The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Religious Liberty would seem to be an unlikely candidate to topple a vast totalitarian empire that had murdered millions. It does not seem reasonable to suggest that a document that called for the Church and other faiths to have the right to erect their own buildings, worship freely, govern themselves and bring other people into the faith could bring down the Soviet Bloc.
Yet, while no one suggests that the Vatican II document by itself spelled the end of Soviet communism, some who have looked hard at that piece of history believe it made a significant contribution.
Political commentator George Weigel maintains that when the fathers of Vatican II said "the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person," they provided the basis for resistance to totalitarianism.
This statement, Weigel wrote in his account of the fall of communism (The Final Revolution), implied " within every human person was a sanctum sanctorum, a holy of holies, into which the coercive power of the state could not tread" (p. 72).
Totalitarianism was doomed because it could never be total. The religious core of the person could never be conquered. Given time, it would rise forth and crack the solid wall of totalitarianism, leading it to crumble.
It is no wonder that Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was such a champion of the Decree on Religious Liberty at Vatican II. He, perhaps better than anyone, saw the subversive potential of the decree.
When he came to Poland 14 years after the council as Pope John Paul II, Wojtyla challenged young people to overcome deadening conformity. The danger to both society and the Church, he said, "is the man who does not take a risk and accept a challenge, who does not listen to his deepest convictions, to his inner truth, but who only wants to fit somehow, to float in conformity, moving from left to right as the wind blows."
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A lived faith is the key to a free society.
To be a person of faith is to be a sign of contradiction. In a society that brooks no contradiction, a person of faith is, by definition, outside the system. When millions of people decide they will no longer "float in conformity," the system itself is in danger.
John Paul II did not view the Church as a political instrument. According to Weigel, the pope saw himself as "essentially a pastor: a pastor who believes that a Church taking itself seriously as Church, as the Body of Christ in the world, can by that very fact, change the face of politics among nations" (p. 38).
In the Western world, our issues are much different than those of Eastern Europe under Soviet communism. But our cultural fabric is being shredded too. A false conception of freedom, unfettered consumerism and a militant secularism are among the factors that challenge the integrity of the person.
We need to say that state power – and corporate power too – are shaking the person at his and her deepest level. St. Augustine wrote, "our heart is restless until it rests in you, O God." But corporations would like us to believe that our hearts will only find rest in shopping.
Here again, we are called to be signs of contradiction. Rather than seeking fulfillment in all the latest toys, we are called to exercise our freedom of religion and live out of that holy of holies that is found within.
Conformity with the secular culture and its precepts is a path to deadness of the soul. We find ourselves, not by accommodation with the world around us, but by making what is most distinctive about the Christian message the norm for our lives.
Adhering to the uniqueness of the Gospel does not mean condemning other religions. Far from it. People look to their religions for answers to the riddles of human existence. Freedom of religion means that this search is to be respected.
Another Vatican II document said, "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which . . . often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all people."
We find ourselves through religious truth. If enough people make that truth the cornerstone of their lives, we will not only humanize ourselves, we will humanize the whole of society. It has happened before. And it will happen again.