Recent Discussions of Religious Liberty

The forthcoming Portuguese translation of Thomas Storck’s book  Foundations of a Catholic Political Order afforded him the opportunity to rework the Second Appendix of that book to address Professor Thomas Pink’s interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae (previously discussed on The Josias, for instance, here and here). With the author’s gracious permission, we now present Mr. Storck’s response below.

The Editors

As I said in chapter two, I have reserved this Appendix for a fuller discussion of the question of religious liberty. Since the first edition of this book appeared in 1998 there has been considerable discussion and debate on Dignitatis Humanae in English, Italian, German and other languages. Space and other considerations prevent a thorough review of all this material, which is voluminous, but it is necessary to say something about some of the recent commentary on this question.[1]

Before doing so I remind the reader that despite the unequivocal pledge to maintain traditional Catholic doctrine made at the beginning of Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration does not seem to do so. And some at least of its principal framers definitely intended to create new doctrine and apparently thought they had done so. Moreover, they have managed to convince almost everyone else that they had done so too. But it is not the tone of the document that we must pay attention to, but “to what the writer succeeded in setting down on paper explicitly.”[2] If we can overlook the rhetoric of Dignitatis Humanae and examine its text with care and with correct principles of interpretation, then I think it can be understood in such a way as not to stand in conflict with the earlier teaching.

In an article in the American magazine, Touchstone, Korey D. Maas, a Lutheran, summarizes the state of the Catholic debate on religious liberty for an ecumenical readership.[3] Maas notes that

The Council proceedings made evident the prolonged controversy concerning the discussion of religious liberty, what would become Dignitatis Humanae went through nine drafts and hundreds of interventions, with a vote on the text being postponed until the very conclusion of the Council. The greatest source of controversy was quite simply the belief that the document forwarded a doctrine contrary to dogmatic tradition.

Maas continues, “Unsurprisingly, then, the half-century since Vatican II has witnessed a plethora of attempted—but incompatible—clarifications,” and he points out the existence of “four distinct positions [that] have been articulated” with regard to how Dignitatis Humanae can or cannot be reconciled with previous teaching. The first two simply accept that the Council’s teaching was indeed an innovation, “a repudiation of pre-conciliar doctrine.” But the two positions regard this very differently. “While agreeing that the Declaration signals a rupture with the dogmatic tradition, `traditionalists’ condemn and `progressives’ celebrate this.” The former believe that the Church appears to have repudiated one of her settled teachings, with obviously ominous implications for all of her doctrine, while progressive or liberal Catholics rejoice because they see the Declaration as opening the door to further, and perhaps widespread, doctrinal change.

The remaining two interpretations of Dignitatis Humanae are what Maas calls, first, the neo-conservative view, and secondly, the radical. The first upholds the common understanding of Dignitatis Humanae as a pretty much unequivocal endorsement of religious liberty, and welcomes this affirmation. But, Maas points out, those who uphold this position differ widely in how they deal with the fact of the previous papal teaching, with some arguing that the apparently new teaching was always implicit in the older texts, while others assert that there are sufficient ambiguities in the teaching of previous pontiffs to allow for doctrinal development, or that the earlier teaching was not “dogmatic in nature…[and] merely represented temporary and mutable policy preferences….”

Finally, Maas concludes, the radical view sees the traditional pre-conciliar teaching as authoritative and the Council’s Declaration as “ambiguous. If it is to be understood as authoritative, then certain of its interpretations must be corrected to harmonize with the pre-conciliar tradition.”

Among those upholding this fourth position, Maas mentions the present writer along with John Lamont, Fr. Thomas Crean and Professor Thomas Pink of King’s College, London. It is the latter, however, whose views lately seem to have made considerable headway among those inclined to this kind of solution. I find Professor Pink’s approach unconvincing, however, and I will set forth briefly my objections to it here.

The key point in Pink’s method of dealing with the apparent discrepancy between Dignitatis Humanae and earlier papal teaching is his claim that the previous doctrine dealt not with the state’s inherent right or duty to restrict non-Catholic religious activity for the sake of the common good, but with the Church’s right to do so, at least with regard to the baptized. What Dignitatis Humanae does, therefore, is to withdraw an earlier authorization given to the civil authorities to restrain or coerce the baptized, on behalf of the Church, but it does not concern the Church’s own rights in this area, which remain as before. Thus the Declaration becomes a policy statement, withdrawing a power granted to the state by the Church. But since this grant of authority by the Church to the secular powers was always in principle revocable, Dignitatis Humanae does not constitute any change of doctrine, simply a change of policy.

While Professor Pink does well to call attention to the Church’s own rights over her subjects—that is, all the baptized—and is correct that this point is often overlooked, this in no way denies that the state may also have certain indirect rights in the religious sphere, insofar as this sphere concerns the preservation of the common good, for in fact it is impossible in practice to separate the temporal good of man entirely from his religious activity. By refocusing the argument exclusively around the Church’s rights and authority, Professor Pink has neglected the numerous passages in which a certain authority to safeguard and promote Catholic practice and to restrict non-Catholic religious conduct is seen as proper to the state’s own duties and rights.

Professor Pink has drawn from his studies on earlier Catholic thinkers, particularly Suárez and Bellarmine, to support his thesis. But whatever positions those earlier thinkers took on this matter, and no matter how much any of their writings may have been esteemed by any of the sovereign pontiffs, or even “commissioned by” any of them,[4] still such writings are not part of the Church’s magisterial teaching, and even if they do reflect the thinking of any particular pope, that does not make them part of the Church’s doctrine.[5] Lastly, if Professor Pink wishes to confine the power of dealing with religious matters solely to the Church, with the state’s authority in this area seen merely as something granted by the Church, it is not clear how he can explain the rights of the state to regulate religious activity on the part of unbaptized persons, over whom the Church has no rights whatsoever. Let us look at each of these points in order.

It seems clear from Pope Leo’s oft repeated assertions of the state’s duty toward the true Faith that he did teach that the state itself has a certain care for the religious life of its citizens, inasmuch as this affects the common good. This is not a mere grant of authority by which the state acts on behalf of the Church. I think that any common-sense interpretation of the following quotations from Leo’s encyclicals will bear out this claim.

So, too, is it a sin in the State not to have care for religion, as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, should hold in honor the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favor religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule.

Immortale Dei, no. 6.

But, to justify [liberty of worship], it must needs be taken as true that the State has no duties toward God, or that such duties, if they exist, can be abandoned with impunity, both of which assertions are manifestly false. For it cannot be doubted but that, by the will of God, men are united in civil society; whether its component parts be considered; or its form, which implies authority; or the object of its existence; or the abundance of the vast services which it renders to man. God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness- namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic states….

Libertas, no. 21

Men have a right freely and prudently to propagate throughout the State what things soever are true and honorable, so that as many as possible may possess them; but lying opinions, than which no mental plague is greater, and vices which corrupt the heart and moral life, should be diligently repressed by public authority, lest they insidiously work the ruin of the State.

Libertas, no 23.

Yet, with the discernment of a true mother, the Church weighs the great burden of human weakness, and well knows the course down which the minds and actions of men are in this our age being borne. For this reason, while not conceding any right to anything save what is true and honest, she does not forbid public authority to tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, or of obtaining or preserving some greater good…. But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake; for evil of itself, being a privation of good, is opposed to the common welfare which every legislator is bound to desire and defend to the best of his ability.

Libertas, no. 33.

[T]he more a State is driven to tolerate evil, the further is it from perfection; and that the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare, requires.

Libertas, no. 34.

Professor Pink quotes Immortale Dei, that “it is the Church, and not the State, that is to be man’s guide to heaven” (no. 11), and “Whatever, therefore, in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs…to the salvation of souls or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church” (no. 13). But in view of the quotations from Leo that are set out immediately above, it seems clear that the sweeping conclusion that he draws from these quotations is not justified, namely, that “according to Leo XIII, in matters of religion the Church is the only authority with the right to coerce.”[6] Moreover, even without reference to the Leonine statements about the state’s duties in this area, the attentive reader will see that Leo is not saying anything regarding state coercion or authority in religious matters in the two quotes from Immortale Dei that Professor Pink adduces. Rather, Leo is pointing out that it is the Church’s task to lead us to heaven, and that her internal affairs – her worship and teaching, for example – are solely her concern, not the state’s. Moreover, we should recall that in the discussion of the state’s rights to regulate religious activity on behalf of the common good, we are chiefly or only looking at the activity of non-Catholics, to whom no divine mandate has been given to care for the religious life of mankind at all.

In addition to those passages which I have quoted, there is one more which it seems necessary to mention, the address of Pius XII, Ci Riesce, to the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists of December 6, 1953. Speaking of the authority of the state, Pius asks,

Could it be that in certain circumstances [God] would not give men any mandate, would not impose any duty, and would not even communicate the right to impede or to repress what is erroneous and false? A look at things as they are gives an affirmative answer.

no. 17.

The Pope is speaking here of political authority, as the whole address makes clear, and the point of the discussion is whether at times God might not “communicate the right to impede or to repress what is erroneous and false.” It is simply assumed here that at times God does communicate such a right, and nowhere in the text is there the slightest suggestion that this is a matter of a grant of authority on the part of the Church. In fact, a few paragraphs later, Pius XII states that it is “the Catholic statesman [who] must judge if this condition [calling for toleration] is verified in the concrete,” although he also notes that such a statesman will seek the “guidance,” but, note, not the permission, of the Church in making such a decision on behalf of the toleration of what is objectively evil.

Since Pius XII speaks of occasions when God might “not even communicate the right to impede or to repress what is erroneous and false,” obviously this cannot be a reference to the rights of the Church in this area, for the authority which the Church possesses over her own subjects is not something which is granted by God only according to circumstances, but is always present.

With regard to unbaptized persons, Professor Pink asserts the Church’s right to some authority over them.

But the Church still has the authority to use coercion to defend her jurisdiction against those unbaptized who interfere from without, proselytizing on behalf of false religions.[7]

He provides no text to support this view, however. While it is certainly the case that the state was traditionally seen as having such powers over its unbaptized citizens, as part of the state’s care of the common good, it is hard to see how such a right could belong to the Church herself, and hence be delegated by the Church to the state.

Finally, Professor Pink asserts that Dignitatis Humanae absolutely forbids state intrusion into the religious realm.

[B]ecause the good of religion does altogether transcend the authority of the state, our right not to be coerced by the state where the good of religion alone is at stake admits of no exceptions. The state cannot restrict our liberty for specifically religious ends, to protect religious truth, or simply for people’s religious good.[8]

But in fact Dignitatis Humanae is not so absolute in its teaching as Pink maintains. In addition to the well-known exceptions based on “due limits” and the “just requirements of public order” (no. 2) there is the far more important but often neglected statement in no. 7 that “the common good of all” is one of the factors to be taken into account with regard to the state’s care of religious conduct. In fact it was the common good that was traditionally seen as the chief factor that ought to guide the civil authorities in their legislation on religious matters.

Of course the state authorities do not exercise their powers in a vacuum. Catholic rulers must learn their religion from the Church, just as anyone else. But the authority that they hold for the sake of the common good to regulate the public religious activity of non-Catholics, and to protect and promote the Catholic faith, is not based on a grant of authority given by the Church, but is part of the “bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule.”

Professor Pink also quotes a number of the relationes or official explanations of the meaning of Dignitatis Humanae given to the Council Fathers during their deliberations on the text, and claims that these explanations support his interpretation of what the Council was doing.[9] He points out that they emphasize the fact that Dignitatis Humanae concerns only religious freedom in the civil order, and not in the Church. This, he argues, confirms his position that the Council’s Declaration was merely the withdrawal of a prior permission granted to the state to enforce the Church’s rights over her own baptized subjects. But I think that this is an anachronistic reading of these statements. During and after the Council there was discussion of whether or how far the (presumed) teaching of Dignitatis Humanae might affect the freedom of a Catholic vis-à-vis the Church. Thus John Courtney Murray, in his introduction to Dignitatis Humanae for the Abbott edition of the Council’s documents, wrote,

[T]hough the Declaration deals only with the minor issue of religious freedom in the technical secular sense, it 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 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…. The children of God…assert it within the Church as well as in the world….[10]

Although Fr. Murray’s remarks do concern the Church’s rights and authority over her members, they do so not in the sense that Professor Pink believes. That is, they are not concerned with a grant of power to the civil authorities, but with questions such as whether a Catholic has a right to dissent from Church teaching, for example. No one at the time raised the question of the state acting as agent for the Church to coerce its citizens in religious matters.[11]

Before concluding I will deal briefly with Professor Pink’s comments on my own and similar positions.[12]. He writes,

It is…remarkable that so many authors attempt to reconcile Dignitatis Humanae with the pre-conciliar magisterium by appealing to the just public order exception. These authors claim that in the Catholic societies of the past, non-Catholic religious activity and proselytization in the public sphere…did once threaten just public order as it might not be threatened now, and then suggest that the Catholic magisterium was calling on the state to restrict such activity just on that account.

Professor Pink then quotes me to the effect that

“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 their proselytizing activities.

Professor Pink responds to the position of myself and of other authors holding similar views, as follows,

But this is to misunderstand the Church’s past conception of the state’s role when privileging Catholicism – which was primarily to protect the spiritual good of its citizens, and not simply to protect just public order under civil and social conditions very different from those of the present. The state’s coercive role was to protect the Church and her mission as essential to the supreme spiritual good of salvation, and not just to protect the civil order.

I find this comment odd, for I do not understand how “the spiritual good of its citizens” can be separated from “public order.” As I said above, it is impossible to separate the temporal good of mankind – which is directly under the care of the state – from our eternal destiny, for the two are interwoven, as the first chapter of this book illustrates again and again.

Moreover, the fact that “previous teaching justified not only restrictions on the public activity of false religions, but also coercing heretics to return to the true faith” is not at issue here, as the latter was clearly a power of the Church, and insofar as the Church sought the support of the state in implementing it, this was indeed an example of the Church asking the assistance of the civil powers, and in effect, delegating a certain authority to them. The fact that the Church’s powers over heretics are more far-reaching than those possessed by the state does not mean that the state has no duties of its own in the religious sphere, however.

To sum up my argument, then: Man has a right, in the political order, to religious freedom.[13] This is affirmed by Dignitatis Humanae, and in the context of that Declaration this assertion might seem to be at variance with the earlier teaching. But this is not really the case. For, as Dignitatis Humanae itself asserts in no. 7, the exercise of this freedom is limited by the concerns of the common good, a teaching reaffirmed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 1738 and 2109). Thus, since the common good differs from one social situation to another, as the Catechism also points out (no. 2109), the degree of religious liberty rightly permitted to non-Catholics differs from one social situation to another. In overwhelmingly and traditional Catholic societies, we may rightly see public non-Catholic religious activity, especially proselytizing, as contrary to the common good, though non-Catholics would still enjoy their right to the private exercise of their religion, for example, in their own homes. Thus non-Catholics would always enjoy a political right to religious liberty, but the “due limits” which a state must place on this right “must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good….”[14]

The foundation of the de facto practice of allowing non-Catholics private religious liberty was not altogether clear in the earlier teaching. Did they have any kind of right to such liberty or was it merely something tolerated for the sake of the common good and peace of the society as a whole? But while this aspect of the teaching was undeveloped, the relevant pre-Vatican II papal documents never excluded the notion of a right of religious liberty for non-Catholics in certain circumstances. For example, in the Syllabus of Errors (no. 78), Pius IX condemned the “public exercise” of non-Catholic religions in Catholic states. And as I quoted above, in Ci Riesce, Pius XII says that God “would not even communicate the right” to restrict non-Catholic religious activity in some circumstances. Thus I do not think it is contradictory to say that there could be a right (in the political order) to religious liberty for non-Catholics, the exercise of which right, like all others, is subject to the exigencies of the common good. Thus non-Catholics would always have a right to private religious activity, and where they are a majority or a large or traditional minority or otherwise where the common good indicates, they also have a right to at least some public religious freedom. But, on the other hand, in Catholic nations the common good would usually indicate limitation, at least to some extent, of their public religious acts. This position, I think, is perfectly consistent both with the earlier teaching and with Dignitatis Humanae. It is true that Dignitatis Humanae emphasizes the right to religious freedom, but it contains sufficient in the way of limitations to make it compatible with that “traditional Catholic teaching” it undertook to develop, while at the same time, like all true doctrinal development, leaving what came before “intact.” Thus Dignitatis Humanae‘s contribution to the development of doctrine may be seen to lie in its giving the religious liberty of non-Catholics a firmer theological foundation, i.e., pointing out that their liberty is likewise founded on right. But note that their religious liberty is not the same as the exercise of that liberty, which is limited by the requirements of the common good, as Dignitatis Humanae itself clearly states in no. 7.

  1. In the United States the debate on religious liberty has been largely subsumed in recent years into a larger and more fundamental controversy about the relationship between Catholicism and the classical liberal tradition.

  2. William G. Most, “Religious Liberty: What the Texts Demand,” Faith & Reason, vol. 9, no. 3, fall 1983, p. 198. Emphasis author’s.

  3. “Can We Hang Together?” Touchstone, A Journal of Mere Christianity, vol. 31, issue 6, November/December 2018, pp. 52-7.

  4. Professor Pink speaks of Suárez’s work, Defensio Fidei Catholicae as being “commissioned by Paul V and directed against James I of England.” Thomas Pink, “Conscience and Coercion,” First Things, August/September 2012, pp. 46-7.

  5. We might compare such endorsements with the praise that Pope Benedict XV gave to Fr. Augustine Roesler’s World War I era book, Die Frauenfrage, which the Pope described as “a book…in which [readers] might safely and thoroughly and clearly discover what they should think of the social position of women according to the laws of the Catholic religion.” (Quoted in William B. Faherty, The Destiny of Modern Woman in the Light of Papal Teaching, Westminster : Newman Press, 1950, p. 63.) Yet no one today would consider a Catholic as bound by Fr. Roesler’s opinions on the civil status or social role of women.

  6. Pink, “Conscience and Coercion,” p. 47.

  7. Pink, “Conscience and Coercion,” p. 47.

  8. Thomas Pink, “Dignitatis Humanae: continuity after Leo XIII,” Available on, p. 1.

  9. Thomas Pink, “Dignitatis Humanae: continuity after Leo XIII,” pp. 15ff.

  10. Walter Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican II, (New York : Guild Press, 1966), pp. 673-4.

  11. See also, for example, the address to the Council of Bishop Emile De Smedt on November 19, 1963, introducing the draft on religious liberty, which at the time was still a part of the ecumenical schema. (Vatican Council II, Acta Synodalia, vol. II, periodus 2, pars V, pp. 485-95. Reprinted and translated in Council Daybook, Vatican II, Session 1, Session 2, edited by Floyd Anderson, Washington : National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1965, pp. 277-82.)

    Also see the address of John Courtney Murray on September 15, 1965 at the Dutch Documentation Center in Rome on the pending religious liberty schema. Nowhere in his speech is there the slightest hint of the meaning of the text that Professor Pink advocates. Fr. Murray reviews the teaching of Leo XIII, focusing exclusively on Leo’s conception of the state, its rulers and whether they possess a patria potestas over their subjects, etc. But no reference to what Professor Pink claims was the point at issue. (Reprinted in Council Daybook, Vatican II, Session 4, edited by Floyd Anderson, Washington : National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1966, pp. 14-17.)

  12. Thomas Pink, “Dignitatis Humanae: continuity after Leo XIII,” Available on Quotes are from pp. 3ff.

  13. Clearly there can be no moral right to embrace error, only a political right to be free of external restraint on the part of the state.

  14. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2109.