Vatican II Followed Ottaviani on Church and State

For many people, Alfredo Ottaviani—head of the Holy Office (later the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) from 1952 to 1968—is the epitome of intransigent, pre-Vatican II Catholicism. He is what the Council had repudiated and moved beyond, or so it is supposed. Indeed, the sentiment expressed by the motto of Cardinal Ottaviani’s coat of arms, Semper idem (“Always the same”), would seem worlds away from Vatican II aggiornamento. And yet Ottaviani played an important role in the Council. He was the chair of the theological commission both in the preparatory stages and during the Council sessions. This made him rather influential, although his influence was considerably mitigated by prelates and periti who opposed his views.

Ottaviani’s clashes with the “progressives” at the Council are legendary. Among the most acrimonious of these was with the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Josef Frings, who, in the course of a speech to the Council fathers on November 8, 1963, denounced the methods of Ottaviani’s Holy Office as “unsuitable for the times” and a “scandal.” Yves Congar reports that after this Ottaviani “got into a great temper” and, when it came his time to speak, retorted that Frings’s comments proceeded from ignorance, “not to call it something else.”

Ottaviani’s Speech at the Lateran
I shall have more to say about the Council later. In the meantime I would like to go back a little further, to 1953, nine years before the Council’s opening. On March 2 of that year, in the context of a celebration of the fourteenth anniversary of Pius XII’s election as pope, Ottaviani delivered a paper in the aula magna of the Lateran University in Rome with the title “Chiesa e Stato: alcuni problemi presenti alla luce del magistero di Pio XII” (“Church and State: Some Present Problems in the Light of the Magisterium of Pius XII”). His remarks would cause something of a stir. According to Joseph Komonchak, the French and Irish ambassadors to the Holy See expressed their concerns to its officials about Ottaviani’s speech. Writing with obvious agitation in Il Mondo the following month, Italian historian and politician, Gaetano Salvemini stated that he rejected Ottaviani’s principal theses sic et simpliciter. And in the U.S., The New York Times and Time magazine both published stories on the event at the Lateran.

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AlfredoOttavianiThat Ottaviani’s paper should have raised eyebrows might seem odd, for he did little more than repeat previous magisterial teaching on the relationship between the Church and state. As the ex-Jesuit Antonio Márquez explained six years later in an analysis of Ottaviani’s paper for Theology Today, the cardinal “merely reiterated the old doctrine.” So why the clamor over his remarks? It goes without saying that the teaching presented by Ottaviani is radically counter-modern. But I don’t think that this sufficiently explains the reaction to it. No doubt there was a combination of factors. It had probably been over half a century since this teaching had been expressed in public so baldly and so comprehensively by such a highly placed ecclesiastic. Moreover, this teaching opposed (and Ottaviani stresses this) certain influential contemporary Catholic approaches to Church and state, in particular those championed by Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, and Robert Rouquette. Ottaviani does not name them but he does quote from their work. Finally, there is the Spanish question. Ottaviani defends the Franco regime’s polices—as set down in the Fuero de los Españoles—on Church and state, which make Catholicism the official creed while restricting the freedom of non-Catholic religions. For many people at the time (including many Catholics), this sort of thing was exactly what was wrong with Spain under the Generalissimo, and for Ottaviani to defend these policies was deeply offensive. (Obviously, Ottaviani’s approval of the regime’s policies on Church and state should not be regarded as a tacit approval of all of its policies and practices.)

Rather than running through all the details of Ottaviani’s speech—a valuable exercise, but one for another occasion—I shall go right to its heart. He explains upfront that his main concern is with countries in which the vast majority of the population is Catholic. As examples, he mentions Spain and Italy. But Ottaviani is also describing what he sees as the ideal, which, evidently, would include a population with an absolute Catholic majority. He advances three principal theses. I shall state each one together with a summary of the reasoning behind it:

  1. The state should publicly profess the Catholic faith. People living together in society are no less under God’s authority than are individuals. The society’s political leaders, then, ought to recognize this sovereignty publicly. This by no means entails that the Church and state are identical. As Ottaviani puts it, the Church, like the state, is a società perfetta, a “perfect society,” that is, the Church, in the supernatural sphere, is a complete community; but she is not a state, which is a complete community in the natural sphere.
  1. Legislation should be informed by Catholic moral principles. This, says Ottaviani, follows straightforwardly from the first principle.
  1. The state should defend the people’s unity in the Catholic faith. Granting false religions rights that are equal to those of the Catholic religion threatens the people’s unity in the true faith. And the latter, Ottaviani holds, is a good that the state cannot neglect.

In the published version of Ottaviani’s paper, a section was added on religious toleration. In it he points out that even in predominantly Catholic countries conditions may, for grave reasons, warrant the state’s toleration of the practice of other religions, although, he adds, this should not include freedom to promote other religions publicly.

On this same topic, Ottaviani explains that while people—rather than truth and error—are the subjects of rights, the truth or erroneousness of people’s religious beliefs determines something about their rights as believers. Consequently, those with false beliefs cannot demand religious rights equal to the rights of those with true beliefs.

In countries where Catholicism does not enjoy exclusive recognition and protection by the state and all religions are conferred equal rights, Ottaviani says that the Church need not appeal to the rights of God or the true religion but to the state’s own policy of equal treatment of religions.

Besides the negative reactions to Ottaviani’s paper, there were also appreciative ones. Present on the occasion was Giulio Andreotti, a prominent member of the Democrazia Cristiana who two decades later would become Italy’s prime minister. In his diary that day Andreotti wrote: “Profound speech of Cardinal Ottaviani, at the Lateran, on Church and state. Clear positions, but respectful.” Bologna’s L’Avvenire d’Italia called Ottaviani’s speech “masterful.” One of Ottaviani’s friends and allies in the U.S., Joseph Fenton, editor of The American Ecclesiastical Review, eagerly published an abridged English translation of the paper in his journal in May. The Newark Advocate, the archdiocesan newspaper of Newark, published a complete translation that same month.

Church, State, and Religious Freedom at Vatican II
At this point I would like to return to Vatican II. The conventional wisdom seems to be that with the Council there was a dramatic shift in the Church’s understanding of her relationship to the state. On my reading of the Council documents, there are two things that should be mentioned in response to this view. First, Vatican II has very little to say expressly about the normative relationship between the Catholic Church and the state. There is certainly no systematic treatment of it. Second, in what the Council does say about this relationship, the shift is probably less dramatic than many people think. In fact, this is suggested by the bishops themselves at the very beginning of Dignitatis humanae when they declare that in this document the Council “leaves untouched traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (§1).

But if, contrary to what the above line of Dignitatis humanae appears to imply, Vatican II had inaugurated a dramatic shift in the Church’s understanding of her relationship to the state, we would expect Ottaviani’s theses to be in direct conflict with doctrinal statements of the Council. Is that really the case?

With respect to the first thesis—according to which the state should publicly profess the Catholic faith—there is nothing in the Council documents that denies this. In Gaudium et spes §76 it is noted that “[t]he Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system” and that “the Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other.” This distinction between the Church and state, however, does not exclude their working together. Thus, the Council fathers add that “[t]he more that both foster sounder cooperation between themselves with due consideration for the circumstances of time and place, the more effective will their service be exercised for the good of all.” As we saw earlier, Ottaviani too thinks that the proper spheres of Church and state must be distinguished. And he too, like the Council, does not see this as at all excluding cooperation between them.

A little later in Gaudium et spes §76, the Council fathers indicate that, should legitimately acquired privileges from the state “cast doubt on the sincerity of [the Church’s] witness” or should “new ways of life demand new methods,” the Church would be prepared to relinquish her privileged status in a given state. But this is obviously a prudential judgment and says nothing about the ideal relationship between Church and state, which is Ottaviani’s principal concern.

Importantly, Dignitatis humanae §6 acknowledges that in certain countries some religious communities might have special recognition by the state. The document says nothing against this arrangement but advises that in such circumstances “it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice.”

With respect to the second thesis—according to which legislation should be informed by Catholic moral principles—again, there is nothing taught by Vatican II that is contrary to this. Furthermore, if we consider the fact that the Council has a lot to say about proper political practice, especially in Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae, the bishops would be guilty of a performative contradiction were they to propose that Catholic moral principles not inform the legislation of states.

Finally, with respect to the third thesis—according to which the state should defend the people’s unity in the Catholic faith—no document of Vatican II denies this. Undoubtedly, some people will object that Dignitatis humanae’s proclamation of religious freedom, even for non-Catholics, is incompatible with the state taking measures against other religions in defense of Catholicism. But let’s not forget that Dignitatis humanae does not support an absolute right to religious freedom. The right to religious freedom is always “within due limits.” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, these “due limits” of which Dignitatis humanae speaks “must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order” (§2109). It is entirely possible that a Catholic state could reasonably determine that, say, proselytizing or the promotion of acts of violence against Catholics by non-Catholic religions are a threat to the country’s common good (which could not but include adherence to the Catholic faith) and, thus, set just limits on the practice of these religions.

As far as I can see, then, Ottaviani’s theses are perfectly compatible with the teaching of Vatican II. But there should be nothing bewildering about this. After all, as I have already observed, in the 1953 speech Ottaviani only restates previous magisterial teaching. Had his theses been incompatible with the Council, the Council would have been incompatible with previous magisterial teaching. But if that were so, we would have to admit that Vatican II had fallen into doctrinal error and is not of the Holy Spirit. Although it may be true that, as George Weigel tells us (not without a certain satisfaction), “Ottaviani lost virtually every one of the battles he fought at Vatican II,” previous magisterial teaching on Church and state remained intact. And, thus, Ottaviani’s defeat, however crushing, was not—and could not be—total.

Evidently, we Americans are experiencing a time in our country in which the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state is an unhappy one, to put it mildly. And it may seem a bit pointless to muse, as I have been doing here, about what their ideal relationship should be. But if we do not know how things should be, we will be unable to judge wisely about our present situation and make prudent decisions about how to respond to it.

(Vatican Council photo credit: Keystone/Getty Images)


  • Joseph G. Trabbic

    Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and is the assistant editor of, a website for the academic study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Trabbic earned his doctorate from Fordham University in 2008.

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