In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, Cornerstone asks its authors to address the question of how to interpret and define Dignitatis: What is the core teaching of the document as it relates to religious freedom? To what extent should Dignitatis be read as a declaration on individual freedom, the freedom of religious communities, or both? How does this teaching relate to, and develop, earlier teaching by the Catholic Church on religious freedom?
By: Stephen Fields
According to Schindler, Murray interprets Dignitatis Humanae to mean that the state should exercise no coercion in religious matters. Bound by the natural law, the state must insist on the fundamental dignity of all persons to accept responsibility for acting on their own initiative in faith and worship. For Murray, therefore, the state, as implicitly open to God, guarantees the neutrality necessary for granting all religions equal status before the law, even while “permitting them...to add their own positive content of what [religious] freedom is for.”
Schindler believes that this interpretation of Murray’s countenances the state’s indifference to God. He believes that this indifference creates a vacuum for the enemies of God to fill with alacrity. These include secular dogmatism, religious privatism, and atheism. Moreover, he believes that Murray’s interpretation delays the question of God, whose existence cannot be delayed, because it provides freedom’s very ground. In his own support, Schindler quotes Pope John Paul II’s reading of Dignitatis Humanae in his 1979 encyclical Redemptor Hominis. The Pontiff states that human beings “perceive intimately that the truth revealed to us by God imposes on us an obligation.” Murray, claims Schindler, although admitting that God grounds freedom, does not incorporate any divine obligation into his proposal for the public operation of freedom. He thus plots a course for American religious liberty decidedly at odds with Vatican II.
Aspects of Schindler’s thesis frighten me. I sense in them the seeds of the logic that underlies the famous adage of Cardinal Ottaviani: “Error has no rights.” Certainly it does not. But what about the rights of the persons who sincerely follow their consciences in religious matters? Are not Ottaviani’s the same seeds that sprouted in Calvin’s Geneva, and in other attempts to grow the theocracies that history generally has shown to be failures? Schindler does not actively favor a theocracy. But he does realize that his critique of Murray initiates a momentum in that direction. He tries to check it. But I do not believe that his efforts will be successful unless we understand the relation between Church and state as Murray does.
Let us return to Dignitatis Humanae. It states: “[A]ll persons are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth....But men cannot satisfy the obligation in a way that is in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy both psychological freedom and immunity from external coercion.” This teaching draws the important distinction between an obligation that rightly devolves upon the individual on the one hand; and the role of the state in the face of this obligation on the other hand. So, yes, indeed, the state should delay the question of religious truth, precisely because the obligation to seek it does not fall on the state, but on the conscience of the individual who, as Pascal’s wager warns us, postpones it to his eternal jeopardy. If the state has an obligation to prod individuals to honor their own obligations to religious truth, then where will this end?
For instance, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the state, instead of being neutral toward religion, were to express a positive disposition toward it. In a pluralist society like ours, would this disposition not constitute a form of coercion on some sincere consciences? But let us say, again for the sake of argument, that we are willing to risk coercing the opponents of religion. We might then happily rejoice that secularism is now stripped of its ability to privilege its irreligion in the public square. Our short-term elation would soon give way to long-term distress. Inevitably, rendering the irreligious marginal within America’s social pluralism would alter the combatants in the culture wars. These would change from us religious people united against the irreligious to us religious people feuding among ourselves. I would rather have the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Raph Reed, Randall Terry and other Christian fundamentalists on my side in the debate against the irreligious in American, than to be pitted against them in an internecine Christian struggle that would surely arise. In such a combat, the questions about how to interpret America’s positive disposition toward religion would coerce particular religions to seek an advantage for their own content.
Moreover, religion thrives when it subsists in tension with those opposed to the sacred. If the liberal dogmatists, the religious privatizers, and the atheists are muted, the sacred will begin to tear itself asunder. Saturn will eat his own young, and rampant secularism will triumph. In short, the future of religious liberty in America has a vested interest in keeping precisely its enemies active in the public square.
We cannot escape the question, therefore, and indeed the solution, that Murray poses. On the one hand, Dignitatis Humanae imposes an obligation on human beings to seek religious truth. On the other hand, the Constitution reminds us that the Church’s independence entails its not being the state’s guardian. These two claims demand a middle term to mediate between them. What other viable model between Church and state fulfills this role except Murray’s, in which the state refrains from prejudicing the freedom of every conscience to satisfy its natural desire for God.
Stephen Fields, SJ is an Associate Professor of Theology at Georgetown University.
This piece was originally authored on December 21, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.