Outvoted, Not Persecuted

Four Lessons about Religious Freedom

It has been fifty years since John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with a clear signal that the long era of what some call “Constantinianism”—in which the church could depend on civil authorities to help defend the faith—was over. Vatican II’s eventual declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, explicitly marked the transition away from that dependence. But right away, in his opening speech on October 11, 1962, Pope John announced that a central purpose of the entire council was to negotiate this tectonic shift in the hope that the church, “finally freed from so many obstacles of a profane nature such as trammeled her in the past,” could proclaim and live out the gospel with greater clarity.

Yet old habits die hard. A half-century later, the juxtaposition of two news stories suggests that the Catholic Church still has a ways to go to unlearn its Constantinian habits of the heart. In one case, Vatican negotiations with breakaway Lefebvrist bishops of the Society of St. Pius X focused on the question of whether Rome would acquiesce to the Lefebvrist refusal to recognize Dignitatis humanae. In the other, U.S. Catholic bishops sought to rally the faithful for their “Fortnight for Freedom” under a banner calling religious freedom “...

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About the Author

Gerald W. Schlabach is professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and author of Unlearning Protestantism: Sustaining Christian Community in an Unstable Age (Brazos Press). He is cofounder of, and a longtime leader in, Bridgefolk, a grassroots organization for unity and dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics.