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Enjoying and Making Use of a Responsible Freedom

Lord Acton, the great historian of freedom, understood that “liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” The liberty of which he spoke embraced a broad scope of human freedom, including dimensions political, intellectual, economic, and, especially, religious. The civilization of which he spoke was the West, whose heritage of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christian faith indelibly marked it and inexorably pushed it toward the full panoply of liberties we enjoy today and to which the rest of the world looks. And the history he sought to express was the unfolding witness to the expansion, refinement, and richer application of the principles of liberty.

In celebration of the Acton Institute's tenth anniversary and in the spirit of Lord Acton, Religion & Liberty is publishing a series of essays tracing the history of, as Edmund Burke put it, “this fierce spirit of liberty.” We shall look at several watershed documents from the past thousand years (concluding in this issue with Vatican II's Dignitatis Humanae), each of which displays one facet of the nature of liberty. We do so to remember our origins and to know our aim. And we do so because, in the words of Winston Churchill, “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom.” — the Editor

At least in the United States, there a tendency to read the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae (1965), as though the Roman Catholic Church had rather belatedly gotten around to ratifying the liberalist concept of religious freedom, a concept practically taken for granted in contemporary secular discourse. According to this concept, people are free at any time to adopt or relinquish any religious affiliation, as best suits them at the time. Religion, being a matter of feeling and taste, can make no legitimate claim to truth in the public arena. And since the state has a purely secular function, it should conduct its affairs without any reference to religion.

Behind this mentality is a philosophy that equates freedom with indetermination. Every firm commitment is seen as a limitation on freedom. Freedom is also seen as a purely individual matter. We are free to the extent that we make up our own minds without submitting to the society or to any authority, religious or secular. To the extent that we conform to the will of others or obey them, we diminish our freedom.

Dignitatis Humanae does not embrace this liberalist concept of freedom but, on the contrary, rejects it. It adheres to the classical notion of freedom, which had been incorporated into official Catholic teaching by Leo XIII in his papal encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum (1888) and by John XXIII in his papal encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963). Dignitatis Humanae, while dealing chiefly with religious freedom as a universal human right, “leaves intact the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (Dignitatis Humanae, no. 1).

To avoid confusion, it will be useful at the outset to note that Dignitatis Humanae recognizes two levels or aspects of freedom. On the juridical level, freedom may be defined negatively as immunity from coercion by any civil authority. On the moral level, freedom consists positively in the power to speak and act according to one's reponsible decision. Of the two aspects, the latter is primary, for the purpose of juridical freedom is to enhance moral freedom. The Catholic understanding of moral freedom is grounded in the philosophical and theological anthropology that the church has developed through centuries of reflection on the legacy of biblical and classical wisdom.

According to this tradition, the right to freedom is rooted most fundamentally in human nature. God created human beings in his own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26) with the constitutive endowments of reason and free will and the vocation to rule wisely over the visible world. This dignity, as John XXIII had taught in Pacem in Terris, “requires that every human being enjoy the right to act freely and responsibly, ... from a consciousness of his obligation, without being moved by force or pressure brought to bear on him externally” (Pacem in Terris, no. 34). Society, therefore, should be so ordered that its members can accept responsibility for their actions in ways suited to their dignity.

Dignitatis Humanae, taking over these concepts from traditional Catholic teaching, applies them particularly to the issue of religious freedom. At the very outset, it proclaims:

All men are impelled by nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. (Dignitatis Humanae, no. 2; cf. no. 1)

Dignitatis Humanae also reaffirms the teaching of the Catholic Church:

God himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. (Dignitatis Humanae, no. 1)

The Council cannot, therefore, be rightly suspected of abetting religious indifferentism. Religious freedom, in the Council's view, is not a liberation from religious commitment but an appropriate means for arriving at a full personal commitment to the true religion.

The rights of conscience are sometimes invoked as authorization for people to make different religious choices as they see fit. Some nineteenth-century liberals held that conscience, unregulated by any higher norm, was the supreme guide of all conduct. This view was forcefully rejected by Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII. Dignitatis Humanae follows traditional Catholic teaching on this matter. Conscience is a precious means whereby God enables us to perceive that we have duties toward a Supreme Power to whom we are accountable. But conscience does not, by itself, tell us what specific forms of action are good and evil. It must, therefore, seek to discern the “objective moral order” (Dignitatis Humanae, no. 7). Acknowledging that the supreme norm of human conduct is the divine law, as Leo XIII had taught, we must seriously inquire what God commands and forbids; and in so doing we must make use of experience and authority.

Vatican II takes up the themes of conscience and freedom most formally in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Conscience, according to this document, summons us to obey God; it prompts us to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience, moreover, is not infallible; it frequently errs. Culpably or inculpably, we often fail to perceive or understand the revelatory signs that God has given. And even when we know the good, we often lack the moral power to perform it, as Paul memorably attests in Romans 7:18–20. Human freedom therefore needs to be assisted not only by external revelation, which instructs our reason, but also by grace, which heals our wounded will.

Fulfilling Purposes for Which We Were Created

The theology of freedom would be incomplete without reference to Christ and to the Holy Spirit. Christ, who is Truth itself (John 14:6), liberates our freedom (Gal. 5:1) and reveals the truth that makes us truly free (John 8:32). Dignitatis Humanae itself ends with the prayer of Paul that through the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit all may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:21; Dignitatis Humanae, no. 15).

Vatican II's concept of freedom exhibits sharp contrasts with that of modern liberalism. Freedom, as understood by the Council, is not an end in itself; rather, it is given as a means for fulfilling the purposes for which we were created. True freedom, far from precluding firm and lasting commitments, is the very condition that makes such commitments possible. Freedom would be pointless unless it could enable us to reach significant decisions. Freedom is compatible with law because authentic law expresses the order of reason, which is the proximate norm for right decisions. Nor, finally, may respect for freedom be used as a “pretext for refusing to submit to authority or for making light of the duty of obedience” (Dignitatis Humanae, no. 8). A properly educated freedom will incline us to cooperate with others and to obey lawful authority, whether familial, civil, or religious.

One of the most notable contributions of Dignitatis Humanae is its recognition that people must be given time and opportunity to discover the truth by which they are to govern their lives. They must be able to exchange views with others, look for sound advice and instruction, and weigh various opinions. Governments should protect the integrity of this process and not expect people to arrive at the full truth immediately. Because the human person is, by nature, social, religious freedom has social ramifications. It calls for a society in which people support one another in the quest for the truth for which they were made.

Some have accused Dignitatis Humanae of incoherently maintaining that individual persons and groups have a right to propagate error. Persons who are in error do not, indeed, lose their natural human rights. They are still entitled not to be coerced in their religious beliefs. They may also have a subjective obligation to obey an erroneous conscience. But there can be no right to hold or disseminate error. It would be absurd to speak of an objective right to do what is objectively wrong. Speaking on behalf of the Secretariat charged with drafting the document, Bishop Emile De Smedt told the Council Fathers, “If anyone is propagating error, that is not the exercise of a right but its abuse.”

The state, acting within its limited competence, does not have authority to prevent the propagation of error unless those who propagate it disturb the public order. Emphasizing the value of tolerance, Vatican II referred to the parable in which Jesus said that the cockle and the wheat should be allowed to grow together until the harvest at the end of time.

A God-Given Right to Religious Freedom

At this point our discussion touches on the rights and duties of the state. Whereas papal teaching of the nineteenth century strongly emphasized the duties of the state to protect the Catholic faith as the true religion, the primary emphasis in Dignitatis Humanae, as in Pacem in Terris, is on the task of maintaining conditions favorable to religious freedom for all persons and groups.

This shift in emphasis is explained by a number of factors. For one thing, the paternalistic conception of political authority had yielded to a system in which governments were more generally seen as the servants of the people, who governed themselves through elected representatives. Then again, the earlier popes had been thinking in terms of what was best for predominantly Catholic nations, whereas Vatican II was speaking within the larger horizon of the emerging “global village.” New ecumenical and interreligious relationships made it possible to take a more positive view of non-Catholic Christianity and the non-Christian religions. The earlier popes were speaking in terms of what they saw as the ideal order, whereas Vatican II had in mind what was practical in the actual situation. The approach came to be less deductive, more empirical.

In this new situation, Vatican II evidently considered that both society and the church would stand to gain if the state granted religious freedom to all and that attempts to bolster the Catholic Church by legal privileges would be counterproductive. But the Council's teaching was not a matter of mere expediency. On the contrary, it held as a matter of principle that people had a God-given right to religious freedom properly understood—that is to say, the right to seek and profess religious truth and to worship in public and in private without external coercion. That right had not always been sufficiently emphasized in papal teaching.

Some bishops at the Council worried that Dignitatis Humanae endorsed a stance of religious neutralism on the part of the state. This charge cannot fairly be made. Dignitatis Humanae does not encourage the state to ignore or neglect religious questions. It asserts, rather, that the political authorities should favor religious life as an important element in the common welfare. Following Leo XIII, Dignitatis Humanae contends that religion pertains to the common good because society profits from “the moral qualities of justice and peace which have their origin in men's faithfulness to God and to his holy will” (Dignitatis Humanae no. 6).

The state, according to Dignitatis Humanae, has no authority to command or forbid religious acts on the part of the citizens. It should, however, restrain individuals and groups from behaving in ways that violate the rights of others or are injurious to the public order, including the benefits of peace, justice, and public morality. Under this heading, the state would be authorized to forbid evils such as polygamy and abortion. Among the unacceptable violations, Dignitatis Humanae listed unworthy proselytization that takes advantage of uneducated people in order to deceive and manipulate them. But short of cases in which public order is violated, abuses of religious freedom must be civilly tolerated because the attempt to suppress erroneous beliefs would exceed the competence of the state and would involve undue coercion.

A Timely Application of a Classical Concept

Dignitatis Humanae does not provide ready-made solutions to all problems that might arise in church-state relations. It leaves certain concepts, such as that of “public order,” rather vague. But Dignitatis Humanae may be welcomed as a timely application of the classical concept of religious freedom, which had already been enriched by centuries of reflection in the light of the Gospel. Dignitatis Humanae succeeds in vindicating religious freedom as a universal human right without according any right to error and without endorsing religious indifferentism or official neutralism. The Council's teaching on religious freedom deserves to be better known and more widely accepted than it is.