A Question of Doctrine: Religious Liberty According to Vatican II


One of Vatican Council II’s most problematic texts was the famous declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, on December 7, 1965.

Its essential paragraph (§2) reads:

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.

According to this definition, religious liberty is therefore a sacrosanct right, based on the dignity of the human person, to remain exempt from any constraint whatsoever in religious matters. This declaration was meant as a guideline for governments in the context of contemporary religious pluralism. At the time, it was also intended to send a message to the Communist countries where the Catholic religion was being persecuted.

In order to understand the impact of this declaration, it is important to know what an ideal civil society would be, based on human nature as we know it through natural reason and on what Christian Revelation teaches us.

The Just Order of Society

Human nature has the ability to know of the existence of God the Creator, and by this very fact a duty to worship Him, not only individually, but collectively, as a family but also as a society, since all societies are creatures of God. Indeed, man is by nature a rational, social, and political animal.

Revelation tells us Who God is, how man was separated from Him, how the Redemption was accomplished, how its effects are dispensed to men, and how man must render to God the public cult due to Him in spirit and truth: such is the mission Jesus Christ entrusted to His Church, the Catholic Church. This Church, the one and only ark of salvation for the entire world, with a single government under the direction of the pope, therefore has the right to occupy a very special place in every country.

She has authority over the divine cult, the government of the religious life of the faithful, and evangelization. As for the State, it takes care of each country’s temporal common good; in this way these two societies have very different but complementary fields of competency. If we are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God (Lk. 20:25), then we must say that Caesar is not God, he is subject to Him, as are all creatures. Neither separation nor confusion of powers: distinction.

The ideal civil society, therefore, is that in which the State recognizes the true religion and helps the Church to accomplish her mission. The Catholic religion is thus a part of the normal situation of a well-constituted State, the Catholic State. This necessarily involves punishing public violators of the Catholic religion because of the bad example they set and their outrage against God. This also includes the possibility of hindering the spread of false religions, since they can only harm not only the private religious lives of individuals, but also the Christian framework in which society and therefore the souls of its citizens develop. What is more, the introduction of other religions can only cause civil troubles: think of the cruel wars of religion caused by the Lutheran Reformation, and the violent spread of Protestantism that tore Christendom apart.

While this order of society is just and coherent, it seem unrealistic today, when religious pluralism has taken root in our societies. And there remain practically no officially Catholic States. Given these conditions, it is understandable for the Church, in her public communications, to be content with reminding those who do not accept Revelation of at least a few of natural law’s requirements. A few of these principles are that it is not legitimate to force someone to embrace the true religion (still less a false religion), that it is not permitted to forbid the search for and practice of the true religion, and that the State’s competence is over the temporal common good, and not directly the private lives of persons or families as such – parents’ rights over their children’s education for example – or religious affairs.

The Declaration’s Defects

The declaration Dignitatis Humanae extends these principles beyond all measure (“all men”, “any coercion”, “any human power”). It insists upon the fact that the State cannot exercise any constraint in religious matters. Of course it would be inadmissible to threaten to put a non-believer to death if he does not convert. But it would be just as false to present as unbearable psychological constraint on the part of a group or a Catholic State a sermon on hell as the chastisement for unbelievers (“He who does not believe, the same shall be condemned,” says the Savior), the presence of public crucifixes, churches, crucifixes, nativity scenes in public places, the habits worn by the ministers of the true God, or the marks of the religion that honors Him.

What is more, conscientious objection to the State’s demands is not always admissible: is it legitimate for a young man enlisted to defend his country in a military fashion to declare that he will do no such thing because his religion forbids him to bear arms? He should have enough common sense to enlighten his conscience and understand that such a religion leads to suicide for society, that it is unreasonable, and therefore not of God.

As for the State’s lack of competence in religious matters, a distinction must be made. It is not up to the president to determine the liturgical rules. But Muslim propaganda is not harmless for the common good. The fact that all religions except the Catholic religion admit either divorce, or contraception or even abortion, that they are capable of justifying if need be lies, theft, duplicity, usury, mutilations and other ignominies that tear apart the family, the natural basic cell of society, promoting immoral laws, does not leave the common good intact; in fact, it serious harms it. When the light of the true religion enlightens the minds that govern public life, freedom to reject it is simply freedom to damn oneself.

And lastly, the conciliar document’s timid adjustments using the terms “just social order” are not enough to dispel the impression of a vast indifference on the part of society, that allows any activity that presents itself as religious to be considered legitimate. From the freedom of the search for religion that should be accomplished by a man who does not yet believe, a simplistic interpretation of this principle draws the conclusion that there exists a positive right to profess any opinion, even an erroneous one, any false doctrine or perverse fable, to put it into practice and seek to spread it; and this is false and unacceptable.

A New Teaching in Rupture with the Church’s Magisterium

While it is no surprise when the preachers of false doctrines, the Freemason sects or circles of free-thinkers for example, spread this sort of consideration, it is inconceivable for the authority instituted by God in order to guide souls to religious truth to compromise with what Pope Gregory XVI called this “insanity” (Encyclical Mirari Vos, 1832). Condemning the liberalism of Félicité de Lamennais, the pontiff denounced “this shameful font of indifferentism” that:

...gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that that liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.

Pope Pius XI clearly taught with all the authority of his papal magisterium, that freedom of conscience is an “erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls” (Encyclical Quanta Cura, 1864). The same year, the Syllabus condemned several propositions defending men’s right publicly to profess any religion whatsoever. On the theme of indifferentism, the following propositions were condemned:

15. Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.

16. Man may, in the observance of any religion whatever, find the way of eternal salvation, and arrive at eternal salvation.

Compare this teaching with, for example, this claim by Benedict XVI, who had the responsibility as successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ to confirm his brothers in the Faith:

Each person must be able freely to exercise the right to profess and manifest, individually or in community, his or her own religion or faith, in public and in private, in teaching, in practice, in publications, in worship and in ritual observances. There should be no obstacles should he or she eventually wish to belong to another religion or profess none at all. 

(Message on January 1, 2011).

This sort of speech is simply an application of the false principles expressed in the declaration Dignitatis Humanae, that does not mention the rights of the true religion, but only men’s right to practice their religion, any religion, without considering its actual value – regardless of the precautions taken in the preamble to the conciliar document.

The Origin of the Error

The Declaration’s expressions, by giving prominence to the notions of human dignity, freedom, and autonomy, imply the modern legal notion that man, by the very fact of his human nature, is the absolute subject of rights, that is to say, of services required of the State, regardless of his duties towards the truth, God, and his eternal destiny. The State’s duties are reduced to the obligation to protect these rights within the limits of the public order that it must safeguard. Man’s ideal in life is nothing more than an honest philosophical search, enriched by dialogue and experience, and not the peaceful possession of the truth.

Truth be told, this is more than a false notion of right, it is a waking dream. The religions of the world are portrayed in the Declaration as good and worthy, simply closer or farther from the truth, but all desirous of contributing to man’s common search by proposing their models of social life with respect for differences… A simple glance at the latest news has a sobering effect on this sort of utopia.

The Declaration’s Consequences on Social Life

The Holy See and the bishops throughout the world did not fail to promote the application of the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae everywhere. They thus intervened many times with governments to remove from Constitutions all mention of Catholicism as the official State religion, or to modify concordats to include religious liberty (Columbia in 1973, Valais in 1974, Spain in 1976, Peru in 1980, Italy in 1984). It became a common practice to exhort almost entirely Catholic States to adopt the principles of this false religious liberty that entails indifferentism and relativism. Pope Francis spoke along these very lines to the president of the Slovenian government, Alenka Bratusek, on June 13, 2013. In this country whose population is 94% Catholic, the Vicar of Christ hailed religious liberty as “an important factor of development”. Thus has the Catholic hierarchy everywhere multiplied its encouragement and assistance in welcoming non-Christians, for example, through the construction of mosques in countries with deep Christian roots.

And all for what? Communism has lost nothing of its anti-Christian aggressiveness, as can still be seen today in China. Islam throughout the world still persecutes Christians as much as ever. Aggressive secularism has not laid down its arms and continues to invade school programs and the minds of citizens. As for the Faith, no longer protected in countries where the civil power once fostered it, it has regressed, and those who might have considered embracing the Catholic Faith are dissuaded from doing so by teachings that no longer believe in their own truth. This is more than enough to demand that this Declaration be withdrawn.

Further Study:

For a thorough study of the opposition between the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae and Catholic doctrine, read: Archbishop Lefebvre, Religious Liberty Questioned, Angelus Press.

For a more general study of liberalism, read: Archbishop Lefebvre, They Have Uncrowned Him, Angelus Press.

Acts of the Magisterium:

Gregory XVI, Mirari Vos.
Pius IX: Quanta Cura, Syllabus.
Leo XIII: Immortale Dei.
Pius XI: Quas Primas.