Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner

VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 15) by Fr. Peter Pilsner To go along with a suggestion of one of the members of this forum, I will try to make my posts shorter. However, that also means that we will make slower progress. I am sorry about that, but I think that you will see that the matter of the document is by no means light in this second chapter. I will probably be able to do only one section at a time.

I would not call section 31 one of the more critical sections of the encyclical, but it does make an important point which itself has a controversial background. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, it the commonly understood position of the Church with regard to the relationship of Church and State could be put in the following three sentences:

1. The Catholic religion should be, if at all possible, the established religion of the State.

2. Because the State receives its authority from God, its laws must be in accord with the will of God, that is, in accord with the natural law.

3. Because heretics pose a threat to the catholic faith of citizens and the authority of the State, the State has the right to punish them, or at the very least restrict their activity when they try to spread their ideas.

It is this third principle that has become hotly contended in our century, because it touches on the question of human freedom. Should a person suffer legal consequences for trying to spread a belief, if that belief goes contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church? If not, is it because the State is being tolerant his actions, choosing not to exercise its right to punish? Or does such a person possess a right to spread his sincerely held, albeit erroneous beliefs, and not be punished?

In the last century the division of opinion was very sharp. There were those who represented the views of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and held that every person had the right to think whatever he chose. They insisted that every person should decide for himself what was right and wrong, without being accountable to any higher authority whatever. The Church received from such people nothing but unbridled contempt. One should not be surprised, then that this position, which exalted the human freedom against the authority of God, of the Church, and to some extent, of the State, was condemned by Pope Leo XIII as well as by future popes. In itself, it was considered an intellectual basis for anarchy and apostasy. Practically speaking, it hurt the faith of many Catholics who did not know how to respond to it.

Then came the flourishing of the American experiment. What was unique in America was that it upheld the value of freedom of the individual, without bringing along the excess baggage of the rejection of truth or of religious or civil authority. Even though America was founded by people who represented the thinking of the enlightenment, the majority of people who immigrated to it placed a high value on religion, and had no desire to assert themselves against religious authority. Thus in America, there was, perhaps for the first time in history, religion and freedom flourishing side by side. From the Catholic point of view, one would be hard pressed to claim that freedom (especially freedom of religion), as understood and practiced in America was a danger to the Church, when the Church was growing so rapidly there.

The experience of America did have an influence on the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, especially through the work of the American theologian John Courtney Murray, who was brought to the Council by Cardinal Spellman, and who helped draft the Decree on Religious Liberty. In that document, Dignitatis Humanae, we see a different approach to the freedom and liberty of the individual than in previous ones. The value of freedom was strongly affirmed, and the practical implication was that no person should be coerced, by law, to change his beliefs or to refrain from practicing or spreading his beliefs.

To quote the Council:

2. 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.[2] 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.

There are two things I would like to note here. One is that the freedom referred to here is a freedom FROM EXTERNAL COERCION.

The Council Fathers took pains to point out that they are not recognizing a kind of "freedom of conscience" by which an individual decides for himself what is right or wrong. As John Courtney Murray points out in his footnotes in the Abbot translation: "It is worth noting that the Declaration does not base the right to the free exercise of religion on 'freedom of conscience.' Nowhere does this phrase occur. And the Declaration nowhere lends its authority to the theory for which the phrase frequently stands, namely, that I have the right to do what my conscience tells me to do, simply because my conscience tells me to do it. That is a perilous theory. Its particular peril is subjectivism -- the notion that, in the end, it is my conscience, and not the objective truth which determines what is right or wrong, true or false."

Second, this idea that a person should be free from coercion is not something new in Church teaching. Consider following quote by Leo XIII, who in turn quotes St. Augustine:

"The Church, indeed, deems it unlawful to place the various forms of divine worship on the same footing as the true religion, but does not, on that account, condemn those rulers who, for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, allow patiently custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the State. And, in fact, the Church is wont to take earnest heed that no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will, for, as St. Augustine wisely reminds us, 'Man cannot believe otherwise than of his own will.'" (Immortale Dei)

I think it's about time we took a look at VS:

VS>> 31. The human issues most frequently debated and differently resolved in contemporary moral reflection are all closely related, albeit in various ways, to a crucial issue: "human freedom."

Certainly people today have a particularly strong sense of freedom.

As the Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom "Dignitatis Humanae" had already observed, "the dignity of the human person is a concern of which people of our time are becoming increasingly more aware".[52] Hence the insistent demand that people be permitted to "enjoy the use of their own responsible judgment and freedom, and decide on their actions on grounds of duty and conscience, without external pressure or coercion".[53] In particular, the right to religious freedom and to respect for conscience on its journey towards the truth is increasingly perceived as the foundation of the cumulative rights of the person.[54]

FP >> Here the Holy Father affirms what was taught in Dignitatis Humanae. The rights of a person demand that he not be subject to external coercion, especially in matters of religion. However, one might say, that is not the end of the story.

VS >> This heightened sense of the dignity of the human person and of his or her uniqueness, and of the respect due to the journey of conscience, certainly represents one of the positive achievements of modern culture. This perception, authentic as it is, has been expressed in a number of more or less adequate ways, some of which however diverge from the truth about man as a creature and the image of God, and thus need to be corrected and purified in the light of faith.[55]

FP >> What we are going to find in the next few sections is that the debate over human freedom has come full circle -- or as you Edgar Allen Poe fans might prefer, the "pendulum" has swung back the other way. Freedom has once again come to be understood by the world in ways hostile to the Christian mentality, or to use the Holy Father's gentler language, in ways that "diverge from the truth about man as a creature and the image of God." It is as if the John Paul II is taking up Leo XIII's battle again, one century later. For even in America, freedom has come to mean the assertion of the self, the rejection of religious authority, the autonomy of conscience, and the banishment of religion from the public forum. The acceptance by the Council of a proper understanding of religious freedom has not evoked, on the part of the heirs of the enlightenment, any reciprocal effort to make freedom subject to the claims of truth.

But even worse, theologians in the Church have been influenced by contemporary ideas about freedom. It is a common view held among theologians of the "progressive" persuasion -- I would hunt for quotes had I the time -- that the Church should practice what she preaches in Dignitatis Humanae, and recognize a right to "religious freedom" within itself! In other words, theologians should be able to express their ideas, even those not consistent with Church teaching, and not be subject any sanctions, such as having their credentials revoked.

More on this subject next week.