Libraries & Spaces
ON NOVEMBER 19, 1963, the first schema (draft text) on religious freedom was presented to the conciliar Fathers by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. In the course of two years, five corrected versions of the text appeared in print, each being the work of many revisions within the secretariat. Three public debates were held in the Aula, during which some one hundred and twenty speeches were made. Some six hundred written interventions were sent to the secretariat, many of them signed by groups of bishops. Moreover, critiques of the successive schemas were made, either orally or in writing, by a considerable number of bishops and theologians who were consulted by the secretariat. Also consulted were a number of the observers at the Council. Before the final vote was taken, more than two thousand modi (suggested corrections) were considered (many of them, of course, were identical).
Thus, the greatest argument on religious freedom in all history happily broke forth in the Church. The debate was full and free and vigorous, if at times confused and emotional. Out of it came the sixth and final text, here presented.
The first text had appeared as Chapter V of the Decree on Ecumenism. The second text had appeared as a Declaration, but in an appendix to the Decree on Ecumenism. With the third text the Declaration assumed independent status. From the outset, its intention was pastoral, as was the general intention of the Council in all its utterances. This, however, does not mean that the Declaration contains simply practical advice. Its content is properly doctrinal. In particular, three doctrinal tenets are declared: the ethical doctrine
of religious freedom as a human right (personal and collective); a political doctrine with regard to the functions and limits of government in matters religious; and the theological doctrine of the freedom of the Church as the fundamental principle in what concerns the relations between the Church and the socio-political order.
It can hardly be maintained that the. Declaration is a milestone in human history—moral, political, or intellectual. The principle of religious freedom has long been recognized in constitutional law, to the point where even Marxist-Leninist political ideology is obliged to pay lip-service to it. In all honesty it must be admitted that the Church is late in acknowledging the validity of the principle.
In any event, the document is a significant event in the history of the Church. It was, of course, the most controversial document of the whole Council, largely because it raised with sharp emphasis the issue that lay continually below the surface of all the conciliar debates—the issue of the development of doctrine. The notion of development, not the notion of religious freedom, was the real sticking-point for many of those who opposed the Declaration even to the end. The course of the development between the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and Dignitatis Humanae Personae* (1965) still remains to be explained by theologians. But the Council formally sanctioned the validity of the development itself; and this was a doctrinal event of high importance for theological thought in many other areas.
Moreover, taken in conjunction with the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Declaration opens a new era in the relations between the People of God and the People Temporal. A long-standing ambiguity has finally been cleared up. The Church does not deal with the secular order in terms of a double standard—freedom for the Church when Catholics are a minority, privilege for the Church and intolerance for others when Catholics are a majority. The Declaration has opened the way toward new confidence in ecumenical relationships, and a new straightforwardness in relationships between the Church and the world.
Finally, though the Declaration deals only with the minor issue of religious freedom in the technical secular sense, it
*These are the opening words, in Latin, of the Declaration on Religious Freedom. The opening words of conciliar documents may be cited as titles (usually with each word capitalized, according to the practice for papal encyclicals), but the more common title is the one that heads the document.—Ed.
does affirm a principle of wider import—that the dignity of man consists in his responsible use of freedom. Some of the conciliar Fathers—not least those opposed to the Declaration—perceived that a certain indivisibility attaches to the notion of freedom. The word and the thing have wrought wonders in the modern world; they have also wrought havoc. The conciliar affirmation of the principle of freedom was narrowly limited—in the text. But the text itself was flung into a pool whose shores are wide as the universal Church. The ripples will run far.
Inevitably, a second great argument will be set afoot—now on the theological meaning of Christian freedom. The children of God, who receive this freedom as a gift from their Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit, assert it within the Church as well as within the world, always for the sake of the world and the Church. The issues are many—the dignity of the Christian, the foundations of Christian freedom, its object or content, its limits and their criterion, the measure of its responsible use, its relation to the legitimate reaches of authority and to the saving counsels of prudence, the perils that lurk in it, and the forms of corruption to which it is prone. All these issues must be considered in a spirit of sober and informed reflection.
The issue of religious freedom was in itself minor. But Pope Paul VI was looking deep and far when he called the Declaration on Religious Freedom "one of the major texts of the Council."
John Courtney Murray, S.J.