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Part I.1: Commentary on the Text, Articles 1-3

By Jeremy Hausotter

March 15, 2020

Table of Contents

Chapter 0: Introduction

Article 1

Chapter 1: The General Principle of Religious Freedom

Article 2

Article 3

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 one 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.

Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae

Part I.1: Commentary on the Text, Articles 1-3

Part I.2: Commentary on the Text, Articles 4-8

Part I.3: Commentary on the Text, Articles 9-15

Part II.1: The Magisterium’s Understanding of Religious Freedom: Before the Council

Part II.2: The Magisterium’s Understanding of Religious Freedom: During and After the Council

Part III: Dignitatis Humanae and the SSPX

Part IV: Dignitatis Humanae and Marcel Lefebvre

Disputation of the Holy Sacrament by Raphael 
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