Religious Liberty and Tradition I

This is the first of four parts of an essay on the interpretation of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty. A printable version of the whole essay can be found here.[1]


Of all the documents of the Second Vatican Council the one that has most determined the official relations of the post-conciliar Church with the world is the Declaration on Religious Liberty Dignitatis Humanæ. The official diplomacy of the Holy See in the decades since Vatican II has largely been concerned with the defense of religious liberty. In the years immediately following the Council the defense was mounted against atheistic communism in Central Europe, and later it was taken up against militant Islam in the Near East, and “the dictatorship of relativism” in the West.

Moreover, no other document marks the transition between the “pre-conciliar” and the “post-conciliar” Church more than Dignitatis Humanæ. For while the post-conciliar Church presents herself as the passionate defender of religious liberty, the pre-conciliar Church of the “Pian Age” (1789-1962) seemed to be the implacable enemy of such liberty. A chief concern of Vatican II was to overcome the antagonism between the Church and modernity, an antagonism symbolized at the dawn of modernity by the Galileo affair, and which had taken violent political form in the French Revolution. Instead of merely condemning the errors of modern liberalism, Vatican II wished to uncover the positive elements and authentic human concerns expressed therein. The Council wanted to show how the Church could make these positive elements her own, purifying and elevating them through the influence of grace.[2] Religious liberty was seen as a key point in this transition, because freedom of conscience and therefore of religion was an important concern of the Enlightenment and of the bourgeois liberalism of the 19th century, and the opposition of the 19th century popes to this freedom was one of the sources of liberal anti-clericalism. [3]

The change in the Church’s attitude toward modernity seems especially clear in the matter of religious liberty. In fact, there seems to be a direct contradiction between the teaching of the Council and the teachings of the popes of the 19th century on this point. If one compares the central affirmation of Dignitatis Humanæ with, for example, the section on religious freedom in Bl. Pius IX’s Quanta Cura the contradiction seems obvious.

Thus Dignitatis Humanæ:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that 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 no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.[4]

And thus Quanta Cura:

From which totally false idea of social government they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an ‘insanity,’ [deliramentum] viz., that ‘liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.’[5]

Does not Vatican II here affirm precisely that which Pius IX, citing Gregory XVI, calls a deliramentum? This ostensible contradiction made Dignitatis Humanæ the most controversial document at the Council. So many doubts were raised about the first three schemata that Bl. Pope Paul VI decided to delay voting on it, moving the vote from the third to the fourth and final session of the Council.[6] At this a large group of council fathers protested, begging the Pope with the very greatest urgency (“instanter, instantius, instantissimus”) to reverse his decision, lest public opinion turn against the Council.[7] Nevertheless, the vote did not take place till the very end of the last session.[8]

After the Council the question of the relation of Dignitatis Humanæ to previous teachings remained controversial.[9] Any interpretation of Dignitatis Humanæ has to deal with this question, and interpreters have proposed various approaches that all give different answers to the question—from the assertion of a radical break with tradition to that of complete continuity with tradition. I shall now consider several answers that I consider inadequate before turning to an explanation and defense of the answer proposed by the English philosopher Thomas Pink. According to Pink there is continuity at the level of principles, but discontinuity at the level of Church policy toward the state. He shows this first by giving a new interpretation of the condemnation of religious freedom on the part of the popes of the Pian Age, showing its roots in counter-Reformation political theology. And then he applies key distinctions taken from that analysis to Dignitatis Humanæ.

After explaining Pink’s thesis, I shall further explicate it by a brief glance at the history of the relation of temporal and spiritual power in Church history. I shall then conclude by examining the theological concerns of some of the conciliar theologians who influenced Dignitatis Humanæ.

Part I: Inadequate Interpretations of Dignitatis Humanæ


In his Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” which led to a misunderstanding of Vatican II.[10] Since the Council did indeed wish to reform the Church’s relations to the modern world, the impression could easily be formed that a break had been made with tradition—as though the Church could simply abandon what she had previously authoritatively taught. Pope Benedict contrasts this with a correct hermeneutic, a “hermeneutic of reform, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church.”[11] This hermeneutic starts with the principle of the Church’s continuity through time, but allows for discontinuities at the level of policy, discipline, and the mode of expressing certain teachings.[12] For the explication of this hermeneutic Pope Benedict cites Pope St. John XXIII’s address at the opening of Vatican II, in which Pope John defined the task of the Council as formulating the “unchanging” doctrine in a new historical situation, without changing its meaning.[13]

The hermeneutic of rupture

The hermeneutic of rupture has often been applied to Dignitatis Humanæ. Non-theologians, such as legal scholars and political scientists, have had no scruples in seeing a contradiction between Dignitatis Humanæ and previous teachings.[14] But even many theologians have taken this route as well, and have come up with different explanations as to how such a rupture might be possible. “Progressive” theologians have often defended the idea of rupture by a minimalist view of the authority of Church teaching. According to them the condemnation of religious freedom, for example in Quanta Cura, was not an infallible exercise of the Petrine Office, and was therefore reformable. They argue that only the most solemn definitions of the Magisterium are infallible, and that many “authentic” teachings of the Church are not finally binding. Thus Reinhold Sebott, S.J., argues as follows:

If we do not consider Quanta Cura infallible, then of course we will not consider a great many other magisterial decisions infallible. Only very few teachings can be described as dogmas in the strict sense.[15]

Such positions have been used not only to justify a hermeneutic of rupture in the reading of Vatican II, but also to put into question much of the Church’s teaching with regard to faith and morals. Thus many theologians used this position to question the condemnation of artificial contraception in Bl. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanæ Vitæ. Pope Paul clearly wanted his teaching to be binding on the faithful, but many theologians denied that it could have binding character.[16] Sebott himself brings up the example of Pope St John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994). Pope John Paul wished to definitively end the discussion on the ordination of women in that letter, but according to Sebott the letter was not infallible, and therefore the discussion cannot be considered closed.[17] Such an exaggerated minimalism with regard to Church teaching cannot be reconciled with the teachings of numerous popes and councils on the binding character of the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church.[18] Supporters of minimalism often give apparent examples of discontinuity in Church teaching to support their views, but none of the examples are un-controversial.[19]

“Traditionalists” such as the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, on the other hand, were convinced that the condemnation of religious liberty by the popes of the 19th century was forever binding, and that therefore the teaching of the Council was wrong. Lefebvre submitted his argument to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the form of dubia,[20] and his dissatisfaction with the Congregation’s response[21] was a decisive factor in his decision, carried out on June 30, 1988, to consecrate four bishops without papal mandate, thus incurring excommunication latæ sententiæ.[22] Lefebvre’s position was somewhat paradoxical, as the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, pointed out: by putting his own private interpretation of previous Church teachings above the Church’s official interpretation of her teaching he was giving up precisely the principle of fidelity to Church doctrine that he wanted to defend.[23]

But Lefebvre was surely right about this much: the question of religious liberty is not a merely disciplinary question; it is a moral question on which the Church has taught authoritatively. Klaus Obenauer, a theologian sympathetic to traditionalism, recently pointed out that the teaching of the Council of Constance, according to which the Church has the right to hand heretics over to the “secular arm” for punishment, was solemnly confirmed by Pope Martin V. He is unable to see how that teaching can be consistent with Dignitatis Humanæ and concludes:

The question is raised as to how DH can stand with respect to centuries of authoritative teaching, and of canonically prescribed practice, according to which there is no right to the practice (especially the public practice) of dissent. I say the question is raised, and to the present hour the question has not been answered.[24]

The hermeneutic of continuity at all levels

At the opposite extreme from the hermeneutic of rupture is a hermeneutic of continuity at all levels. Thomas Storck, an expert on Catholic Social Teaching, uses such a hermeneutic of continuity.[25] Storck bases his reading on the explicit assertion in the preamble of Dignitatis Humanæ that it does not mean to change traditional Catholic teaching on the duties of societies toward the true religion:

Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.[26]

Among the duties of societies toward true religion Storck includes the limiting of the spread of false religions by way of censorship and such measures, as called for by the 19th century popes.[27] Thus Storck moves the apparent contradiction into Dignitatis Humanæ itself. But he finds a key to understanding why the contradiction is only apparent by his interpretation of the “due limits” on religious freedom mentioned in the central statement of Dignitatis Humanæ 2: “no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” Dignitatis Humanæ 7 further explicates these limits. The exercise of religious liberty must include “respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare [bonum commune] of all.” The state is required to preserve “genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice” and “public morality.” Storck argues that preservation of the bonum commune of a Christian society would in practice allow for very heavy restrictions on religious freedom:

the “just requirements of public order,” the “due limits,” and considerations of the rights of others and of the common good vary considerably from society to society, and . . . in a society overwhelmingly and traditionally Catholic they could easily include restrictions, and even an outright prohibition, on the public activities of non-Catholic sects, particularly on their proselytizing activities.[28]

According to Storck, the condemnation of religious freedom in earlier ages of the Church was not the complete denial of any such right, but rather the denial of an unlimited right. [29] On his interpretation previous teachings were not concerned with the private right of persons to believe what they thought to be true, but rather precisely with the necessity for public order of limiting the spread of false religion:

A non-Catholic has the real right, even in a Catholic state, to privately profess his own religion and privately meet with his co-religionists; in a liberal regime he has a right to considerably more freedom. In both cases the freedom is real; it is simply that the “requirements of public order” and of the common good differ.[30]

I do not think that Storck’s thesis can be maintained. First because I think it does not do justice to the full scope of pre-conciliar teaching on coercion in religious matters. As Thomas Pink has shown, and as I will explain in section 3 below, previous teaching justified not only restrictions on the public activity of false religion, but also coercing heretics to return to the true faith. A second problem with Storck’s thesis is that it doesn’t do justice to the decisiveness with which Dignitatis Humanæ denies the state any native authority in matters of religion. It grounds this lack of authority in the transcendence of religious matters over the temporal order:

The religious acts whereby men, in private and in public and out of a sense of personal conviction, direct their lives to God transcend by their very nature the order of terrestrial and temporal affairs. Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.[31]

This seems to exclude precisely the sort of limitation of false religion for the sake of the temporal common good that Storck wants to uphold.

The hermeneutic of reform in continuity

On Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic principle one ought not to expect a contradiction between the documents of Vatican II and previous teaching, but neither ought one to expect complete continuity. One ought rather to expect reform. “Basic decisions, therefore, continue to be well-grounded, whereas the way they are applied to new contexts can change.”[32] Pope Benedict explicitly applies this hermeneutic principle to Dignitatis Humanæ:

Thus, for example, if religious freedom were to be considered an expression of the human inability to discover the truth and thus become a canonization of relativism, then this social and historical necessity is raised inappropriately to the metaphysical level and thus stripped of its true meaning. Consequently, it cannot be accepted by those who believe that the human person is capable of knowing the truth about God and, on the basis of the inner dignity of the truth, is bound to this knowledge. It is quite different, on the other hand, to perceive religious freedom as a need that derives from human coexistence, or indeed, as an intrinsic consequence of the truth that cannot be externally imposed but that the person must adopt only through the process of conviction.[33]

Pope Benedict thus shows that there is no direct contradiction between Dignitatis Humanæ and (e.g.) Quanta Cura, since “religious freedom” means something quite different in those two documents.[34]

Nevertheless, Pope Benedict’s interpretation leaves some open questions, since it does not explain the continuity at the level of “basic decisions” and the discontinuity at the level of application to “new contexts” in detail.

A number of theologians have tried to apply Pope Benedict’s principles to a detailed interpretation of Dignitatis Humanæ. It turns out that distinguishing the two levels is not so easy as it might appear at first. I shall now examine two attempts that I find inadequate before turning (in the next section) to Thomas Pink’s solution.

Eberhard Schockenhoff explicitly invokes Pope Benedict XVI’s address in his interpretation. But I claim that in the end his reading in the end falls back into a hermeneutic of rupture. Schockenhoff does see “lines of continuity” between Dignitatis Humanæ and previous teaching on the relation of freedom and truth, but he does not limit discontinuity to the application to a new context:

The truth does not lie simply at the mean between continuity and discontinuity. Even at the hermeneutic deep-level, the level at which the Council tries to come to a fitting understanding of truth and freedom, there is an unmistakable change of perspective. […] At any rate, it does not suffice to assert a continuity in the development of Church teaching at theological or philosophical/ethical level, and only admit discontinuity at the level of application to new historical situations.[35]

According to Schockenhoff the Church in Dignitatis Humanæ adopted the “hard core” of modern liberal rights as her own.[36] He sees this as a paradigm shift in the Church’s understanding of the relation of truth and freedom, and the relation of human subjectivity and truth.[37] Moreover, he argues that this paradigm shift has implications for the relation of truth and freedom in the Church herself—the pastors of the Church should eschew the coercive use of teaching authority, and should use a more dialogical mode of teaching. As we shall see below, this position is hard to square with the solemn teaching of the Council of Trent, according to which the Church ought to impose sanctions on the baptized to help preserve them in the faith.

Martin Rhonheimer’s interpretation is similar to Schockenhoff’s, but he sees slightly more continuity and slightly less discontinuity. He does see continuity at the level of principles in the relation of truth and freedom. He even admits that the Church can coerce her members with sanctions (even ones that have “temporal” consequences),[38] but he denies that the Church can make use of the state as brachium sæculare for such coercion. He thinks that Dignitatis Humanæ corrects previous teaching on “the mission and function of the state.”[39] While certain previous popes taught that the state must subordinate itself to the Church, Dignitatis Humanæ denies this and demands a legitimate secularity for the state. This is not a break with principles derived from Sacred Scripture or the Apostolic tradition, which according to Rhonheimer “suggest a separation between the political and religious spheres.”[40] But it is a break with earlier and less perfect applications of those principles. Rhonheimer argues that Dignitatis Humanæ stands at the end of a long process through which the Church re-discovers the original meaning of Jesus’s distinction between the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s, and for the first time sees its full implications.[41] I will return to Rhonheimer’s subtle argumentation below when I consider the history of the relations of spiritual and temporal power. At this point it suffices to indicate that the teaching according to which the Church can make use of the state as secular arm has a great deal more authority than Rhonheimer is willing to admit. Think for example of Pope Martin V’s confirmation of the Council of Constance’s teaching on the secular arm mentioned above.[42]

Part II will consider Thomas Pink’s interpretive breakthrough; Part III will consider the history of the relation of spiritual and temporal power; Part IV will consider the concerns of theologians at the Council. A printable version of the whole essay can be found here.


[1] A German version of this paper is to appear in a forthcoming volume edited by Felix Mayrhofer. An earlier version was presented to Una Voce Austria, Vienna, November 18, 2013; my thanks to Stephan Csernohorszky and Benedikt Hensellek of Una Voce for the invitation. I also thank Gregor Hochreiter and Felix Mayrhofer for their comments on the German version, and Alan Fimister, Thomas Pink, the Rev. Thomas Crean, O.P., Peter Escalante, Matthew J. Peterson, John Ruplinger, Gabriel Sanchez, Andrew Strain, Christopher Zehnder, Peter Kwasniewski, and the backroom of The Josias for helpful discussions.

[2] See: Pope Benedict XVI, “Expergiscere Homo: Address to the College of Cardinals and the Roman Curia,” December 22, 2005, in: Acta Apostolicæ Sedis 95,1 (2006) 40-53; translation: (accessed November 19, 2014).

[3] See: Martin Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat (Freiburg 32012) 134-139, 143; Eberhard Schockenhoff, „Das Recht, ungehindert die Wahrheit zu suchen: Die Erklärung über die Religionsfreiheit Dignitatis humanae,“ in: Jan-Heiner Tück (ed.), Erinnerung an die Zukunft: Das zweite vatikanische Konzil, 2nd ed. (Freiburg 2013) 702.

[4] Dignitatis Humanae, § 2, in: Acta Apostolicæ Sedis 58 (1966) 929-946, at 930; translation: (accessed November 19, 2014).

[5] Pope Pius IX, Quanta Cura, in: Herbert Vaughan (ed.), The Year of Preparation for the Vatican Council: Including the Original and English of the Encyclical and Syllabus, and of the Papal Documents Connected with its Convocation (London 1869) iv-xx, at viii.

[6] See: Pietro Pavan, “Einleitung zur Erklärung über die Religionsfreiheit,” in: Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche , 2nd ed., Ergänzungsband II (Freiburg 1967) 706-707.

[7] See: Pavan, “Einleitung” 706.

[8] See: Pavan, “Einleitung” 709-711.

[9] See: Schockenhoff, “Das Recht” 703.

[10] Benedict XVI, Expergiscere Homo 46.

[11] Benedict XVI, Expergiscere Homo 46.

[12] See: Chad C. Pecknold, “Pope Benedict’s Hermeneutic of Continuity: Very Theological Reflections on Theological Method,” presentation at Reform and Renewal: Vatican II After 50 Years, Symposium at The Catholic University of America, Washington DC, September 26-29, 2012: (accessed on November 18, 2014).

[13] Benedict XVI, Expergiscere Homo 47.

[14] See: Schockenhoff, “Das Recht” 623-625. Schockenhoff mentions Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, Klaus Schatz, Franz Xaver Bischof, and Josef Insensee as examples.

[15] “Wenn man QC (Quanta cura) nicht als unfehlbar qualifiziert, dann wird man natürlich auch eine Menge anderer Lehrentscheidungen nicht als unfehlbar qualifizieren dürfen. Der Kreis des Dogmas muss also sehr eng gezogen werden.” Reinhold Sebott, „Dignitatis humanæ“ und „Quanta cura“: Die Verurteilung der Religionsfreiheit vor dem Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil, in: P. Boekholt and I. Riedel-Spangenberger (ed.), Iustitia et Modestia (Munich 1998) 183-192; at 192.

[16] See: Janet E. Smith, Humanæ Vitæ, a Generation Later (Washington 1998) especially 155-169.

[17] Sebott, “Dignitatis humanæ” 192.

[18] See: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei,” online access: (accessed 21 November, 2014).

[19] See: Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Development Or Reversal?” in: First Things (October 2005) 53-61.

[20] Marcel Lefebvre, “Dubia sur la Déclaration conciliaire sur la liberté religieuse, présentés à la S.C.R. pour la Doctrine de la Foi,” Ecône, Novemeber 6, 1985: (accessed on October 18, 2014); English translation: Religious Liberty Questioned (Kansas City 2001).

[21] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Liberté religieuse: Réponse aux Dubia présentés par S.E. Mgr Lefebvre,” Rome, March 9, 1987: (accessed November 21, 2014).

[22] See the documentation collected at the website La crise intégriste: and (both accessed November 21, 2014).

[23] “En fournissant une interprétation personnelle des textes du Magistère, vous feriez paradoxalement preuve de ce libéralisme que vous combattez si fortement, et agiriez contre le but que vous poursuivez.” Letter of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, July 28, 1987: (accessed November 21, 2014).

[24] “Es stellt sich eben die Frage, wie DH [Dignitatis humanæ] ankommen soll gegen die über Jahrhunderte verbindlich vorgetragene Lehre, und zwar vor dem Hintergrund kirchenamtlich gestützter Praxis, wonach es gerade kein natürliches Recht gibt, (zumal öffentlich) unbehelligt von der staatlichen Gewalt das Dissidententum zu praktizieren. Ich sage: „es stellt sich die Frage, wie“. Und beantwortet ist die bis zur Stunde nicht.” Klaus Obenauer, “Piusbruderschaft: Der angehaltene Zug – oder: Wie bekommt man das Signal wieder auf Grün?” (accessed on October 18, 2014).

[25] Some other examples are mentioned by Schockenhoff (“Das Recht” 727-728), including Arthur Utz, Robert Spaemann, Basil Valuet, and Betrand de Margerie.

[26] Dignitatis Humanæ § 1; cf. Thomas Storck, Foundations of a Catholic Political Order (Beltsville 1998) 27.

[27] Storck, Foundations 21-26.

[28] Storck, Foundations 28-29.

[29] Storck, Foundations 29: “Man’s religious liberty is real and the Council’s Declaration is not false or heretical; simply that the right to exercise such freedom is not the same in every place and time.”

[30] Storck, Foundations 29.

[31] Dignitatis Humanæ § 3; emphasis added.

[32] Expergiscere Homo 50.

[33] Expergiscere Homo 50.

[34] Cf. Schockenhoff, “Das Recht” 729.

[35] “Dennoch liegt die Wahrheit nicht einfach in der Mitte zwischen Kontinuität und Diskontinuität. Denn auch auf der hermeneutischen Tiefenebene, auf der das Konzil sich um eine angemessene Vermittlung von Wahrheit und Freiheit bemüht, ist ein Perspektivenwechsel unverkennbar […]. Jedenfalls reicht es nicht aus, auf einer theologischen oder philosophisch-ethischen Prinzipienebene eine ungebrochene Kontinuität kirchlicher Lehrentwicklung zu behaupten und nur hinsichtlich der Anwendung dieser Prinzipien auf veränderte geschichtliche Situationen einen Wandel zuzugeben.” Schockenhoff, “Das Recht” 734.

[36] Eberhard Schockenhoff, Erlöste Freiheit: Worauf es im Christentum ankommt (Freiburg 2012) 15.

[37] Schockenhoff, Erlöste Freiheit 42-45, idem, “Das Recht” 733-734.

[38] Martin Rhonheimer, “Dignitatis Humanae—Not a Mere Question of Church Policy: A Response to Thomas Pink,” in: Nova et Vetera, English Edition, 12,2 (2014): 445-470, at 454-455.

[39] Martin Rhonheimer, “Benedict XVI’s ‘Hermeneutic of Reform’ and Religious Freedom,” in: Nova et Vetera, English Edition, 9,4 (2011): 1029-1054; idem, Christentum und säkularer Staat, especially 156-163; cf. also idem, “Dignitatis Humanae—Not a Mere Question.”

[40] Rhonheimer, “Benedict XVI’s ‘Hermeneutic of Reform’” 1032.

[41] See especially: Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat 33-191.

[42] See: Klaus Obenauer, “Piusbruderschaft: Der angehaltene Zug.” Obenauer cites Denzinger/Hünermann (42nd ed.) 1272: “Item, utrum credat, quod inoboedientia sive contumacia excommunicatorum crescente, praelati vel eorum vicarii in spiritualibus habeant potestatem aggravandi et reaggravandi, interdictum ponendi et brachium saeculare invocandi; et quod illis censuris per inferiores sit oboediendum.”

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