Vatican News

Dignitatis humanae: the Council affirms the right to religious liberty

In the past, there was discussion about the interpretation of the conciliar texts. Now, the Vatican documents themselves are sometimes being called into question. Let’s look back at a document that has left its mark on the history of the Church.

By Andrea Tornielli

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

Fifty-five years ago, on 7 December 1965, the Bishops assembled in Saint Peter’s Basilica approved one of the most-discussed conciliar documents, the Declaration Dignitatis humanae, On 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” (DH, 2).

Pope Paul VI's contribution

The text of Dignitatis humanae underwent radical transformation over the course of five different drafts before it was finally approved. The fundamental problem, which created the greatest difficulty, was how to define this freedom. In the second preliminary draft, it was presented as a positive right: a right to act and a right not to be prevented from acting. “But already in the schema,” Dominican Cardinal Jérôme Hamer, one of the expert theologians who collaborated in the drafting process, recalled, “the ambiguity of a religious freedom defined as a positive and negative right had disappeared. There was now talk of a right to immunity, a right to not be subject to coercion on the part of any human power, not only in the formation of the conscience in religious matters, but even in the free exercise of religion.”

A decisive contribution to the formulation of the Document and the definition of religious freedom as immunity came from Pope Paul VI. On 28 June 1965, during a public audience, the Pope described religious freedom, saying, “You will see a large part of this capital doctrine summarized in two famous propositions: in matters of faith, let no one be compelled! Let no one be prevented!” (nemo cogatur, nemo impediatur).

The order to vote on the draft

The debate in the council hall was heated. There were more then 62 spoken interventions, and around one hundred written contributions.

Difficulties remained, and the governing authorities of the Council decided not to hold a vote on the text, despite the request of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. The fears expressed were always the same: that the document conferred equal rights on “those who are in the truth and those who are in error”; the it proposed a model of a “neutral State,” which had been condemned by the Church; that it adopted a doctrine opposed to the traditional teaching of the Church in this area.

It was Pope Paul VI who, on 21 September, intervened to break the deadlock, ordering the Council Fathers to vote on whether the prepared text could serve as a basis for the future declaration. Of the 2,222 Fathers present for the vote, 1,997 voted in favour, while 224 were opposed; one vote was null. Cardinal Pietro Pavan later defined the papal intervention ordering a vote on the draft as “historic.”

The dignity of the human person

In the first paragraph of the definitive text of the Document, we read, “Religious freedom… which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore, it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”

The affirmation of the right to religious liberty, therefore, is not tantamount to putting truth and falsehood on the same level, nor of affirming indifference or arbitrariness in the religious sphere. “Since the duty to form a true conscience remains,” Fr Gianpaolo Salvini observed, “there is no opposition with the Church’s awareness of being the only true religion. The foundation of religious liberty was expressed in an assertive manner and based on the Catholic doctrine of the dignity of the human person. Moreover, the relationship to the biblical data and to revelation was seen in a new way, which, although it does not speak expressly of this right (which is a civil and juridical determination), nonetheless reveals the dignity of the human person in all its fullness in a manner congruent with the freedom of the act of Christian faith.”

Against the atheism of the State in Eastern-bloc countries

“The personal contribution of Paul VI on that Conciliar Document was decisive,” said Cardinal Pavan. The Pope had intervened to have the working draft voted on, and had contributed to the definition of religious freedom as a right to immunity.

Pope Paul’s contribution should also be read in light of his important visit to the United Nations in October 1965, as well as the initial contacts with the Eastern-bloc regimes, which aimed at improving in some way the conditions of Christians, and the general population, living under Communist dictatorships. The Declaration Dignitatis humanae, On Religious Freedom, would prove a useful instrument for asserting this fundamental right in countries where the state was avowedly atheistic.

John Paul II: Dignitatis humanae one of the most revolutionary texts

In an Address on 7 December 1995, the thirtieth anniversary of the approval of the Declaration, Pope John Paul II — who, as a Council Father had followed the drafting of the document, and had even contributed to it himself — affirmed, “The Second Vatican Council constituted an extraordinary grace for the Church, and a decisive moment of her recent history. Dignitatis humanae is undoubtedly one of the Council’s most revolutionary texts. It has the specific and important merit of having cleared the way for that remarkable and fruitful dialogue between the Church and the world, so ardently proposed and encouraged by that other great Council document, the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, issued on the very same day. Looking back over the last 30 years, it must be said that the Church’s commitment to religious freedom as an inviolable right of the human person has had an effect beyond anything the Fathers of the Council could have anticipated.”

Four years earlier, in his Message for the World Day of Peace in 1991, Pope John Paul had stated, “No human authority has the right to interfere with a person's conscience.” Conscience is, in fact, “inviolable”, “inasmuch as it is a necessary condition for seeking the truth worthy of man, and for adhering to that truth once it is sufficiently known.” It follows that “each individual's conscience be respected by everyone else; people must not attempt to impose their own ‘truth’ on others… Truth imposes itself solely by the force of its own truth.”

Benedict XVI and the example of the martyrs

Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on this theme, in his first Address to the Roman Curia, on 22 December 2005, should also be noted. On that occasion, he made the invitation to consider “religious freedom as a need that derives from human coexistence, or indeed, as an intrinsic consequence of the truth that cannot be externally imposed but that the person must adopt only through the process of conviction.”

He continued:

“The Second Vatican Council recognizing and making its own an essential principle of the modern State with the Decree on Religious Freedom, has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church. By so doing she can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself, as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time. The ancient Church naturally prayed for the emperors and political leaders out of duty; but while she prayed for the emperors, she refused to worship them and thereby clearly rejected the religion of the State.”

Pope Benedict also stated:

“The martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one's own faith — a profession that no State can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God's grace in freedom of conscience. A missionary Church known for proclaiming her message to all peoples must necessarily work for the freedom of the faith.”

A challenge to the globalized world

In an Address to the participants at the International Conference on "Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values,” Pope Francis stated:

“Reason recognizes in religious freedom a fundamental human right which reflects the highest human dignity, the ability to seek the truth and conform to it, and recognizes in it a condition which is indispensable to the ability to deploy all of one’s own potentiality. Religious freedom is not only that of private thought or worship. It is the liberty to live, both privately and publicly, according to the ethical principles resulting from found truth. This is a great challenge in the globalized world, where weak thought — which is like a disease — also lowers the general ethical level, and in the name of a false concept of tolerance, it ends in persecuting those who defend the truth about man and its ethical consequences.”

23 June 2020, 17:24