Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae
Part IV: Dignitatis Humanae and Marcel Lefebvre:
The Metatheortical Principles Behind the Document
By Jeremy Hausotter
July 27, 2020
Table of Contents
The task before us is the dissection of Marcel Lefebvre’s book, Religious Liberty Questioned. Lefebvre objected to the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae so much that he formed his own “schismatic” movement, the SSPX, in rebellion against the teachings and authority of the Church. His teachings are dissimilated in the radical right “traditionalist” movement who see themselves as the vanguard of authentic Catholicism. But is this so? Does Lefebvre possess a correct interpretation of religious freedom and its interconnected subjects?
In Part III of my commentary we looked at three articles published by the SSPX on their website that stated some of their objections to Dignitatis Humanae. Some of these objections held some plausibility, some were crazy, and others were incompetently formulated to a point where it was not obvious what the author(s) were intending to argue. Some of the theoretical gaps in these articles are supplied by Lefebvre’s book. Religious Liberty Questioned (RLQ) hence will give us insight into some of the various objections of the SSPX which they themselves failed to provide on their website. Some of our themes here will look very similar to Part III but developed further.
The careful reader will note that the subtitle of this part of the commentary is “The Metatheoretical Principles Behind the Document”. The questions Lefebvre raises reach beyond a question of a mere textual analysis itself of Dignitatis Humanae which was mainly our concern before. We must consider questions such as how to understand human dignity and delve deeply into Leonine political theology in order to grasp Dignitatis Humanae’s place in Catholic theology and why Lefebvre’s objections miss their mark.
Chapter 1: The Objection to Dignitatis Humanae Based on Dignity
In Part III an objection was made against Dignitatis Humanae in that the principle of religious freedom could not be based on the dignity of the human person. For those who read this for the first time it may appear as a shock as this is one of the core teachings of the Vatican II document and seems obvious in our rights thinking culture.
Two Kinds of Dignity
The key question is as Lefebvre puts it: “Is the dignity of the human person independent from the choices of that person?” To answer this question Lefebvre invokes the distinction between ontological and operative dignity.
Man’s Ontological Dignity
Man’s ontological dignity “consists mainly in a transcendental orientation to God”, which grounds the duty to search for the truths concerning God and religious truth. It must be noted that Lefebvre states that every person has ontological dignity and this cannot be lost.
This ontological dignity however has suffered damage. Through the Fall of Adam and Eve, man’s faculties of intellect and will have been wounded, which entails that man’s ontological dignity has been damaged by their sin, “a universal degradation that not even the grace of baptism can heal completely in Christians.” The Fall however did not affect all races of men equally, different ethnicities suffered differently, such that
The result is radical inequalities among different people in the concrete natural dignity of persons, inequalities which require unequal treatment from both divine and human authority.
Man’s Operative Dignity
The operative dignity of man is the result of man’s exercise of his faculties of the intellect and will, and hence this dignity is dependent on man’s actions. This dependence on the faculties means that if the faculties achieve their end in goodness and truth, then man becomes more dignified, but if he falls into error and evil, his dignity lessens: “Hence the operative dignity of man will consist in adhering in his actions to truth and goodness…” From this Lefebvre concludes that “There is no real dignity outside of truth.”
Religious Freedom and Dignity According to Lefebvre
Religious liberty is understood by Lefebvre to be a negative right that is an immunity from coercion in worship. This religious liberty is grounded in the dignity of man regardless of truth. The claim is that this same content of religious freedom taught by Vatican II is the same which was condemned by the 19th century papacy: “The content is the same but its foundation will be radically different...:”
Dignitatis Humanae claims that the right to religious freedom is grounded in man’s ontological dignity. According to Lefebvre, however, this is incorrect. Man’s ontological dignity is strictly identified with his will. Religious liberty on the other hand involves a liberty of action (since it is an immunity from coercion), and so it must be founded in man’s operative dignity.
The problem hence arises. The quantification of man’s operative dignity is directly proportional to man’s adherence to truth. Therefore if a person embraces a false religious proposition, he or she loses his or her dignity, and thus why religious freedom cannot be grounded in dignity. If man can lose his dignity, he can then lose his religious freedom if the teachings of Vatican II are correct as they affirm that all men have religious freedom.
This is why Lefebvre argues that it is truth and not dignity that a liberty of religion can be grounded. Truth is in dialectical tension with human dignity. Man’s operative dignity is directly dependent on whether man has embraced truth, and not just any truth but the True religion established by God, the Roman Catholic Church. Human dignity is hence dependent upon whether one is a member of the Church. It is only this dependence by which man finds his dignity: “Only the effective dependence from God and His revealed truth confers on man dignity…” It is only once one embraces these truths that a religious liberty can be found, namely the freedom to practice Catholicism.
First Critique: Human Dignity and Racism?
This discussion highlights a particular tension about human dignity. On the one hand it is clearly affirmed that all people have ontological dignity, yet on the other hand all who do not profess Catholicism but instead one of the false religions does not have human dignity at least in the operative meaning of the term as distinguished by Lefebvre. We can see first of all the grounds for a racism to take hold, not in terms of ethnicities, but of one religion declaring all nonmembers to lack dignity on theological principles. It is a theologized racism that is split across in terms of religious membership and justified according to a particular theological theory. It immediately follows from Lefebvre’s views that non-Catholics lack dignity. Anyone who rejects the Catholic faith has lost his or her operative dignity.
The second problem however is that Lefebvre appears to be inconsistent about whether man loses his ontological dignity as well. When man fell due to the Fall his dignity suffered on the Lefebvre view because ontological dignity is explicitly defined in terms of the will faculty. This means that once the will is impaired, ontological dignity is damaged or lost.
One immediate consequence of this is that it raises several bioethical dilemmas such as if a man suffered brain damage and could not make any life decisions, he has lost his ontological dignity and operative dignity (for now he cannot commit moral actions). Does an infant have ontological dignity or not? Or perhaps the infant is dignified neutrally?
When we read that “Only the effective dependence from God and His revealed truth confers on man dignity…” it is not clarified as to which dignity Lefebvre means. Does this mean that operative dignity can “override” ontological dignity such that man loses his ontological dignity if he loses his operative? The text as it stands to me is unclear. What is clear however is that it is this ambiguity which other SSPX authors have radicalized to the extent that ontological dignity is denied entirely to anyone who is not a member of the Church. In an article by the SSPX on their website for example we read:
We will not be able to deduce then the true dignity of man since this consists in participating in the Divine Nature. Man does not truly possess dignity because he is a man (sinner), but because he has become a son of God by grace. As Archbishop Lefebvre used to say, there is not a dignity of man; there is only the dignity of the Christian.
There is no mention of the distinction Lefebvre made in his book here. There is only one type of dignity discussed and possession of it is contingent upon one’s acceptance of the Catholic faith. We can push this point of the SSPX further. Those who fail to accept the claims of the SSPX concerning their interpretation of the Catholic faith likewise have less dignity versus members of the SSPX.
The denial of human dignity to large groups of people, and in this case billions upon billions, is a kind of racism and the kind of principle by which one could claim to justify actions of violence against those who reject their views. It should hence come as no surprise then that SSPX members see it as a duty to impede other religions, and other groups even more radical even contemplate a “Christian” form of jihad.
We must also point out that when Lefebvre discusses the Fall and how it affected ethnicities differently, such that each has differing degrees of dignity, and so “require unequal treatment from both divine and human authority”, that such a view condones institutionalized racism. With such a theological background it is a small step to argue for institutionalizing discriminatory practices against particular races since they would possess less to no dignity in comparison to the preferred races. This theologized racism should be easily recognized as morally objectionable. There is an equality of dignity among men that is rejected here and it is the rejection of this dignity that should be morally repugnant to everyone.
Second Critique: Gaudium et Spes on Dignity
Against such views is the wisdom of Vatican II. The Council in Gaudium et Spes makes a fundamental distinction between error and the person in error:
it is necessary to distinguish between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions.
The person in error does not lose his or her dignity. Man’s ontological dignity is not dependent upon the possession of a particular faculty nor upon whether he or she accepts certain propositions.
Human dignity is essentially grounded in human nature because of the kind of being a human person is. Dignity is inseparable from personhood. Hence the Council Fathers can declare that:
Since all men possess a rational soul and are created in God's likeness, since they have the same nature and origin, have been redeemed by Christ and enjoy the same divine calling and destiny, the basic equality of all must receive increasingly greater recognition.
Since all men have the same dignity, it follows that all men enjoy the same rights regardless of “sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion” and every type of discrimination is declared contrary to God’s will.
This distinction between the errant and error is directly cited from John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris. Here is the magnificent passage:
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.
Catholics who, in order to achieve some external good, collaborate with unbelievers or with those who through error lack the fullness of faith in Christ, may possibly provide the occasion or even the incentive for their conversion to the truth.
Dignitatis Humanae and Human Dignity
Dignitatis Humanae teaches that the foundation for religious freedom is the dignity of the human person. This dignity is understood to be ontological:
The council further declares that the 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.
The next paragraph uses the phrase “dignity as persons”.
Third Critique: Truth and Dignity
We can see thus a first critique of Lefebvre’s views in that man does not lose his ontological dignity even though man is a fallen being with a damaged nature. Man has dignity because he is a person and as person is Imago Dei. This is directly related to Lefebvre’s identification of possession of particular faculties, i.e. intellect and mainly the will, as the criterion for dignity. Rather it is because man is a person that he has dignity, though partly what makes man a person are these faculties. Man has dignity for being a person, but a person is the type of being who essentially possesses the faculties of free will and intellect. Lefebvre reverses this order by placing the will as a condition for dignity.
There is a more fundamental problem however. Lefebvre also reverses the relationship between man, his dignity, and truth. On Lefebvre’s model man has dignity because he has a will, and man’s operative dignity is found in morally perfective actions, and this is grounded in truth. Operative dignity for Lefebvre reduces down to a question as to whether the person is living in accordance to the truth. If he or she is not, then they have lost their dignity.
Vatican II on the other hand begins with man and his ontological dignity. It is because man has dignity that he should seek out truth and goodness: “man's dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within...” It is because man is a person with dignity as the kind of being he is that he has the duty to seek, embrace, adhere, and live out the truth. It is precisely this reversal in Lefebvre’s thinking from which it logically follows the results in the radical statements found in the SSPX articles.
The Lefebvrian notion of operative dignity as it stands needs to be set within proper bounds. We must be clear that operative dignity can never totally destroy man’s ontological dignity. In some sense it can damage man’s dignity but there will always remain a kernel, man’s ontological dignity that remains which demands the rights of the individual to be treated as a person with rights.
Something like this notion of operative dignity can be found within Catholicism. We read for example in Gaudium et Spes:
Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end.
Man can enhance his dignity according to the Vatican II text by directing himself towards the ends of truth and goodness, living out a moral life. And if man by living out a moral life can increase his dignity, then so too his dignity can be damaged by a life of sin; yet, this cannot lead to total corruption for at least two reasons: error does not destroy man’s ontological dignity and sin does not fully destroy man’s human nature.
On the Lefebvrian model, to the contrary, we see that sin can possibly destroy man’s dignity entirely. A life of sin can destroy man’s operative dignity and depending on how Lefebvre is to be interpreted, this also entirely corrupts man’s ontological dignity. A second tension is the problem of original sin. It is not clear as to how much damage original sin does to human dignity in Lefebvre’s book or the SSPX article. There appears to be a tension of ascribing to the Fall a totally corrupting force but such a proposition is not explicitly stated.
We can follow the logical implications of such a view however that if one does accept the propositions first that man’s ontological dignity is the will and second that man can lose his ontological dignity completely, then it immediately follows that the will can be entirely corrupted leading towards a total depravity of the human person. Against this view the Council of Trent affirms that man does not lose his free will even though the faculty was damaged by the Fall. Canon 5 on Justification is explicit:
If anyone shall say that after the sin of Adam man’s free will was lost and destroyed, or that it is a thing in name only, indeed a title without a reality, a fiction, moreover brought into the Church by Satan: let him be anathema.
Fourth Critique: Lefebvre’s Prejudice
There is a folk cliché “judge a tree by its fruit” and it is this principle that Lefebvre uses as a reason against religious freedom. Religious freedom for Lefebvre was condemned not so much due to the principles which founded it in the 19th century but because the fruit of religious liberty itself is bad. The argument is that the reasons for or against religious liberty are independent of the object itself, and it is this object, religious freedom, which should be condemned because it is a bad fruit. “It is therefore irrelevant to invoke the rationalism of the 19th century or some personalism of the 20th century as the intention behind religious liberty.”
If one has read Part II of this Commentary, then he or she should realize how pretentious it is to claim that the principles grounding religious freedom are irrelevant to the conversation about the subject. The many condemned interpretations of indifferentism in the 19th century were premised upon each interpretation’s severance of the relationship between man and truth such that man became the measure of truth.
True liberty as Leo XIII discussed it in Libertas requires the preserving of man’s relationship to truth and goodness and it is upon this foundation that a true freedom of conscience can be found. This as we argued in Part II has continuity from Leo XIII to Dignitatis Humanae and afterwards. Lefebvre’s dismissal of this context only emphasizes his prejudice against this teaching of the Council which is a very rash maneuver for a theologian to make.
 I placed the word schismatic in quotation marks since the SSPX’s canonical status is a complicated.
 RLQ, 19.
 Ibid, 19.
 Ibid, 20.
 Ibid, 20.
 Ibid, 20.
 Ibid, 21.
 Ibid, 32.
 “The ontological dignity of man refers only to his will.” Ibid, 33.
 Ibid, 33.
 Ibid, 37.
 Ibid, 37.
 Is the New Catechism Catholic. Link:
 RLQ 20.
 Gaudium et Spes 28.
 Ibid, 29.
 Ibid, 29.
 Pacem in Terris 158.
 DH 2.1.
 Gaudium et Spes 17.
 “It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.” DH 2.2.
 I referred the reader in Part III to J. Brian Benestad’s Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine, 38-47.
 Gaudium et Spes 17.
 See the Decree on Justification, Ch1, 5. DZ 793, 797.
 DZ 815.
 RLQ, 35. Emphasis mine.
 In pages 22-31 Lefebvre makes his case that religious freedom is condemned under indifferentism. I refer the reader to Part II of this Commentary which analyzes the teachings of religious freedom from Pope Leo XII to Pope Francis. Any astute reader should be able to see the strawman argument put forth by Lefebvre.
Chapter 2: The Meaning of Rights
Lefebvre has a specific interpretation of human rights. Man is endowed with natural rights with corresponding duties. The duty to worship God has the corresponding duty to a right to worship God. These natural rights are inalienable and call for civil recognition.
Distinction Between Objective and Subjective Rights
The question then is can man lose his natural rights? To answer this Lefebvre invokes a distinction between objective and subjective rights. A subjective right is a power of demanding rooted in the individual person and is a general power. An example would be the right to worship. This is not a right to worship as a Hindu or Jew, but a general right applicable to any religion. An objective right has a particular content or object, such as a right to worship Brahman. Objective rights are specific, subjective rights abstract.
Objective rights are alienable while subjective rights are inalienable. Subjective rights are inalienable because they are generalized duties which always remain whereas objective rights are based on the specific object of the right and whether this object is a proper end of man. If it is not a proper end then the objective right disappears.
Truth, Error and Rights
The justification for this distinction is the principle that only truth and goodness have rights and not error. If a man embraces an error such as a false religion, then he loses his objective right to religion. The subjective right remains but all objective rights are negated once the individual embraces error and evil. Hence objective rights “have no existence outside of the truth.” This entails that an objective right to religion is restricted only to the worship of God within Catholicism.
Lefebvre’s distinction between objective and subjective rights is premised upon the dyadic principle of thesis and hypothesis of the traditionalist school of thought pre-Vatican II. The thesis is that a state is to accept the Catholic faith as the state religion and all members of the state are to follow the state religion. When this is not the case then the hypothesis was that there was a general right to worship the Church would invoke to protect herself and her members when Catholicism was a minority.
Lefebvre’s distinction between objective and subjective rights is his attempt to rationalize the thesis-hypothesis principle. Objective rights corresponds to the thesis and subjective rights to the hypothesis. This is precisely how Lefebvre uses his distinction. In the case where Catholicism is a minority or persecuted by the state the subjective right is invoked whereas Christian and Catholic countries the Church is to demand the objective right that the members of the state worship Catholicism.
Reply: Rights and Vatican II
Vatican II did not teach the thesis-hypothesis view, the distinction between objective and subjective rights, nor the principle that only truth has rights. Instead it begins with the fact that man is created as a person and as this type of being is endowed by nature with rights. These rights are hence universal, inviolable, and inalienable since they are rooted in human nature as such. It is persons who are bearers of rights, not abstract entities such as truth, goodness, error, or evil. As John XXIII wrote:
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.
There are no “objective rights” which the person may lose depending on his or her actions and beliefs. There are only rights which are grounded in the natural law, human nature, and inseparably linked to truth.
What must be kept in mind is the distinction between error and the errant. Lefebvre’s views implies a rejection of this distinction since the one in error, the errant, loses his or her dignity and rights. Man does not lose his dignity by embracing a falsehood.
 RLQ 13.
 Ibid, 48.
 Ibid, 14.
 Ibid, 15.
 Ibid, 48.
 See my Commentary Part I, 11-14 and fn25.
 Pacem in Terris 30.
Chapter 3: The Search for Truth
Lefebvre rejects the proposition that religious liberty can be grounded in a duty to seek the truth. There are three points concerning this proposition Lefebvre finds erroneous.
The First Error: Only Potentially Accepted Truth
He begins by noting that a person seeking truth has not already found it, and so is only potentially accepting of the truth and has not actually assented to the truth. This potential acceptance, so the argument goes, cannot ground a right to religious liberty because such a right requires the actual acceptance of truth about God. Only those who have already accepted the truths about God and the Catholic Church can actually enjoy this right (and in fact only those who have done so have dignity).
The second problem is that Lefebvre believes all non-Catholics to be obstinate in an opposition to the Catholic faith and truth, unable to dialogue or authentically research out religious truths.
Lefebvre’s first point has already been refuted since it is dependent upon the proposition that only truth has rights, his distinction between objective and subjective rights, and the thesis-hypothesis principle. These are themes which Part I of my Commentary engaged.
The Second Error: Can Man Find Truth?
The second error of this teaching according to Lefebvre is the proposition that any man can arrive at religious truth by himself. There are two reasons why this is an error. First, such an expectation that man can discover truth is declared by Lefebvre to be utterly unrealistic.
Secondly, such a liberty to search is naturalistic because it ignores the effects of original sin. Man’s intelligence is affected by original sin, so much that Revelation is necessary for man to know “not only supernatural truths but also natural truths connected to God and His religion.”
Reply to the Second Point
It is surprising that Lefebvre argues this second point from original sin. It must be affirmed De Fide that original sin does not completely destroy man’s ability to know God according to Dei Filius, the Vatican I document on faith and reason. It is even more puzzling that Lefebvre cites Dei Filius in support of his position. What is important about Lefebvre’s claims here is not so much his objections to religious liberty as problematic as this is itself but that his view here would logically imply the invalidity of natural theology entirely.
Dei Filius teaches for example that “The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason from created things…” Man can know with certainty from creation that God exists. The Vatican Council here cites Romans 1:20, in which St. Paul affirms that man can know God’s existence with certainty, for even the evil doers know that God exists. This affirmation also has the following anathema:
If anyone shall have said that the one true God, our Creator and our Lord, cannot be known with certitude by those things which have been made, by the natural light of human reason; let him be anathema.
Vatican I is quite clear about the possibility of discovering truths of natural theology through the use of reason alone.
Contrast the teachings of Vatican I here with Lefebvre’s own statement. This is his conclusion about his second point:
To affirm that any honest man can obtain the knowledge of religious truth by searching freely is to contradict implicitly the Holy Scriptures and the Magisterium, and thus to profess implicitly the heresy of naturalism.
The passages that Lefebvre cites in defense of his views from Dei Filius do not support his interpretation for the passages cited teach Revelation is necessary for it gives man a “firm certitude with not admixture of error” concerning religious truths. Consider the following passage from Dei Verbum on this:
As a sacred synod has affirmed, God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason (see Rom. 1:20); but teaches that it is through His revelation that those religious truths which are by their nature accessible to human reason can be known by all men with ease, with solid certitude and with no trace of error, even in this present state of the human race.
We can hence see the same problem concerning the Fall and its impact upon human nature. Lefebvre here again appears to accept the view that the Fall completely damages human nature, at least to the extent that man can no longer know religious truths. We saw this same tension in our discussion on the will and human dignity. Lefebvre seems to favor a more extreme interpretation of the damage done to both faculties than what Catholic theology allows.
The Third Error: Latitudinarianism and Indifferentism
The third error to the proposition that religious liberty can be grounded in a right to seek the truth is that, according to Lefebvre, it implies latitudinarianism and indifferentism.
This teaching of Dignitatis Humanae according to Lefebvre implies latitudinarianism, which means that there is no preference amongst the different religions. It is a variation of indifferentism and hinges on how one interprets the question “Can any religion be a way to reach God and religious truth?”
On the one hand the answer is negative if one interprets the statement as latitudinarianism or religious pluralism, equating the different religions and their creeds. Such a view has long been condemned by the Church.
On the other hand the answer can be affirmative if the other religions are a part of the path one takes towards discovering the truths about God. One could for example reason his way into monotheism and embrace Protestantism and then some years later discover the truths of Catholicism and convert. Such an interpretation does not ascribe equivalency to the other religions and their beliefs, but only that they can help serve the individual in his or her search for truth.
The objections Lefebvre makes here concerning indifferentism and latitudinarianism can be dismissed since both accusations presuppose an interpretation of religious liberty that divorces it from objective truth, which is not the teaching of Vatican II.
An Observation Concerning These Three Objections
An overarching theme I noticed about these objections is a despair over the human person. For Lefebvre the non-Catholic cannot come to know the truth, he is set in his ways obstinately, religious freedom is unrealistic, and man cannot know truths of natural theology because of sin and the Fall. This is fundamentally a despair over the human person, giving up and abandoning the call to be a Christian. We should not be dismissive of others even if they are obstinate. God works in ways we cannot see and may not appear until years later. What is unrealistic is this pessimism of man harbored by Lefebvre.
Vatican II on the other hand is optimistic. Man can know truth. He can discover truth. He can through reason discover truths about who God is as a Creator. Original sin does not totally corrupt man, destroy his dignity, or cloud his intellect from truth itself. Rather grace builds upon nature. Man is damaged but not completely ruined. Man still has dignity and the ability to find truth. Moreover, man is redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ and called to His Beatitude. This only ennobles man more.
 RLQ 37.
 RLQ 38.
 RLQ 39.
 See RLQ 39.
 Denzinger 1785. Note, this is the 30th edition, 1955 of Denzinger. All numbering follows this edition. Denzinger hereafter will be abbreviated as DZ.
 “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse…” Rom 1:20.
 DZ 1806.
 RLQ 39.
 DZ 1786.
 Dei Verbum 6.
 Dei Verbum 6.
Chapter 4: The Problem of Coercion
In Part III of this Commentary we saw that the SSPX objected to religious liberty being a freedom from coercion. The objections examined there were strawman which any familiarity with Dignitatis Humanae would reveal. Behind the objections however lies a serious problem concerning the nature of coercion itself to which Lefebvre directs us to.
The Problem Itself
The problem before us is the appearance of another contradiction between the teachings of Vatican II and the pre-Vatican II teachings on state coercion. Dignitatis Humanae teaches that the state cannot coerce in religious matters, that the state is incompetent to rule in religious matters, whereas there is a long history of the state precisely intervening in religious matters as the secular sword of God’s Church. This rupture between pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II will likewise be demonstrated to not be the case at all.
Outline of Lefebvre’s First Objection to Coercion
Lefebvre distinguishes within legal coercion between external and internal acts, that is, public and private acts of the person. Strictly internal acts are acts of the soul which cannot be regulated. External are acts of the body. Lefebvre wants to focus on acts that are a mixture of external and internal.
Public acts and mixed acts are subject to legal coercion, such as one committing suicide and a drug dealer. Other acts may be acceptable to a society at a time but can still be regulated by natural law such as polygamy and divorce. One in good conscience can believe these both to be goods but this does not exempt him or her from legal coercion on these matters. Similarly with one in bad conscience such as the drug dealer.
Lefebvre concludes then that it is not always a violation to coerce someone’s conscience as long as one operates within these distinctions.
Reply to the First Objection
Lefebvre’s analysis here however misses a critical distinction. Almost all of the examples he gives are those where the common good is endangered by evil actions. The state can legally coerce in these matters not because the state has the ability to coerce one’s conscience outright, but because these actions Lefebvre lists are violations of natural law and the state derives its authority from natural law. Actions which violate natural law can hence be regulated by the state. It is hence within the state’s competence to coerce in these examples Lefebvre cites.
Lefebvre’s Extended Argument
Lefebvre gives a rather extended treatment on coercion later in his book. What we will do is first sketch out his views at length and then reply. The issues he raises are many and are grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of what is exactly the political theology of the 19th century. To uncover this will take some time however since the fundamental problems raised concerning coercion and the state’s involvement require also understanding the state’s role of the common good and the relationship between the state and religion concerning the teachings of the secular arm.
Lefebvre on Coercion
Lefebvre gives an extended analysis of several Old Testament and New Testament passages that demonstrate coercion in religious matters. One important conclusion Lefebvre draws from his analysis is that “it is theologically certain that coercion or force in religious matters, whatever its form, is not intrinsically against human nature.”
Lefebvre next outlines several points of Catholic doctrine such that no one is to be forced to embrace Catholicism. Non-Catholics cannot be forced to become Catholic. Heretics on the other hand can become subjected to coercion by the Church. It is also possible for the Church to exercise coercion against Non-Catholics in order to defend her members against errors of the faith.
These principles of Catholic theology Lefebvre interprets in accordance with the principle that error has no rights. Hence religious freedom implies a right to error and so when Dignitatis Humanae teaches religious freedom as an immunity from coercion this entails a contradiction to the principles of Catholic doctrine in the previous paragraph. Thus Lefebvre can conclude that the use of force, even temporal force, in religious matters can be justified.
Lefebvre on Why the State can use Force
After this Lefebvre investigates the relationship between the state and religion. The state for Lefebvre has two claims for why it has authority to use force or coercion in religious matters: first: the state is the custodian of the common good; second: the State is the protector of the Catholic Church.
The basic argument pervading Lefebvre’s analysis is that religion is an element of the common good and hence the state has authority to regulate it, especially since the common good is most perfective in a Catholic society. “Only Catholic social order can be the real guarantor of true common good and true liberties.” As non-Catholic religions are increasingly tolerated then error and evil increases leading to a less perfect common good. Hence the state has a duty to suppress error and evil as much as possible as truth has rights and the state should promote a Catholic society. “Insuring the common good today requires, more than ever, repression of the liberty of thought, especially in religious matters…” Lefebvre finishes this portion with two conclusions: first, that a Catholic religious unity must be constitutionalized by the state; second: the Catholic state has “the right to regulate and arbitrate the public activity of other religions.”
Lefebvre on the Ministerial Function of the State
The state is said to possess a ministerial function towards the true religion which are the following duties: honor God through worship in the Church, conform state laws to the Church’s teachings, procure the common good so as to protect the members of the Church, and use the secular sword. The Church can call upon the state to exercise a secular sword, a secular arm, to temporally punish in matters of religion, and this use is to be without “reproach” especially towards those who are opposed to the Gospel.
The Catholic Teaching on Coercion
We must first distinguish between the state’s authority and the Church’s authority. Leo XIII teaches in Immortale Dei that there are two powers, the secular and ecclesiastical, one over divine things, and one over temporal things. Each power has their own bounds and limits.
The Almighty, therefore, has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things. Each in its kind is supreme, each has fixed limits within which it is contained, limits which are defined by the nature and special object of the province of each, so that there is, we may say, an orbit traced out within which the action of each is brought into play by its own native right.
It is imperative that we notice that the ecclesiastical power concerns the realm of religion and not the state. The state does not have any direct power over the state. The reason why the Church has authority in religion is a matter of revelation. The state on the other hand possesses its authority from natural law.
To interpret the passage other than the state not possessing any authority in religious matters misconstrues the distinction Leo XIII makes here in Immortale Dei. Earlier in the same encyclical Leo XIII expressly teaches that it is the Church who has “unrestrained authority in regard to things sacred”. It is the Church that is assigned the task of all religious concerns. The state has no authority in religious matters.
In very truth, Jesus Christ gave to His Apostles unrestrained authority in regard to things sacred, together with the genuine and most true power of making laws, as also with the twofold right of judging and of punishing, which flow from that power. "All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth: going therefore teach all nations... teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." And in another place: "If he will not hear them, tell the Church." And again: "In readiness to revenge all disobedience." And once more: "That... I may not deal more severely according to the power which the Lord bath given me, unto edification and not unto destruction." Hence, it is the Church, and not the State, that is to be man's guide to heaven. It is to the Church that God has assigned the charge of seeing to, and legislating for, all that concerns religion; of teaching all nations; of spreading the Christian faith as widely as possible; in short, of administering freely and without hindrance, in accordance with her own judgment, all matters that fall within its competence.
Elsewhere in article 14 we read that the relationship between the state and the Church is analogous to the body-soul relationship. The state having its object this mortal life and the Church all religious matters.
There must, accordingly, exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection, which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man. The nature and scope of that connection can be determined only, as We have laid down, by having regard to the nature of each power, and by taking account of the relative excellence and nobleness of their purpose. One of the two has for its proximate and chief object the well-being of this mortal life; the other, the everlasting joys of heaven. Whatever, therefore in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church.
Lefebvre has therefore committed a fundamental misunderstanding of the state’s authority in religious matters when he argues that the state on its own authority has a legitimate ability to regulate religious matters. Such a view is a Gallicanism. The state has no authority in of itself to coerce in religious matters because only the Catholic Church has authority in all matters religion.
This means that both of Lefebvre’s arguments for the state’s involvement in religious matters are fundamentally flawed but for different reasons. Lefebvre had two arguments, one based on the common good and the other on the state’s duties towards the true religion. It is in fact the case that neither is sufficient for granting the state its own authority in religious matters.
The Common Good
There is no doubt that the state exists for the sake of the common good. Gaudium et Spes teaches “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.” The question arises as to how much of the common good does the state have authority over. Does the state have complete control over the common good for example? Or does some elements of the common good require other civil bodies authority over them?
These sorts of questions Lefebvre leaves open ended in his book. They are not addressed in the section where he argues that the state has an interest in regulating religious matters whatsoever. We will hence make some clarifications concerning the role of the state.
The state does not have authority over every aspect of the common good. The state for example does not regulate personal virtues. While it is evil for one to commit fornication the state is unable to penalize those who do so (though of course the state can force fathers to give financial support). St. Thomas Aquinas writes that it is not the place for the state to prescribe all virtues, but only those which pertain to the common good.
I answer that, The species of virtues are distinguished by their objects, as explained above (I-II:54:2; I-II:60:1; I-II:62:2). Now all the objects of virtues can be referred either to the private good of an individual, or to the common good of the multitude: thus matters of fortitude may be achieved either for the safety of the state, or for upholding the rights of a friend, and in like manner with the other virtues. But law, as stated above (I-II:90:2) is ordained to the common good. Wherefore there is no virtue whose acts cannot be prescribed by the law. Nevertheless human law does not prescribe concerning all the acts of every virtue: but only in regard to those that are ordainable to the common good—either immediately, as when certain things are done directly for the common good—or mediately, as when a lawgiver prescribes certain things pertaining to good order, whereby the citizens are directed in the upholding of the common good of justice and peace.
St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica also argues that the state does not have a role in repressing every vice.
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.
The principle of subsidiarity likewise implies that the state does not have authority over every aspect of the common good. The Catechism states that
The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.’
The government oversees the common good in general, but the realization of elements of it are to be left to social organizations other than the state itself. The state for example has an interest to support food banks but by the principle of subsidiarity it is better that organizations such as Catholic Charities to actually run the food bank.
Religion and the Common Good
Leo XIII had taught that the state derives its authority from natural law. Thus even though religion is an element of the common good the state does not have authority in religious matters as this is a matter of divine revelation. One could object that the state has a role in regulating natural religion, a philosophically conceived monotheism, but Leo XIII is clear that all authority in religious matters belong strictly to the Catholic Church.
This means that the state cannot interfere in religious matters except insofar a religious matter violates natural law and the common good. This is precisely the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae. The right to religious freedom is limited by objective morality, i.e. natural law. This was the meaning of “due limits” as explained in Part I and III of my Commentary.
We can reverse the logic of this position. If the state cannot interfere in religious matters except to protect the common good, then when the state does in fact interfere in religious matters when the common good is not at stake, it does so in violation of the common good for then the state has exceeded its own authority. Dignitatis Humanae is clear that when the state does exceed its own authority in interfering within the domain of religion that the state has violated the common good. For the state to be involved in religion as Lefebvre argues actually constitutes as a violation of the common good.
Lefebvre’s second argument from the state’s role as the protector of the Catholic Church requires more work to unpack the Catholic theology behind the state.
Coercion in Catholic Theology
It is undeniable that the state used coercion for the sake of upholding the Catholic faith and that the state was seen as the secular arm to bring temporal punishment. To understand this we must begin at the Council of Trent.
In the canons on baptism the Council of Trent teaches:
If anyone shall say that those baptized are free from all precepts of the holy Church, which are either written or handed down, so that they are not bound to observe them, unless they on their own accord should wish to submit themselves to them: let him be anathema.
This means that it is De Fide for the Catholic Church to use coercion on the baptized. Canon 14 also supports this view. It is by baptism that one gives the Church authority over himself or herself.
This is a teaching also found in St. Thomas Aquinas. Those who are unbaptized are not to be coerced into belief because the act of faith needs to be free, as this is a constant teaching of the Church.
Among unbelievers there are some who have never received the faith, such as the heathens and the Jews: and these are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will...
Those who have received the faith however are now under the jurisdiction of the Church and so can be coerced with even bodily punishment if they do not live up to the teachings of the Church. Hence St. Thomas in the same article taught:
On the other hand, there are unbelievers who at some time have accepted the faith, and professed it, such as heretics and all apostates: such should be submitted even to bodily compulsion, that they may fulfil what they have promised, and hold what they, at one time, received.
St. Thomas in the same article cites St. Augustine as an authority for this teaching. In the reply to objection 3 St. Thomas wrote:
Just as taking a vow is a matter of will, and keeping a vow, a matter of obligation, so acceptance of the faith is a matter of the will, whereas keeping the faith, when once one has received it, is a matter of obligation. Wherefore heretics should be compelled to keep the faith. Thus Augustine says to the Count Boniface (Ep. clxxxv): "What do these people mean by crying out continually: 'We may believe or not believe just as we choose. Whom did Christ compel?' They should remember that Christ at first compelled Paul and afterwards taught Him."
In objection 2 to this teaching it was argued that the Jews are to not be coerced into belief. St. Thomas in answering the objection applies the same distinction between those who accept the faith and are baptized as falling under the jurisdiction of coercion and those who are unbaptized. Baptized Jews are still subject to coercion once they have freely accepted the faith.
Those Jews who have in no way received the faith, ought not by no means to be compelled to the faith: if, however, they have received it, they ought to be compelled to keep it, as is stated in the same chapter.
These teachings concerning that the Church alone as jurisdiction over religious matters and has the authority to coerce, that it is through baptism that one is given to the Church’s jurisdiction so that heretics can be coerced even temporally, and that the non-baptized cannot be directly coerced are also taught in Francisco Suarez. Suarez argues for example
Punishment of crimes only belongs to civil magistrates in so far as those crimes are contrary to political ends, public peace, and human justice; but coercion with respect to those deeds which are opposed to religion and to the salvation of the soul, is essentially a function of spiritual power, so that the authority to make use of temporal penalties for the purposes of such coercion must have been allotted in particular to this spiritual power, whether the penalties are to be inflicted directly by the said power, or whether it avails itself of the ministry of its temporal arm that all things may be done decently, in order and efficaciously.
The state on its own lacks the authority to coerce in religious matters. Only the Church can. Therefore when the state does coerce in religious matters, it can only do so on the authority of the Catholic Church.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law likewise repeats these teachings. The Church affirms in canon 1311 that “The Church has the innate and proper right to coerce offending members of the Christian faithful with punitive sanctions.” Canon 204 defines the “Christian faithful” to be those who have been “incorporated in Christ through baptism”.
Types of Coercion
Suarez distinguishes between two types of coercion: direct and indirect. Direct coercion is directed towards heretics and apostates, those who have accepted the Catholic faith and were baptized, but in some way have failed to live up to their baptismal promises. The question then is whether the Church can have some form of coercion over the non-baptized.
Indirect coercion can be invoked for the protection of the Church and consists of two elements: protecting the baptized from religious errors and protecting the Church’s right to evangelize. Indirect coercion for Suarez however still falls under the authority of the Church and not the state. The state’s authority is derived from natural law, which makes it incapable of legal coercion against non-Christian religions as this requires spiritual authority.
The Secular Arm
The secular arm was the Church’s usage of the state to punish heretics and suppress heretical beliefs. The secular arm however was not a power originating from the state’s authority but is a power authorized by the Church. It is the Church who holds the power to coerce heretics and only she can call upon the state to punish apostates. In other words, the secular arm was regulated strictly to the domain of religion and has nothing to do with the public order itself. The 1917 Code of Canon Law interprets the secular arm in such a manner:
An offence that is against the law of the Church alone, is, by its nature, proceeded against by the ecclesiastical authority alone, which when the same authority judges it necessary or opportune, can claim the help of the secular arm.
The problem in Lefebvre’s analysis is that he fails to make this critical distinction. Does he interpret the secular arm strictly as an authority of the state or as a help with the authoritative backing of the Church? At any rate any view can be rejected which grants the state its own authority to use the secular arm in religious matters. The state’s authority is derivative, dependent on the Church’s permission to be utilized. Only when the Church calls upon the state to use the secular arm does the state licitly wield this power. Consider the words of Boniface VIII:
And we are taught by evangelical words that in this power of his are two swords, namely spiritual and temporal… Therefore, each is in the power of the Church, that is, a spiritual and material sword. But the latter, indeed, must be exercised for the Church, the former by the Church. The former (by the hand) of the priest, the latter by the hand of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest. For it is necessary that a sword be under a sword and that temporal authority be subject to spiritual power...
The Body-Soul Analogy
A main teaching of Leo XIII’s political theology is the body-soul analogy. The Pope explains that the relationship between the Church and the state is analogous to that between the body and soul. This means that the orthodox teachings on the duties of the state towards the true religion presuppose this unity. It immediately follows from such a unity that the state ought to civilly recognize the Catholic Church and be the secular arm if so called upon by the Church.
What is assumed here is a political unity between the state and Church, but what happens when this unity is dissolved? The 19th and 20th centuries saw the divorce of the “body”, the state, from the soul, the Catholic Church. Christian states became increasingly secularized and it was these trends the Council Fathers of Vatican II were observing.
The Leonine Foundations for Understanding Dignitatis Humanae
The task of Dignitatis Humanae was to precisely answer this question of what is the role of the state in religious matters once the state has divorced itself from the Church as its soul.
If one were to refer to the Acta Synodalia and look at the relationes concerning the Council’s understanding of the teachings contained within Dignitatis Humanae it becomes abundantly clear that the Council Fathers understood the text in terms of Leonine political theology. The relationes understand that Dignitatis Humanae is addressing this new situation where its teachings are extending the implications of Leo XIII’s teachings in Immortale Dei concerning the two powers and their respective jurisdictions and authority. We read for example:
For the schema rests on the traditional doctrine between a double order of human life, that is sacred and profane, civil and religious. In modern times Leo XIII has wonderfully expounded and developed this doctrine, teaching more clearly than ever before that there are two societies, and so two legal orders, and two powers, each divinely constituted but in a different way, that is by natural law and by the positive law of Christ. As the nature of religious liberty rests on this distinction of orders, so the distinction provides a means to preserving it against the confusions which history has frequently produced.
The text of Dignitatis Humanae on the other hand does not concern itself with questions concerning the relationship between the Church and state, the state’s duties towards the true Church, nor the role of religious coercion by the Church. These teachings remain intact while not being discussed. Dignitatis Humanae was strictly concerned with the civil order, an understanding of religious freedom derivable from reason rooted in natural law, unaided by revelation.
Dignitatis Humanae by limiting itself to the civil order is hence a declaration that the state has no authority of its own to coerce in religious matters, a position already defended by Suarez and Leo XIII. The innovation of the Vatican II text was developing the Leonine teaching when the state refuses to acknowledge the true Church and the role of religion in such a state.
Reply to Lefebvre on State Coercion
Lefebvre has a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholic theology by professing that the state has authority to coerce in the domain of religion. This failure of his views is due to his failure to recognize the crucial distinction between the two powers and their domains of jurisdiction. The authority of the state is the civil-social order and has its basis in natural law whereas the authority of the Church is divinely revealed to be over religious matters. This was a main point of Leo XIII’s political theology. The state cannot coerce in religious matters because it has no authority in them. When the state did legitimately exercise coercion it was always under the purview of the Church and the Church’s own authority granting permission to the state. The Church’s own authority however is also restricted for she has jurisdiction only over the baptized and not the unbaptized. The argument that the state can coerce because only truth has rights is invalidated precisely because the state does not possess the authority to regulate religious beliefs.
Reply to Lefebvre’s Arguments from Scripture
It is with such an understanding of Leonine political theology and the scope of Dignitatis Humanae that we can understand how to interpret the many passages in the Old and New Testament concerning religious coercion. The Council Fathers of Vatican II understood these passages as taking place in the domain within the religious community of Israel or the Church, which Dignitatis Humanae does not address.
Examples and statements brought against the text taken from the New Testament (and also many from the Old Testament) either concern the internal life of the religious community of Israel, in which Jesus and the Apostles lived, or in the intra-ecclesial life of the early Christian community. And the declaration does not treat of this life.
Overall the arguments put forward by Lefebvre in his book fail to take into account the teachings of Leo XIII concerning the two powers and the historical development of the Church’s teachings on religious freedom prior to Vatican II. The neglect of these developments in addition to adopting the view that truth has rights and error none has led to several confusions and a few straw man arguments which fail to do justice to Vatican II, the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae, and the post-Vatican II Church. There was also the problem concerning the role of sin and human dignity, in which Lefebvre’s extremism was also demonstrated. In sum the complaints by Marcel Lefebvre can be dismissed.
 RLQ 9-11.
 RLQ 11.
 RLQ 50-54.
 RLQ 54. Emphasis mine.
 RLQ 64-70.
 Ibid, 65.
 Ibid, 67.
 Ibid, 70.
 Ibid, 73-77.
 Special acknowledgement to Thomas Pink’s two essays What is the Catholic Doctrine of Religious Liberty? and Dignitatis Humanae: Continuity after Leo XIII for carefully expound the historical teachings on the relationship between the Church and state, and the use of coercion.
 Immortale Dei 13.
 Immortale Dei 11.
 Ibid, 14.
 Gaudium et Spes 74.
 RLQ 64-70.
 STh I-II, Q96, A3. Source: NewAdvent.org.
 STh I-II, Q96, A2.
 CCC 1883.
 “It follows that a wrong is done when government imposes upon its people, by force or fear or other means, the profession or repudiation of any religion, or when it hinders men from joining or leaving a religious community. All the more is it a violation of the will of God and of the sacred rights of the person and the family of nations when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion, either in the whole of mankind or in a particular country or in a definite community.” DH 6.
 DZ 864.
 “If anyone shall say that those who have been baptized in this manner as infants, when they have grown up, are to be questioned whether they wish to ratify what the sponsors promised in their name, when they were baptized, and if they should answer that they are not willing, that they must be left to their own will, and that they are not to be forced to a Christian life in the meantime by any other penalty, except that they be excluded from the reception of the Eucharist and of the other sacraments until they repent: let him be anathema.” DZ 870. Cf. Thomas Pink’s What is the Catholic Doctrine of Religious Liberty 15-17.
 STh II-II, Q10, A8.
 STh II-II, Q10, A8, RO3.
 STh II-II, Q10, A8, RO2.
 Defensio 3, 23, 19. Quoted from Thomas Pink’s What is the Catholic Doctrine of Religious Liberty 9.
 Quoted from Pink’s What is the Catholic Doctrine of Religious Liberty 27.
 See Suarez De fide, disputation 18. Cf. Pink’s What is the Catholic Doctrine of Religious Liberty 11fn18.
 “The reason is that these [non-Christian] rites are not intrinsically bad in terms of natural law; so the temporal power of a ruler does not extend in itself to forbidding them; for no reason for forbidding the rites can be given other than their being against the faith; but this reason does not suffice for those who are not subject to the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church.” Suarez, De fide, 18, 4, 10. Quoted from Pink’s What is the Catholic Doctrine of Religious Liberty 12fn20.
 Canon 2198. Quoted from Pink’s Dignitatis Humanae: Continuity after Leo XIII, 5.
 Unam Sanctam, DZ 469.
 See the Nov. 19, 1964 relationes, Acta Synodalia 3.8, p464. Cf Thomas Pink’s Dignitatis Humanae: Continuity after Leo XIII, 13-14.
 Acta Synodalia 4.1, p193. Quoted from Thomas Pink’s Dignitatis Humanae: Continuity after Leo XIII, 14.
 See Pink’s discussion, Dignitatis Humanae: Continuity after Leo XIII, 14-22.
 Acta Synodalia 4.6, p763. Quoted from Thomas Pink’s What is the Catholic Doctrine of Religious Liberty 34.
Disputation of the Holy Sacrament by Raphael