An Unfinished Agenda

The Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis humanae) was one of the most controversial documents issued by the Second Vatican Council. Before the council, Protestants in the United States and at the World Council of Churches in Geneva had expressed the hope that the bishops would reconsider a doctrine that permitted or even obliged the state in Catholic countries to restrict the religious activities of non-Catholics and that in theory would legitimate similar restrictions in the United States should Catholics ever attain a sufficient majority here. Efforts at such a rethinking, particularly by Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, had met with resistance from some Catholics in the United States, and from others in allegedly Catholic countries such as Spain and Italy, and in official circles in Rome. Maritain barely escaped public condemnation in the mid-1950s at the same time that Murray learned that some of his views had been declared erroneous by the Holy Office, which led his Jesuit superiors to advise him to find some other topic to study.

The classic modern doctrine was often articulated in terms of “thesis” and “hypothesis.” The thesis (what ought to be) was the Catholic confessional state in which the church enjoyed the favor and protection of the state to the point that it could invoke its coercive power to limit the public activities of non-Catholic religious bodies. In the hypothesis of a pluralistic society, however, even a Catholic state might have to tolerate the public activities of non-Catholics in order to avoid public unrest and conflict. This was toleration, however, not the acknowledgment that non-Catholics had a right to religious freedom.

After a long and at times passionate debate, the council decided to affirm religious freedom for all individuals and all groups as a basic right flowing from the dignity of human beings as intelligent, free, and self-responsible. How to ground this right theologically was a matter of some dispute among the champions of religious freedom. Murray argued that the issue was primarily juridical: the basic right was immunity from coercion in one’s individual and communal religious activities. Several European experts wanted to ground the right in a biblical theology of freedom, but time ran out before this approach could be fully developed. The final text, like all the conciliar documents, has the character of a compromise, not entirely satisfactory to either group. A first part develops the juridical right on the basis of a growing appreciation of individual human dignity and of the limited competencies of the state; the second shows how this kind of respect for religious freedom was implicit in and accords with the teaching and practice of Christ and the Apostles.

If there was general satisfaction that the Catholic Church had at last gone on record in recognizing religious freedom as a basic human right, no one pretended that the declaration was the last word on the subject or that further theological and juridical work was not needed to develop a full theory of religious freedom. As the editors of the volume under review note, however, surprisingly little reflection of this sort has been undertaken. It was as if the great battle had been won, and it was enough to bask in the warmth of the victory. It may also be that the success of “the American schema,” and the general applause with which it was greeted in the United States, led Americans to assume that the notion of religious freedom in the declaration, and the notion of the state’s competence and duties that follows from it, coincide with those of the American political system. It could be argued that events have proven this not to be the case, and with this realization have come new reflections on the document, of which this book is an example.

A substantial and intelligent preface, which sets out the many questions that constitute the unfinished agenda of Dignitatis humanae, introduces nine chapters. While several essayists refer to tensions and differences of approach and opinion in the course of the redaction of the declaration, none of them describes its history in any detail and none makes use of the important works of Dominique Gonnet and Silvia Scatena. Cardinal Avery Dulles contributes an essay that so emphasizes continuity between the conciliar declaration and earlier papal teaching that it is hard to discern what Dignitatis humanae actually accomplished by way of development and even harder to understand why the idea of a declaration on the subject and what it should say was so passionately and even bitterly controversial. There is a curious abstraction to the Dulles analysis from which one could never guess that for a century and a half Catholics who proposed an accommodation to modern political liberties similar to that proposed by the council fell under Roman suspicion. As late as 1958, for example, the Holy Office was preparing a public repudiation of the views of Maritain and Murray, a measure apparently prevented by the death of Pope Pius XII, the election of Pope John XXIII, and the calling of the council. Murray became one of the main shapers of a document that set out views for which he was silenced a decade earlier. Something must have happened.

Some other essays explore in one way or another to what degree Dignitatis humanae might still be considered an “American scheme”-that is, to what degree American political institutions and discourse reflect the declaration or are reflected in it. Perhaps the chief difference lies in the council’s teaching that government should not be neutral with regard to the role of religion in society and should not only protect religious freedom but favor it. As noted by Robert P. Hunt, that position runs counter to the course taken by the U.S. Supreme Court, which for the last sixty years has tended to follow the view stated in a dissent in the Everson case (1947) that no legislature can pass laws “which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.” The conciliar declaration cannot be properly understood unless a negative concept of freedom (freedom from) is supplemented by an appreciation of what freedom is for, which requires a full theory of the human person and his destiny. Francis Canavan, after arguing that the council’s teaching cannot be identified with liberal individualism, briefly discusses a point one could wish to see developed further. The issue today in the United States, Canavan argues, is not so much the state’s role with regard to religion but its role with regard to “the requirements of public morality.” It is on questions of public morality, such as same-sex marriage or the rules governing adoption, that religions are now claiming the right stated in Dignitatis humanae “to show the value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity.”

Two Protestant voices are heard in the volume. Thomas Heilke makes some very acute comments from what he calls “the perspective of a radical Protestant history.” He notes that the history implied in the sources of the Catholic tradition that are cited on behalf of religious freedom are far more ambiguous than the declaration would lead one to think. He wonders whether the danger of a return to a Christendom mentality might not lie beneath the text’s acknowledgment that “the just demands of public order” could legitimately restrict religious freedom. And he is particularly skeptical of the document’s appeal to “reason” and “natural law” as bases for its doctrine. Heilke argues that these are in fact no less particularistic than the theological and sacramental bases on which pre-Constantinian Christianity drew for its sense of identity and which remain the surest foundation for a theology of religious freedom.

From a neo-Calvinist standpoint, David T. Koyzis draws parallels between the development in the Catholic Church that led to Dignitatis humanae and how Calvinism moved from an original Constantinian confessionalism to a recognition that church and state represent distinct sovereign spheres, the basis on which general religious freedom ought to prevail. His comparison of the neo-Calvinist and the Catholic views insists on a common view that religious freedom need not require indifference to religion on the part of the state nor favor secular over religious institutions as, for example, in social welfare and education.

Two chapters explore the teaching of Pope John Paul II on religious freedom. John F. Crosby discusses how the pope’s personalist theology requires freedom in religious acts-otherwise they are not religious acts (a point also made by Robert P. George and William L. Saunders Jr.)-and stresses the importance of personal appropriation of Christian doctrine and moral law so that these cease to be simply external impositions. Crosby is the only author who even mentions that Dignitatis humanae has implications for how freedom is understood within the church; his brief remarks leave this “vast, complex subject” as still another unfinished agenda of the council.

Pope John Paul II’s “thicker” notion of religious freedom as intrinsically, by inner architecture, oriented toward truth, is contrasted by David S. Crawford with John Courtney Murray’s notion of religious freedom as immunity from coercion. Crawford thinks Murray’s approach was purely formal and indifferent to the truth. That the pope greatly expanded Dignitatis humanae by providing one theological explication of its foundation must certainly be granted. Crawford acknowledges that Murray knew that this negative notion of freedom had to be supplemented theologically, but he still thinks that Murray’s view leaves truth as something external to freedom, to the point that truth is experienced as externally derived limitation. I don’t think that this criticism would hold up on a fuller review of Murray’s writings, but I suspect that behind Crawford’s critique lie major differences with Murray in theological orientation and method.

The best essay in the book is by Kenneth L. Grasso, who discusses the implications of the declaration for a Catholic theory of the state, a question relatively neglected in the decades since the council. After a brief review of what the document has to say about religious freedom, Grasso summarizes John Courtney Murray’s minimalist interpretation of the role of the state vis-à-vis religion, questions whether it does full justice to the conciliar teaching, and presents his own difficulties with Murray’s view. At the council, Bishop Émile De Smedt criticized Murray for proposing the idea of l’état gendarme, the state reduced to the role, as Grasso puts it, of night watchman. Murray denied that this was his intent, but he certainly had a more restricted notion of the state’s general role in society than many Europeans had-and have. As Grasso points out, much of Catholic social thought grants a role to the state that reflects European statism more than Murray’s strongly American sense of limited government. Grasso’s questions are important and pertinent, although perhaps some of Murray’s earlier writings, particularly where he develops distinctions between society and state, might have forestalled some of these criticisms.

All in all the volume may be recommended, not because it settles any particular issues, but because it urges renewed consideration of a text that has been more taken for granted of late than actively and intelligently studied.

Published in the 2007-05-18 issue: 

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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