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: Thomas Pink
The nineteenth-century popes called for the state to coerce—to issue legal directives backed up by threats of punishment—in support of religious truth and against religious error and to enforce the laws of the Church.
But in 1965, in Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II taught something that appears quite opposite—that we have a right not to be coerced in our religious activities by the state, except where the state needs to protect just public order, because the state lacks the authority to coerce religiously.
Was Dignitatis Humanae a contradiction of previous doctrine? Not so, in fact. Well before Vatican II, Leo XIII was already teaching in 1885 that the state lacks the authority to coerce religiously. That authority belongs not to the state but to the Church. As that pope explained, dividing the competences of the two powers of Church and state:
“One of the two powers has for its proximate and chief object the well-being of this mortal life; the other, the everlasting joys of heaven. Whatever, therefore in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, falls wholly within the power of the Church and is wholly subject to her judgment. Whatever is to be ranged under the civil and political order is rightly subject to the civil authority. Jesus Christ has Himself given command that what is Caesar's is to be rendered to Caesar, and that what belongs to God is to be rendered to God” (Immortale Dei §14).
According to Leo XIII, the state should indeed protect Catholicism through law—but only as the Church's agent, acting on her authority. This duty, an obligation on Christian rulers to the Church based on their baptism, always presupposed that the state was indeed Christian—that it existed, at least in public aspiration, as a community of the baptized. Only if the state had this publicly Christian identity and allegiance would its rulers be morally in a position to lend the state's coercive power to support the Church. But in the modern world states no longer have this religious identity, and are secular in make-up and aspiration. That means they can no longer act as agents of the Church. But then they must lack all authority in matters of religion, even a borrowed authority delegated to them from the Church.
Our natural right to liberty, based on our human dignity, gives us a right not to be subject to coercive direction—to directives backed by punitive threats—save those issued by a competent authority. Once it is secularized and detached from acting on the authority of the Church, the state entirely lacks competent authority to coerce us in matters of religion; and so our human dignity gives us a right not to be coerced religiously by the state—exactly as Dignitatis Humanae says.
Dignitatis Humanae expressly preserves integer or untouched traditional doctrine about people's moral duties to the Church—and so, in particular, about the duty to the Church that in earlier times, in fully Christian states, baptism could impose on rulers:
“Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfil their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (Dignitatis Humanae §1).
Bishop de Smedt spoke at Vatican II in November 1965, just before the final vote, on behalf of the commission drafting the declaration. On the specific instructions of Paul VI, he made clear that this clause was to be understood to include among the teachings preserved untouched the teachings of the nineteenth-century popes on the duties of the state to the true religion—duties that historically included, in the context of a Christian state, as those popes had already made clear, acting on the authority of the Church to privilege Catholicism in law:
“Some Fathers maintain that the declaration does not sufficiently show how our doctrine is not opposed to ecclesiastical documents up to the Supreme Pontiff Leo XIII...While pontifical documents up to Leo XIII emphasized the moral duties of the public power to the true religion, the last supreme pontiffs, while retaining this doctrine, complete it by expounding another duty of the public power, namely the duty of respecting the demands of the dignity of the human person as a necessary element of the common good. The text presented to you today recalls more clearly the duties of the public power towards the true religion; from which it is clear that this part of the doctrine is not omitted.” (My emphases added.)
The moral right to religious liberty defended by Dignitatis Humanae holds very specifically against the state and other civic institutions. De Smedt and his commission repeatedly emphasized at the Council that the declaration did not address the authority of the Church over the baptized. The 1983 Code of Canon Law continues to treat heresy and apostasy in the baptized as crimes punishable, by temporal as well as spiritual penalties, under the authority of the Church.
So Dignitatis Humanae's strict teaching is about the authority of the state, not the Church; and, far from contradicting nineteenth-century papal teaching, the declaration recognizes and makes explicit what Leo XIII's two powers theory implies for the moral rights of the individual against the state in matters of religion once the state has become secular.
Thomas Pink is a professor of philosophy at King's College London.
The full text of Dr. Pink's paper can be found on Academia.edu. This piece appeared in this form on December 12, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.