Vatican II and Religious Freedom: Rupture or Authentic Development?
The authors of a new book on “Dignitatis Humanae” argue one of Declaration's great achievements is to develop an understanding of human dignity and human freedom grounded in the human person's constitutive relation to God
One of the most contentious and heavily debated topics in the Church during and following the Second Vatican Council is that of religious freedom. In recent years, questions about the nature, parameters, and recognition of religious liberty have become even more timely and pressing in the United States and other Western nations. In Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity (Eerdmans, 2015), Dr. David L. Schindler and Dr. Nicholas J. Healy offer a rigorous and detailed examination of Dignitatis Humanae, the Council's “Declaration on Religious Freedom”, providing a new translation, a redaction history, and a rich and provocative interpretation of the text.
Dr. Schindler, who is the Edouard Cardinal Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, Washington DC, and Dr. Healy, assistant professor of philosophy at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, recently responded to written questions from Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about their book, Dignitatis Humanae,
CWR: In the Preface to Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity, you state that the book "seeks to promote a deeper understanding of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom." What are some specific reasons that such an understanding is important fifty years after the Council?
Dr. Healy: The Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, was the most controversial document of the Second Vatican Council. A significant minority of Council fathers harbored reservations on the grounds that the Declaration seemed to depart from established Catholic doctrine on the duties of the state toward the Catholic religion. Within the majority that supported an affirmation of religious freedom, there were deep disagreements about the nature and foundation of the right to religious freedom and the relationship between freedom and truth. Although approved by an overwhelming majority of Council fathers and commended by Pope Paul VI as "one of the greatest documents" of the Council, Dignitatis Humanae has remained a source of controversy and debate. Behind Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre's schismatic act of consecrating bishops without papal mandate was a conviction that the Declaration represented a departure from Catholic doctrine and a capitulation to the heresy of modernism. Among the supporters of religious freedom, the disagreements that accompanied the drafting of the Declaration have served as a fault line for differing accounts of the nature and ground of religious freedom, and the significance of this teaching for the relationship between the Church and modernity.
One reason why the Declaration continues to generate interest and debate is the central importance of the question of freedom for the Church's encounter with contemporary culture. “The era we call modern times,” Joseph Ratzinger observed, “has been determined from the beginning by the theme of freedom; the striving for new forms of freedom.” Both Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis Humanae acknowledge the legitimacy of this aspiration for freedom. At the same time, the Council fathers recognized the need for a critical discernment of the modern idea of freedom in light of the truth of human nature and the Christian mystery of redemption in Christ.
Freedom is not simply the capacity to choose between alternatives; it is a sign of the ontological dignity of the human person who is created in love and called to live in communion with the truth. One of the great achievements of the Declaration is to develop an understanding of human dignity and human freedom that is grounded in the human person's constitutive relation to God. In the words of John Paul II, "the freedom of the individual finds its basis in man's transcendent dignity: a dignity given to him by God the Creator and Father, in whose image and likeness he was created." There is no freedom without truth, and no truth without freedom.
In the face of new challenges and new threats to religious freedom, it is important to rediscover the Council's authentic teaching on the right to religious freedom as grounded in the obligation to seek the truth about God. As Gaudium et spes teaches, once God is forgotten, the creature is lost sight of as well. Especially in our time, it is necessary to uphold the transcendent and relational dignity of the human person, who is created by God and destined to share in the "glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21).
CWR: What are some of the resources that your book provides to help readers understand and interpret Dignitatis Humanae?