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Part III: Dignitatis Humanae and the SSPX

By Jeremy Hausotter

July 14, 2020

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The Role of Truth

Chapter 2: Dignitatis Humanae and Indifferentism

Chapter 3: The Meaning of “Due Limits” in Dignitatis Humanae

Chapter 4: Dignitatis Humanae and Human Dignity

Chapter 5: The Meaning of Coercion



One tragic story of Vatican II is the fallout between Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Magisterium. Lefebvre was one of the leaders of the opposition to what became Dignitatis Humanae. After the Council he believed that the Church fell into error and created his own “schismatic” order, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). The SSPX since its inception has been strongly resistant to the teachings of Vatican II on the assumption that several of its teachings are erroneous.

The principle of religious freedom is one of the main points of contention between the Magisterium and the SSPX.  Our task for Part III is to look at some of their basic arguments against the teachings contained in Dignitatis Humanae found in three SSPX articles on their website: Religious Liberty, (RL), Toleration or Religious Liberty, (TRL) and Religious Liberty Contradicts Tradition, (RLCT).[1] It is highly recommended to the reader to first read Part I and Part II of this Commentary since both will be assumed knowledge for Part III.

Chapter 1: The Role of Truth

SSPX and Feeneyism

It is interesting after reading these three articles how different the SSPX and drafters of Dignitatis Humanae treat the role truth in the debate. For the SSPX all discussion of truth and falsity revolved around the dialectic between the one True Church of Christ and all of the false religions. The discussion is framed strictly within this black and white dyad and taken to extremes that appear to equivocate membership in another religion with damnation. We read for example “...false religions, by the mere fact that they keep souls from the Catholic Church, lead souls to hell.”[2] and “...every false religion by its refusal to honor Our Lord Jesus Christ and to enter the Church He has founded ‘violates’ the commandments of God... and therefore violates the Catholic Religion…”[3]

Why would the SSPX use such strong language to describe the other religions? Short answer: no salvation outside the Church. Catholics cannot deny this proposition for it is infallible doctrine. The question then is how does one interpret it. Leonard Feeney in the mid 1940’s defended a strict literal interpretation of this doctrine to mean that one had to be a physical, actual member of the Catholic Church in order to be saved. This view is called Feeneyism.

Feeneyism itself was condemned by the Holy Office, which was in charge of doctrinal orthodoxy until it was transformed into the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF), and by Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi within which it was affirmed that one did not need to be an actual physical member of the Catholic Church in order to be saved. The Vatican II dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium developed this further.

Feeneyism is mentioned because the SSPX seems to have adopted it. The SSPX is correct in stating that there is no salvation outside the Church, hence “the Church is not optional, as salvation is not optional.”[4] However, once one combines this proposition with the statements above equating physical membership of other religions with damnation, the SSPX appears to have embraced the condemned position of Feeney.[5] This theme within SSPX thought is important to note because it colors the tone and approach of the three articles on religious freedom (such as when the SSPX claims that Catholics have the duty to impede members of other religions from the public exercise of their faith[6]).

Truth in Dignitatis Humanae

One cannot understand the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae (DH) without properly investigating the role truth has for religious freedom. Religious freedom affirms the right

that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.[7]

This right has its foundation in the dignity of the human person for man is created as a free, rational being with the ability to know the truth. The ontological grounding for the principle of religious freedom is precisely the quest for truth. This quest is rooted in man’s nature since man by nature is a personal being-for-truth. Hence man is “impelled by nature” and “bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth”.[8] Man furthermore has the duty to adhere to the truth and orientate his or her daily life the rest of his days towards truth.[9]

Man has a right to conduct this quest for truth and especially for religious truth. The inquiry for truth however must be conducted in a manner proper to man’s dignity:

The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.[10]

Coercion in this inquiry and quest on the other hand is opposed to, antithetical to religious freedom for it violates man’s dignity as a free rational being. How to interpret coercion is actually a point of contention with the SSPX and will be addressed in another section.

Truth and Error

The SSPX articles fail to mention this understanding of religious freedom. Truth is discussed strictly in terms of true and false religion. There is an underlying principle assumed in these articles. We read for example that only the Catholic Church can enjoy “unrestricted religious liberty” since she alone “conserves the natural law in its entirety”.[11] The other religions cannot experience unrestricted religious liberty because they teach errors. In other words it would seem that the SSPX ascribes to the proposition that only truth has rights and not error.

The drafters of Dignitatis Humanae on the other hand recognized that only persons are bearers of rights[12] and since religious liberty is grounded in man’s universal nature, it too is universal. Hence: “the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it…”[13] Regardless of one’s existential stance towards truth one still has the right to religious freedom. Religious freedom is not impeded by adherence to an erroneous belief or not simply caring about truth since it is grounded in man’s nature, dignity, and search for truth. Otherwise if this were the case that one’s belief determined whether one is a bearer of a particular right, then he or she who believes this has already accepted the proposition that only truth has rights and has rejected one of the fundamental personalist insights on the subject of religious freedom adopted by the Council Fathers.

Personalist Foundations in Leo XIII

This personalist insight about man being a rights bearer instead of an abstract object is not the only insight required for understanding religious freedom. The other we have already mentioned[14] and it was the teaching that the ontological foundation for religious liberty, while being rooted in man’s dignity, is in man’s vocation for truth, to seek, embrace, adhere, and live out the dictates of truth. In some respect, however, this teaching requires some historical background.

When one reads the pre-Vatican II encyclicals condemning religious freedom a particular theme arises. Each condemned interpretation of the principle of religious liberty was premised on the proposition that religious liberty had no intrinsic relationship with truth. There are at least seven different meanings to religious liberty that the Popes condemned as the Popes through the decades elaborated on different systems of thought and their errors.[15]

In this succession of condemnations Leo XIII clarified the problem concerning religious liberty, unlike his predecessors, by going to the primeval ground for or against religious liberty. In Libertas Leo XIII made a distinction between true and false liberty that was predicated upon each’s relationship to truth. False liberty made man the measure of truth, from which naturalism, rationalism, relativism, and indifferentism arises.[16] Religious freedom understood within this paradigm divorces itself from objective truth.

True liberty, on the other hand, conforms to the eternal law and is lived out according to right reason.[17] It is premised on the fact that man can know the truth about the good and will that good known by the intellect in its truthfulness, and hence true liberty is fundamentally ordered to objective truth.

These two meanings of liberty, one which is divorced from objective truth, and the other which is essentially ordered to it, give rise to two basic meanings of liberty of conscience. The false view is grounded on relativism and indifferentism where “everyone may, as he chooses, worship God or not…”[18] Liberty of conscience can also have a positive meaning that is understood as every member of a state follows God’s will and obeys His commands. This second meaning is necessarily grounded in natural law and objective truth.

[liberty of conscience] 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. This is the kind of liberty the Apostles claimed for themselves with intrepid constancy, which the apologists of Christianity confirmed by their writings, and which the martyrs in vast numbers consecrated by their blood. And deservedly so; for this Christian liberty bears witness to the absolute and most just dominion of God over man, and to the chief and supreme duty of man toward God.[19]

It should come as no surprise that the drafters of Dignitatis Humanae cite this passage as part of the historical development of its teaching[20] or that this passage in some ways reflects the development of the argument in Dignitatis Humanae (such as the theological argument for religious freedom in DH 10-12).


We looked at the discussion within the SSPX and within Dignitatis Humanae in how each was using the terms “truth” and “false”. The SSPX in its mentioned articles always refers to both together whereas in Dignitatis Humanae falsehood or error is mentioned very little and in terms of circumlocutions. The SSPX seems to phrase everything in black and white terms in the dialectical dyad of the true religion versus all the errors in the false religions and interprets religious liberty from this perspective while Dignitatis Humanae focuses on man’s personal responsibility towards truth.

Such a perspective represented by the SSPX however is not the approach of Vatican II. Vatican II begins with the person, his nature, and his duties. This perspective is entirely personalist. The person is the theme of religious liberty for only persons can be bearers of this right. The SSPX in its basic outlook seems to have ignored the distinction between the two basic forms of religious freedom grounded in each’s relationship to truth as found in Leo XIII and which influenced the entire debate in the drafting of Dignitatis Humanae.

The SSPX claims that the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae commits indifferentism. To understand the motivations for this charge we must keep in mind how they use “truth” and “error” in their polemics in order to assess the validity of this claim.

Section Endnotes


[2] RLCT.

[3] TRL.

[4] TRL.

[5] This is all the more ironic since the SSPX has several articles on their website condemning Feeney on other doctrinal matters.

[6] RLCT.

[7] DH 2.1.

[8] DH 2.2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] DH 3.2.

[11] RLCT.

[12] See my Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae Part 2, Chapter 2.

[13] DH 2.2.

[14] In Part 1 and Part II of my Commentary.

[15] See my Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae Part 2, Chapter 1.

[16] Libertas 16.

[17] Libertas 10, 13. Cf. Immortale Dei 37-38.

[18] Libertas 30.

[19] Ibid.

[20] DH 2.1fn2.

Chapter 2: Dignitatis Humanae and Indifferentism

The Argument

The SSPX makes a distinction between two kinds of indifferentism: that of individuals and that of civil authorities.[1] The SSPX notes that Dignitatis Humanae does not teach the first,[2] and so argues that the document teaches the second. The argument then is the following:

  1. Dignitatis Humanae teaches indifferentism of civil authorities.

  2. Indifferentism of civil authorities is condemned in Quanta Cura 3.

  3. Therefore Dignitatis Humanae is rejected since its teachings are condemned by the pre-Vatican II papacy.

Premise 1

Dignitatis Humanae teaches that man has a right to not be prevented in the public sphere from performing religious acts as part of his religious freedom. The SSPX claim is that this right as defined in the text implies that the state

must not intervene, in the external forum of social life, either in favor of the true religion or to the detriment of the false religions, except when public order is endangered, in other words, accidentally.[3]

As interpreted in this manner the state then must act indifferently towards religion, i.e. an indifferentism of civil authorities.


The interpretation of this element of Dignitatis Humanae’s teaching is rather eschewed however for it equivocates between two very different notions. On the one hand is the question of the content of religious freedom as a right of a person while on the other is the question of the state’s relationship to religion.

Indifferentism is defined as “to embrace and adopt without danger to his salvation whatever sect or opinion appeals to him on the basis of his private judgment”[4] or the possibility to “to obtain the eternal salvation of the soul by the profession of any kind of religion, as long as morality is maintained.”[5] In other words it is a belief concerning the person’s relationship towards truth, namely an embracement of relativism from which it followed that man can profess whatever religion each person’s opinion preferred. Pius IX follows these definitions in Quanta Cura.[6]

The SSPX notion of “indifferentism of civil authorities” on the other hand makes no sense in this paradigm since indifferentism is defined in terms of persons and their relationship (or lack thereof) towards truth (since indifferentism is grounded in metaphysical relativism and religious pluralism). What is confused is this concept of persons and relativism with the state’s relationship towards religion.

The “indifferentism of civil authorities” is actually the political model neutralism which simply states that the state is to remain neutral towards religion.[7] Neutralism can interpret religious freedom to mean that members of the state enjoy it as a self-expressive autonomy which was rejected[8] or in the sense that the government is incapable of making judgments in religious matters.

Neutralism and Dignitatis Humanae

Did Dignitatis Humanae teach neutralism as the SSPX claims? The SSPX claim is that the government cannot intervene whatsoever in religious matters, which is a definition of neutralism.

The SSPX terminology here in the argument is actually ambiguous. It is argued that the state cannot “intervene” in religious matters. Dignitatis Humanae has a more refined approach. “Intervene” can be interpreted as the state cannot make any judgments on religious matters whatsoever, that it cannot interfere at all (except by “due limits”). Such an interpretation of “intervene” is what the SSPX appears to hold that Dignitatis Humanae teaches.

Dignitatis Humanae, on the other hand, rejects this strict view for it explicitly teaches that “Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare.”[9] “Intervene” can be taken in another sense in that the state transgresses “the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious” as the Vatican II document teaches.[10] There are hence two meanings of intervene here, promotion of religion, and intrusion of religious rights. We can formulate the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae here in the following argument:

  1. The end or “the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare”.[11]

  2. Religion is an element of the common welfare.

  3. Therefore the government has the duty to promote religion.

Such a position is a total rejection of the SSPX’s interpretation. A similar argument can be made based DH 6.2 which argues that the state has the duty to protect and promote religious freedom.[12] DH 6.3 also affirms the possibility of the coexistence of a Catholic state with religious freedom.

In sum we can reject premise 1 of the SSPX’s argument.

Premise 2

The second premise claims that Quanta Cura condemns neutralism. The author of the SSPX article argues that Piux IX condemned the following two propositions in article 3 of the encyclical:

  1. “The civil authorities must not intervene to repress the external manifestations of false religions within the framework of social life...”[13]

  2. “Individuals have the right not to be prevented by the authorities from performing in the external forum of social life the external acts of their religion, whether it is true or false.”[14]

On the surface these two “condemned” propositions appear rather odd. The first implies that the state can repress false religions which is a restatement of the traditionalist view but what about the second? If we negate this proposition to obtain that which is to be affirmed, do we not obtain that “Individuals have the right to be prevented by the authorities from performing in the external forum of social life the external acts of their religion, whether it is true or false.”? Does the author of this article wish to affirm that each person has the right to have the public expression of their religion repressed, even the Catholic faith? for that is what is implied and is a view condemned by the Magisterium. I do not ascribe such an outlandish proposal to the SSPX but merely note the imprecision of thought of the author for I suspect that what is meant is something as follows: that the error has no rights so those who adopt a false religion forfeit the freedom to publicly express their religion and so any attempt to do so can be suppressed by the state. Regardless the problem before us is what exactly did Pius IX say in article 3 of Quanta Cura.

Quanta Cura 3

The first paragraph of the article begins with a complaint against evil opinions. These opinions give rise to two basic erroneous propositions:

  1. That the Catholic Church’s influence globally over individuals, peoples, nations, and the leaders of nations is to be impeded or removed

  2. That the “mutual fellowship and concord of counsels” between states and the Church is to be taken away for either religious or civil interests.

The foundation for these two principles arise is discussed in the next paragraph and is naturalism. Naturalism teaches that

the best constitution of public society and (also) civil progress altogether require that human society be conducted and governed without regard being had to religion any more than if it did not exist; or, at least, without any distinction being made between the true religion and false ones.[15]

Naturalism as defined here is a form of neutralism and is furthermore understood to be a kind of relativism since the will of the people is the foundation for law and political order.[16]

Based on these principles of naturalism and the will of the people, these thinkers held that:

the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require.[17]

On relativistic principles there cannot be duty to suppress offenders of the Catholic faith, but what about when this foundation is rejected? The SSPX interprets this in regards of the non-Catholic faiths that the state has a duty to suppress these and hence the principle of religious freedom in Dignitatis Humanae would necessarily be in conflict.

There are several questions here that need to be asked: 1) is the SSPX interpretation the valid one? 2) “offender” is not defined, so are there other possible meanings for this term? And if so, what are they? 3) supposing that the SSPX interpretation is the correct one, what is the authority of this teaching? 4) is there a way to harmonize this statement of Pius IX in a manner that shows a development of doctrine? 5) or if this statement is a rupture, is it a macro or micro rupture?

At the very least we can emphasize three points 1) there is a tension here concerning the use of temporal power by the state in the name of religion, a tension that Dignitatis Humanae was silent on.[18] This is a topic that warrants deeper reflection separately. 2) the answers to these five questions must bear in mind that the Dignitatis Humanae is an authentic development of doctrine as the Council Fathers, Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and every Pope since Vatican II has defended. Either there is development and continuity or one must reject 100 years of Magisterium teaching as it developed from Leo XIII through Pius XI, Pius XII, and John XXIII to Vatican II. 3) these condemnations are based upon relativism while Dignitatis Humanae’s foundation is fundamentally rooted in objective truth

Lastly, the final condemnation of Quanta Cura 3 restates the teaching of Gregory XVI in its condemnation of indifferentism.

It is clear that each condemnation here is premised upon relativism. The question can be restated as the following: is there a situation that respects religious freedom as taught by Dignitatis Humanae but still preserves in some meaning temporal punishment for “offenders” against Catholicism? It is ultimately a question about the status of political Christendom and whether it can be integrated with religious freedom. It is my prima facie suspicion that Christendom is a historical model one need not ascribe to and that the relevant teachings surrounding it are historically abrogated and call for a deeper penetration into the nature of the political community and its structures.


Claiming that Quanta Cura condemned “indifferentism of civil authorities” is equivocating between two different meanings for indifferentism is in reference to a particular belief on religious freedom whereas the relevant passage that the SSPX states is “indifferentism of civil authorities” is really a condemnation of a naturalistic interpretation of neutralism. There is no reason to formulate a new phrase when neutralism could have just as easily described the phenomenon.     Using the term “indifferentism of civil authorities” furthermore introduces an ambiguity as to what this refers to because precisely of the papal condemnations of the various definitions of indifferentism.

The charges of indifferentism and neutralism make no sense against Dignitatis Humanae since there are several passages which demonstrate the text’s rejection of both positions. As it stands the argument as formulated by the SSPX article is invalid.

Section Endnotes

[1] RL.

[2] Which was explicitly rejected in DH 2.2.

[3] RL.

[4] Leo XII, Ubi Primum 12.

[5] Gregory XVI, Mirari Vos 13.

[6] “they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an ‘insanity,’ viz., that ‘liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.’” Quanta Cura 3.

[7] Cf. Part I of my Commentary, 11-13.

[8] Since DH 2.2 teaches that religious freedom is not a subjective disposition of the person but grounded in human nature.

[9] DH 3.4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See my Commentary, Part I, 21-22.

[13] RL.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Quanta Cura 3.

[16] Ibid, 4.

[17] Ibid, 3.

[18] See my Commentary Part 1, 22-24.

Chapter 3: The Meaning of “Due Limits” in Dignitatis Humanae

The term “due limits” shows up in the text of Dignitatis Humanae as the limiting principle to religious freedom. When religious freedom is defined the principle is limited “within due limits”.[1] Interestingly, this phrase is the object of several objections by the SSPX against Dignitatis Humanae.

The First Objection

Here is the first argument of sorts from Religious Liberty. The term “argument” is modified by “of sorts” since the author seemed more inclined to present a list of disagreements instead of an argument. The author begins by introducing a distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic limits, then claims that the principle of religious liberty does not have intrinsic limits, only extrinsic. With this assumption the following points are made:

1) “Due limits” refers to the objective order of civil society

2) Due limits must hence respect temporal tranquility, and so unable to give internal limits to religious freedom

3) The state must remain indifferent in respect to the truth or falsity of religion.

The distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic by the author can easily be digested by the example he himself provided. If we imagine a religious procession, it will be regulated internally by the prescriptions of the religion which is an intrinsic limit, a limit internal within the religion; whereas the fact that the procession must obey traffic laws is an extrinsic one, exterior to the rules of the religion.

The claim is that religious liberty has no intrinsic limits because this principle applies to all religions. The dialectics throughout the author’s discussion is in terms of the true religion versus all of the false religions. There is a sharp divide between the dialectical pair barricading itself from being bridged in the author’s mind. Hence “due limits” are extrinsic and belong to the “objective order of society”, and as such “due limits” are only operative when the public peace is disturbed. What the author of the essay wants as a limiting principle to religious freedom is one grounded in the world dialectical perspective of the true religion versus all false religions, and since “due limits” cannot support this, Dignitatis Humanae’s teaching is erroneous. The teaching is further objected to since this line of reasoning implies that the state must be neutral towards religion, an objection we have already refuted so we will focus on the distinction between exterior and interior limits and how due limits correspond to this schema.

Due Limits as Natural Law

“Due limits” receives its first clarification in the very next paragraph after its invocation. Religious freedom cannot be impeded “provided that just public order be observed.”[2] Due limits here refers to the public order, which is certainly something concerning civil society, but the public order must also be just, which gives public order a moral meaning.

In fact the insertion of “just” here was very intentional by the Council Fathers (and notably Wojtyła’s intervention) since it was included as a limitation against the state from declaring some religious activities such as a Eucharistic procession as disrupting the public order.[3] The limits to religious freedom must be just, that is in conformity with natural law.

This interpretation of “due limits” as natural is given further credence by the fact that the limitations to religious freedom are given further development later in article 7. Here we read that society has a right to defend itself against abuses in the name of religion. The actions of the state and society in limiting religious freedom are to be “controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order.” “Due limits” is the objective moral order, which is nothing other than natural law.

Due Limits in the Extrinsic-Intrinsic Distinction

We can see already that the first proposition by the author is to be rejected, namely that “due limits” refers strictly to the objective order of civil society since this neglects entirely Dignitatis Humanae’s understanding of the phrase as a reference to natural law. Furthermore if we wish to adopt the extrinsic-intrinsic distinction here (which appears superfluous), then religious liberty does have an intrinsic limit because all men of all religions are called to live in conformity with natural law. The bearer of the right to religious freedom, the human person, is the same being who is also called to live in accordance with natural law.

The extrinsic-intrinsic distinction can be simply ignored because it does nothing to advance the discussion of “due limits” while at the same time appears to be simply a ratiocination. We can further dismiss the author’s other point concerning “due limits” and social tranquility since the object of “due limits” is justice and the natural law, which may or may not align with tranquility (a point that was poignantly made by the drafters such as Wojtyła’s intervention).[4]

The Second Objection

The second argument given in Religious Liberty is as follows:

  1. Gaudium et Spes 36 teaches the autonomy of the temporal order

  2. This implies the separation of Church and State

  3. Point (2) is condemned by previous papal teachings

What must be kept in mind with (2) is that this second objection comes after the first “argument” which presupposed that Dignitatis Humanae taught neutralism and so I would suppose is also operative when the author makes statement (2).

What Did Gaudium et Spes 36 Teach?

We begin by addressing the first point, the autonomy of the temporal order as taught by Gaudium et Spes, since this is clearly taught but not as the SSPX would like us to believe. The entire article here is a discussion about the scientific investigation across all branches of knowledge and the Council here affirms that each field of study has its own methods while not conflicting with the faith when its investigations are genuinely scientific. The Council Fathers here also explicitly reject that this autonomy does not mean that all created things do not depend on God or that they can be used without reference to God. The duplicity of the SSPX author is clear to anyone who reads the whole article,[5] and so the first point is rejected.

The second objection concerning the separation of Church and state as a necessary result from the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae can be dismissed if we refer back to our discussions on neutralism. Dignitatis Humanae explicitly rejected neutralism because the state has the duty to promote religion and religious freedom.[6] Therefore we can ignore this argument as both principles have been demonstrated to be false.

The Next Set of Arguments

In the article Religious Liberty Contradicts Tradition the author gives us a set of three arguments against Dignitatis Humanae. The preliminary argument the author makes is that defining “due limits” in terms of the “objective moral order” is insufficient and illusory because only the Catholic Church “conserves” the natural law. All other religions have errors in their understanding of natural law. The first argument is the following:

  1. Vatican II teaches that religious freedom is limited by due limits which means natural law.

  2. Only the Catholic Church conserves natural law.

  3. Only the Catholic Church can therefore be the bearer of unrestricted religious liberty, unlike Vatican II which teaches that all religions are bearers of religious liberty.

The second argument continues where this leaves off.

  1. Only the Catholic Church can enjoy unrestricted religious liberty.

  2. Dignitatis Humanae teaches that all religions enjoy religious freedom.

  3. Therefore “due limits” must refer to the public order, which means that “everything must be authorized”.

Personalism Versus the SSPX

Points (1) through (3) represents the fundamental misunderstanding between the SSPX and the Council on religious freedom, and this goes back to the first chapter of this essay. The SSPX dialectic is between the truth Church and all of the false ones. We see this here again. The Catholic Church is the only one without errors in her understanding of natural law so only she can be the bearer of religious freedom. This however is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a right is and what religious freedom claims to be.

Religious freedom is a right of human persons. Truth and error cannot be bearers of rights, only persons. This is one of the fundamental personalist insights of Vatican II and the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae article 2, that it is persons who are bearers of this right. Religious communities have rights, but these rights are grounded in the “social nature both of man and religion itself.”[7] The rights of a religious community flow from the essence of religion and the human person himself. The SSPX objection here can hence be dismissed.

There is another type of right of the religious community that needs to be distinguished from article 4 and that is the Divine right of the Catholic Church.[8] While all religions, including Catholicism, enjoy religious rights based upon the natures of religion and the person, the Catholic Church also has a particular special right, the Divine mandate to evangelize given by God to the Church. This special right of the Catholic Church has been recognized by the pre-Vatican II papacy repeatedly.[9] This is a right unique to only the Catholic Church because only she is the one Church established by Christ and given the Great Commission.

Personal Responsibility

This argument by the SSPX also entirely sidesteps the problem of personal responsibility. Dignitatis Humanae teaches that religious freedom is grounded in human nature, dignity and man’s search for truth. This means that man has a responsibility for truth, to seek, embrace, adhere, and live out truth. These responsibilities are part of the natural law and apply to every man regardless of his or her religion.

Even though different religions have flaws in their understanding of natural law, this is not grounds for dismissal of them but for communication, dialogue, witness, and dare I say it, ecumenism, to be a witness and expounder to the truth with charity to our brothers and sisters. Dignitatis Humanae places a great demand upon Catholics to be witnesses because we do have the fullness of truth, and to be humble about this fact. The document also requires the great demand upon non-Catholics to embrace truth and abandon falsity with sincerity and humbleness, with humility. It is precisely these dialogues, witnessing, and expounding that religious freedom protects.

The Sixth Point

What we have said applies to (1) through (5). The last point, that “due limits” refers to public order is correct but misunderstood by our author. Dignitatis Humanae clearly states that religious freedom is limited by public order, but it is a “just public order” and not any public order it is limited by as we discussed earlier. The SSPX take on “due limits” here is a complete caricature, a straw man, but one that logically follows from its dismissal of the natural law interpretation of “due limits”.

One final point we can make is that due limits as public order does not imply a religious sort of libertarianism where only terrorist attacks or pedophilia are condemned (the SSPX author’s examples, not mine), simply because the public order itself must be regulated by natural law in order for a society to be just. The author here has completely separated the public order from any connotation of natural law, which is a point the Council Fathers vehemently rejected in the debates drafting the text of Dignitatis Humanae and specified that “due limits” must directly refer to natural law, to the “objective moral order”. We can hence dismiss both of these arguments. This leaves us with a last argument based on “due limits”.

The Third Argument

This argument is perhaps the strangest one proposed. Suppose that “due limits” does refer to natural law, then the author argues as follows:

  1. “Due limits” in its natural law interpretation is restricted to the natural order of things.

  2. This omits the supernatural order.

  3. Such a separation of the natural and supernatural orders is condemned, and hence Dignitatis Humanae is in error.

This is perhaps the strangest argument yet simply because of the author’s insistence that the restriction to natural law somehow entails the separation of it from the eternal law. Such an interpretation of natural law is asinine at the very least for the natural law is grounded in the eternal law as the Popes have taught. Here is Leo XIII for example:

Foremost in this office comes the natural law, which is written and engraved in the mind of every man; and this is nothing but our reason, commanding us to do right and forbidding sin. Nevertheless, all prescriptions of human reason can have force of law only inasmuch as they are the voice and the interpreters of some higher power on which our reason and liberty necessarily depend. For, since the force of law consists in the imposing of obligations and the granting of rights, authority is the one and only foundation of all law - the power, that is, of fixing duties and defining rights, as also of assigning the necessary sanctions of reward and chastisement to each and all of its commands. But all this, clearly, cannot be found in man, if, as his own supreme legislator, he is to be the rule of his own actions. It follows, therefore, that the law of nature is the same thing as the eternal law, implanted in rational creatures, and inclining them to their right action and end; and can be nothing else but the eternal reason of God, the Creator and Ruler of all the world.[10]

This teaching furthermore is rooted in the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas who is following St. Augustine on this matter. Consider the following passage:

I answer that, As stated above (I-II:90:1 ad 1), law, being a rule and measure, can be in a person in two ways: in one way, as in him that rules and measures; in another way, as in that which is ruled and measured, since a thing is ruled and measured, in so far as it partakes of the rule or measure. Wherefore, since all things subject to Divine providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law, as was stated above (Article 1); it is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, in so far as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law. Hence the Psalmist after saying (Psalm 4:6): "Offer up the sacrifice of justice," as though someone asked what the works of justice are, adds: "Many say, Who showeth us good things?" in answer to which question he says: "The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us": thus implying that the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature's participation of the eternal law.[11]

In case one is wondering whether I am simply being unfair to our poor author see this footnote for the author’s own words on the matter.[12] We can hence reject the last argument against Dignitatis Humanae from the SSPX’s analysis of “due limits”.

Section Endnotes

[1] DH 2.1.

[2] DH 2.2, emphasis mine. Cf. DH 3.3, 4.2.

[3] See my Commentary Part I, 12-13. Alberigo, History of Vatican II, vol 5, 75-76. This was one of the points of Wojtyla’s intervention. Ibid, 108.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Now many of our contemporaries seem to fear that a closer bond between human activity and religion will work against the independence of men, of societies, or of the sciences.

If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. Therefore if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God.  Indeed whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed.

But if the expression, the independence of temporal affairs, is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear. For their part, however, all believers of whatever religion always hear His revealing voice in the discourse of creatures. When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible.” Gaudium et Spes 36.

[6] DH 3.4, 6.2.

[7] DH 4.1, 4.5.

[8] DH 13.

[9] See my Commentary Part 1, 29-32, especially fn 117, 119, 120, 121, 122.

[10] Libertas 8.

[11] STh I-II, 91, 2. Quote is from New Advent. Link:

[12] “Why should the mention of “the objective moral order” be considered insufficient?

Even interpreted strictly, this limitation of religious liberty to the “objective moral order” is inadequate because restricted to the natural order of things, thereby omitting consideration of the supernatural order. Such a conception of religious liberty fails to recognize the social kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ, the supernatural rights of His Church, and the supernatural end of man in the common good of the political order. It fails to consider that the false religions, by the mere fact that they keep souls from the Catholic Church, lead souls to hell. In a word, it is naturalism.” RLCT.

Chapter 4: Dignitatis Humanae and Human Dignity

The SSPX article Religious Liberty lists two main “errors” in Dignitatis Humanae, that it teaches religious liberty and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation for this freedom. Our task is to now assess the argument put forward against Dignitatis Humanae in the SSPX’s analysis of human dignity.

The author of the article begins by making a distinction between ontological and moral dignity. The teachings of Dignitatis Humanae, it is argued, are based on the ontological dignity of the human person and so no one can coerce a person to believe a proposition through imposition of truth. The author here clearly states that this is a teaching of the Magisterium and if one were to do such it would be an act of violence against the person.

The problem, for this author, arises out of an analysis of moral dignity. Man loses moral dignity if he turns away from truth for a falsehood. If the intellect and will choose something that does not attain to either faculty’s perfection then each falls “from their innate dignity and are corrupted.”[1] Ontological dignity requires moral dignity to complete and perfect it, and this perfection requires that man is subject to the laws of the state and Catholic Church.

The Dignity Distinction in Dignitatis Humanae

If one is unfamiliar with this distinction between an ontological dignity of the human person and a moral one which perfects or damages dignity depending if one does good or evil, check out the excellent book Church, State, and Society by J. Brian Benestad for a good introduction.[2]

Now we must make some preliminary points. First, when Dignitatis Humanae discusses human dignity, it appears to always have in mind the ontological meaning and not the moral. Second, while moral evil corrupts and damages our dignity, it does not entirely destroy one’s ontological dignity. It is unclear as to whether the SSPX author means total corruption of human dignity or partial.[3] The question then is what is the relationship between moral dignity and ontological dignity in light of Dignitatis Humanae?

Now, Dignitatis Humanae teaches that religious freedom is rooted in human dignity and an element of natural law as it is grounded in human nature.[4] Since religious freedom is a part of natural law then it is something which can only enhance one’s dignity when practiced authentically. This is another reason why one has a duty to promote religious liberty in addition to the arguments that can be inferred from the text itself.[5]

As it stands the flow of thought in the article does not require a rejection of Dignitatis Humanae as it stands in the article. One can affirm the Vatican II text while also agreeing that the Catholic Church is the teleological end of any authentic pursuit of religious truth and hence it would be perfective of the person to follow the teachings of the Church. The author is probably assuming extra principles outside of the argument. There would be a major issue here if the author for example did believe that sin and error could completely corrupt the ontological dignity of man.

Section Endnotes

[1] RL.

[2] Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine, 38-47.

[3] It is also worth noting that the author cites Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei 6 in support, when it should actually be Immortale Dei 32: “If the mind assents to false opinions, and the will chooses and follows after what is wrong, neither can attain its native fullness, but both must fall from their native dignity into an abyss of corruption.”

[4] See my Commentary Part 2, 6-13 for the development of this idea in the pre-Vatican II papacy. Vatican II and afterwards continued this teaching of religious liberty.

[5] See my Commentary Part 1, 17, 20-22.

Chapter 5: The Meaning of Coercion

Another objection is made against Dignitatis Humanae based on the meaning of coercion.[1] The Council text teaches that religious liberty is an immunity from coercion. The error according this author is the assumption by Dignitatis Humanae that “any coercion is always against the dignity of man.”[2] The author then lists some counterexamples which includes God’s law, grace, parents, education and authority. After this list of examples the author concludes “Thus the refusal of coercion under the guise of human dignity is in fact a refusal of divinely instituted authority…”[3] It is almost as if the author of this article did not read what constitutes as coercion in Dignitatis Humanae.

What is Coercion in Dignitatis Humanae

Coercion can be defined as an imposition of truth (or falsehood) external to the power of truth. A theme of Dignitatis Humanae is that “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth”.[4] Imposed truth by any other power than truth itself is always coercion. Dignitatis Humanae teaches that coercion can come from individuals, social groups or of any human power.[5] Coercion can be external or psychological.[6] This immunity from coercion also applies to communities.[7] Concretely coercion has the some of following forms in terms of the government:

It follows that a wrong is done when government imposes upon its people, by force or fear or other means, the profession or repudiation of any religion, or when it hinders men from joining or leaving a religious community. All the more is it a violation of the will of God and of the sacred rights of the person and the family of nations when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion, either in the whole of mankind or in a particular country or in a definite community.[8]


Government, in consequence, must acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and of other means of education, and the use of this freedom of choice is not to be made a reason for imposing unjust burdens on parents, whether directly or indirectly. Besides, the right of parents are violated, if their children are forced to attend lessons or instructions which are not in agreement with their religious beliefs, or if a single system of education, from which all religious formation is excluded, is imposed upon all.[9]

The counterexamples given by the SSPX author here now appear nonsensical since it is the role of these examples to propose the truth, not impose it upon the student. The counterexamples actually serve religious freedom. The family for example has rights to religious freedom which include: one, “right freely to live its own domestic religious life under the guidance of parents”;[10] two, parents have the right to determine the type of religious education they want for their children.[11] Religious freedom likewise implies the right to freely “hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense.”[12] Likewise article 3 affirms that coercion is distinct from God, His eternal law, and natural law since it is the truths of these matters that man seeks and such quest that religious liberty protects.[13]


Overall the three articles of the SSPX misrepresent or misunderstand the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae. Objections were raised concerning indifferentism, the relationship between religion and the state, the meaning of “due limits” and coercion, and the dignity of the human person, none of which had much, if any, substance to them and are duly rejected.

This is however not the end of our investigation on Dignitatis Humanae. For Part IV of this commentary we will analyze the arguments against religious liberty by Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the SSPX, from his book Religious Liberty Questioned. It is crucial to analyze this text as it will illustrate assumed ideological principles in the SSPX articles these authors did not make apparent such as the matter concerning the objection to Dignitatis Humanae based on the claim that its teachings are grounded in human dignity. In the articles examined this matter was unclear as to why the author felt there was a real objection. Lefebvre’s little book will expose a particularly sinister interpretation of human dignity.

Section Endnotes

[1] TRL.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] DH 1.3.

[5] DH 2.1.

[6] DH 2.2.

[7] DH 4.1.

[8] DH 6.5.

[9] DH 5.

[10] DH 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] DH 4.5.

[13] “Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law-eternal, objective and universal-whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.” DH 3.1.

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 
Wikimedia Commons

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