Religious Liberty: A Council Ahead of Its Time?
So much of the discussion in the public square of late concerns religious liberty. Not to obscure the other issues involved in the recent HHS rule and its subsequent “accommodation”, for assuredly there is also the issues of natural law, the right to life, and others. However, it is curious that the issue on the front line for Catholics and non-Catholics alike has been religious liberty. I say “curious” not to express disapproval; quite the opposite, for I myself think this is the crux of the issue. I say “curious” because it has caused me to reflect on the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, particularly those of the Second Vatican Council.
In discussions with various groups that are not in full communion with the Church (okay, let’s not beat around the bush – we mean SSPX here), no issue has caused more angst than that of religious liberty and Vatican II (except perhaps the validity of the Novus Ordo). Now, there is a certain amount of irony to this, because the “conservative” apologists are now clinging (rightfully) to religious liberty in order to combat the rhetoric and actions of the Obama administration, but the “really conservative conservative Catholics” (e.g., SSPX) find themselves in a bit of a pickle. For it is this teaching of Vatican II that they have rejected publicly. (See my footnote below for an apology and explanation of my meaningless labels.*) Yet we have seen in the last month just what happens when religious liberty is not protected.
With that, let’s have a look at what Vatican II said. The document in question is Dignitatis humanae (“The Dignity of the Human Person”), and paragraph 1 begins,
A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society … On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it … Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.
It seems to me that the USSCB could use this paragraph as it mantra for the battle against the HHS mandate. But let’s continue … from the next paragraph:
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. 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.
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.
Now this is where SSPX starts to get nervous. They would claim that no-one has the “right” to adhere to falsehood, and the Second Vatican Council implies otherwise. As for the first part of the claim, I agree. I made the point in a previous post that nobody has the “right” to contraception, not just from a constitutional standpoint but also from the perspective of natural law. However, with regards to “what Vatican II really said,” I read over this section at least three times, as well as the rest of Dignitatis humanae, and I simply cannot see how it implies that people have the right to adhere to falsehood, theological or otherwise. It does say that religious freedom is essential for man’s search for truth, and that political coercion flies in the face of this necessary freedom, and that “the right to this immunity [from coercion] continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded.” Yet nowhere do I see that people have the “right” to adhere to falsehood.
At any rate, I meant not for this post to become an occasion for dialog about the SSPX-Vatican disagreements. I meant only to point out that the Vatican II “Declaration on Religious Freedom” may turn out to be a very useful document for those of the conservative political persuasion in the current climate, and that there is a certain amount of irony, because it was one of the documents of the Council that was most hailed by the “progressives” in the Church.
Certainly the declaration was written within the context of 1965, the year in which Paul VI promulgated it: a time when the world was still very concerned about the oppressive regimes of Communism and Nazism. Yet I can’t help but think that (surprise, surprise) the Holy Spirit knew what he was doing, for we may well find in our own era the need for Dignitatis humanae. The battle currently is in the medical field: the fundamental right to religious liberty being trumped by a fabricated “right” to obtain contraception and abortion services free of charge. However, the battle lying just around the corner will inevitably involve the issue of homosexuality – here we will see a parallel conflict, but it will be the fundamental right to freedom of speech, either in religious or secular circles, being trumped by a fabricated “right” to live one’s life without criticism. Consider all that is in front of us together with that which is to come, it warrants asking: was Vatican II a council ahead of its time?
* I am at loss for labels here (as if this weren’t obvious in my use of “really conservative conservative Catholics.” I inherently reject using the word “traditionalist” because all Catholic should be traditionalist – our faith is a faith of tradition, built on an original deposit that unfolds slowly overtime. Yet “conservative” is a political term more than a religious term. At the same time, politics and religious, while distinguished in concept, are not entirely separate. (There is a reason why politically conservative people also tend to prefer more “traditional” liturgies.) I hope that the point is not lost here … it seems obvious to me that the SSPC is a sort of “ultra conservative” group, clinging to a tradition that does not allow for any sort of unfolding, organic or otherwise, but rather is frozen in time (arbitrarily chosen as the middle of the 1900’s). Then again, I write with a certain amount of trust that I am among friends who will understand the irony which I attempt to disclose, that, despite a lack of appropriate labels, the most “conservative” Catholics (so “conservative” that they have left the Church), are now in need of the one of the very doctrines they reject from Vatican II (the teaching on religious liberty) in order to be “conservative” in our current political battle.