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
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
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.
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". 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". 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.
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.
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.