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Religious Liberty and Development of Doctrine
An Interview With John C. Murray

Edward Gaffey

Father John Courtney Murray began writing his controversial articles on the theology of church and state in 1945. Then, beginning with the third session of the Council, he assisted in the preparation of the conciliar statement on religious liberty which was finally promulgated by Pope Paul on Dec. 7, 1965.

Father Edward Gaffney of the archdiocese of San Francisco, who interviewed Father Murray for The Catholic World, Mended the Council sessions as a translator for special guests of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity. For text and commentary on the Declaration, the editors of The Catholic World recommend the edition recently published by the Paulist Press (Harristown Rd., Glen Rock, N.J.)


There was bitter disappointment over the decision of the Council Presidents to withhold a preliminary vote of approval on the text of the "Declaration on Religions Freedom" in the final week of the third session. Now that we have the final text, do you think in retrospect that this unpopular delay was actually beneficial in any way?


Well, I think that due to this delay we have a clearer and stronger text. It also helped very much to muster in the Council a clearer and stronger consensus on the issue of religious freedom, which was powerfully expressed when the first preliminary vote was finally taken on September 21, 1965. At that time there were only 224 negative votes cast, and I am fairly certain that that number would have been greater a year previous. The delay was, then, an important thing; we can even say now that it was a providential thing. Nothing has been really lost; everything has been gained.


One of the great issues behind this document, and indeed behind the work of the Council as a whole, was the issue of the development of doctrine. This issue was tackled head on in the famous relatio of Bishop de Smedt on November 17, 1963. Could you perhaps go over some of the ground covered in that speech and explain how the Church moved from the 19th-century position as epitomized in the Syllabus of Errors to her present position as set forth in Pope John's encyclical "Pacem in Terris" and clarified in the Council's "Declaration on Religious Freedom?"


That is a complicated question; its answer, I think, is not yet entirely dear. In his final relatio on the document, Bishops de Smedt, himself, stated that this issue is a task remaining for the theologians after the Council. No development of doctrine can be understood until the term of the development has been reached.

Briefly the essential point is that a change in the state of the question took place. In the 19th century, the Church confronted a very determinate and determined adversary, continental "laicism," which was the protagonist of what it called in those days "liberty of cult." The unfortunate thing was that this movement was based, on the one hand, on the theory of the absolute autonomy of the individual conscience and, on the other hand, on the concept of the state as juridically omnipotent and as merely granting religious freedom to its citizens. Against this unacceptable position, the Church reacted vigorously and fashioned a position which, though wrought in the heat of polemics and therefore liable to exaggeration, became the commonly received or accepted opinion within the Church. Fortunately, however, the state of the question is entirely different nowadays. The position now taken by the Church is a positive, constructive position based simply on truth rather than on any argument of a merely polemical nature. That truth has been a part of the Catholic position from the beginning, namely the truth of the dignity of the human person. The concrete demands of this tru in the political order were wrought out the course of time only under the educative influence of centuries of experience but the fundamental truth of man's duty was always there. Liberated from narrowness of an earlier polemical positi the Church was in our times able to work out a more positive philosophical and theological position in which the dignity the human person has emerged m clearly and centrally.

It would be too lengthy a task to d scribe the development fully, but it had i beginning in Leo XIII, whose dominan conception of government was largely paternal; that is to say, the ruler was view as pater patriae, the "father of the fath land," who was obliged to know what true and good, and who had princel fatherly power to protect the formless "illiterate masses" against religious error! and moral aberration since they were helpless to protect themselves, notably against the "sects" which were busy propagating errors. The only attitude, then, that the ruler could logically- take toward such religious error and moral evil was one of mere tolerance, practiced of necessity for the sake of a higher good, namely the peace of the community. In short, Leo XII's theory of civil tolerance was very much conditioned by the social position and historical context in which it was framed.

The Christmas discourses of Pius MI in 1941, 1942, and 1944 represent a purer statement of Catholic doctrine than Leo XII's theory because Pius XII's conception of government is simply political rather than paternal. Pius XII represents a re turn to the genuine tradition of "the people," a structured concept at whose roots stands "the citizen," who is conscious of his own personal dignity, of his own rights and duties, and of his own freedom and who is respectful of the freedom and dignity of others. Then we have the magnificent encyclicals of Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, which drew the main lines of their political theory from the addresses of Pius XII which I just mentioned. Finally, as the linear heir of this development, we have the Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom, which carries the doctrine of John XXIII just one step further along the path of gradual clarification of the Church's teaching on the dignity of the human person and his consequent right to religious freedom.


This issue of historical development was deemed so important by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity that the draft presented at the end of the third session of the Council included a whole paragraph or section concerning the "historical question." Just why was such an explicit treatment of the historical background of religious freedom felt necessary at that time and then later dropped from the text?


It was felt, at the time, that the historical question, which in previous drafts had been treated only in a footnote, *was so important it ought to find place somehow within the text itself. The effort, therefore, was made to write a paragraph dealing with this question much along the lines I just described. The reaction of the fathers, however, was quite negative and adverse. They felt, and quite rightly, that the. paragraph as it stood was much too simple; that it dealt only with the nineteenth century and not with the longer story of the issue; and that, even in ling with the 19th century, it was a unilateral — as if the fault had been tirely on the part of continental laicism d as if there had been no fault on the

part of the Church. Historians today would probably agree that the Church was too slow in recognizing the positive values that lay behind the great movement toward political and later socio-economic freedom that was characteristic of the 19th cettury. Hence for these reasons, submitted by the Fathers, the paragraph in question was dropped in ensuing revisions of the document.


This question may be rather basic and fundamental, but could you please clarify the meaning of the very term "religious freedom" as it is used in the Council's Declaration, and could you clarify a bit further the basis of this freedom?


Well, the concept itself has two aspects. Fundamentally, religious freedom is a freedom from something; it is an immunity from coercion. But such coercion can be of two kinds: a man can be forced to act against his own beliefs, or he can somehow be forcibly denied the practice of his own beliefs or the free exercise of those beliefs. The basis or foundation of religious freedom is simply the dignity of the human person: not the subjective state of the individual conscience, mind you, but the objective truth of the human person's dignity. In particular, this objective truth of the dignity of the human person demands that, especially in religious matters, a man should act upon his own judgment with responsible freedom, not under coercion but out of a sense of his own personal conviction with regard to his own duty. This is the 'basic foundation of the doctrine set forth in this Declaration.

During the conciliar debate on religious freedom, some Council fathers repeatedly suggested that the document opens up the Church to epistemological relativism and religious indifferentism. What was the reply of the Secretariat to these kinds of objections, if any?


Well to be quite frank, I think that these objections were based upon a failure to examine the document very closely. Put it this way: the document always granted that the Roman Catholic Church and all other Churches have an equal footing in human society. Thus neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the individual Catholic nor the other Churches nor their members are to be subjected to coercion in religious matters. Technically speaking, therefore, the object of the right is the same in both cases. There is a complete reciprocity. The Church claims nothing for herself that she does not also claim for others. However, the foundation for this claim can be distinguished. Thus the Church claims immunity from coercion on grounds of its divine mandate received from Christ himself: "Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to ail creatures" (Mark 16, 16). On the other hand. the Church asserts the right of other individuals and of other religious Communities to religious freedom on the grounds of the dignity of the human person. The claim to religious freedom is made on behalf of all men equally. But the grounds for this claim are, in Catholic conviction, different. Hence, the charge of religious indifferentism is completely invalid.


Well if there had been any doubt on the matter, the final text surely seems to have removed it with a rather strong statement on "the moral duty Hof men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ" (n. 1). Father Murray, why was this statement, which was added only in the final draft of the document, considered necessary?


This was considered necessary because many of the Council fathers felt that the earlier versions of the text had not sufficiently distinguished between the moral order and the juridical order; and they felt that some explicit treatment of this was in order lest religious freedom become a pretext for moral anarchy. Quitely, man's life is lived in two different dimensions of reality. First of all, there is the relation between the people and government and between individuals in society. This is the order of human rights and the order in which the principle of freedom obtains in its full validity. There is, however, another order of human life in which man confronts not simply other men but the truth and the whole moral order. Now in this order man acts freely, but under certain imperatives which bind in conscience. In the face of truth itself, no man can assert a "right," nor can het claim "freedom" from the moral order and its imperatives. In the face of objective truth, man's duty is to accept it. Similarly in the face of moral good man's duty is to conform his life to its demands.

In other words, in the face of what is true and good, no man can claim to be completely free; he is obliged to accept, the truth and to do what is right and good. It was to make this distinction clear that this paragraph was introduced into the final text; but it is important to note that this affirmation is couched in Catholic theological terms. Truth for the Catholic is not a vague abstraction, but is concretely the revelation of Jesus Christ. Indeed the Declaration further asserts the Catholic conviction that "the one true religion subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus entrusted the task of spreading this religion among all men" (n.1).

This frank, unabashed profession of Catholic faith is by no means intended as "unecumenical" or as a contradiction of the principle of religious freedom. For neither the spirit of ecumenism nor the principle of religious freedom requires that we cover over what we honestly believe the Church to be. Furthermore, I think that all men of religious conviction of conscience would necessarily admit the fundamental distinction between the moral and the juridical orders; and then they can go on to express it in their own theological terms as this Declaration expresses it in Catholic theological terms.


In the light of your own reflection and writing on the American political experience, would you discuss the political theory of government that is at least Implied in this Declaration?


I think that essentially what you find in the document is what I would call the essence of the liberal tradition of the West. It is the tradition of a free man in a free society. It is the theory of what we would call "constitutional government," that is to say, a regime composed of organs and offices whose powers are defined and limited by a written constitution, a fundamental law that somehow incorporates a bill of rights and directs and controls all

 the tradition of the United States the processes of government. Thus the political tradition that the Declaration af- ,firms is the political tradition within which , the American commonwealth came into being and in which our Constitution and the First Amendment took shape. It is an important endorsement, therefore, of the Anglo-Saxon political tradition which is as well because religion is a social phenom-


There is a section of the Declaration Which treats of the religious freedom of communities as well (n. 4). What exactly is the import of this section?


That section is supposed to be a charter of freedom first of all for the Catholic Church in the face of all manner of goverrnment and every manner of society. But it is obviously intended to be a charter of freedom for other religious Communities

enon. The human person is not an isolated individual but lives .in society.. Therefore, it wouldn't make sense to speak of some individual right to religious freedom that has no social or communitarian dimension. Hence, the Declaration is on sound theoretical grounds when it enlarges upon the right of the human person to religious freedom and extends this right to groups of persons, affirming that this right .is the legitimate endowment of the. Catholic Church and of other religious Communities.


Paragraph 7 of the Declaration deals with the limits of religious freedom which are consequent on its• public exercise in society. The Declaration states that civil society has the right to restrict the public exercise of religious freedom in order to safeguard the rights of all its citizens, to protect public peace and harmony and justice, and to be a guardian of public morality. It then states: "These things are basic to the common welfare; they are what is meant by public order." The two operative terms in this delicate area of the limits' on religious freedom seem to be "common welfare" and "public order." Would you please explain the precise meaning of these terms?


The common good or common welfare is, of course, a much broader and more extensive concept than the public order. The problem is really quite simple. What is at stake here is a human and civil right which is exercised in society. The Declaration states explicitly that in society there is to be as much freedom as possible and only as much restriction as is necessary. In any question of governmental or legal restrictions on religious freedom, the criteria that would govern and control such restrictions would have to be very narrow. Therefore, the notion of the common good would not be an adequate criterion in itself because it is a notion that is much too broad.

The essential notion of the common good consists in the respect for and the free exercise of the rights of the human person. This notion, then, could hardly serve as the criterion for the limitation or restriction of the exercise of a human and civil right. Hence, the notion of the public order was adopted. This is a notion well known in constitutional law and constitutional history. Sometimes, however, the meaning of this notion is not always clear. So the Declaration undertakes to make the meaning clear by showing that public order consists of three things. First of all, public order requires that the equal rights of all citizens should be respected, and if a conflict of rights occurs it must be resolved peacefully. Secondly, public order requires some adequate defense of public morality; such public morality is to be conceived of according to the normal standards that are accepted in the given society. Thirdly, public order is a political order and, therefore, the order of peace, the peace which is the work of justice, the peace which results when men live together in equal justice and have at their disposal adequate means of ironing out grievances and conflicts which may arise. This precise formulation of the meaning of public order may prove to be a really significant contribution to the science of international law.


The second section of the Declaration is entitled "Religious Freedom in the Light of Revelation." Does this mean or even imply that the Council wishes to establish here some sort of scriptural "proof" of our modern notion of religious freedom, which is described in the subtitle of the document as "the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in religious matters"?


It is not at all a question of establishing here a strict "proof." This latter section of the document is quite necessary, but it by no means a strict demonstration. Declaration takes its stand on the notion of the dignity of the human person. This notion is, of course, known through hu man reason, but it is also known throu revelation, where man is clearly proclaimed to have been created in the "image of God"; that is to say, man is a creature of intelligence and free will called upon to have dominion over his own actions and to be the one who directs the course of his own life.

Therefore, the main proposition of the Declaration is simply this: the rational doctrine on religious freedom has been wrought out over the centuries by reason acting in the light of experience, and this doctrine has certain roots in revelation as well, inasmuch as revelation proclaims the dignity of man and shows the respect which God, especially in Christ, shows for the freedom of man, even with regard to man's response to him in faith. Indeed, the freedom of the act of faith should itself establish a sort of climate of freedom in a fully Christian society.


It has often been said that the most significant contribution to Vatican II made by the bishops of North America was in their clear support of this Declaration. Do you think this is an accurate statement?


First of all, I think that it is entirely clear from the history of the document that had it not been for the emphatic insistence of the American bishops acting in concert, the document would not have come to such a successful conclusion as it did. Secondly, I would gather that the American bishops stood solidly behind the document out of genuine conviction rather than for merely practical reasons. They stood behind the document because they understood the meaning of the document. Perhaps due to the simple fact that these men grew up in the context of the American political experience, they were able to perceive the meaning of this document more readily and more clearly than many bishops from other parts of the world. Nonetheless, their support of this document is no small tribute to their theoretical intuition of the validity of the doctrine proposed in the Declaration.

Finally, the stand of the North American hierarchy—I mean the bishops of Canada as well as our own—was known throughout the Council, and I think that this fact did exercise a great influence upon the rest of the Council fathers, who ultimately rallied around the Declaration in overwhelming support. Therefore, the stance of the American and Canadian bishops was indeed a significant contribution to the work of the Council.


The whole issue of religious freedom has long been regarded as a sort of test of good faith in our stance toward the separated brethren. Would you comment, then, on the ecumenical significance of this Declaration, and state how you think it will affect ecumenical relations in America?


The document does have and will have an important effect on the relation between the Catholic Church and the other Christian Communities in America. I think that this Declaration will help to dissipate suspicion and hostility. It will furnish a platform on which the Roman Catholic Church—perhaps through the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity—will be able to work with other Christian Communities (perhaps through the World Council of Churches) in validating this document throughout the world. I am confident that this Declaration will have the effect of solidifying the happy, friendly relationships that have already been established in other more directly doctrinal areas.