Religious Liberty: A Council Ahead of Its Time?

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So much of the discussion in the public square of late concerns religious liberty.  Not to obscure the other issues involved in the recent HHS rule and its subsequent “accommodation”, for assuredly there is also the issues of natural law, the right to life, and others.  However, it is curious that the issue on the front line for Catholics and non-Catholics alike has been religious liberty.  I say “curious” not to express disapproval; quite the opposite, for I myself think this is the crux of the issue.  I say “curious” because it has caused me to reflect on the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, particularly those of the Second Vatican Council.

In discussions with various groups that are not in full communion with the Church (okay, let’s not beat around the bush – we mean SSPX here), no issue has caused more angst than that of religious liberty and Vatican II (except perhaps the validity of the Novus Ordo).  Now, there is a certain amount of irony to this, because the “conservative” apologists are now clinging (rightfully) to religious liberty in order to combat the rhetoric and actions of the Obama administration, but the “really conservative conservative Catholics” (e.g., SSPX) find themselves in a bit of a pickle.  For it is this teaching of Vatican II that they have rejected publicly.  (See my footnote below for an apology and explanation of my meaningless labels.*)  Yet we have seen in the last month just what happens when religious liberty is not protected.

With that, let’s have a look at what Vatican II said.  The document in question is Dignitatis humanae (“The Dignity of the Human Person”), and paragraph 1 begins,

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society … On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it … Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.

It seems to me that the USSCB could use this paragraph as it mantra for the battle against the HHS mandate.  But let’s continue … from the next paragraph:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means 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.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.  This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, 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 and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

Now this is where SSPX starts to get nervous.  They would claim that no-one has the “right” to adhere to falsehood, and the Second Vatican Council implies otherwise.  As for the first part of the claim, I agree.  I made the point in a previous post that nobody has the “right” to contraception, not just from a constitutional standpoint but also from the perspective of natural law.  However, with regards to “what Vatican II really said,” I read over this section at least three times, as well as the rest of Dignitatis humanae, and I simply cannot see how it implies that people have the right to adhere to falsehood, theological or otherwise.  It does say that religious freedom is essential for man’s search for truth, and that political coercion flies in the face of this necessary freedom, and that “the right to this immunity [from coercion] continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded.”  Yet nowhere do I see that people have the “right” to adhere to falsehood.

At any rate, I meant not for this post to become an occasion for dialog about the SSPX-Vatican disagreements.  I meant only to point out that the Vatican II “Declaration on Religious Freedom” may turn out to be a very useful document for those of the conservative political persuasion in the current climate, and that there is a certain amount of irony, because it was one of the documents of the Council that was most hailed by the “progressives” in the Church.

Certainly the declaration was written within the context of 1965, the year in which Paul VI promulgated it: a time when the world was still very concerned about the oppressive regimes of Communism and Nazism.  Yet I can’t help but think that (surprise, surprise) the Holy Spirit knew what he was doing, for we may well find in our own era the need for Dignitatis humanae.  The battle currently is in the medical field: the fundamental right to religious liberty being trumped by a fabricated “right” to obtain contraception and abortion services free of charge.  However, the battle lying just around the corner will inevitably involve the issue of homosexuality – here we will see a parallel conflict, but it will be the fundamental right to freedom of speech, either in religious or secular circles, being trumped by a fabricated “right” to live one’s life without criticism.  Consider all that is in front of us together with that which is to come, it warrants asking: was Vatican II a council ahead of its time?


*  I am at loss for labels here (as if this weren’t obvious in my use of “really conservative conservative Catholics.”  I inherently reject using the word “traditionalist” because all Catholic should be traditionalist – our faith is a faith of tradition, built on an original deposit that unfolds slowly overtime.  Yet “conservative” is a political term more than a religious term.  At the same time, politics and religious, while distinguished in concept, are not entirely separate.  (There is a reason why politically conservative people also tend to prefer more “traditional” liturgies.)  I hope that the point is not lost here … it seems obvious to me that the SSPC is a sort of “ultra conservative” group, clinging to a tradition that does not allow for any sort of unfolding, organic or otherwise, but rather is frozen in time (arbitrarily chosen as the middle of the 1900’s).  Then again, I write with a certain amount of trust that I am among friends who will understand the irony which I attempt to disclose, that, despite a lack of appropriate labels, the most “conservative” Catholics (so “conservative” that they have left the Church), are now in need of the one of the very doctrines they reject from Vatican II (the teaching on religious liberty) in order to be “conservative” in our current political battle.

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  1. Very perceptive, Jake: “…despite a lack of appropriate labels, the most ‘conservative’ Catholics (so ‘conservative’ that they have left the Church), are now in need of the one of the very doctrines they reject from Vatican II (the teaching on religious liberty) in order to be ‘conservative’ in our current political battle.”

  2. Before atheism drove the Person of God from the public forum, “the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth, so help me God” was an oath taken on the Holy Scripture in a court of law. So, too, was “and may almighty God have mercy on your immortal (rational) soul” heard in a court of law. Without acknowledgment of the Person of God, no person has any religious freedom because no person is free to exercise his faith if the Giver of faith is forbidden in the public square. When the TRUTH is outlawed, JUSTICE is outlawed. The newly conceived rational soul is the standard of JUSTICE, who is being aborted. That is to say, TRUTH, JUSTICE AND INNOCENCE, virtues of our constitutional posterity are discarded, without recourse to God, the giver of freedom and the Creator of the immortal, rational soul, leaving mankind at the mercy of the devil.

  3. The problem with our documents is that they are our documents and, so, are unpersuasive to those not already adherents.

    Many Catholics have no sense of hierarchy of Truth and are therefore incapable of cataloging the sources of wisdom they encounter. The don’t know what the Constitution says and have turned the word “unconstitutional” into a sort of shorthand for the concept of “unfair.” Scripture is, for them, the specific words of Christ in the NT; to be interpreted, of course, as a merely humanistic affirmation of popular nicities. They haven’t read Augustine, know next to nothing of Classical thought or culture, can’t render Roman numerals into their Arabic equivalents, and don’t know what a bishop is, much less how he fits into the life of the Church.

    Against that backdrop, any use of Church documents by the bishops will affect only isolated discussions like ours.

    Unless and until we undo fifty years of modernist educational experimentation, we are “preaching to the choir.”

  4. ‘Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.’

    ‘No one owns the Church!’ Pollyanna said that (the movie was just on).

    Her town was dominated tyrannically by her aunt who disapproved the idea of building a new orphanage. Some few wanted to to fund one with a town bazaar. The rest didn’t want to rock the boat with any show of support. A discussion ensued about how to change stubborn minds. At first also reluctant, the Pastor was able to do so with a Sunday morning sermon. You’ve got to know that the bazaar was a success, that aunt Polly relented, and the town became a friendly place.

  5. Janet, thanks for the catch – I fixed it. Regarding the post itself, I didn’t imply that error does have rights, and I specifically said that SSPX is correct (along with previous Popes) in asserting that one does not have the right to cling to error. Where I disagree with SSPX is in their assertion that Vatican II implies otherwise. I simply don’t see the contradiction in HD that they point to.

  6. I am neither an SSPX supporter nor versed in the relations of the SSPX to the Church, but in the interest of precision, as I understand it the SSPX is not sedevacantist (unlike some other groups). Sedevacantism asserts that there is no Pope currently. I believe (someone correct me if I’m wrong) the SSPX acknowledges the papacy of Benedict XVI, but they reject the prerogative of the past few popes to do many of the things they have done.

  7. Michael,

    I entirely agree, and I have changed my reference. I simple typed too hastily. Thank you immensely for the correction. You are correct that they are not sede vacante. They are also not even excommunicated thanks to Pope Benedict.

    I apologize for any confusion, and humble retract the original reference.

    – Jake

  8. “However, the battle lying just around the corner will inevitably involve the issue of homosexuality – here we will see a parallel conflict, but it will be the fundamental right to freedom of speech, either in religious or secular circles, being trumped by a fabricated “right” to live one’s life without criticism.” Thank you for this wonderful expose. In homosexual practice, one participant denies all the above mentioned freedoms to his partner by denying the partners immortal and rational soul and the partners freedom to seek truth. Each to the other refuses freedom of religion and the obligation to help the other know God. Wives are also called ‘helpmates ‘ in Genesis. ‘Helpmates” help not hinder man’s ascent to God. How does the lusting to satisfy one’s lust, love the other?

  9. “We have buried the putrid corpse of liberty.” Mussolini, 1937

    “We have buried the putrid corpse of Catholicism.” President Obama 2014

  10. This article is quite strange. All I have seen written against HHS is religious liberty, religious liberty, religious liberty. I am not associated in any way with the SSPX – I am in good standing with my diocese. You don’t need to be with the SSPX to see that religious liberty is a dead-end in this argument. Traditionalists are quite right to be avoiding arguments about religious liberty here – frankly I can’t see any reason to be using it. American Catholics are building themselves into a fortress, and traditionalists or ‘really conservative Catholics’ are looking by, shaking our heads in dismay. Arguments should be based on philosophy and natural law. Whether V2 teaches that is beside the point – we are in a concrete situation that needs to be dealt with. I have written this article on the matter:

  11. You have the complete right to choose between the adherence to the parameters of either progressivism or the Magisterium; so, why is there an objection to others enjoying that same freedom of choice?

  12. “so, why is there an objection to others enjoying that same freedom of choice?”

    Precisely Narob! So I assume that you are adamantly opposed to the Obama administration attempting to compel Catholic institutions to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees?

  13. If Narob’s comment was addressed to me:

    Please read the blog post I linked. The objection is that the religious liberty argument is that, not only is it in a dubious position in the Magisterium, but it is also a dead-end fortress thing, and will cause more problems in the future. We cannot ask for conscience clauses for ourselves with things that are intrinsically evil. If we say it’s intrinsically evil but we’re happy for everyone else to do it, how can we be taken seriously about abortion etc? This is a matter of prudence.

  14. T. Shaw says:
    Saturday, February 18, 2012 A.D. at 9:41pm
    “We have buried the putrid corpse of liberty.” Mussolini, 1937

    “We have buried the putrid corpse of Catholicism.” President Obama 2014

    “We have buried the putrid corpse of Constitution.” President Obama 2012

  15. Johannes,

    I am unclear of why you think this is not an issue of religious liberty. I have admitted in the past that it is not ONLY an issue of religious liberty, but an issue of religious liberty it certainly is.

    There is a really question about faith in a pluralistic world at stake here, one that I admit I don’t have a great answer to. The question, oversimplified, is this: at what point as Catholics do we think that something we see as immoral should be made illegal. I *think* that most will agree that abortion is serious enough that it should be illegal; after all, we would all (hopefully) agree that murder is serious enough to be made illegal. The question of contraception is a curious one. Of course, those who would, like myself, criminalize abortion, would also criminalize contraception that involves abortifacients, but the more interesting question is about contraception that doesn’t. Should, as Catholics, we support and call for laws that make condoms illegal? What about missing Mass on Sunday? What about divorce? These things are not that clear to me.

    What is clear, however, is that the government should not force me as a practicing Catholic to participate in any of of the above activities, not should I be compelled to pay for other to do so, and the defense of this position is nothing if not religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

    You are correct in asserting that these issues are primarily issues of natural law, a point I have made repeatedly before. Yet that doesn’t mean that they are not also issues of religious liberty.

    Now, I will agree that the way to change hearts is through arguments of natural law – but they way to win this political battle is through the defense of religious liberty.

    Besides, is not the ability to not be coerced in matters religious also a matter of natural law itself?

  16. Gun control is not about guns. It is about control.

    This HHS mandate crisis is not about birth. It is about control.

    This crisis is not about religious liberty. This is about liberty denied.

    What would a political scientist call a state which dictates the terms for its drones’ (as in apiaries, not Obama unmanned assassination machines: that’s next!) ) health insurance?

    And, apiary drones don’t procreate, either.

  17. “is not the ability to not be coerced in matters religious also a matter of natural law itself?”

    Well according to St Thomas Aquinas and all of the Popes until the 1960s… no. Co-ercion of the baptised in matters religious – be it through physical, fiscal or other means – has always been understood as a prerogative of the Church.

    This is a matter of religious liberty as defined by the constitution, but that concept is not our friend and we should be avoiding it.

  18. We are not talking here about the intervention of the Church in order to convert her people. heretical or otherwise. We are talking about government intrusion and coercion. There is, it seems to me, a clear difference. Perhaps my statement should have clarified that: “is not the ability to not be coerced by a government in matters religious also a matter of natural law?”

  19. I don’t know that the topic is so difficult as folk are making it.

    Distinguish first between “natural right” and political right”:

    A “natural right” is something morally positive or neutral under God’s Moral Law. That which one has a “natural right” to do is that which God won’t, under any circumstances, send you to hell for doing.

    But “political rights” is a larger set of actions, including some things which are not “natural rights” on account of them being morally wrong:

    There are some things which are wrong, but which do not merit (either because of their non-forcible character, or their low degree of wrongness) anyone pointing a gun at you to deter, halt, or punish you doing them. Gossip and using bad language and voluntarily having sexual relations while wearing a condom fall in this category.

    While it is true that these are moral evils, no other human being has a natural right to point a gun at you to prohibit you doing them (or punish you for having already done so). Other human beings don’t have that natural right, because doing so would be an outrage against God’s Moral Law, which strictly prohibits one’s use of force against other human beings to very limited circumstances (typically defending the innocent against some wrongful forcible attack).

    Since no human being has a natural right to use force against you over condoms or gossip, no human being may delegate the duty of using force against you (over condoms or gossip) to an employee or proxy or representative. (You can’t delegate authority you don’t even have.)

    Since the government of the United States of America is, in its own words, self-defined as an organization which derives its just authority from “We The People” by an act of delegation (see Amendment X), we know that the government of the United States is in fact a bunch of employees, representatives, and proxies for “We The People.”

    And “We The People” equals the sum of a lot of individuals, none of whom, under God’s Moral Law, have just authority to point a gun at you for using a condom. (It’s not that it’s wrong; it’s just that it’s not the kind of wrong for which God approves the use of force.)

    Since “We The People” are individually not authorized to use force against you for condoms, gossip, et cetera, neither are “We The People” collectively. (One doesn’t gain a new kind of authority by merely assembling together a large group of persons who all lack that authority.)

    If “We The People” aren’t authorized to use force against you on those matters, neither are our employees, the government.

    Therefore, while it’s still immoral to do those things, those things fall in a category of immoral things which no man may justly prevent you from doing by force.

    Therefore they are “political rights” even though they are not “natural rights.”

    What, then, about “error?”

    Well, the odd thing about that is that the Catholic faith has long had a tradition of assuming that God does not damn a person for what that person had no way of knowing was wrong. (Jesus said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.”)

    So, there’s some reason to suspect that error is, in God’s eyes, sometimes a “natural right” in the sense that He doesn’t count you guilty of sin for merely being invincibly ignorant.

    If error might possibly be a “natural right,” who can doubt that it’s certainly a “political right?” I do not think that “political rights” is an overlapping set with “natural rights”; rather, I think that the entire set of “natural rights” is contained within the set of “political rights” and that “political rights” equals “natural rights” unioned with the set of all moral wrongs which the government lacks just authority to oppose through force.

    So, if I am right about this, the government has no just authority to prosecute Mormons for believing that the Book of Mormon is inerrant, or to prosecute Jehovah’s Witnesses for believing Jesus and Michael are the same being, or to prosecute Wiccans for taking their teen-years collection of Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks a mite more seriously than Gary Gygax intended.

    And if I’m wrong about this, then I presume the SSPX will prosecute me for it, whenever they eventually rise to power. (I’m not holding my breath.)

  20. It comes down to three words: “et in publice.” While DH rightly stated that “that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs,” and further that “nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately…” the Council added the words “or in public.”

    This was the radical change: the notion that there is a natural right to be free from restrictions on the public dissemination of error, including proselytization and use of the media.

    You can’t square a circle. The Church perenially taught that states have an obligation to acknowledge the one true Faith, and that this entails the prerogative to curtail the attempts of individuals or groups to lead the populace away from that Faith. That this doctrine is ignored or impractical in the modern world does not mean it is no longer a doctrine.

    Now comes V2 with the claim that these people and groups have a natural right to be free from such restrictions on their publication of error and attempts to proselytize believers.

    Of course, the Church always admitted the principle that maintaing public order and peace might suggest or even require (as in the US) that such pluralism be permitted. Permitted, not promoted, as the Council does, as a human right.

    With respect to the current crisis about the HHS mandate, it has no relation to DH whatever, but is rightly viewed as an attempt of one administration to usurp the clear mandates of the federal constitution regarding 1) free exercize of religion; and 2) the doctrine of enumerated powers, which prevents the federal government from attempting such a comprehensive re-ordering of contracts between employers and employees.

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