights and the dignity of the human person.[2]


The argument can be presented syllogistically:

  1. All have the duty to promote the common good

  2. The common good includes the right to religious freedom

  3. Therefore all have the duty to promote the right to religious freedom

“All” is defined by Dignitatis Humanae to be “the whole citizenry”, social groups, governments, “the Church and other religious communities…” (DH 6.1). The Council adds an important clarification, that each just listed are to defend the right to religious freedom “in the manner proper to each.” (DH 6.1). The Flannery translation renders this passage as “each of these has its own special responsibility in the matter according to its particular duty.” (DH 6.1).[3] In other words, individuals, societies, governments and religious institutions all have their own unique and proper way of responding and fulfilling their duties towards the right to religious freedom. The remainder of article 6 is devoted to the particular responsibilities the civil government has to the right.


6.2 The Duties of the State


The Council teaches here that amongst the government’s essential duties is the “protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man…” (DH 6.2).[4] If we recall the teaching of Gaudium et Spes,[5] we can formulate the argument as:

  1. The political community exists for the sake of the common good (GS 74)[6]

  2. The common good consists chiefly of the protection of man’s rights (DH 6.1)

  3. Therefore the political community exists for protecting man’s rights (which includes the right to religious freedom)


The new content here is that the government does not strictly have a negative relationship to these rights of only protection understood as a freedom from; rather Dignitatis Humanae also attributes a positive relationship between civil authorities and man’s rights, the promotion of rights.


This affirmation that the government ought to promote man’s rights is another rejection of the neutralist model, for it follows that the government has the duty to promote and protect religion and religious freedom.[7] Therefore the “government is also to help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties…” (DH 6.2).


Dignitatis Humanae then argues that it is in the state’s best interest to promote religious freedom not only so that its citizens can exercise this right and fulfill their religious duties, but that religion also positively contributes to the good of society itself, such that “society itself may enjoy the goods of justice and peace that come from men’s fidelity to God and his holy will.” (DH 6.2). This was famously argued in St. Augustine’s City of God and developed in Leo XIII’s encyclicals.[8]


Hence the state has three duties towards religion: one, to take religion into account and favor it; two, to guarantee and protect this right; and third, to promote and foster religion.[9]


6.3 The Question of Established Religion


Let us now consider this important statement:

If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special recognition to one religious community in the constitutional organization of a state, it is necessary that at the same time in a matter of the right to freedom of religion of all citizens and religious communities to be recognized and made effective in practice. (DH 6.3).


The Council teaches here that even in the case of an established religion the right to religious freedom must still be respected of those who are not members of the state sponsored religion. This is generalized for any religion but it possesses a particular meaning for Catholic thought since political Christendom was the model of political theology. This paragraph is an indirect reference to political Christendom, though political Christendom is not directly addressed by Dignitatis Humanae or any other Vatican II documents.


There is thus a silence within Dignitatis Humanae on the subject of political Christendom. How are we supposed to interpret this silence? Some undoubtedly interpret this passage as merely a bone thrown to the traditionalists and hence are disappointed over the absence of any treatment of the subject. This however is an erroneous interpretation, for the purpose of Dignitatis Humanae was never to address the question of political Christendom, but to develop recent doctrine on rights by explicating the right to religious freedom (DH 1.3, 2.1).


At the very least at this time we can assert that Dignitatis Humanae understands itself to not be in conflict with some interpretation of political Christendom since the imperative to respect religious freedom is still valid even in a country where Catholicism is the established religion. We can also note however that the silence about political Christendom implies that the Council wished in some respect to move away from this model of the state.[10] Yves Congar explicitly identifies this as a need of the Council.[11] Joseph Ratzinger was even more critical.[12]


Historically, political Christendom was one of the hot button topics in the debates on religious freedom.[13] The teaching on Dignitatis Humanae here represents a microrupture since it breaks away from traditional theological view of the state pre-Vatican II as expressed in the Papal encyclicals. Political Christendom is not acknowledged except obliquely. It is not explicitly endorsed and a superficial glance at Dignitatis Humanae and the pre-Vatican II teachings appears to imply a contradiction. This seeming contradiction which both sides of the debates acknowledged arises from the rejection of certain principles the objectors defended while rejected by the Council fathers, principles which were used to justify the traditional teaching of political Christendom.[14]


Overall, the silence within the text of Dignitatis Humanae is at least a rejection of the traditionalist understanding of political Christendom. A source for further investigation is whether political Christendom can be reinterpreted in a manner consistent with the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae. Within Vatican II there was an acknowledgement of some of the Council fathers of a real need to move away from this model. Alberigo comments that “Vatican II drew inspiration for its own decisions from an awareness that the phase known as Christendom was now past…”[15] Interestingly, Alberigo notes that this transition was in part acceptable because familiarity with the views of Jacques Maritain.[16]


6.4 Equality Before the Law


The common good consists chiefly of man’s rights and his dignity. Another element of the common good however is equality before the law. Since equality is an element, it too cannot be violated and so unjust discrimination is condemned. Governments cannot violate equality, even for religious reasons. Equality can be further defended based on the fact that religious freedom is based on human nature which is common to all men, making it a universal ground for equal protection of rights for all of humanity.


6.5 Violations of Religious Freedom


Religious freedom can be violated in many ways including: one, by force or psychological coercion the profession or repudiation of any religion; two, hindering individuals from joining or leaving a religious community; three, repression or destruction of religion in the whole of humanity, a particular country or religious community. 


There are two interesting points, one that the Declaration uses the phrase “public power” instead of “civil power”. Religious freedom can be violated by other religions, social organizations, individuals, and of course the state. The text here is using a broader term than the previous three paragraphs which were limited to only the civil powers. This raises a second point concerning historically concerning religions including Catholics who violated religious liberty. The Declaration will later make an admission of guilt about this point.


Section Endnotes

[1] Flannery translation, 803. Note the similarity between this formulation given in Dignitatis Humanae and the following from Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei 6: “Hence, civil society, established for the common welfare, should not only safeguard the well-being of the community, but have also at heart the interests of its individual members, in such mode as not in any way to hinder, but in every manner to render as easy as may be, the possession of that highest and unchangeable good for which all should seek.”

[2] “Cum societatis commune bonum, quod est summa earum vitae socialis condicionum, quibus homines suam ipsorum perfectionem possunt plenius atque expeditius consequi, maxime in humanae personae servatis iuribus et officiis consistat...” DH 6.1.

“Sed ad hos optatos exitus quo facilius pervehatur, debent qui publicae rei praesunt compertam habere rectam de communi omnium bono notionem, quae summam complectitur earum vitae socialis condicionum, quibus homines suam ipsorum perfectionem possint plenius atque expeditius consequi.” John XXIII, Mater et Magistra 65.

“Quae sane principia definite concludere haec sententia videtur Nostrarum Litterarum Encyclicarum, Mater et Magistra, qua in medio posuimus, commune omnium bonum ‘summam complecti earum vitae socialis condicionum, quibus homines suam ipsorum perfectionem possent plenius atque expeditius consequi’.” John XXIII Pacem in terris 58.

[3] Flannery, 804.

[4] The Council here cites John XXIII: “It is generally accepted today that the common good is best safeguarded when personal rights and duties are guaranteed. The chief concern of civil authorities must therefore be to ensure that these rights are recognized, respected, co-ordinated, defended and promoted, and that each individual is enabled to perform his duties more easily. For ‘to safeguard the inviolable rights of the human person, and to facilitate the performance of his duties, is the principal duty of every public authority.’” Pacem in terris 60, cf Pius XII Radio message, Dec. 22, 1964.


We can add further sources: “It [The State] has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people…” John XXIII, Mater et Magistra 20.

[5] “The political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its inherent legitimacy.” Gaudium et Spes 74.

[6] “As for the State, its whole raison d'etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order.” John XXIII, Mater et Magistra 20.

[7] “So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, would hold in honour the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favour religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule.” Leo XIII, Immortale Dei 6.


Pius XII repeats Leo XIII’s teaching that the state “should aid” citizens” to reach their supernatural end.” Summi Pontificatus 58.

[8] The Council cites: “The Catholic Church, that imperishable handiwork of our all-merciful God, has for her immediate and natural purpose the saving of souls and securing our happiness in heaven. Yet, in regard to things temporal, she is the source of benefits as manifold and great as if the chief end of her existence were to ensure the prospering of our earthly life.” Leo XIII, Immortale Dei 1.


Leo XIII gives an extended argument for this in Diuturnum 17-19. Elsewhere “Religion, of its essence, is wonderfully helpful to the State. For, since it derives the prime origin of all power directly from God Himself, with grave authority it charges rulers to be mindful of their duty, to govern without injustice or severity, to rule their people kindly and with almost paternal charity; it admonishes subjects to be obedient to lawful authority, as to the ministers of God; and it binds them to their rulers, not merely by obedience, but by reverence and affection, forbidding all seditious and venturesome enterprises calculated to disturb public order and tranquility, and cause greater restrictions to be put upon the liberty of the people. We need not mention how greatly religion conduces to pure morals, and pure morals to liberty. Reason shows, and history confirms the fact, that the higher the morality of States; the greater are the liberty and wealth and power which they enjoy.” Leo XIII, Libertas 22.

[9] Pavan, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol 4, 72.

[10] Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 4, 127-130.

[11] “In the old position there were elements of a ‘theologico-political treatise’ that was bound up with an age, with Christendom and its consequences, and that needed to be criticized; we needed to extricate ourselves from it.” Congar, My Journal

[12] “The debate on religious liberty will in later years be considered one of the most important events of a Council already rich enough in important events. To use the catch-phrase once again, there was in St. Peter’s the sense that here was the end of the Middle Ages, the end even of the Constantinian age. Few things had hurt the Church so much in the last 150 years as its tenacious clinging to outmoded political-religious positions.” Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 95.

[13] See Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 4, 96-134.

[14] One such principle the objectors used was the notion that truth was a rights bearer.

[15] Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 5, 545.

[16] See ibid, 546n8.

7.1-7.3 The Limits of Religious Freedom


Since religious freedom is exercised in society it is subject to norms. This exercise requires both the responsibility of individuals and societies. These regulatory norms are nothing other than natural law, through which man and society are duty bound to respect the rights of others and the duties towards others and the common good (DH 7.1-7.2).


Religious freedom is limited in scope. It does not possess absolute autonomy from society for society “has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion.” (DH 7.3). This autonomy is limited precisely by the demands of moral law. Therefore a distinction is introduced. When society suffers abuses from purported reasons of religious freedom, the Council used the term pretext. Religious freedom is no longer religious freedom with it is the supposed justification for societal abuses because authentic religious freedom can never step outside the moral order and still be valid. Religious freedom is based on the dignity of the human person and so when people attack human dignity in the name of religion, it is in reality a perversion of this right which should be corrected.


The government has the special positive duty to defend society against these abuses. This duty is reserved for the government alone. Up to this point Dignitatis Humanae has mainly listed negative duties of the state towards religious freedom. The state thus has two the positive duties towards religion and religious freedom as the protector of society from those who pervert religious freedom and abuse society, and as a promoter of religion and religious liberty.


The government in the exercise of this positive duty of protector has its own responsibilities for the government cannot act arbitrarily nor out of unjust partisanship. This positive duty must always be exercised within “juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order.” (DH 7.3). In other words, the exercise of this responsibility must respect natural law. This was a clarification made by Wojtyła looking back at the communist suppression of religion in Poland.[1]


The Council next outlines the scope of these juridical norms based on four needs: one, the need to safeguard the rights of all citizens; two, the need for peaceful resolution of conflict; three, the need for supporting genuine public peace; and for, the need to properly guard public morality. These four needs “constitute a fundamental part of the common good” which falls “under the category of public order.” (DH 7.3). The specification of genuine public peace was made to avoid the notion of a mere absence of public unrest like what is found in totalitarian states.[2]


The article ends with a restatement of a principle from canon law. There are elements of the common good besides the four needs just explained. These are to be regulated in a manner which man’s freedom is given as full of an acknowledgement as possible that is not restricted except when necessary (DH 7.3).[3]


Section Endnotes

[1] Renewal Within Tradition, 368fn4.

[2] Pavan, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol 4, 75.

[3] The Council gives the following footnote: “This statement expresses in different words the following well-known rule of canon law, which derives its meaning from Roman law: ‘whatever is burdensome should be restricted; whatever is favorable should be increased.’ Cf V. Bartoccetti, De regulis iuris canonici (Rome: Angelo Belardetti, 1955), 73.”, from Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, 29.

8.1-8.3 Education in the Use of Freedom


The Council ends chapter one with a brief meditation on the misuses of freedom. The dangers of misusing freedom include: one, coercive pressure such that the danger arises that men lose the capacity of acting under self-judgment; two, rebellion against authority; three, reduction of the importance of obedience. These three dangers listed can be also dangers advanced under the pretext of religious freedom.


To combat these dangers the Council affirms that it is the duty of all men, and particularly educators, to form and shape the human person towards the following ends: one, respect natural law; two, respect civil authority; three, become lovers of true freedom who are those “who will come to decisions on their own judgment and in light of truth, govern their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive after what is true and right, willing always to join with others in cooperative effort.” (DH 8).


The Council Fathers here introduced a dialectic between true and false freedom. The criterion for determining authentically true freedom is always the marks of obedience to natural law and truth itself. When one errors into the above mentioned dangers he or she never acts out of authentic and true freedom, for these dangers are opposed to truth and its duties, obedience and fundamentally natural law. These dangers are hence manifestations of a false freedom that is opposed to man’s dignity.

Chapter 2: Religious Freedom in the Light of Revelation


This chapter heading for the second and last chapter of Dignitatis Humanae is a one summary of the remainder of the document. The first chapter gave more of a philosophical sketch of the right to religious freedom; the task of the second chapter is to provide a theological basis for religious freedom.


9.1: The Teaching on Religious Freedom has its Roots in Revelation


Article 9 is in some ways a summarization of the proceeding articles. It begins by recalling the teaching that the right to religious freedom “has its foundation in the dignity of the human person…” (DH 9). From here the Fathers proceed to state that religious freedom also has its roots in Revelation, and as such all Christians therefore have the duty to faithfully observe it. The problem is this: The Council claimed that this right has roots in revelation, and yet “revelation does not indeed affirm in so many words the right of man to immunity from external coercion in matters religious.” (DH 9). This right to religious freedom in some respect must represent a development in the Church’s own understanding of revelation of something already found within the deposit of faith.


The general theological principles from Revelation the Council Fathers utilized to provide the framework for religious liberty are: one, that revelation has taught human dignity “in its full dimensions”; two, Christ respects man’s freedom whether to fulfill one’s duty towards God; three, this is the same attitude adopted by Christ’s disciples. Thus if this foundation is valid, then “religious freedom… is entirely consonant with the freedom of the act of the Christian faith.” (DH 9). We must now understand what is the freedom involved in making the act of faith.

10.1: The Freedom of the Act of Faith

A major tenet of Catholicism is that the act of faith itself must be free. The act of faith and embracement of God is a voluntary action which necessarily must be freed of coercion. Footnote 7 of the text gives a lengthy number of Patristic sources on this teaching.[1] Footnote 8 cites Pius XII including Mystici Corpus Christi:[2]


Though We desire this unceasing prayer to rise to God from the whole Mystical Body in common, that all the straying sheep may hasten to enter the one fold of Jesus Christ, yet We recognize that this must be done of their own free will for; no one believes unless he wills to believe. Hence they are most certainly not genuine Christians who against their belief are forced to go into a church, to approach the altar and to receive the Sacraments; for the “faith without which it is impossible to please God” is an entirely free “submission of intellect and will.” Therefore, whenever it happens, despite the constant teaching of this Apostolic See, that anyone is compelled to embrace the Catholic faith against his will, Our sense of duty demands that We condemn the act.[3]


Pius XII’s words here cite Vatican I’s Dei Filius which states that the act of faith requires the submission of intellect and will. This was put rather forcefully in canon 5: “If anyone shall have said that the assent of the Christian faith is not free… let him be anathema.”[4]


Hence “the act of faith is of its very nature a free act.” (DH 10).[5] It follows from this that in religious matters the act of faith cannot be coerced. Religious freedom then helps establish an environment within which man can give free assent to God and the Catholic faith. This contribution is not insignificant or little.


Section Endnotes

[1] This footnote numbering corresponds to the English edition on the Vatican website and Flannery translation. This same footnote is number 12 in the translation found in Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity.

[2] See previous footnote. The Council also refers to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, 1351: “No one unwilling is to be coerced into embracing the Catholic faith.” Trans. Edward Peters, Ignatius Press 2001. Further cited is Pius XII’s “Allocution to prelate auditors and other officials and administrators of the Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota” Oct 6, 1946: AAS 38 (1946), 394: “In accordance with the principles of Catholic teaching, conversion should be the result not of external constraints but of the soul’s adherence to the truths taught by the Catholic Church. This is why the Catholic Church admits to herself adults who seek to enter or return to her only on the condition that they are fully conscious of the significance and consequences of the act they wish to make.” quoted from Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, 31.

[3] Mystici Corporis Christi 104.

[4] Dei Filius Ch 3, canon 5.

[5] “The Church strictly forbids forcing anyone to embrace the Faith, or alluring or enticing people by worrisome wiles.” AG 13.

11: Christ’s and the Apostle’s Way of Acting


In article 3 the Council taught that all men have the duty to seek the truth, and especially religious truth. This requires that man enjoys his freedom guided by his own judgment. Truth in general and religious truth in particular requires free inquiry and free assent of the human person for these are personal acts of the acting person. Therefore man must not be coerced but free to follow his conscience. These truths are restated at the beginning of the article. The Council Fathers are now going to argue how this is manifested in Scripture “at its height” through the example of Jesus Christ who is to be our model (DH 11.1).


Christ our Lord was “meet and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29)[1] who attracted and invited men to follow Him “using patience” (DH 11.1, cf. Mt 11:28-30). Christ performed miracles to illuminate and establish his teachings. The purpose of these performances were to rouse faith, not coerce it (Mt 9:28-29; Mk 9:23-24; 6:5-6).[2] He gave the parable of the weeds amongst the wheat, which ordered the allowance of both to grow side by side until the harvest (Mt 13:30,40-42). Even with this allowance however, it is not an excuse for complacency since Jesus denounced those who lacked faith and made clear the eternal consequences (Mk 16:16).[3] In acting this way Jesus presented the truth in a manner such that it was truth itself which compelled people. No one was coerced to believe but are instead called by God to serve in spirit and truth. Man is thus bound by conscience. God respects man such that man is led by his own counsel and judgment in his own freedom.


Christ “refused to be a political Messiah.” (DH 11.1). The Jews in Jesus’ time were looking for political liberation from the Romans. Jesus instead came for spiritual freedom, man’s salvation. This simple statement is first a rejection of some modern scholarship which politicized Him. On the other hand this simple fact is a profound source of meditation for investigation.


The Jews believed Jesus was to establish an earthly kingdom, His followers and enemies believed thus. Did not Jesus’ accusers claim He was rebelling against the state with his own political ends in mind?[4] This error however Jesus refuted vigorously, for He preferred death over an earthly kingdom. He followed God’s will versus mammon. By dying on the Cross Christ answered with an absolute no to Satan’s third temptation in the wilderness.[5] It was on the Cross that Christianity’s political domination over the state was rejected.[6]


The early Church followed Christ’s lead. Christ said to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.[7] Man has the duty to obey the state except when the state becomes unjust in its exercise of power. Obedience is a duty.[8] To disobey the will of the state is to disobey the will of God.[9] Many of the early followers were martyred, preferring Christ over disobedience. They did not seek political revolution through violence, riots, uprisings and political demonstrations, but through a martyr’s death. They demonstrated by marching through the street escorted by soldiers, chained but free, powerless but all powerful, for they followed God’s will.


Sometimes the powerful ones of earth are good and fear God; at other times they fear Him not. Julian was an emperor unfaithful to God, an apostate, a pervert, an idolator. Christian soldiers served this faithless emperor, but as soon as there was question of the cause of Jesus Christ they recognized only Him who was in heaven. Julian commanded them to honor idols and offer them incense, but they put God above the prince. However, when he made them form into ranks and march against a hostile nation, they obeyed instantly. They distinguished the eternal from the temporal master and still in view of the eternal Master they submitted to such a temporal master.[10]


Through His death Christ bore witness to the truth yet did not impose the truth with force, not even against those who rejected Him.[11] The validity of Christ’s claims is their truthfulness itself: “for his kingdom is not claimed by force of blows, but is established by bearing witness to and listening to the truth, and it grows through the love by which Christ, lifted up on the Cross, draws men to himself.” (DH 11.1).[12]


The Apostles and early Church followed the example of Christ, working for man’s conversion not through coercion but by the power of the word of God. They respected even those who lived in error for each must give an account to God, meaning that each is bound by his or her conscience (DH 11.2). The Apostles relied only on the Word and the power of its truth, presenting it with the same attitude of meekness and modesty of Christ. Man must obey the state’s authority and yet God has a higher claim on him.[13]


Section Endnotes

[1] The verses cited here are references given in the footnotes of Dignitatis Humanae which I placed in the text here.

[2] Ecclesiam Suam 75: “No physical pressure was brought on anyone to accept the dialogue of salvation; far from it. It was an appeal of love. True, it imposed a serious obligation on those toward whom it was directed but it left them free to respond to it or to reject it. Christ adapted the number of His miracles and their demonstrative force to the dispositions and good will of His hearers so as to help them to consent freely to the revelation they were given and not to forfeit the reward for their consent.”

[3] Cf Mt 11:20-24; Rom 12:19-20; 2 Th 1:18.

[4] Luke 23:2; Jn 19:12-15.

[5] Matt 4:8-10.

[6] Leo XIII, Au Milieu des Sollicitudes 9-11.

[7] Matt 22:21.

[8] Leo XIII, Au Milieu des Sollicitudes 16.

[9] “They who resist State authority resist the divine will... they who refuse honor to rulers refuse it to God Himself.” Leo XIII, Diuturnum 13.

[10] St. Augustine, quoted by Leo XIII in Au Milieu des Sollicitudes 24.

[11] John 18:37.

[12] Quoted from Freedom, Truth and Human Dignity, 19.

[13] Rom 13:1-5; Acts 5:29.

12.1-2 The Church Follows in the Footsteps of Christ and the Apostles


This way of Christ and the Apostles traced out in article 11 is the path the Church faithfully follows and is the scriptural grounds for religious freedom. We must emphasize here that the Council is explicitly stating itself being “faithful to the truth of the Gospel” by following this path of Christ and the Apostles in acknowledging that religious liberty is “consonant with the dignity of man and the revelation of God.” (DH 12.1).[1] Either the Council here is explicitly teaching error or those who prefer their own judgments in calling this doctrine false are wrong. The Council is again reaffirming clearly that this new teaching being developed is consistent with the faith.


After this statement the Council also reaffirms that the Church has carefully and faithfully protected the deposit of faith. This is a reassertion of the fact that the true religion subsists within the Catholic Church and that it is she who has been given the authority to teach and interpret the deposit of faith.


In the immediate sentence thereafter the Council explicitly acknowledges the failure of Catholics to live up to these demands of the Gospel in the past. This is an admission of guilt that some Catholics have violated religious freedom and acted opposed even to the Gospel (DH 12.1). It must also be noted that this guilt does not abrogate the Church’s teaching authority for it remains still entirely valid. The Church we are informed has nonetheless remained faithful and steadfast in teaching that no one is to be coerced into making an act of faith.


The next paragraph describes this teaching as leaven at work quietly throughout history. It is due “in large measure” to this leaven that modern man’s strivings and search for religious freedom and greater consciousness of his own dignity came about (DH 12.2, cf DH 1.1).


Section Endnotes

[1] Quoted from Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, 21.

13:1-3 The Freedom of the Church.


The Church is to “enjoy as much freedom in acting as the care of man’s salvation may demand.” (DH 13.1).[1] This freedom of the Church is sacred, being divinely endowed by Christ. “This freedom is so proper to the Church that whoever opposes it acts against the will of God.” (DH 13.1).[2] This freedom of the Church is the “foundational principle” regulating the relationship between the Church, and the state and civil society.


This freedom is further elaborated in the next paragraph. The Church enjoys two basic fundamental freedoms. The Church was given the divine command to go preach Christ to all nations and creatures,[3] and so she claims the freedom to act accordingly; this is a freedom to evangelize. The second freedom is that the Church has the right to live in civil society “according to the precepts of the Christian faith.” (DH 13.2).[4] The freedom and rights of the Church have been defended by previous popes.[5] The Church has these rights because the Church herself is “the pillar of truth”, the spiritual authority established by Christ.[6]


These two freedoms place demands and responsibilities upon the state requiring that the Church enjoys: one, the independence to evangelize; two, experience stability in society in law and as a lived fact; three, the Christian in faith is free to act in conformity with his or her conscience.


The Council then makes the following important claim: “A harmony therefore exists between the freedom of the Church and the religious freedom that must be acknowledged as a right of all persons and communities and sanctioned by juridical law.” (DH 13.3).[7]


Why is there a harmony between the Church’s liberty and duty to evangelize and religious freedom? To answer this we can ask a similar question: what would be lost if the freedom of religion was not acknowledged or defended? Ratzinger recalls Bishop Vega’s argument in his book on Vatican II.[8] Vega argued that this freedom to evangelize presupposes a general freedom of religious testimony. The freedom to evangelize is universal and requires the freedom to believe. To reject this freedom to believe is therefore a contradiction for the act of faith itself is a free act. The freedom to evangelize therefore gives an “intrinsic basis for the idea of religious liberty…”[9]  We find this reasoning within the text itself when we read that “it comes within the meaning of religious freedom that religious communities should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity.” (DH 4.5).


One must make a hermeneutical point here concerning understanding the scope of Dignitatis Humanae. De Smedt has repeatedly said in the debates that the scope of the text was to give a general teaching on religious freedom and not assume the task of giving teachings on the rights of the Church.[10] Article 13 is the only place in the text where the rights of the Church are given any substantive treatment in the text, and only in order to demonstrate the coherence of religious freedom with the rights of the Church. It remains to be developed further a theology of these rights.


The principles established in the document are at the same time very closely connected with the ecclesiology of the Council. They provide maxims for the exercise of ecclesial authority in the Church itself, and a juridical organization of areas of freedom within the Church. These last-mentioned aspects are not, however, developed in the document; they are conclusions that follow from the principles elaborated and the conceptual clarifications given in the document.[11]


Section Endnotes

[1] Quoted from Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, 21. The Council here cites Leo XIII: “Of the rights of the Church that it is Our duty everywhere and always to maintain and defend against all injustice, the first is certainly that of enjoying the full freedom of action she may need in working for the salvation of souls. This is a divine liberty, having as its author the only Son of God, Who by shedding of blood, gave birth to the Church Who established it until the end of time, and chose Himself to be its Head. This liberty is so essential to the Church, a perfect and divine institution, that they who attack this liberty at the same time offend against God and their duty.” Officio Sanctissimo 13.

[2] Quoted from Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, 21.

[3] “Accordingly We, as representatives on earth of Him Who was proclaimed by the Prophet "Prince of Peace" appeal to the rulers of the peoples, and to those who can in any way influence public life, to let the Church have full liberty to fulfill her role as educator by teaching men truth, by inculcating justice and inflaming hearts with the Divine Love of Christ.” Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus 95.

[4] Quoted from Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, 23. “All the rights which essentially belong to a society that is legitimate, supreme, and perfect in all its parts exist in the Church.” Leo XIII Libertas 40. “Christ our Lord instituted His Church as a perfect society…” Pius XI, Mortalium Animos 6. Pius XII also described the Church as a perfect society in Mystici Corporis Christi 63, 65, 68. In Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei 12 the Church is described as a civil sovereignty.


The Council cites Pius XI: “Once this gradation of values and activities is established, it must be admitted that for Christian life to develop itself it must have recourse to external and sensible means; that the Church, being a society of men, cannot exist or develop if it does not enjoy liberty of action, and that its members have the right to find in civil society the possibility of living according to the dictates of their consciences.” Firmissimam Constantiam 26.

[5] “Besides, there is involved another right of the Church equally inviolable — the right to fulfil the imperative Divine Commission entrusted to her by her Divine Founder, to bring to souls, to bring to every soul, and the treasures of truth and of good, doctrinal and practical, which He Himself brought to the world. “Going therefore teach ye all nations . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 23:19, 20).” Pius XI, Non Abbiamo Bisogno 42.


Pius IX condemned the following view in the Syllabus of Errors: “The Church is not a true and perfect society, entirely free- nor is she endowed with proper and perpetual rights of her own, conferred upon her by her Divine Founder; but it appertains to the civil power to define what are the rights of the Church, and the limits within which she may exercise those rights.” Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors 19.


Elsewhere he states: “There is also something else that holy priests ought to do. They must defend the liberty of the Catholic Church and manfully fight in defense of the rights with which His Church has been divinely endowed.” Pius IX, Maximae Quidem 3.


These rights of the Church Leo XIII states are such that she  “has not the power even to relinquish the conditions of true liberty and sovereign independence with which Providence has endowed her in the general interest of souls…” Leo XIII, Au Milieu des Sollicitudes 17. See also Leo XIII’s Inscrutabili Dei Consilio 12 and Diuturnum 25.


“In her very early days, the holy Church added the agape to the Eucharistic supper and thus showed itself to be wholly united around Christ by the bond of charity. So, too, in every era it is recognized by this sign of love, and while it rejoices in the undertakings of others, it claims works of charity as its own inalienable duty and right.” Apostolicam Actuositatem 8.


[6] DH 13.2. “In faith and in the teaching of morality, God Himself made the Church a partaker of His divine authority, and through His heavenly gift she cannot be deceived. She is therefore the greatest and most reliable teacher of mankind, and in her swells an inviolable right to teach them. Sustained by the truth received from her divine Founder, the Church has ever sought to fulfill holily the mission entrusted to her by God; unconquered by the difficulties on all sides surrounding her, she has never ceased to assert her liberty of teaching, and in this way the wretched superstition of paganism being dispelled, the wide world was renewed unto Christian wisdom.” Leo XIII, Libertas 27.

[7] Quoted from Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, 23.

[8] Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 145.

[9] Ibid, 145.

[10] Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 5, 104, 118.

[11] Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 5, 451.

14.1-14.4 The Task of the Church


Article 14 lists the several tasks for the followers of Christ which are: one, to evangelize; two, pray for all men and their salvation; three, form their conscience according to the Magisterium’s teachings; four, be witnesses of Christ, especially towards those outside the Church; five, to seek the truth and inwardly appropriate it daily; six, to proclaim and defend the truth lovingly;[1] seven, one must take into account his duties to Christ and the rights of his fellow men. We will consider points three, six, and seven in this order.


Dignitatis Humanae teaches that the Christian is to form their conscience by carefully attending to “the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church.” (DH 14.3). Christ willed the Catholic Church to be the teacher of truth. As teacher the Church has the duty to proclaim and authoritatively teach Christ who is the truth and with her authority “declare and confirm… the principles of the moral order that flow from human nature.” (DH 14.3).[2]


The Council Fathers declared in article 2 that man has a right to religious freedom and that this freedom is grounded in human nature, in the dignity of the human person. Since religious freedom is a principle based on human nature the Council here is giving an authoritative teaching. Syllogistically:

  1. The Church declares and confirms with her authority the principles   flowing from human nature

  2. One such principle the Council has declared thus is religious freedom

  3. Therefore the Church teaches with authority the principle of religious freedom.


We can formulate a second argument.


  1. Christ willed the Catholic Church to teach the truth with authority

  2. The Church teaches with authority the principle of religious freedom as a truth

  3. Therefore Christ willed the Catholic Church to teach religious freedom.


In the formation of Catholic consciences therefore, one has a duty to form their conscience around the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae as a part of the Church’s “sacred and certain teachings.” Failure to do so not only is disobedience to the Church and Christ’s will, but is an objective stance of the believer against the truth itself. Religious freedom is an element of the content of truth which the believer must seek and form his daily life around. The failure to do so as a Christian entails a failure of realizing one’s duty to truth, religion, the Church, and ultimately Christ. It is therefore a grave danger to consider rejecting the principle of religious freedom and borderline blasphemous for the Catholic to declare Dignitatis Humanae as heretical.


When we consider the fact that the Christian, and all men in general, has the duty to seek, proclaim, persevere, and defend the truth, these duties of truth in general must be actualized towards religious freedom as an element of truth.

  1. Man has the duty to seek, proclaim, and defend the truth

  2. One truth is the principle of religious freedom

  3. Therefore man has the duty to seek, proclaim, and defend religious freedom


We can formulate a similar argument based on the rights of man.


  1. Man has duties towards the rights of man

  2. One of these rights is religious freedom

  3. Therefore man has duties towards religious freedom


The Christian’s duty to religious freedom is manifold and multidimensional for it demands an intellectual response because it is true, a reverence and respect towards our fellow man because it is grounded in the dignity of the person, and a religious reverence because it is a truth taught by the Church and ultimately Christ.


Section Endnotes

[1] “It is always perfectly justifiable to distinguish between error as such and the person who falls into error—even in the case of men who err regarding the truth or are led astray as a result of their inadequate knowledge, in matters either of religion or of the highest ethical standards. A man who has fallen into error does not cease to be a man. He never forfeits his personal dignity; and that is something that must always be taken into account. Besides, there exists in man's very nature an undying capacity to break through the barriers of error and seek the road to truth. God, in His great providence, is ever present with His aid. Today, maybe, a man lacks faith and turns aside into error; tomorrow, perhaps, illumined by God's light, he may indeed embrace the truth.” John XXIII Pacem in Terris 158.

[2] Quoted from Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, 23.

15 Conclusion


Dignitatis Humanae concludes itself by first noting the status of religious freedom around the world. Next it speaks of the importance of this right. The Council first implores Catholics to consider the necessity of religious freedom, and secondly she entreats all nations to give “effective juridical protection” to the right and observe it (DH 15.2). The Council also specifies that the right to religious freedom is the highest of “duties and rights of men and woman…” (DH 15.2). The document ends with a prayer that through religious freedom man finds his salvation in God.


The right to religious freedom as grounded in human nature and truth thus protects man in his dignity as a person. Man cannot be forced to believe, only the truthfulness of truth itself can convince him. One cannot be coerced into a religion, not by an individual, group or the state. Any religion thus organized by force and coercion cannot authentically be personal for “there is nothing human about a society that is welded together by force.”[1] Religion becomes inhuman, antipersonal, the moment it requires coercion for belief.


Section Endnotes

[1] John XXIII, Pacem in terris 34.

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Disputation of the Holy Sacrament by Raphael 
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