The Ongoing Debate Over Dignitatis Humanae

The ambiguity of Dignitatis Humanae could lead to an end of the debate surrounding it.

The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” That is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” —G.K. Chesterton

Two polarized positions appear to frame the debate about Dignitatis Humanae. On one side stand conservative defenders of Vatican II, who see the document as liberating the authentic teaching of the Church from imperfections which accrued during the medieval period. Man’s dignity as an image of God is at stake, along with the recognition of free will; to reject religious freedom is to embrace the teachings of Calvinism, Islam, and other doctrines which treat men as mere pawns on a chessboard, to be pushed hither and yon by the pious elect. 

Meanwhile, the most insistent critics of Vatican II insinuate that Dignitatis Humanae is heretical—that it repudiates longstanding teachings regarding the Kingship of Christ and the necessity of promoting a thorough Christianization of society.  

Rather than attempt to choose between these possibilities by dredging up ancient encyclicals and juxtaposing them with the document in question, it might behoove us to make a few observations based upon a plain reading of the text. Above all, Dignitatis Humanae teaches that

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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.

Man’s right to religious freedom is, presumably, rooted in his dignity as a being made in the image of God. Therefore, continues Dignitatis Humanae, injury

is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed. There is a further consideration. 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.

This is not to endorse indifferentism, however. “Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor,” because “the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare.” This favor shown toward religious life “would clearly transgress the limits set to its power,” however, “were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.”

Under a strict construction, there is not much here that readers are likely to deem stumbling blocks; I have yet to meet in the flesh a traditionalist who seriously argues for forced conversions. In fact, to this writer’s knowledge no leading figure in the Church has ever endorsed such a practice. As a matter of principle, Catholics have always held that freedom is an essential albeit mysterious element of man’s nature; the civil power cannot make people virtuous any more than a father can make his children virtuous.  

At the same time, it is possible to create conditions whereby virtues may flourish, which returns us to the idea that government should show “favor” to “the religious life of the citizenry.” One obvious issue here is that the various forms of religious life in the world are not all mutually compatible. For instance, it certainly seems that showing favor to “the religious life” of Muslims and showing favor to “the religious life” of Christians would be two very different things and that the only way to make society such that a Muslim and a Christian feel equally at home would be by leveling the culture so that neither feels especially at home.  

The problem is best highlighted by the explosion of perverse cults: when Vatican II was held, no doubt few of the participants took seriously the possibility of Wiccans or devil-worshippers demanding—much less being granted—equal access to public space. This is in the process of becoming a reality, although the Council Fathers probably did not mean witchcraft when they referred to “the religious life of the citizenry.”  

So, if mainstream conservatives are correct in asserting that Dignitatis Humanae is not so pernicious as traditionalists might claim, this might be because it is not clear whether it says anything definitive at all. Qualifying phrases render the document utterly ambiguous and bear repeating within context: “All men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power,” we are told, “within due limits.” Likewise, authorities must grant “free exercise of religion, provided just public order is observed.” So, of course, we are not being invited to a laissez-faire free-for-all!

The thing is, nowhere does the document make clear what the “due limits” are, or what might be the nature of a “just public order”—surely not trivial details for understanding the application of the teaching. Presumably, “just public order” is to be understood in Catholic terms, but then we are left to wonder how the fresh, exciting new spirit of religious freedom extolled by Dignitatis Humanae is any different from the old formula of tolerating practitioners of other religions even while according the Church a privileged position.  

In other words, religious freedom—as the document professes it—is such a vague concept that an orthodox interpretation is neither ruled out nor mandated. It is as if the great earth-shattering truth of religious freedom turns out to be Liberty is good, tyranny is bad, and people should be free to live as they like—up to a certain point. 

Such a teaching would not be heretical because it would be tautology. It is a teaching with which nobody can argue. Not Lenin, not the SSPX, not Pope John Paul II—nor the Chinese Communist Party, Viktor Orbán, or the ACLU. Yet the teaching is not especially helpful, either, for we are still left wondering what a proper church-state relationship ought to look like. It is almost as if there is no escaping the question of what justice is.


  • Jerry D. Salyer

    Jerry D. Salyer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Miami University and a Master of Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College, Annapolis. A veteran of the US Navy, Mr. Salyer now works as an educator and as a freelance writer.

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