Vatican II, 40 Years Later: "Dignitatis Humanae"

Father Richard Neuhaus on the Declaration on Religious Freedom

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NEW YORK, NOV. 20, 2003 ( As part of its series on the documents of Second Vatican Council, ZENIT turned to Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, for his views on «Dignitatis Humanae,» the 1965 declaration on religious freedom.

Q: What is the chief point of «Dignitatis Humanae»?

Father Neuhaus: The chief point is already evident in the first three words of the declaration, «Dignitatis humanae personae.» The dignity of the human person, as John Paul II has repeatedly said, is the pivot on which the entirety of Catholic social doctrine turns.

The argument of the declaration, based on reason, the natural order, and revelation, is that the dignity of the human person, and of the person in community, requires religious freedom.

The Holy Father, who is every inch a man of the Council, has further enhanced the argument of the declaration by a philosophy of «personalism» that explores even more deeply the connection between freedom and the dignity of the person.

This is evident in many documents of this pontificate, and especially, with particular application to social doctrine, in the 1991 encyclical «Centesimus Annus.» In numerous ways, «Dignitatis Humanae» has been foundational for subsequent magisterial teaching.

Q: Why was the declaration on religious freedom considered so controversial at the time?

Father Neuhaus: There were at least four reasons. First, this was during the Cold War, and a Council that aimed at being «positive» and «pastoral» wanted to avoid condemnations, even of Communism. This was hardly possible, however, when the subject was religious freedom.

So the Council said: «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 specific community.» Nobody could miss the reference to officially atheistic Communist states.

The other reasons for controversy are interrelated. Non-Catholics had long viewed the public influence of Catholicism with deep suspicion, and not without reason. It was feared that Catholics, if we had the power, would work to establish Catholicism as the state religion, to the detriment or even the exclusion of other religions.

Some Catholic authorities reinforced this fear by teaching that «error has no rights.» The declaration’s argument is that, while error has no rights, errors are attached to persons, and persons do have rights.

The fear of Catholic political power was a major source of tension with other Christians. It is worth noting that the first draft of what became the declaration was drawn up by the Secretariat for Christian Unity, and, indeed, the original idea was that the statement on religious freedom would be a chapter in the decree on ecumenism. So that is the second reason for controversy, the worry of some that affirming religious freedom and ecumenism would suggest a moral equivalence between religious error and religious truth.

A third reason has to do with what Cardinal Newman called the development of doctrine. This is the only document of the Council that explicitly asserts an intention to develop doctrine: «[T]he council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.» Development is the unfolding and making explicit what was implicit in prior teaching, but it understandably raises concerns about changes and even contradictions within the tradition.

Which brings us to the fourth reason for controversy, namely, the acknowledgment that Catholics have not always been faithful to what we now understand to be the Church’s teaching.

That point is handled delicately in the declaration: «Throughout the ages, the Church has kept safe and handed on the doctrine received from the Master and from the apostles. In the life of the People of God as it has made its pilgrim way through the vicissitudes of human history, there have at times appeared ways of acting which were less in accord with the spirit of the Gospel and even opposed to it. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Church that no one is to be coerced into faith has always stood firm.»

In the vicissitudes of history, the idea and practice of religious freedom is little more than 200 years old, and it was, more often than not, championed by forces in explicit opposition to the Catholic Church. The fierce anti-clericalism of the French Revolution of 1789 cast a long shadow over Catholic thinking.

With the declaration on religious freedom, the Council drew on the dramatically different experience of the American Revolution of 1776, which is why the declaration is sometimes called the «American document» of the Council. For Council fathers whose minds were shaped more by 1789 than by 1776, it is understandable that the idea of religious freedom was viewed with considerable suspicion.

It is worth noting also that the declaration’s acknowledgment that Church leaders in the past sometimes acted in ways opposed to the Gospel can be seen as a precursor to John Paul’s bold campaign for a «purification of memories,» which, of course, is still controversial in some quarters today.

Q: What is the significance of the document in view of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?

Father Neuhaus: That is a painful but inescapable question, forcing us to face honestly the question of Islam and religious freedom, and, more generally, Islam and human rights. Could there be anything like an Islamic «declaration on religious freedom»?

Some scholars want to answer that in the affirmative, and we must pray that they are right, but I’m afraid the evidence at present is overwhelmingly on the other side.

The declaration makes a clear distinction between religious freedom grounded in reason and the natural order — see Chapter 1 — and religious freedom grounded in revelation — see Chapter 2. That distinction is alien to Islam. Islam is radically monistic.

Christianity, on the other hand, teaches a pluralism of sovereignties in distinct spheres of life. The Church lived its first centuries in proposing a spiritual sovereignty over against the temporal powers. The experience of Islam was very different. As the distinguished scholar Bernard Lewis aptly puts it, «Mohammed was his own Constantine.»

The Council underscored the Christian understanding of spheres of sovereignty by citing the words of Jesus, «Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.»

The declaration says, «In the end, when He completed on the cross the work of redemption whereby He achieved salvation and true freedom for men, He brought His revelation to completion. For He bore witness to the truth, but He refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it. Not by force of blows does His rule assert its claims.»

In the encyclical on evangelization, «Redemptoris Missio,» John Paul II captures this understanding very nicely when he writes, «The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.» The adamant monism of Islam is very different. The world is divided into the House of Islam — remembering that the word Islam means submission — and the House of War.

Beginning with Mohammed, Islam has been a religion of conquest, of jihad, employing the weapons of the spirit, the sword, and any means deemed necessary. For almost a thousand years, Islam was on a roll of successful conquest, and still today where it encounters others we witness, in the words of Harvard’s Samuel Huntington, «the bloody borders of Islam.» Again, we must pray that those scholars are right who say that Islam need not be a religion of conf
lict and conquest.

Certainly the Holy Father pursues the wise and necessary course when, as in his posture toward the war in Iraq, he makes it very clear that, contra the Osama bin Ladens of the Islamic world, the pope is not the leader of «the crusaders.»

The Catholic Church is crucial in eliciting from the Islamic world whatever capacities it has for embracing religious freedom and democratic values more generally. It is very worrying, however, that even under U.S. supervision in Afghanistan and Iraq it appears that the new constitutions will establish Islam as the official religion and Shariah as the supreme law.

Islamic law is, almost point by crucial point, the antithesis of the teaching of the declaration on religious freedom. The declaration underscores that religious freedom has «roots in divine revelation,» that religious freedom is grounded not in secularist hostility to religion but in religion itself.

One must hope that there can be a similar «doctrinal development» within Islam. If, as some argue, religious freedom can only be secured by the secularization of the Muslim world, I’m afraid religious freedom has a very bleak future. Whether or not Islam has the capacity to embrace religious freedom — which in all societies is the first and most important of freedoms — is one of the most ominous questions of the 21st century.

Q: What are other challenges facing religious freedom today?

Father Neuhaus: Religious freedom and the freedom of the Church to pursue her mission are always in danger, also in countries such as the U.S. that gave birth to the idea and practice of religious freedom. This is true for many reasons, and not least because the state, whether democratic or otherwise, is always tempted to equate itself with the society, and thus to bring everything, including religion, under state control.

In the U.S. today, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago has been particularly vigilant in alerting us to the ways in which the government is increasingly infringing upon the freedom of the Church to govern herself and pursue her mission in areas such as health care.

Certain «exemptions» for religious faith and practice are not enough. Religious freedom is not toleration. The state that extends toleration can also withdraw toleration. Religious freedom is a God-given right that is grounded in the dignity of the human person, in natural law, and in divine revelation. That is the argument of the declaration, and it is an argument that, everywhere in the world, must be made again and again.

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