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

By Jeremy Hausotter

March 15, 2020

Table of Contents

Article 4

Article 5

Article 6

Article 7

Article 8

4.1-4.5: Freedom of Religious Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section Endnotes

[1] Gaudium et Spes 32.

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

[3] Gaudium et Spes 24.

[4] Ibid, 25.

[5] Ibid, 74.

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

[7] Gaudium et Spes 74.

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

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

[10] John XXIII, Pacem in terris 55.

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

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

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

5.1: The Religious Freedom of the Family

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

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

Section Endnotes

[1] Gravissimum Educationis 6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

6: The Care of Religious Freedom

6.1 Defining Common Good

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

The argument can be presented syllogistically:

  1. All have the duty to promote the common good

  2. The common good includes the right to religious freedom

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

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

6.2 The Duties of the State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.3 The Question of Established Religion

Let us now consider this important statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.4 Equality Before the Law

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

6.5 Violations of Religious Freedom

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

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

Section Endnotes

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

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

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

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

[3] Flannery, 804.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] See ibid, 546n8.

7.1-7.3 The Limits of Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section Endnotes

[1] Renewal Within Tradition, 368fn4.

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

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

8.1-8.3 Education in the Use of Freedom

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

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

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

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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