Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Liberty of Conscience in "Dignitatis Humanae"

One of the most important topics today in theology has been, for me, the question of religious freedom. How to understand pre-Vatican II, Vatican II, and post-Vatican II statements on this topic is a consuming interest of mine, primarily because it was this topic above all that stood in the way (as it then seemed to me) of my return to the Church from the SSPX movement. Overcoming this intellectual hurdle, or, rather, dissolving it (allow me to explain the distinction in a future post), was the last step in my return to the Church.

This post comprises the introduction and first section of a paper I wrote several years after my return to the Church, while I was a graduate student at the Catholic University of America. The remainder of the paper will be posted in segments over the next week or so.

Obviously, I make no claims to theological originality or to interpreting officially the Church documents under consideration: this is merely one Catholic's understanding of the Church's teaching on religious freedom as it is expressed in several documents. A further caveat: I may not agree with everything I have written here.

Comments are welcome, keeping in mind, of course, that in any intellectual conversation we must strive together for the victory of truth (to paraphrase Josef Pieper) rather than seek to vanquish each other in debate.

The Church and Liberty of Conscience:

From Gregory XVI to the Second Vatican Council

In the last several centuries of Western Civilization, the role of the idea of liberty of conscience can hardly be exaggerated. Indeed, it is probably the most fundamental touchstone of Modernity. Because of this prime significance it held (and continues to hold) in modern culture, it became a substantial issue also for Catholicism, most notably perhaps in the 19th and 20th centuries. Over the last 175 years, there have been several momentous responses on the part of the Church to the modern notion of liberty of conscience, beginning with Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos and continuing even to the present day.

However, the consistency of the Church’s position on this issue is not made evident upon reading these responses. In fact, many would claim that the Church reversed its teaching with the landmark Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae. Such a claim, though, must be substantiated and not based merely on stereotypical views of pre-Vatican II Catholicism or superficial readings of 19th century papal documents, because a true reversal in teaching is rare in the Church, and impossible, if it is a question of faith or morals.[1] A close reading of important documents of this period – Mirari Vos, Quanta Cura, Libertas Praestantissimum, and Dignitatis Humanae – is required to see the continuity, in the past two centuries, of Church teaching on liberty of conscience.

I must make one methodological point: I do not propose to treat of liberty of conscience insofar as it relates to public expression or dissemination of one’s beliefs. I grant that the question of freedom of expression (a part of which is liberty of the press) is intimately related to that of liberty of conscience. However, determining the continuity of Church teaching on liberty of conscience as well as freedom of expression (and liberty of the press) would require a much more lengthy analysis than is possible here. Thus, I will restrict my analysis to the treatment of liberty of conscience in the four above-mentioned Church documents.


There are several principles of interpretation in this inquiry. Firstly, we must, from the outset of our interpretation, presume continuity of teaching among these Church documents, for Dignitatis Humanae states that its exposition of human freedom “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ.”[2] This must therefore be kept in mind when comparing Dignitatis Humanae with the earlier documents.

Secondly, the extent of the role of historical context must be delineated, not only the historical circumstances surrounding the issuance of the document, but also its purpose (with all its attenuating historical contingencies). It has already been said that this paper will attempt to judge the continuity of these several documents. In itself, this relates only to the content of the documents, i.e., their actual teaching on the issue of liberty of conscience. Thus, the historical background or context is only pertinent insofar as it makes up a part of this teaching. Now the purpose of the document is clearly of highest importance; yet, the purpose may be gained from the document itself without resort to external historical sources. Thus, only whatever historical context is given in the document will demand our attention.[3] The remote motive cause of the document (e.g., the historical occurrence or movement that prompted the author to write it) is only to be considered insofar as it is inseparably bound with the purpose.[4]

[1] I have no intention of judging here the status of the documents under consideration, as regards their binding force upon Catholics of not only their own time, but of all times. Whether or not these documents are protected by infallibility is not something I wish to determine here, nor feel able to determine. The question is simply one of continuity in teaching, apart from the entanglements of whether this document or that one fall under the heading of faith and morals, and if so, whether they constitute private teaching (the Pope as private theologian) or infallible declaration (the Pope as pastor of the universal Church, either ordinary or extraordinary magisterium). Though I do admit that this question of doctrinal status is quite important, this paper is merely a preliminary, though meticulous, examination of these texts and judgment as to their continuity; determining their doctrinal status would require not only more time and space, but also another line of inquiry.

[2] Vatican Council II, Trans. Laurence Ryan, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Boston, MA: St. Paul Editions, 1980), p. 800, section #1.

[3] Obviously, this approach to interpretation grants a good deal to the author of the document: it assumes that whatever is needed for the understanding of the document was included by the author in the document itself, that he left nothing out that is needed for the reader to grasp his argument. I believe, however, that this is not merely the safest but also the most objective way to approach the work, for it puts the reader in the position of learner, a receptive state, whereas going over and beyond the document to grasp its arguments can easily lead to imposing outside facts or ideas onto the document, facts or ideas which may or may not have been instrumental in the author’s argumentation. In this way the interpretation of the work would be distorted by unwarranted assumptions. It is an intellectual curiosity that the distinction between these two approaches is analogous to the distinction between Aristotelian and Kantian epistemology, respectively.

[4] As we will see, the historical circumstances that prompted the writing of these Church documents are often mentioned by their authors.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Pope, The Holocaust, and The Bishop

For all the mountains of reports, commentaries, and op-eds about Benedict XVI's lifting of the excommunication of the 4 SSPX bishops, it's really a rather simple situation.

(1) The SSPX has a significant following, consisting of people and clergy who hold fast to just about everything the Church teaches, value the past and tradition, and try to achieve holiness according to the spirituality of the Church. Bringing the SSPX back into communion with the Church would therefore be a great good indeed.

(2) Lifting the excommunication of the 4 bishops was the next step in achieving this communion (the motu proprio "Summorum Pontificum" being the first major step).

(3) One of these 4 bishops -- Bishop Williamson -- happens to believe that only a few hundred thousand Jews died in the Holocaust and that there were no gas chambers.

(4) To be a Catholic, one need only adhere to the Catholic faith and remain in communion with the Catholic Church. One can be a Catholic and maintain that diet pills are the best method of losing weight, or that subatomic particles are figments of modern science's imagination, or that Julius Caesar never existed, or that "only" a few hundred thousand Jews died in the Holocaust. These views are all wrong -- some benignly so, others maliciously so. Bishop Williamson's opinion about the Jews and the Holocaust is regrettable, nonsensical, offensive, reprehensible -- but not contrary to the deposit of the Catholic faith. Abe Foxman's insulting statement that the Church must restore Bishop Williamson's prior state of excommunication in order that "the matter of the church and Holocaust denial [be] solved" betrays an ignorance that is astounding.

(5) A Catholic bishop must not give scandal by publicly airing reprehensible opinions. Therefore the Vatican has given Bishop Williamson an ultimatum, stating that he must distance himself from his statements as a pre-requisite for being "admitted to episcopal functions within the Church."

That's it. There's no "litmus test," vis-a-vis affirmation of the historicity of the Holocaust, for aspiring Catholics. But there is for aspiring bishops who have publicly maintained the contrary. Why? Because rejecting the historicity of the Holocaust, while not intrinsically inimical to the act of faith, is a cause of grave scandal and therefore unacceptable coming from one who holds public office in the Church. In the final analysis, rejecting the historicity of the Holocaust is not a question of theological belief; rather, it's a question of causing grave scandal.

Why do critics on both sides -- the modernist/secular camp (e.g., Abe Foxman) and the SSPX camp (e.g., True Restoration II) -- fail to see this?

Rumblings from the Dissident Modernist Movement

The ignorance and lack of reflection displayed by dissident Catholic theologians never ceases to amaze. Benedict XVI's lifting of the excommunication of the 4 SSPX bishops resulted in much modernist wailing and gnashing of teeth. As an example of this, read a recent statement circulating that seeks to instruct the Pope on the conditions for admission into communion with the Catholic Church: www.petition-vaticanum2.org/pageID_7327623.html

The very first sentence of the petition is ample proof of ignorance of basic facts relative to the recent action of the Pope:

"The papal cancellation of the excommunication of bishops from The Society of St. Pius X signifies the reception into full communion with the See of Rome those who have consistently opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council."

Contrast this with the actual Vatican document lifting the excommunications:

It is hoped that this step be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Fraternity of Saint Pius X." (Thanks to Rorate Caeli for the translation.)

Full communion of the SSPX bishops with the Catholic Church has NOT been achieved, and the opening sentence of this petition fails to recognize even this basic fact.

Let us keep reading:

"We believe that the close correlation between the excommunication’s cancellation and the 50th anniversary of the calling of a General Council of the Church by Blessed Pope John XXIII gives a clear indication of the direction which the present Papacy wishes to take. We sense a desire to return to a pre Vatican II Church with its fear of openness to the breath of the Holy Spirit, a positive appreciation of ‘the signs of the times’, and the values of democratic institutions.

We are very concerned that this act of rehabilitation heralds a turn-around on important documents of Vatican II, for example, the decree on ecumenism “Unitatis Redintegratio”, the declaration on non-Christian religions “Nostra Aetate”, the declaration on religious liberty “Dignitatis Humanae” and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes”. Such an act will have a disastrous effect on the credibility of the Roman-Catholic Church. For Catholics who love their Church, the price is too high!"

Fear permeates these words. Ecumenism is all well and good until the other party in dialogue threatens modernist presuppositions. Who are the ones who REALLY fear "openness to the breath of the Holy Spirit?" These petitioners ignore explicit Vatican statements affirming the non-negotiability of the teachings of Vatican II, claiming that in fact Benedict's action is indicative of a negation of the developments of Vatican II. What they really mean is that Benedict's action is indicative of a rejection of the modernist understanding and misappropriation of the developments of Vatican II, which is, by the way, also false (although OTHER actions or words of Benedict XVI do so indicate).

Furthermore, the characterization of the fictitious "pre-Vatican II Church" is absurdly trite and false. Despite what they may think, the "breath of the Holy Spirit" is NOT synonymous with "radical dogmatic change," and democratic institutions and their values were NOT the object of magisterial condemnation prior to Vatican II. (Any of the petitioners read Leo XIII? Anyone?)

The petition ends in these words:

"The Church of Rome, perceived as the Barque of St. Peter, lists heavily as long as the Vatican: only rehabilitates the "lost sheep" at the traditionalist edge of the Church, and makes no similar offer to other excommunicated or marginalised Catholics; persists in preventing progressive theologians from teaching; refuses dialogue with all movements in the Church."

Allow me an argument by analogy: If I am convinced that there is only one best way to play the game of golf, and if I am also convinced that I know this "best method," I may start a school to teach students the best way to play golf. If I hire teachers to help teach this to the students, do I not have the right to fire a teacher who insists that he has a DIFFERENT and BETTER way to play the grand old game? In fact, doesn't such a teacher undermine the entire project of my school? I have the best method, not the teacher I've hired. Of course, I may be wrong and the teacher right . . . unless I am infallible in matters of golf-playing, in which case I have the right and the DUTY of firing that teacher, for the good of the students who pay me so that they can play the game of golf as well as possible. In like manner, the Pope has both the right and the duty of "preventing progressive theologians from teaching," assuming, of course, as one ought, that "progressive" means "not bound to past definitive teachings of the Church."

The last straw: the petition is signed "We Are Church UK 5 February 2009." Need I say more.