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

By Jeremy Hausotter

March 15, 2020

Table of Contents

Chapter 2: Religious Freedom in the Light of Revelation

Article 9

Article 10

Article 11

Article 12

Article 13

Article 14

Article 15

Chapter 2: Religious Freedom in the Light of Revelation

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

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

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

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

10.1: The Freedom of the Act of Faith

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

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

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

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

Section Endnotes

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

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

[3] Mystici Corporis Christi 104.

[4] Dei Filius Ch 3, canon 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section Endnotes

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

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

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

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

[5] Matt 4:8-10.

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

[7] Matt 22:21.

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

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

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

[11] John 18:37.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section Endnotes

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

13:1-3 The Freedom of the Church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 145.

[9] Ibid, 145.

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

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

14.1-14.4 The Task of the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can formulate a second argument.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. One truth is the principle of religious freedom

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

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

  1. Man has duties towards the rights of man

  2. One of these rights is religious freedom

  3. Therefore man has duties towards religious freedom

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

Section Endnotes

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

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

15 Conclusion

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

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

Section Endnotes

[1] John XXIII, Pacem in terris 34.

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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