Squeezing Religious Freedom from Both Sides

With the “Fortnight for Freedom” coming up, it is worthwhile thinking about the Church’s teaching on religious freedom, in particular from the Second Vatican Council.

The Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom has always been a source of controversy. But because of new political alignments hostile to religious liberty, the controversy over this document Dignitatis Humanae (“DH”) has now turned almost upside down.

Many on both the right and the left have been using DH to reduce the religious freedom of faithful Christians, which is nearly the opposite of what the Council said.

Historically, some traditionalist Catholics have opposed DH for seeming to confer rights on erroneous views, while the left has embraced DH’s affirmation of conscience rights across religions. Recently, however, the left has developed an allergic reaction to religious freedom akin to a vampire’s taste for garlic. And some faithful Catholics trying to seem reasonable have inaccurately diminished the affirmations within DH.

Both sides give short shrift to DH’s text. The Council affirms a general right to religious freedom, and it emphasizes that it is in no way undermining the absolute right possessed by the Church, including all her faithful members, not to be subject to conscience violations.

The document begins in paragraph 1 by affirming that “it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” “Untouched” is not equivocal. DH then goes on to talk about “a right to religious freedom” for “all men,” which is subject to “due limits.” But discussion of this entirely distinct topic is separate from, “over and above” (“insuper”), the doctrine of the untouched religious freedom of the Church. Nowhere does DH declare that the religious freedom of the Church is subject to “due limits.”

So who is this “Church”? DH clearly asserts in paragraph 13 that the Church’s religious freedom resides both in her “spiritual authority” AND ALSO “as a society of men who have the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith.” Neither parts of the Church fall in the category possessing merely general religious freedom subject to “due limits.”

According to the Council, therefore, the “Church” is all members of the Body of Christ, including bishops to be sure, but also including the laity who “live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith.” Just as the government can’t coerce magisterial institutions to violate Catholic teaching, it can’t coerce the laity to do so either. As expressed clearly elsewhere in Catholic teaching, the faithful laity ARE the Church. DH 13 goes on to again distinguish between this freedom of the Church and the religious freedom of “all other men.”

So how is DH being misinterpreted on this point? Catholics on the left reflexively summarize DH as saying that all religious freedom is subject to “due limits” by the state. Thus they suggest the government can sometimes force Christians to violate precepts of the Christian faith. This is absolutely not the Council’s teaching. DH nowhere applies “due limits” to the freedom of the Church, including both the magisterium and the faithful laity.

Even some Catholics on the right fall into this inaccurate summary. Some suggest that while the freedom of magisterial institutions should be sacrosanct, DH affirms the legitimacy of “due limits” on the faithful laity. But again DH says exactly the opposite. The invoilable freedom of the Church includes for the Church’s lay membership “the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith.”

The reason that DH never imposes “due limits” on the freedom of the magisterium or the faithful laity is quite simply because a Christian whose conscience is formed in line with the teaching of Jesus Christ cannot ever be legitimately coerced by the government to violate God’s direction.

Notably, the Catholic Church also teaches that non-Catholic Christians are part of the Church by baptism, albeit being separated for other reasons. Thus any government compulsion on them to engage in a practice that would violate Church teaching would also not be a “due limit” of government. And by extension, it would be unjust to force even non-Christians to do something in violation of God’s commands.

If DH had declared the freedom of the Church subject to “due limits,” it would make the Council’s teaching a contraction of religious freedom, not an expansion of it. It would put DH into the impossible position of affirming religious freedom for non-Christians while diminishing it for the Church. That is the most implausible reading of DH one could entertain.

DH cannot be proof-texted to impose “due limits” on “the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith.” At very minimum, DH maintains the full religious freedom of the Church, which includes all her faithful members and not just clergy.

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