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.”

I recently heard some lectures on religious liberty aimed at showing that there was no contradiction between the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae and earlier magisterial documents. They were learned and plausible. But they seemed to me to have a defect. They appeared to assume that it would be enough to demonstrate the absence of any such formal contradiction, in order to affirm that Dignitatis Humanae, taken to be declaring a right not previously taught by the Church, was a legitimate “development of doctrine”.

But such absence of contradiction is not enough. If I were to say, for example, that it is more virtuous to sit on the epistle side of church than on the gospel side, or more important for an island nation to have a good army than a good navy, then neither of these statements would contradict earlier magisterial teaching, as far as I know. Yet neither of them could therefore become objects of later magisterial teaching. Why not? Because they are not part of the revealed deposit that was complete with the death of the last apostle.

Since the revealed deposit cannot grow, development of doctrine can only mean expressing more clearly something which was found really, but less clearly, in the earlier tradition of the Church. One has to imagine someone at an earlier stage in the Church hearing the later formulation, for example St Ignatius of Antioch reading the Tome of Leo. If the earlier person would have said, “Yes, that’s just what I meant, only I never put it so well”, then we have a legitimate development. But if the earlier person would have said, “Well, I never heard anything like that before”, or “what on earth are you talking about?”, then it is no legitimate development, even if it is not in contradiction with what came before, and even if it is true.

Those who want to want to maintain that the earlier and later teachings on Church and State are both true and both authentic magisterial teachings, but that the later teaching is nevertheless importantly new, are faced with a problem. If it is new, how can it be the object of a magisterium whose sole duty is to expound the revealed deposit given once for all to the saints? They sometimes seek to resolve this problem by appealing to the notion of human dignity. The thought seems to be this. “Human dignity is part of the revealed deposit, and has always been upheld by the Church. In more recent times, the Church has become more conscious of the demands of human dignity. So at Vatican II she was able for the first time to teach the right to religious liberty. So the teaching is new, but we do not thereby fall into the error of continuing revelation, since the notion of human dignity, from which the teaching comes, was there from the beginning.”

There are two problems with this. First, there is the rule-of-thumb already mentioned. If the Fathers of the Church would have said “I never heard anything like that before”, then it is not a legitimate development. But if Vatican II was saying, as many people think, that pagans and heretics have a God-given right to be allowed to meet together for their worship and to be allowed to encourage others to join them, albeit a right that in some cases may be trumped by other rights, then I think the Fathers of the Church might well have said “where on earth do you get that idea from?” At least I know of nothing in them to think that they would have said, “yes, that’s just what I think, but I had never expressed it so clearly.”

Secondly, how, precisely, are we supposed to go from the notion of “human dignity” to the notion of religious liberty just outlined? Human beings have three modi sciendi, as far as I know: that is, three ways of going from less clear to more clear knowledge. These are traditionally called definition, division (e.g. triangles are isosceles, scalene or equilateral) and inference. Which one of these three is employed in going from “human dignity” to “right to religious liberty”? Is this right a part of the definition of human dignity? But people have had a concept of human dignity for centuries without grasping it by means of this right; and people today can still have the concept without accepting the right; so it does not look like part of the definition of an idea that was already generally accepted as belonging the revealed deposit. Again, “division” seems to have no place here. In what sense would one divide the notion of “human dignity” into “the right to religious liberty”, and what would the other members of the division be?

That leaves only the last modus sciendi, inference. Inference is either induction or deduction. But induction belongs to the world of experimental, empirical science, which is out of place here. So it must be deduction. But in that case, what are the two premises, certainly contained in the deposit of faith, from which the right to religious liberty is deduced?

It seems in reality as if the proponents of this kind of development of doctrine are imagining a kind of angelic intuition, whereby one would contemplate an essence (“human dignity”) and behold in it a property (“right to religious liberty”). But that is not given to mortals to do.


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Pretty good stuff. The jurisdiction of the college of Bishops over the universal church is extraordinary. Jews and Muslims do not have supernatural faith. The state must recognise and worship the One True God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. False religions may only be tolerated. We should seek a Catholic state… (I’m not sure about the bit at the end about the rights of the majority being the basis for the civil position of the Church).

There is a good article on this subject in the Spring edition of Sedes Sapientiae by Bernard Lucien, a priest and theologian of the archdiocese of Vaduz (Sedes Sapientiae is the journal of the Fraternity of St Vincent Ferrer.) Fr Lucien distinguishes three ways in which the teaching authority either of the Pope or of the body of bishops with the Pope may be engaged:-

1. Full engagement. This means that a doctrine is taught directly or per seand as bound up with revelation (either directly revealed or as in some other way necessarily linked to what is revealed). Such teaching is infallible and so must be definitively accepted.

2. Partial but authoritative engagement (‘merely authentic’). Again this means that a doctrine is taught directly or per se, but here no link with revelation is explicitly affirmed. This is what calls for ‘religious assent’, even though the possibility of error is not absolutely excluded.

3. Merely pedagogical and not authoritative engagement. This is found when a doctrine is not taught directly and per se, but is presented by way of introduction, explanation, argument, illustration or inference with regard to what is being taught directly. The author considers that this 3rd category, which he reckons is present to a large extent in Vatican II, has, as its proper response, ‘careful attention’ (l’attention docile) rather than adhesion of the mind as such.

The distinction between 2 and 3 seems to me useful, and not often made.

So with regard to Vatican II, he argues:

A. The faithful must begin by a ‘global adhesion’ to the council, which, however, does not mean begin by accepting it all as unquestionable, but rather accepting it all as an act of the supreme magisterium (against certain SSPX views which hold that John XXIII and Paul VI showed in certain remarks that they didn’t wish to exercise the magisterium), in such a way that the reception of individual points must depend on the mode of magisterial engagement at that point.

B. Statement such as ‘Vatican II was infallible’ or ‘Vatican II was not infallible’ or ‘Dignitatis Humanae [say] was, or was not, infallible’ are misguided. It is not the council as a whole or documents as a whole which should be qualified in this way, but particular statements of doctrine within each document, judged according to the criteria 1-3 mentioned above.

C. Vatican II should be held to be teaching infallibly whenever it directly teaches a doctrine and presents it as revealed or linked to revelation. Otherwise the Church would fail in its God-given task of keeping revealed truth undistorted.  The author considers that the central affirmation of Dignitatis Humanae – whatever it is! – is thus infallibly taught.

D. Vatican II teaches in a non-infallible way when it affirms a doctrine but does not affirm that this doctrine is revealed or linked to revelation. The author considers that the sacramental nature of the episcopacy is an example of such a teaching. This of course raises the question that Aelianus raised recently, of what the point is of such teaching.

E. Vatican II makes statements that do not as such require the assent of the faithful but rather their respectful attention. The author suggests that the ‘personalist’ philosophy by which the central affirmation of Dignitatis Humanae is supported may be an example.

In disentangling the question of religious liberty it seems useful to distinguish four typical cases of coercion:-

(1) Coercion by the spiritual power of the baptised

(2) Coercion by the spiritual power of the unbaptised

(3) Coercion by the temporal power of the baptised

(4) Coercion by the temporal power of the unbaptised

It is a matter of faith that (1) is licit. According to the 14th Canon of Trent on baptism, the baptised can be coerced to a Christian life by certain penalties, other than by simple refusal of the sacraments. The present Code of Canon Law allows for certain people to be deprived of their jobs or confined within a monastery as a punishment for heresy. In a Catholic society, the bishop could call on the civil power to help enforce such penalties. That would, however, still be an example of coercion (1) in my schema, since I am considering who the prime mover is in the coercion.

(2) is generally illicit, since the unbaptised are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Church. Nor can she ask the civil power e.g. to freeze the bank accounts of Muslims so that they will be induced to convert. However St Thomas believes that the Church has the radical power to deprive independent pagan rulers of their jurisdiction over the faithful (IIa IIae 10,10), only she doesn’t use it, so as to avoid scandal. He says that the Church has the radical power to do this, ‘having the authority of God’, and pagan rulers have merited  – since they would not even be negative infidels without some mortal sin – to lose their dominion. I am not quite sure how this fits with the idea of baptism as what gives the Church jurisdiction over people. Perhaps one could say that she would not be exercising her own jurisdiction, but being a pure instrument of God’s jurisdiction. In any case, it is purely hypothetical, as St Thomas explains, never being done ‘so as not to scandalise them’.

(3) appears to be illicit in the sense that the civil power cannot legitimately impose penalties for heresy, schism and apostasy except at the will, implicit or explicit of the ecclesiastical power. From the very fact that the spiritual power is higher than the temporal power, the latter must yield to the former when they deal with the same subject-matter.

(4) is perhaps the most controversial point. St Thomas teaches (IIa IIae 10,11), in words that are used by Leo XIII for discussing the same subject, that the rites of pagans (the Jews are a special case) are per se to be suppressed because they are sinful, except when this would lead to some greater evil or prevent some greater good. But from whom is the initiative to come, ecclesiastics or politicians? Since the pagans would be under the jurisdiction of the latter, it would seem to come from them. The civil ruler is the one who has the charge of the temporal common good, and so it seems to be he who must decide, e.g. if a small group of Muslims who have taken refuge in his Catholic country after a civil war back home should be allowed a mosque or not. The question then arises of how a refusal by the civil ruler of the Muslims’ request would square with Dignitatis Humanae. I think it can do if you take into account the clause about ‘public morality’ in DH as a reason to limit religious liberty. In the actual order of providence, every non-Catholic cultus tends to weaken the clarity with which the average citizen, not specially firm in the faith, grasps the truth of the Catholic Church as the one ark of salvation; which surely is a ‘moral’ truth, and therefore a matter of public morality. Only, unlike the case with (1), the civil rulers here cannot aim at coercing the beliefs of the pagans, since, as DH teaches, no merely human power has jurisdiction over the conscience as such.