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.

No comments:

Post a Comment