Following my discussion with Aelianus in the com-box of a recent post, I am inclining toward the view that a more liberal reading of Dignitatis Humanae may perhaps be in harmony with tradition, having previously inclined to the view that the right mentioned in that conciliar declaration could only be claimed by those who belong to the true religion. Let us imagine a Catholic who is instructed in the Church’s teachings up to and including Dignitatis Humanae, and consider how he would govern a non-confessional and religiously diverse state. To avoid one complication, I suppose that there are no other Catholics in the state. It might look something like this:

It was the afternoon of September 26th, the feast of Blessed Paul VI, which as all the world knows is a high holiday on the Island of Eleutheria. Delegates from the island’s many religions had come to pay their respects to the new governor, Eusebius, and to ask him to guarantee their traditional freedoms. He received them graciously and allowed each delegate to address him in turn.

A man in bright, loose-fitting garments spoke first. “I represent the Hindus of Eleutheria”, he said, “and I ask your Excellency to guarantee us our freedom to worship in our temples and to hold processions in the street.”

“I’m afraid not, my friend. You are idolaters.”

Next came a man with a shaven head wearing a saffron robe. “I represent the Buddhists of our island. I too ask for full liberty for our religion.”

“What religion?”, said the governor. “You are atheists. Next.”

A bearded man with a white cap then spoke. “I am a Muslim, and I claim the right for my people to build mosques; and the right for all Muslims working in the government to have their own prayer-rooms and washrooms. Also for our food to be prepared in separate kitchens. Also such other inviolable requirements of our religion as may occur to me in the future.”

“I’m afraid history shows to an unprejudiced observer that your religion is intrinsically violent and incapable of respecting the rights of others. So I can’t grant your requests. Also, I suspect some of you at least of worshipping an imaginary being. Next please.”

There was a slight pause. The remaining delegates seemed to be attempting to ascertain the order of precedence among themselves. Finally a tall man in a beautifully-tailored cassock came to the front of the group and addressed the governor in a friendly manner. “Excellency, on behalf of the Anglicans of Eleutheria, or rather, on behalf of all the inhabitants, I’m delighted to welcome you to our island. As you know, I am the Archbishop and Primate of the Church here. I must say I’m very much looking forward to our working together. This is my wife, Penelope. You must come to our palace for cocktails some time soon. Do you know, I think you’ll be the first Romanist we’ve ever had here as governor. I’m afraid it would have been very difficult in the past, but all that’s changed now, of course, what with Dignitatis Humanae and aggiornamento.” He pronounced the last word in a fine Italian accent.

Eusebius looked at him sternly. “You are a doubtfully baptized layman”, he said. “If the pope sends the Swiss guards here to arrest you for heresy I shall give him my full co-operation. Meanwhile, you may continue to gather in your conventicles, provided that they do not excel other public buildings in size and splendour, lest you use your wealth to attract the pagans. However, if I hear that you are promoting unnatural vice, you will of course not escape the rigour of the law.”

The Primate of all Eleutheria turned on his heel angrily. “Come, Penelope”, he said. “I told you that the Papists could never change their spots.”

A man with a fine beard and a pectoral cross spoke next in a deep voice. “I am the patriarch of the autocephalous and apostolic patriarchate of Eleutheropolis”, he announced. “My people have celebrated the divine liturgy here without interruption, ever since the island was evangelised by the the holy bean-eating brothers of Phrygia in the 2nd century.”

“I am honoured to make your Beatitude’s acquaintance”, the governor replied. “But I’m afraid that what I told our friend here about the Swiss guards would apply to you as well. Still, as far as I’m concerned you can carry on as you are, and please pray for the needs of the island when you celebrate the liturgy.” Then looking at the patriarch more closely, he exclaimed: “Just a moment, I know you, don’t I? You’re Paddy O’Brien, surely? Good heavens – we were at school together. When on earth did you become a schismatic?”

“It is true”, the other replied, “that I was formerly in communion with the western patriarch. But when I began the study of the history of the Church and discovered how grievously he had violated the holy canons of the first ecumenical council by allowing his subjects to kneel during Paschal time, it became impossible for me to remain under that yoke.”

“In that case”, said Eusebius, “you lose your right to religious freedom. You were properly taught, so you violated your conscience by going into schism. The apostolic patriarchate will have to choose another head for itself, that’s all. Right, is there anyone else?”

A short man in dazzling robes came to the front of the group. “I am a worshipper of the Great Thumb. In the name, then, of Dignitatis Humanae, I claim the right to – ”

“You must be joking”, interrupted the governor.

“Not at all. After all, His late Holiness John Paul II invited us to come to pray at Assi – ”

“Yes, yes”, said Eusebius hastily. “John Paul II was a fine man. But he isn’t the governor of Eleutheria. I am. You get nothing.”

A group of animists looked at each other moodily but did not speak. Then a man in a turban who had hitherto remained silent addressed the governor. “Your Excellency, I request religious liberty for the Sikhs of this island.”

Eusebius paused. “Hmmm. Well, I don’t know any evil of your people. But then I don’t know very much about you at all.”

A younger Sikh broke in enthusiastically: “Think of us as like Protestant Hindus.” His co-religionist discreetly kicked him. “Quiet”, he hissed, “that is not the way to win his Excellency’s favour.” Then turning back to the governor the older man continued: “We believe in one eternal God who created all things, who rules over and sustains them all. We seek union with Him through prayer and an honest life, avoiding empty rituals and serving our country.”

“Hmmm. Well, it sounds alright. Subject to further instructions, you can have your meeting places provided they’re not too big. And don’t call them temples, as that sounds too much like the Hindus. Also, if you publish any books teaching reincarnation, they will be burned.”

The Sikh bowed his acceptance of these terms and stood aside. A deep silence reigned for some minutes in the room. Finally an elderly man with a placid smile addressed the governor. “Your Excellency, I am a Quaker.” “And what do you people do?” “Mostly nothing. We sit in silence for long periods of time. May we carry on?” “By all means”, said the governor, becoming almost genial for the first time, “You have every right not to be prevented by me from doing nothing.”

A renewed silence followed these last words. “Well, gentlemen”, said His Excellency. “Thank you all for coming. I think I have been pretty liberal, but then of course this is not a confessional state. If I were governing a Catholic state then I should have to be more strict. My secretary will show you out. Please accept one of these miraculous medals, with my compliments.”

They all left the room. The governor sat back in his chair with his hands in his pockets, in the contented manner of one who has truly and indifferently administered justice. “God bless Eleutheria”, he murmured to himself, “let freedom ring.”