Religious liberty

By Paul Kokoski

Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has been turned upside down in the name of an ecumenical council whose true interpretation continues to be debated more than half a century after it closed. One point of contention is the Council's teaching on religious liberty.

In his 1864 encyclical "Quanta Cura", Pope Pius IX labelled as "erroneous" the opinion that the "liberty of conscience and of worship is the proper right of every man...[and that he is] not to be restrained by either ecclesiastical or civil authority". The Pope was speaking here about religious freedom 1) in regards to a person's relation to the Church and 2) in regards to a person's relation to the state.

The pope's refusal, in the first instance, to recognize the right of Catholics to dissent from the pope and separate from the Church was upheld at Vatican II in the "doctrinal" document Lumen Gentium (14) - a document that also retained the right of the Church to freely force the faithful (via penal sanctions) to submit to church teaching.

Some, like Fr.Matthias Gaudron (The Catechism of the Crisis in the Church) argue, however, that the pope's teaching on religious freedom in regards to a person's relation to the state, was reversed at Vatican II in the "pastoral" document "Dignitatis Humanae" which states: "all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether private or public, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits...This right of the human person to religious freedom is...based on the very dignity of the human person...and is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed. This is to become a civil right."

Those who justify this reversal consider the change instead an authentic organic development of church teaching. Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap. ( Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Jan, 2011) for example, argues, with reference to Dei Verbum (12) and Lumen Gentium (25), that official church teaching depends upon what the church intended by the teaching at the time of the teaching. He further points to the fact that Dignitatis Humanae is not a "doctrinal" document but rather a "pastoral" document capable of evolving depending upon the historical situation. The suggestion here is that the Church intended - or made allowances for - Pius IX's teaching to change depending on whether or not the Church was in a high enough position to exert her power and influence over both the state and the faithful. Thus, when the church is on top and holds all the cards - as was (in Father Scanlon's view) the case in many places in 1864 - religious freedom is banned. When She is on the bottom - as She is today in many places - then religious freedom is permitted and dialogue and ecumenism becomes the name of the game.

Fr.Matthias Gaudron argues, however, that if Christ's kingship, which precedes the state, is the source of earthly authority, and if the Church firmly believes in Natural Moral Law, then in what way can civil authority be permitted to allow false religions the natural right to freely flourish? There cannot be two standards as Vatican II seems to suggest but one. There is no moral freedom to do anything that is wrong, and consequently to adhere to any false religion. In times in which Catholics are in a minority the Church does not claim religious freedom for all religions, but simply for the Catholic religion. The forbidding of false religions in Catholic countries is not any different. They have no right to freedom or even to exist. Tolerance is purely a question of prudence, but not at all of right.

Fr.Matthias Gaudron justifies his view by appealing to Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Libertas (No. 21): "Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the state, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engraved upon it.". For Pope Leo XIII, liberty of conscience means the freedom to practice the one, true religion and not the many false religions (Encyclical Libertas No. 30). Fr.Matthias Gaudron also defers to Pope Pius X's statement: "That the State must be separated from the Church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error." (Encyclical " Vehementer Nos", No. 3).

If Fr. Scanlon's argument holds true, one has to wonder why Pope Pius IX did not make his original pronouncement on the relation of an individual to the state in regards to religious freedom a pastoral rather doctrinal statement? If they were certain of their convictions, why also did the Church Fathers at Vatican II not make their pronouncement on the relation of an individual to the state a doctrinal rather than pastoral statement? Some might say that if the church can change one doctrinal statement into a pastoral statement to suit the times why can't it change other doctrinal statements - even those forbidding contraception, homosexuality and abortion - to agree with the times. Moses did this - or some would say he made the same mistake - when he authorizing a decree of divorce for the people in contradiction of the law of Genesis. Jesus later corrected him.

"Dignitatis Humanae" does mention "due limits" circumscribing religious liberty. The problem, according to Fr Gaudron, is that the nature of those limits are not clearly stated. Fr Gaudron points out that In Paragraph 2 "due limits" involve "safeguarding public order". This would seem to mean that as long as a religious group is not a cover for terrorism, criminal networks, or some other infringement of the "rights of man", everything must be authorized. Paragraph 7, he claims, goes somewhat further speaking of "due limits" in terms of those legal principles which are in conformity with the "the objective moral order". In this case only the Catholic Church could enjoy unrestricted freedom of religion because She alone conserves, in full, the natural law (Islam accepts polygamy, Protestants allow divorce, some Anglican denominations accept homosexuality and the Episcopal Church supports abortion on demand.) Fr. Gaudron thus argues that paragraph 7 "obviously contradicts the rest of the text. For Vatican II, having set aside the obligations of strict natural law, the only restraining limit on religious freedom is public order...Even interpreted strictly, this limitation of religious liberty to the 'objective moral order' is inadequate because restricted to the natural order of things, thereby omitting the consideration of the supernatural order. Such a conception of religious liberty fails to recognize the social kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the supernatural rights of His Church, and the supernatural end of man in the common good of the political order."

"Dignitatis Humanae" speaks of religious liberty - no longer in terms of "tolerance" - but as a real, "public", "unrestrained", and "natural right". The unfortunate vagueness surrounding "due limits" makes one wonder exactly what aspects of religious freedom are permitted and why these things are harmless to public order and to - as the Catholic Catechism (1738) later added - "the common good"?

Did Dignitatis Humanae mean to allow religious freedom in things deemed "non-essential" to objective morality, public order, and the common good? If so, what are these non-essentials of which Vatican II remains silent? Might they be, for example, the right of Buddhists to worship a non-personal God or the right of New Age followers to worship the earth? Might it include the right of atheist, agnostic, and secular humanist groups to call their organizations religions as is happening in the U.S. with the advancement of atheist, agnostic, and secular humanist military "chaplaincies" for soldiers (CNA April 29, 2011). Can we be sure that such non-essentials do not adversely effect public order and the common good? To be sure, when one gives something a "right" (to exist) one confers on it a certain validity and force that is not given to that which is merely "tolerated". We know that in the wake of Dignitatis Humanae there has been a dechristianization of society with several former Catholic countries like Columbia, Italy and Spain changing their constitutions.

Could the lack of explicit clarification surrounding "due limits" not also be responsible for the seeds of doubt that have infected Catholic minds and institutions prompting Pope Paul VI, as early as 1972, to claim thatthe smoke of Satan had entered the church?

The Church's apparent lack of concern for non-essentials seems consistent with Vatican II 's overall pastoral vision that led, internally, to the creation of the New Mass with its many, so-called, "options". Cardinal George of Chicago once labeled these options "not of the essence of faith". Today, however, it is evident that this "liturgical relativism" did not unite Catholics but led to a mass proliferation of confusion and to a legion of abuses. Some practices, like that of receiving Holy Communion in the hand while standing, led to many Catholics losing their faith in the Real Presence. This is likely a major reason Pope Benedict XVI does not allow this "option" at his own pontifical Masses. The Pope has even criticized some of the theological elements in the New Mass. Are there really such things as non-essentials where faith is concerned? Common sense tells us that freedom in so-called "non essentials" quickly escalates to become freedom in things that are, in fact, essential to faith. Pope Benedict XVI recently stated something similar. He said that indifference toward God leads to indifference toward evil. The Gospel also notes that :"Anyone unjust in a slight matter is also unjust in greater"(Luke 16: 10).

Take, for another example, the purported "non-essential" use of altar boys combined with the absolute necessity of the Church retaining a Catholic priesthood. The Catholic Church speaks highly of using altar boys because the practice often leads to priestly vocations. Yet She now permits girls to serve on the altar - an almost exclusive practice today in most parishes - despite the fact that there is a vocational crisis. Is there not an inconsistency here? Can we really say that the practice of using altar girls is harmless?

Apart from various acts, the Catholic Catechism (2520) even goes so far as to condemn as being dangerous and harmful, erroneous "thoughts". The New Testament uses the Greek word "metanoia" to call us to a "change in the way of thinking". Pope John Paul II has also warned that heaven, hell, and purgatory do not represent places but are rather states or "conditions of existence" from which one might infer a close connection to one's willed mental state. Indeed Jesus admonishes us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind (Matt. 22:37).

If limits to religious freedom are to refer to the objective moral order and to the safeguarding of public order and the common good one should think they would more importantly have to refer to the root cause of the violation of the moral order and the common good i.e. to ideas as they are joined to the will. Weakened human nature can and does lead people to think and believe all kinds of false things about God. But can we truly say that one has a "natural right" to think and believe what they want to about God and his moral law - especially since God's law - a law that truly sets man free - is written on every human heart and can be known by reason alone? And what about people of various religions who, with hardened consciences, cannot be swayed to the truth of Christ? Do these people also have a "right" to mentally persist in their errors? If so, in what way can they be condemned or held culpable for their sins against objective morality?

As it stands "Dignitatis Humanae" shares somewhat similar fundamental underpinnings with various legal systems that have eliminated their "community standard of tolerance" for things like indecency, and replaced it with a "harm" criteria whereby "harm" is, in effect, virtually impossible to prove. In Canada, this opened the door to every kind of immorality from swingers clubs to homosexual marriage.

When these inconsistencies are applied to religious freedom for non-Catholics - the specifics of which "Dignitatis Humanae" does not elaborate - one can expect equally negative results to flourish both within the church (in regards to Her own identity) and throughout the secular world. Indeed, since Vatican II, the West has become a cesspool of moral relativism. The Middle East has become largely anti-Christian. Once the seeds of doubt - brought on by religious freedom - are implanted in the minds of people they are on their way to building their own worlds.

Th inconsistencies about how one should follow one's conscience seems to go hand in hand with the Church's post Vatican II decision to adopt, almost exclusively, Pope John XXIII's policy of the "medicine of mercy" in regards to church discipline. How can one enforce laws on people whose consciences are allowed to disagree?

Hence, what often passes today for true mercy is, in actual fact, nothing more than a false sense of compassion. We see this in the patronizing treatment widely given to liturgical abusers, dissenters and homosexuals. It is even more poignantly visible in the global sex abuse scandal and cover up that has even touched the Vatican. Today, as a result, we see laziness, widespread religious indifference and a "retreat and yield" mentality rampant among our Catholic laity and hierarchy. Today, nuns, priests and bishops, in no small numbers, are clamouring for abortion, homosexuality, women priests, married priests, contraceptives. liturgical changes etc.

After Vatican II, clergy and laity alike were swept away by what they perceive to be a new approach to freedom. They were confident their rebellion would go unpunished and uncorrected and they were right.

Proper church government , however, does not throw discipline to the wind and allow everyone - inside and outside the church - to do as they please. This is not mercy. Sometimes, discipline requires the strict exercise of authority in such a way that it limits freedom. Take for, example, the Catholic school teacher. Today, he is given free reign in most Catholic institutes to openly deny truths of faith - often by bishops who themselves support positions incompatible with Catholic faith and morals.

Prior to Vatican II, if a teacher insisted on attenuating and minimizing Catholic dogmas under the pretense of explaining them he would have either been forced to act differently (i.e. submit with childlike docility to the teachings of the church - even if he did not agree with them) or be fired from the Catholic institute at which he taught. The motivation here was mercy and charity not the use of tyrannical power.

The ultimatum was, first of all, for the good of the person being censored. It was intended primarily as a means of getting the person in grave error to recognize the depth of his error and repent. The ultimatum was also meant to guard the rest of the faithful from falling into the same error as the teacher. Strict authority, therefore is a practice that at certain times must be employed by bishops to guard the rest of their flock.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica (II-II, Q. 64, Art. 2, and 3) teaches that when a man sins he departs from the order of right reason and falls away from his human dignity thus losing his right to certain liberty.

Today, very few members of the clergy act on this belief or recognize its validity. They do not want to be perceived as priests or bishops who "force" or "coerce" people to follow the natural and divine laws. Hence, we see few exhortations from the clergy on the immorality of such practices as divorce, abortion, homosexuality, contraceptives and embryonic stem cell research. In Canada our bishops have gone so far as to release what has come to be known as the "Winnipeg Statement" which permits the faithful to use contraceptives in accordance with each persons own conscience. This has contributed to a generation of moral relativists and cafeteria Catholics.

In regards to politics we are witnessing a laicization of the State and an ever-widening dechristianization of society. Since the same rights are, in practice, now tacitly given to erroneous beliefs, the true faith is disappearing more and more. The whole Western world is, in fact, succumbing to silent apostasy. For the masses, objective truth no longer exists.

No longer facing opposition from pathologically irenic Churchmen who wish only to befriend it, Islam rises everywhere without impediment. It is rising most rapidly in France, whose government, crippled by its own rigid laicism, attempts ridiculous secular countermeasures, such as banning burkas on the grounds that they constitute illegal identity concealment, at the same time it relentlessly dismantles what is left of the moral order in that once most Catholic of nations.

Some statistics - especially those of the Pontifical Annuary - may seem to suggest that the crisis of faith is merely local. We often hear, for example, that ordinations in the Third World compensate for the decline in Western Countries. But this is illusory. The crisis is universal even if it does not appear everywhere in the same way. Poor countries, where the priesthood can represent social advancement, recruit new vocations relatively easy - but of what quality? Latin America, which passes for a bastion of Catholicism is in fact becoming Protestant at a more rapid pace than Germany did in the sixteenth century.

In recent years, religious indifference has given way to a certain autonomy and anti-authoritarianism. Religion has become, for the masses, something that exists in the subjective sphere where objective dogmatic contents do not binds us. Spirituality is little more than the individual affirming himself. As a result, there has been no Springtime of Evangelization promised by church optimists at Vatican II.

Prior to the Council, the church took under her wing the timid, the slaves of sin and those pressured by their passions. By way of counsels, commands and injunctions, she placed the weak of faith in situations whereby they could more easily discern and choose the truth. She knew that unlimited religious freedom, besides being inherently bad, opens the door to error to the great detriment of the rights of the weak and the ignorant. This is the mentality the Church needs to retrieve, without which the proliferation of moral relativism will continue unabated.

Common sense tells us that living according to ones own claims and criterions is a false recipe for life. The refusal of suffering and creatureliness, and a lack of the sense of being held to a standard, are ultimately the refusal of mankind. It is precisely in allowing himself to be pruned that Man is enabled to mature and bear good fruit.

Anyone taking a candid look at things today has to recognize that our society has descended into chaos. The situation will never really change until society once again recognizes Christ as its King and refuses to give free rein to error.

Dignitatis Humanae's policy on religious liberty seems of a piece with the old "Ostpolitik"- Pope Paul VI's controversial policy of accommodating Communist governments in an attempt to obtain better conditions for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain during the 1960s and 70s. This policy of compromise failed in Russia (as is evident from the fact that she was able to spread her communist-socialist errors throughout the world) just as it is failing today in China.

The church is called to evangelize and so it must try to work with the world's governments and with various peoples and those of different faiths. Nonetheless, Pope John Paul II reminds us that "In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth" (Ut Unum Sint 18). In the Gospel of Life (82) he further states: In the proclamation of this Gospel, we must not fear hostility or unpopularity, and we must refuse any compromise or ambiguity which might conform us to the world's way of thinking (cf. Rom 12:2).

The "fruits" of Vatican II and the fact that some like Fr. Scanlon and others like Fr Gaudron are still debating the issue of religious freedom nearly 50 years after Vatican II closed, indicates that, in the very least, "Dignitatis Humanae" invites confusion and dissent. It is a document that should be revisited immediately.

To alleviate some of the confusion it has caused it might be helpful for the Church to add a qualifier to the pastoral document in the form of an appendix or syllabus stating in practical terms, what aspects or beliefs of non-Catholic religions have a "right" to exist and why i.e. the syllabus should specifically detail the ways in which those beliefs and ideas do not - especially through their dissemination via the media, TV, movies, internet etc. - harm public order or the common good. More than helpful, this would seem a necessity, especially for the weak and least educated who are trying to build an informed conscience. Though this would no doubt be a daunting task at best, it is the duty of the Magisterium to enlighten consciences not confuse them with theories and principles that are difficult, if not impossible, to prove or disprove in their practical applications.

Paul Kokoski


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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov