Consistent Doctrine on Religious Liberty

Author: Fr. William Most


Because of the claims, and subsequent schism, made by Archbishop Lefebvre that the "Declaration on Religious Liberty of Vatican II" ("Dignitatis humanae" hereinafter DH) contradicted teachings of Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII, we will make a careful comparison to texts.

We must add that something taught repeatedly on the Ordinary Magisterium level is infallible. Such seems to be the case with the teaching of these three Popes. Hence, no matter on what level Vatican II, was teaching in this Declaration, the charge amounts to a charge that a general council taught heresy. Then the promises of Christ would be at least largely void.

It is of capital importance to use sound theological method in all things, especially in this matter. God has made two promises,to protect the teaching of the Church, and to give free will to humans. At times He needs, as it were, to walk a tight line to carry out both. Therefore,in some texts - such as some of those below - we may suspect that the Pope had in his mind more strenuous things than what he set down on paper, we must say that only the things put down on paper are protected by Divine Providence - not all what he may or may not have had in his mind.


Gregory XVI, in "Mirari vos" of August 15, 1832 DS 2730:

"We now continue with a most fertile cause of evils by which we deplore that the Church at present is being afflicted, that is, indifferentism, or that evil opinion....that by any profession of faith whatsoever, the eternal salvation of the soul can be attained, if morals are kept to the norm of the right and good.... And from this must putrid font of indifferentism flows that absurd and erroneous view or rather insanity, that liberty of conscience should be asserted and claimed for just anyone."

COMMENTS: The first sentence merely means that it does make a difference objectively what faith one professes. But it does not mean that all Protestants are certainly damned - that would be the error of Feeney. Rather, one may be saved not by just any profession of faith, but in spite of a wrong one. Even Pius IX, famed for his strong words against indifferentism,insisted that " His supreme goodness and clemency by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault." ("Quanto conficiamur maerore," Aug 10, 1863: DS 2966).

The second sentence merely rejects the idea that one has a right to be in error. A right is a claim, ultimately coming from God, to have, to do, or to call for something. God surely gives no one a claim to be wrong. Vatican II, as we shall see, merely asserts one has a right not to be put in prison etc. for being wrong.

The vehemence, and almost emotional quality of the language, makes one suspect Gregory XVI might have had in mind more drastic ideas than what he put down on paper.

Pius IX, "Quanta cura," Dec. 8, 1864 ASS 3.162: [We have added numbers for convenience in commenting]".

1."For you know well...that there are not a few, who...applying that impious and absurd principle of what is called naturalism, dare to teach, 'that the best state of public society and civil progress absolutely requires that human society should be so constituted and governed, that there is no consideration of religion, as if it [religion] did not exist, or at least with no distinction made between true and false religions.'"

COMMENTS: Pius IX here condemns a proposition, which is printed as a quotation, but the "Acta Sanctae Sedis" gives no source for it. It seems, then, that it was framed precisely to be a condemned and false proposition. Such condemned propositions are normally declared false if even one thing is wrong with them.

This proposition is false because

(a) the state as a state should worship God, and in the way He has made known that He wills. Therefore to ignore religion is wrong.

(b) For the same reason, the state should make its own the true religion, and not treat all religions indiscriminately. This need not mean repression of false religions.

Vatican II, in DH P1 taught: "It leave untouched the traditional Catholic doctrine about the moral duty of men and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ." This means,of course, an established Church. As we said, it would not imply repression of other churches. Even pagan Greece and Rome realized that the state as a state needs God's help: hence the state as a state must worship God. We add: If God makes known which way He wills to be worshipped, of course we must follow it.

The application of that principle is difficult:

(a) In the we have legal positivism, which means that the state does not know what is morally right or wrong: all it can do is make things right or wrong by passing laws. So today it gives special favor to homosexuality!

(b) We may ask: has history shown that the state is really incapable of determining what God wills, what is the true religion? Such ignorance could excuse the state from this duty. We think of the horrors of Islamic states such as Iran, who claim their laws are all ordered by God! And in ages when there was union of Church and State, it usually meant domination of the Church by the civil power. - Difficult choice!

2. "And they do not hesitate to assert, contrary to the doctrine of Scripture, the Church, and the holy Fathers that 'that is the best condition of society in which the government does not acknowledge the duty of coercing by set penalties, the "violatores" of the Catholic religion, except to the extent that public peace requires.'"

COMMENT: Here again we have a condemned proposition, with no sources for it given in the AAS.

We note that the Latin "violatores" is very strong, whereas in English violation is often weak - a parking meter may say that for a few minutes overtime. "Harpers' Latin Dictionary" says that "violare" means "treat with violence, injure, invade, profane, outrage." So it must be some really strong action positively against the Church.

3. "As a result of the altogether false idea of the regime of society, they do not fear to promote that erroneous opinion....called insanity by our Predecessor Gregory XVI, namely, 'that liberty of conscience and of worship is a proper right of each man, which ought to be proclaimed by law and asserted in every rightly constituted society, and [it should be proclaimed] that the citizens have liberty of all sorts ,which should be restrained by no authority, whether ecclesiastical or civil, in virtue of which they are able to privately and publicly manifest and declare all ideas whatsoever, orally or in print.'"

COMMENTS: As usual with condemned propositions, this one is made extremely strong, so it can most obviously be seen as wrong:

(1) One does not have a right to be wrong, as we said above. Vatican II merely asserted a right to freedom from coercion.

(2) Note that the right includes "liberty of all sorts" - a sweeping thing, which would include even things contrary to public order and would go beyond the "due limits" of Vatican II DH P2. It would even let headhunters do as their god orders, i.e., cut off heads.

(3) It allows propagation of all ideas whatsoever, no matter how foul, and not even ecclesiastical authority would have a right to stop them.

Pius IX, "Syllabus," Dec. 8,1864. DS 2915,2977 - 80:

DS 2915: "Each one is free to embrace and profess that religion which, led by the light of reason, he thinks true."

COMMENT: This is false because no one has a right to be wrong, as explained above.

DS 2977: "In this our time it is no longer expedient for the Catholic religion to be considered as the sole religion of the state, excluding all other cults whatsoever."

COMMENT: It is false because it would still be good for the state to profess the Catholic faith, but would not need to prohibit other faiths. Compare DH 1.

DS 2978: "Hence, it is worthy of praise that in certain regions called Catholic it has been provided by law that for persons immigrating there it is permitted to hold public worship of each cult."

COMMENT: For men to be able to hold false beliefs is not "worthy of praise", even though out of respect for conscience no one should be forced to act against even an erroneous conscience. But, as Pius XII taught in "Ci riesce" (text to be given below) the common good of the universal Church requires that error be permitted. In fact, in determined circumstances, God does not even give the state a right to suppress erroneous things, namely, when the common good of Church and state call for tolerance.

DS 2979: "It is not true to say that civil liberty for each cult, and likewise full power given to all to manifest any opinions and thoughts whatsoever more easily leads to corrupting the morals and souls of people, and to propagating indifferentism."

COMMENT: We notice the word "any... whatsoever". That makes the statement outrageously broad: one could then say there is no harm in advocating cutting off other people's heads as ordered by the gods of the headhunters, or homosexuality, or polygamy.

DS 2980: "The Pope can and should reconcile and adjust himself with progress, with liberalism, and with recent attitudes of civil society."

COMMENT: He cannot reconcile himself to such ideas as the notion that error has rights, or that the state should be indifferent to religion.

Leo XIII, "Immortale Dei." Nov. 1, 1885 ASS 18:

1. "So too, that liberty of thinking and of publishing anything whatsoever,with no restraint at all, is not a good by its own nature over which human society should rightly rejoice, but is the font and origin of many evils... for this reason, a state errs from the rule and prescription of nature if it allows a license of opinion and actions to such an extent that without penalty it is permitted to lead minds away from the truth and souls from virtue."

COMMENT: Again,we note the deliberately sweeping language condemning a liberty that can publish just anything, and with no restraint at all. Surely that is not something society should rejoice over.

2. "Really, if the Church judges that it is not permitted that various kinds of divine worship have equal rights with the true religion, yet it does no for this reason condemn the rulers of states who, to attain some great good or prevent evil, patiently allow each [kind of cult] to have place in the state."

COMMENTS: Here the Pope concedes that all kinds of religions can be permitted as long as they are not given the same rights as the true religion. He means that the state should worship by the true religion and not by the others. This is the same as the thought of DH P1.

Leo XIII, "Libertas Praestantissimum," June 20,1888 ASS 20.

1. "It is scarcely necessary to say that there can be no right for a freedom that is not moderately tempered,but which goes beyond measure and bounds.... For if a boundless license of speaking and writing be conceded to just anyone, nothing is going to remain holy and inviolate, not even those greatest, most true judgments of nature, which are to be considered as the common and most noble patrimony of the human race."

COMMENT: Again, the Pope speaks against most extreme things.

2. (a bit earlier in the same document):"...while not conceding any right to things that are not true and honorable, it [the Church] does not refuse to let public authority endure these, that is, to avoid some greater evil, or to attain or keep some greater good. The most provident God, though He is infinite in power and can do all things, yet permits evils in the world, in part,s o as not to impede greater good, in part so greater evils will not follow. In ruling states, it is right to imitate the Ruler of the World."

COMMENT: Such things have no right to exist, since God does not give them a claim: no one has a right to be wrong.

Pius XII, "Ci riesce," Dec. 6, 1953 AAS 45:

The Pope asked: "Can it be that in determined circumstances, He [God] does not give to man any mandate, or impose a duty, finally, that He gives no right to impede and to repress that which is erroneous or false?...Christ in the parable of the cockle gave the following admonition: Let it be that the cockle grow in the field of the world along with the good seed, for the sake of the harvest."[Cf. Mt. 13:24-30].

COMMENT: We notice he said that "in determined circumstances" God does not even give a right to repress. What are these circumstances? A bit farther on he added: He [the Catholic statesman] in his decision will let himself be guided by the harmful consequences which arise with tolerance, compared with those that will be found in the international community by way of the acceptance of tolerance.... in such individual cases, the attitude of the Church is determined by the preservation and in consideration of the common good, the common good of the Church, and of the State in individual states on the one hand, and on the other hand, the common good of the universal Church...."

Conclusions from the above Papal texts:

1. Error has no rights, since rights are a claim given ultimately by God. He gives no claim to error. This does not condemn the idea that people may have a right not to be imprisoned etc. for error. DH will affirm that.

2. Yet the common good of the state and the Church may dictate the need of tolerance of error. Pius XII added, in "Ci riesce" that God does not even give a right to suppress error in circumstances in which the common good requires tolerance.

3. It is false to say that one can be saved by just any faith. This is the sense of the strong condemnations of indifferentism. But one may say that one could be saved in spite of an erroneous faith (cf. Pius IX, "Quanto conficiamur moerore." LG 16 will say it more clearly as will "Redemptoris missio" 10 of John Paul II.).

4. The state as a state should worship God, in the way in which He has made known He wishes it. This need not call for suppression of other faiths - cf. #2 above. DH P 1 also states this.

5. The strongest statement above is in the "Quanta cura" of Pius IX when he says that the state in suppressing error must do more than just suppress what is demanded by public order. We have not yet seen what DH does on this score. We will see that it too demands more than what public order calls for, in PP 4 & 7.

6. There is no right of publication of just anything.There are some limits.

TEXTS OF VATICAN II, "DIGNITATIS HUMANAE" (Sectional numbers given in margin)

1. a) " leaves untouched the traditional Catholic doctrine about the moral duty of men and societies to the true religion and the only Church of Christ."

COMMENT: The Council reaffirms completely the traditional teaching on the obligation of the state to profess Catholicism. Mere reason shows that: just as an individual must worship God for his own needs, so the state as state must worship for its needs. Pagan Greece and Rome thought this way. We add: If God has shown the way He wills to be worshipped, of course, there is an obligation to follow it. This need not mean repressing other faiths of course. One could still ask: Has the state historically shown itself incapable of determining what is the true religion? Cases like Islam make one wonder. On the other hand, without a union we are apt to get legal positivism, such as the practice has today: the state does not know what is right or wrong in itself - all it can do is make something right or wrong by passing a law. So today it even favors homosexuality.

b): "Besides, in treating of this religious liberty, the Sacred Synod intends to develop the doctrine of recent Popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and about the constitutional order of society."

COMMENT: Since the council intends to evolve, it did not mean to contradict. The Church has long evolved various teachings without contradicting. It is significant that John Courtney Murray denied the teaching of 1a above. Therefore the Council did not entirely follow him.

Some have noted that the Council did not give references to the more recent Popes. Actually, Leo XIII, in "Immortale Dei," did warn against coercing consciences (DS 3177): "The Church is accustomed to take care that no one be forced to embrace the Catholic faith when unwilling, as Augustine wisely reminded: "A person cannot believe if he does not do it willingly." Cf. DS 3246, 3251. And Pius XII in "Ci riesce," as we saw above, taught that in determined circumstances, God does not even give the state any right to repress error. This applies when the public good calls for it. Pius XII seems to imply these circumstances are always present: AAS 45, pp. 799, 801.

2. 1."This Vatican Synod declares that the human person has a right to religious liberty. Liberty of this kind consists in this, that all persons should be immune from coercion either on the part of individuals, or of social societies, and of any human power at all, and this in such a way that in a religious matter neither should anyone be forced to act against his conscience, or impeded from acting according to his conscience privately and publicly. either alone or in association with others, within due limits."

COMMENT: Since this section was hammered out with much labor, it must be interpreted with equal care. We note in addition that John Courtney Murray, in his introduction to this declaration in the Abbott edition of Vatican II said (p. 674): "The conciliar affirmation of the principle of freedom was narrowly limited - in the text." He thinks it will in practice be given wider scope or have wider effects.

It is important to note that the focus is on not coercing consciences: a man must not be forced to act against his conscience, or impeded from acting according to his conscience in private and in public. This seems to mean that one must not violate his conscience when the conscience orders something. What if his conscience merely permits something? It is not clear that a person has that added right, for the purpose of not forcing action against conscience seems to be that no one should force a man to sin. There would be sin in going against a positive order of conscience to either do or to omit something. But if a conscience merely permitted something but did not command it, the person would not be sinning if he merely omitted something that he was free to do but not required to do. In that event, if a Protestant's conscience permitted him to write to attack the Catholic Church, but did not command that, this declaration probably would not say he was to be free of coercion, since the omission would not be sinful for him. It is not likely that his conscience would be apt to command him to attack.

Though conscience is not likely to order publishing an attack on Catholic doctrine, it could easily order a man to publish his own doctrine, and to join in social worship.

About the words "within due limits"--they are not precise. Someone might claim they meant the same as "public peace" in the document of Pius IX. Pius IX clearly requires the state to do more than just maintain public peace in this matter.Howsoever Vatican II also requires more. In P 4: "Religious communities also have the right not to be impeded in orally and publicly teaching and testifying to their faith. However, in spreading religious faith and practices, all must abstain always from every kind of action which seems to be coercion or improper or less right persuasion, especially towards the uneducated and the poor. Such a way of acting must be considered as an abuse of their own rights and infringement of the rights of others. And in P7: "Since civil society has the right of protecting itself against the abuses that could happen under the pretext of religious liberty, it pertains especially to the civil authority to provide protection of this kind; it should not be done in an arbitrary manner or unfairly favoring one side, but according to juridical norms that are in accord with the objective moral order, which are required for the effective protection of rights for all citizens, and for the peaceful settlement of conflict of rights, and by a sufficient care for that honorable public peace which is the well-ordered living together in true justice, and [required] by due custody of public morality."

We conclude: Vatican II does require much more than keeping public peace. It requires that the sects refrain from unfair persuasion aimed at the uneducated and the poor - that would be "an abuse of their rights"; it requires care for public morality.

P2. 2: "It also declares that the right to religious liberty is really founded in the very dignity of the human person.... According to this dignity, all are impelled by their own nature, and are bound by moral obligation to seek the truth.... They cannot satisfy this obligation...unless they have psychological freedom and at the same time immunity from external coercion."

COMMENT: The coercion in mind is that of physical force, which would come from the civil state. It does not rule out the use of the divinely given authority of Christ to proclaim His truth and to say all are obligated by His divine authority to accept it.

Therefore Archbishop Lefebvre was completely without justification in his claims.