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: Gerard Bradley
Dignitatis Humanae plainly calls for a vigorous social conversation about divine realities. It plainly envisages what might be called a critical theological culture. The declaration affirms too everyone’s moral obligation to engage this vivid and searching cultural happening. A critical, morally serious theological conversation requires structure and something that functions as direction and guidance. It needs an invisible hand to keep it on course. It needs a particular cultural context to keep it on course.
“Culture of religious freedom” does not capture the central message or teaching of Dignitatis Humanae, which is surely that each person must be the author of his own religious acts. But “culture of religious freedom” points to the greatest challenge of making Dignitatis operational, of making religious liberty practically available to persons on the ground. Unfortunately, this practical requirement is MIA in the declaration.
The picture that emerges from even a careful look at Dignitatis Humanae is that religious liberty is constituted by the absence of coercion. It is supposed to happen when people are free of coercion and pressure, as if a really free people would spontaneously embrace, and even succeed in, the task of searching, arguing, deliberating, deciding, and then living in accord with religious truth.
The reality is not so simple. The absence of coercion is indeed essential to religious liberty. But it is not the whole of it. Freedom from coercion is one component of religious freedom. But unless the culture sustains an understanding of what it is freedom for, the absence of coercion will not lead to the collaborative pursuit and enjoyment of the truth about divine matters. Without the right culture “religious freedom” could even derail into a threat to genuine religious liberty.
Dignitatis Humanae sets up a social structure—better, a superstructure—where the basic rules have to do with freedom from interference, and in that sense are about personal autonomy. But unless this superstructure is suffused with the right cultural stuff—inhabited by the proper infrastructure—a scheme overridingly committed to each one’s free quest for religious truth is likely to derail into an enabler of individual self-invention, individuality for its own sake, subjectivity, or identity.
Dignitatis Humanae says nothing explicitly about the shape and content of the cultural supports which it requires for its successful operation in society. In fact, the declaration uses the word “culture” just twice. Both appearances are adjectival and inconsequential.The Fathers therefore did not squarely address a host of compelling questions, including: what are the main components of the culture of religious liberty? How can a people create and sustain such a culture?
We can fill in the missing elements of Dignitatis Humanae by resort to plain implication and sound inference.
Dignitatis Humanae correctly identifies or defines religious freedom as being comprised of two serious moral duties. The first binds everyone to refrain from coercion and all manner of unworthy persuasion of others when it comes to religious things. This is freedom from. The second is the duty of everyone with regard to religion. It is the correlative freedom for each person to carry out his “duty to seek the truth in religious matters.”
Essential to the possibility of genuine religious liberty on the ground is a supportive culture characterized by a high degree of commitment to at least these two propositions: The first is that religion is a zone of truth, and not an enclave of tradition, custom, identity, projections, emotions, and edifying fables. The second is that there is an important, inalienable moral duty to seek out and to embrace religious truth. Without these cultural anchors—and no matter how much freedom from external interference characterizes a society—there simply will not be religious liberty.
By “zone of truth” I do not mean that specifically Catholic faith includes assent to true propositions (as we find in the Creed, in the Decalogue, and elsewhere in Scripture where the sacred authors assert a proposition). The foundational part of Dignitatis Humanae does not depend upon this “zone of truth.” It depends instead upon an essential precondition, or implication of this “zone”: that religion is the kind of thing that is either true or false. “True or false” here means objectively the case—or not. This is another way of saying that religion is about reality. The different world religions are and should be apprehended as (in great part) different accounts of that reality, including invisible (but nonetheless really real) parts of what there is. Religion is thus answerable to the truth about the universe, all that there is, seen and unseen. Our understanding of all this, though forever incomplete so long as we live on earth, must nonetheless be coherent as far as it goes. So, religion answers to both what is really the case, and to the demands of logic.
Any society’s culture and law includes manifold and innumerable opportunities to register its understanding of religion as including objective truths about reality. It is most important, however, that the churches (and religious groups and leaders more generally) witness to this way of conceiving the truth about religion. For if they do not, who will?
In addition, one’s moral responsibility to seek religious truth and to live in accord with it is surely the heart of Dignitatis Humanae: “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.”
Getting people to take seriously this moral duty is heavy-going in modern culture. It is not a norm of justice, as if we owe it to other people to seek the truth and somehow have wronged them if we do not. It is not quite a duty to God. It is not quite a duty to oneself either; even if it were, ignoring it would be what we call now a “victimless immorality,” which means for most today: not immoral at all. Besides, trying to force anyone to perform this moral duty is self-defeating. One cannot make another honestly believe in the truth of any proposition. Trying to do can only result (at most) in feigned or half-hearted assent.
The only possibly fruitful social input here has to be a set of cultural expectations and a whole social milieu in which everyone who values the esteem of others, and who wishes to be involved with his culture’s most urgent subject, will naturally want to engage the theological conversation.
Gerard V. Bradley, a noted scholar in the fields of constitutional law as well as law and religion, joined the faculty of the Notre Dame Law School as professor in 1992, having taught at the University of Illinois from 1983 to 1992.
This piece was originally authored on December 11, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.