Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 26, 2005
Teaching on religious liberty came after 'vehement debate' amoung council fathers
By AGOSTINO BONO
WCR Catholic News Service
One of the final documents approved by the Second Vatican Council was perhaps its most controversial text, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, which catapulted Catholicism into the modern world of Church-state relations.
It set the foundations for Church dealings with secular, religiously pluralistic Western democracies and for Pope John Paul II's ringing denunciations of Church persecution in communist-ruled countries.
The declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, also lent credibility to the council's call for ecumenical dialogue and dialogue with non-Christian believers.
In the process, it rehabilitated the declaration's main drafter, Father John Courtney Murray, a U.S. Jesuit who in the 1950s was barred by the Vatican from writing on Church-state relations.
The priest eventually was invited to joint the Vatican's Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican agency that drafted the document.
The Declaration on Religious Freedom stated that, because of human dignity, each person had the civil right to religious liberty and to practise religious belief in community with others. This was a sharp departure from centuries of Church teaching that complete religious freedom belonged only to the Catholic Church because it contained the fullness of divine truth.
In a commentary after the council, Murray noted the implications of the declaration's groundbreaking stance.
"The Church does not deal with the secular order in terms of a double standard - freedom for the Church when Catholics are a minority, privilege for the Church and intolerance for others when Catholics are a majority," said his 1966 commentary, a year before his death.
The declaration said "the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself." This freedom must be recognized and protected by nations as a civil right because religious freedom requires "immunity from external coercion."
"The right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking truth and adhering to it," said the declaration.
It was approved by a vote of 2,308-70 the day before the council ended.
But the approval came after "vehement debate" with strong opposition from many Vatican officials and bishops from strongly Catholic countries such as Spain and Italy, where Catholicism was the state religion, said Gregory Baum, an expert at the council for the Christian unity secretariat.
"The Catholic Church had condemned religious freedom in the 19th century," said Baum, now a retired religious studies professor at McGill University in Montreal.
The previous position was that "truth has all the rights and error has no rights," said Baum. In practice this meant that because they were following an erroneous religion, non-Catholics had no right to religious freedom and at best could be tolerated in society.
"But this is nonsense," he said. "Truth is an abstract concept. People have rights."
Opponents of the declaration argued that by accepting the principle of religious freedom the Church would be contradicting itself. This view was counter to that of other theologians, such as Murray, that Church teachings can evolve over time, a process called "development of doctrine."
Murray's 1966 commentary said that resistance to development of doctrine was behind much of the opposition.
Confession of Church faults
When the declaration was approved, it also included a confession of past Church transgressions against religious freedom.
"Although in the life of the people of God . . . there has at times appeared a form of behaviour which was hardly in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel and was even opposed to it, it has always remained the teaching of the Church that no one is to be coerced into believing," it said.
This confession was suggested by Cardinal Josef Beran of Prague, Czechoslovakia. Noting the burning of heretics and the forced conversions to Catholicism in his country's history, Beran asked that the council approve the declaration "in a spirit of atonement for past sins."
Beran and other council fathers from communist countries joined bishops from the West in supporting the declaration.
Bishops behind the Iron Curtain saw it as necessary to preserve some semblance of Church life in their homelands because the declaration did more than establish the principle of religious freedom: It also called for Church independence from the state and for protections against state encroachment against organized religion.
Among the declaration's Soviet-bloc supporters was Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, elected Pope John Paul II in 1978.
Wojtyla was "keen on the document" and it "converted him to human rights," said Baum. "He became a champion of human rights around the world - not just religious rights - based on the human dignity of the person."