Vatican II and Religious Liberty | Omar F.A. Gutierrez | Catholic World Report
Dignitatis Humanae, the Council document on religious freedom, represented a development of Church teaching, not a reversal of it.
Of all the documents produced by the Second Vatican Council, none had more revisions, saw more debate, or garnered more controversy than the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” Dignitatis Humanae. This is in part because the document’s 15 tightly-packed paragraphs had the burden of boldly defending the rights of conscience while at the same time respecting the teaching of the embattled Church of the 19th century. This was no easy task, so we should be ever grateful to the conciliar Fathers for the declaration as we face challenges to our religious liberty today.
Change in doctrine?
The controversy stems from the accusation by both progressives and ultra-traditionalists that the Council Fathers reversed earlier Church teaching. The strange bed-fellows of Father Charles Curran and the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre agree that the declaration is a break from doctrine and that it is a break with significant consequences for the Church.
For Father Curran, who advocates for changes in the Church’s teaching on contraception, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and divorce, the perceived break is a welcome example with which to argue for more change. If the Church can totally reverse her teaching once, she can do it again. For Archbishop Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X, the break is a betrayal. He went so far as to call the declaration outright apostasy and, because of it, the Second Vatican Council a “robber council.” So his followers today point to Dignitatis Humanae as exhibit “A” in their dissent from the teachings of Vatican II.
Not everyone agreed with this assessment. The great Dietrich von Hildebrand thought the declaration “marvelous,” and indicated that it was overdue. He did not think it was a break from previous teaching, but rather a natural consequence of the Gospel.
This was also the position of the drafters of the document, the members of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. They wrote and scrapped and rewrote version after version of the declaration in their conscientious effort to proclaim the truth about the rights of conscience. They worked so hard because a key aspect of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s vision was at stake.
The perception of the Church’s teaching by many was that whenever she found herself in the minority, the Church would cry religious liberty. However, if the Church was in the majority, the state would be obliged to suppress other faiths. If that perception was not addressed, argued the Secretariat, the desire of Blessed Pope John XXIII to make inroads with non-Catholic Christians would be impossible.
This was a tension particularly acute in the Catholic Church in America. Paul Blanchard’s 1949 anti-Catholic book American Freedom and Catholic Power portrayed the Church as a menace to the US Constitution and real religious freedom. Thus Father John Courtney Murray, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, and other American prelates agreed and worked to advance the declaration at the Council.
The 19th century
An objective eye must admit that Dignitatis Humanae’s language does at least appear to run counter to the language of the 19th-century popes.