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Acknowledgment of Religious Freedom

German Version


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 2005/12, p. 809-819
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Forty years ago, on 7 December 1965, the 'Declaration on Religious Freedom' - with the initial Latin words "Dignitatis humanae" - was finally adopted by the Second Vatican Council. At its last working day the Council passed in addition to the declaration on religious freedom also the Pastoral Constitution "On the Church in the Modern World" ("Gaudium et Spes"). It was the longest document of the Council, whereas the Declaration on Religious Freedom (after "Nostra etate", the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) was the second shortest. While 'Gaudium and Spes' - according to the custom of earlier councils - got the legal form of a constitution, i.e. of a detailed obligatory instruction {1}, 'Dignitatis humanae' was classified as 'declaration'.

That term does not come from church law but is borrowed from international law. There "declaration" marks a solemn act with which a state brings a certain event or a political attitude to the attention of all other states: for example, that it will make itself independent of the past colonial power; that it will go to war with some other state; that it will behave neutrally in an acute conflict, and something similar {2}. The aim of such declarations is that from now on no other state should be able to plead its ignorance, it had not known of the announced thing. When the Second Vaticanum therefore chose for the document on freedom of religion the form of a declaration, it did not primarily want to describe with it what freedom of religion means and how it can be justified theologically. It rather wanted to inform the world public that one could from now on never say that for the Catholic Church religious freedom was no fundamental right which is based on the dignity of the human person.


A Break in the History of the Catholic Church

To make that declaration was everything else but natural and expectable. It is true, with 2308 yes-votes, and only seventy dissenting votes and eight invalid the final voting turned out quite convincingly. But a history of genesis preceded it that can only be called with Otto Hermann Pesch "turbulent". The Louvain church historians Roger Aubert and Claude Soetens summarize:



The declaration "caused up to the last day a strong polarization among the participants of the council", and "no other document met so much animosity on the side of the minority" {3}.

Already from the beginning of the council the topic 'religious freedom' was disputed, which first should only be treated as part, later as appendix of the ecumenism decree {4}. And it remained also disputed when time and again new, resp. due to the many applications, changed text propositions (altogether six) were submitted. Religious freedom was a problem field that was extensively negotiated during all four sessions. To the open gruelling test it came in the third session, when on 19 November 1964 - directly before the announced voting - Eugène Tisserant, the dean of the Cardinal's Collegium, communicated that the voting was postponed after consultation with some of the members of the presidency. That triggered a storm of annoyance {5}, and led to a sharp petition to the pope, which got within shortest time more than thousand signatures from cardinals and bishops. But they could only achieve that Pope Paul VI gave the guarantee to set the declaration as point one on the agenda of the next session. That 19 November entered as "Black Thursday" into the history of the council.

The actual reason why the resistance against the Declaration on Religious Freedom was so persistent and stronger than with all other documents lies in the history of the church. In order to understand that, I would like to present first substantial contents of the declaration.


Content of the Declaration

The right to religious freedom is proclaimed as right of the human person (DH 2). Even when not explicitly expressed, in the declaration 'right' is in reality understood in the sense of a fundamental, original and unalienable right. Its content is man's freedom "from any coercion" on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power (DH 2). This being free of any compulsion has a positive and a negative dimension. The positive dimension: Nobody may be prevented from acting in religious things according to her/his conscience (DH 2). The negative: Nobody may be forced to act in religious affairs against her/his conscience (DH 2). The right of freedom of compulsion also applies to those who do not use it or use it wrongly (DH 2).

The protection of that right extends to all individuals and, as consequence of the social nature of man, also to religious communities and families (cf. DH 4 and 5). Therefore the declaration stands up not only for the right to religious freedom for church members, but also for the right



of the members of other religious communities, and even of unbelievers to be able to live according to their religious or ideological conviction (DH 4).

The founding base of the right to religious freedom is the dignity of the human person, "as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself" (DH 2). In addition still two further reasons are given: To remain free from (outer) compulsion against the things said by one's conscience, corresponds to the characteristic of religious acts as internal, deliberate and free acts, "whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God" (DH 3). Besides at the end of the declaration is pointed also to the connection between the effective protection of religious freedom and peace in the world (DH 15).

The following tasks are assigned to the legal order of the society and to the national authority regarding religious freedom: to acknowledge this right in such a way "that it becomes a civil right" (DH 2 and 6); to respect and promote the religious life of the citizens without prescribing or obstructing it (DH 3); to take care that the religious communities can arrange their own life, can publicly teach their belief and witness it in word and writing (DH 4); to protect "the right of men freely to hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense" (DH 4). Furthermore the public authority has also to guarantee the right to religious freedom, it has to protect and to promote it, has therefore to create "conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties" (DH 6). Finally "Dignitatis humanae" refers also to the possibility of abusing the right of religious freedom in order to cause damage to individuals or society. Also on this matter the declaration sees the state's duty to protect its citizens against such abuses. Criteria for it are however not error and sin but the same right of others and the maintenance of public order (cf. DH 7).

Interestingly enough the declaration recognizes still a further necessity regarding religious freedom, which it assigns to all men but especially to those who are entrusted with tasks of upbringing and education. It is the necessity to educate people, in view of the many influences to which they are exposed, to the right use of freedom within the area of religion as well as to their responsibility for the society they are living in (DH 8).

According to the declaration the system of coordinates in which the central acknowledgment of religious freedom and the demands mentioned are positioned has two axles: personal liberty of the subject and objective truth. The basic foundation of religious freedom and at the same time its perspective is in man's orientation towards truth. The declaration keeps just as firm to the possibility to recognize truth as to the duty to look for it.



Therefore it repeatedly says that "all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it" (DH 1; similarly DH 2 and 3). That duty however does neither compete with nor is it independent from the right of religious freedom, but has to channel its use. Reversely the obligation to look for truth is not something that has to be realized against any obstacle, if necessary also by use of compulsion, but something that is to be realized only "in a manner proper to the dignity of the human" (DH 3), i.e. with free agreement. The relating of truth and liberty is therefore presented as mutual: truth presupposes liberty and liberty has its aim and fulfilment in truth. According to that the right of religious freedom has its actual justification in its function for the religious truth.


A Paradigm Change

Exactly that mutual relation of truth and liberty is the new view which distinguishes the position of the 'Declaration on Religious Freedom' from the official position of the Catholic Church represented until then. That old view did not see truth and liberty in the human person as mutually enabling each other, but stated them as two independent requirements which competed with each other in the social reality and could only be made compatible when they were clearly set above or beneath each other. The principle of that order (subordination) however was the formula "Liberty For Truth, but No Liberty For Error" {6}. Only truth can claim to be heard and spread publicly; and it may not be clouded by being placed on the same stage with all possible errors, and exposed to the arbitrariness of subjective meaning and selecting. For this point of view popes and other authorities could inter alia rely upon St Augustine's authority, who in one of his letters had urgently put the rhetorical question: 'Which death can be worse for the soul than freedom of error?' {7}

From that traditional vantage point it seemed completely consistent to see in the active protection of truth and in the defence from and suppression of obvious errors, especially errors within the range of religion and faith, an original task of the authority, respectively the State. Since the nineteenth century however that seemed possible only in states dominated by Catholics, whereas errors could be endured to prevent greater evils or to achieve other higher goods where Catholics were only a minority {8}.



That was the official position, which was expressed in all sharpness still at the end of Pius' XII pontificate, for example by the director of the Holy Officium, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, when he e.g. answered to the objection that this position was contradictory and dishonest:

"Indeed, you must take two different measures and weights: one for truth, the other for error. As people who know themselves to be in safe possession of truth and justice we do not compare ourselves with others." {9}

It was that position which was obstinately defended by a minority of bishops who voted against the declaration on religious freedom during the Second Vaticanum. It is also the reason for the fact that the Catholic Church in its official representatives so energetically rejected and dismissed in a massive polemic as "monster" {10}, "insolence" {11}, "epidemic error" {12}, and "insanity" {13} the request for the right to religious freedom as it had repeatedly been raised due to painful experiences in the course of the modern times and had become a substantial part of all liberal constitutions.

That polemic certainly reached its summit in the encyclical letter of Pius IX "Quanta cura", and in the "Syllabus errorum" of 1864 attached to it. Among the eighty sentences listed among the "errors of the century" ("errores saeculi") are also the following, which had to be regarded "as completely rejected, proscribed and condemned":

"15. Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true."
"16. Man may, in the observance of any religion whatever, find the way of eternal salvation, and arrive at eternal salvation." {14}
"76.The abolition of the temporal power of which the Apostolic See is possessed would contribute in the greatest degree to the liberty and prosperity of the Church."
"77. In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship." {15}

In agreement with an earlier official doctrinal document the encyclical letter affirmed the judgment about the demand that "freedom of conscience and of God's veneration are each individual's particular right, which is legally to be described and protected in every state with an orderly constitution" {16} as "insanity". By that religious freedom was - as human right and as cultural and legal value - clearly and in principle rejected, and not only the exaggerations and abuses of it.

If one makes sure of the accurate date of the promulgation of "Quanta cura" and "Syllabus" - it was December 8th 1864 -, then one may understand



a bit that the minority of the bishops that was against the declaration on religious freedom, was exactly hundred years later worried still by some other problem, namely by the concern whether an official declaration of belief in the cause of religious freedom from the side of the church would not inevitably damage the continuity and the time-transcending claim of the church doctrine. For the advocates of such a declaration on the other hand it was absolutely necessary to express explicitly in the text of the planned declaration the break with and the regret about the earlier position of the church {17}. But then they abstained from it in order to avoid a further kindling of the resistance that came particularly from the circles of the Spanish and Italian bishops.

By the way, the effort to take the wind out of the sails of those who were concerned about the continuity left traces in the final text of the declaration on religious freedom. Already in the first article it says that the council, in its intention to give a declaration on religious freedom, had asked the "sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church-the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old" (DH 1). This statement of a positional continuity does not simply turn the historical truth upside down, but it is at least in this sense "distorted" as it simply omits the harsh and clear condemnations which - since the time of the French Revolution - shaped all the official church statements dealing with the modern culture and the liberal state. And it refrains from mentioning in clear words the victims of intolerance and violence in 'serving the truth', in view of whom Pope John Paul II in his solemn plea on the first Lent Sunday in 2000 had asked for forgiveness {18}.

Instead of it the declaration develops two other lines of theological continuity. The first refers to the theological reflection and the old teachings that the 'act of faith', even if it is obligating, can be set only voluntarily. For this one can refer to a stately number of appropriate places in the theological works of church fathers and church doctors, and also to resolutions of synods {19}; from those reflections it can be derived that nobody may be forced against her/his will to accept faith (DH 10 and 12). The second line of continuity is found in occasional statements of the newer popes since Pius XI about the foundation of religious freedom in the dignity of the human person, as they were then summarized and in prominent place expressed above all in the encyclical letter "Pacem in terris" of the Council Pope John XXIII {20}. In pursuit of that argumentation the Declaration on Religious Freedom tries also to show in its second part, which was comparatively late added, that religious freedom is deeply rooted in the biblical revelation, as it were, implicitly in the things said in Jesus' gospel about the dignity of man, about its vocation and about the acceptance of faith.



The text of the Declaration on Religious Freedom does therefore everything to play down the break with tradition. The sentence in article 12 remains the only critical remark, "In the life of the People of God, as it has made its pilgrim way through the vicissitudes of human history, there has at times appeared a way of acting that was hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel or even opposed to it." (DH 12).

How little one nonetheless succeeded in durably covering this discontinuity can be seen in the arguments with the movement around the emeritus Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre after the council. It saw namely just in the point 'religious freedom' a betrayal of the church doctrine {21}. In an interview with the Herder-Korrespondenz in the year 1988 the superior of the 'Priests' Brotherhood Pius X' declared that the movement did not reject the Second Vaticanum altogether, but probably certain declarations and decrees of that council, as the Ecumenism Decree. As examples are mentioned the 'Declaration on Religious Freedom', the declaration 'Nostra aetate', and the pastoral constitution 'Gaudium et spes', "because with them a break with the past teachings was carried out" {22}; w e decide in favour of the Syllabus." {23}


Epochal Importance

That confirms, as it were, in a negative, the enormous increase of insight, and the church-historical importance of the council's Declaration on Religious Freedom, that can hardly be overrated. In what does the epochal importance lie? At least the following four points should be appreciated:

  1. Value and dignity of the individual's conscience are seriously and almost solemnly emphasized. According to the document the religious as well as the moral truth altogether can only be recognized in the conscience. From the dignity of each human being as person - and only from it - arises its freedom to worship and to act according to its own convictions. Since truth does not force itself upon man simply with blind power, but is only recognized by imparting of his conscience and practical reason, nobody may be forced to do something against his conscience, or be prevented from acting in accordance with his conscience. The perspective of the respective individual is crucial, and must therefore be respected and protected, even if his conscience depends during the formation of the judgement on information, research, dialogue, and exchange with others about their experiences (cf. DH 3).
  2. By that Declaration on Religious Freedom politics and state are now also relieved from a centuries-, yes, millennium-long task to be servants and protectors of the religious truth.



    Politics and religion, respectively state and church have to be distinguished in principle as well as concretely as two spheres, and as two different societies. Consequently the state cannot be responsible for everything: Everything that concerns faith, confession, but also common modes of expression, organization, appointment of officials, the formation of associations and charity work, or belongs otherwise to worship ... the state must not take in hand by authority but has to leave it to the religious communities and their members. The state has therefore to allow that they take care for certain tasks and that they take part by means of public opinion in the organization and advancement of the society. But it has also to refrain from founding on (or legitimating by) faith its claim for rule, its perspectives and functions as well as the obligations of its citizens. Even if it, like the German state, wants to remain open in certain areas for co-operation with the religious communities, as state - which respects religious freedom and legally guarantees it - it has to be politically worldly and neutral; no longer Christian faith but people's sovereignty and religious freedom and with it the other fundamental rights are the obligatory basis of the state. Its primary task is not the creation of unity by truth but the keeping and the establishment of peace among the citizens within society.

  3. Under these basic conditions also the position of religion in regard to society inevitably changes. It loses the claim to all privileges which it gathered in one and a half millennia and to which it had gotten accustomed. In particular, there must no longer be any state religion ordered by the constitution. If religion wants to exert further influence on the social process, it must use others than political means and ways, for instance intellectual, spiritual, charitable or educational ones, in order to convince people of the truth of its message. It does no longer automatically participate everywhere, and has no longer any direct and official influence on politics. It has rather to take care itself that it remains visible in public life. And it has also to live with the fact that competition with it exists. It can no longer call the lay arm to assistance in order to eliminate deviations or to get rid of annoying competition. If someone completely says good-bye to it, this remains even without any consequence as regards the state. For its part religion does relinquish any means of force by recognizing freedom of religion.

    With this twofold independence of state and politics on the one hand and religion and religious community on the other hand the end of that system of politics and religion takes place which had begun with the admission of Christianity by Emperor Constantine (330) and its being made obligatory by Emperor Theodosius I (381), and which had up to the French Revolution (1789) offered the common basic conception; afterwards however it was still kept only in some states.



    The Declaration on Religious Freedom of the Second Vaticanum means in this respect on the part of the church "the end of the Middle Ages, the end of the Constantine era", as the then council advisor and observer Joseph Ratzinger already formulated in 1965 {24}.

  4. Religious freedom and the partly subordinated, partly preceding freedom of conscience have become the paradigm, the real thing [Ernstfall], and the starting point for the church's high estimation of the other human rights. That is above all the road which the teaching of the church took with amazing consequence and seriousness in the past decades after the council. The dynamics to see in the religious freedom the "foundation-stone of the building of the human rights" {25} and the "core" and the "heart" of all human rights {26} began already in 1979 with the inaugural encyclical letter "Redemptor hominis" of Pope John Paul II and is up to the recent time varied and unfolded in most different contexts - work, mission, peace, international development, arising fundamentalisms, security politics, Europe, education:

    "Religious freedom, which is still at times limited or restricted, remains the premise and guarantee of all the freedoms that ensure the common good of individuals and peoples" {27}, it says in this sense in the Mission Encyclical Letter of 1990.

    Like no other human right religious freedom namely expresses the priority of the human person in relation to every political order and its openness to the good.


Recognized and endangered at the Same Time

This effort to develop the world public's awareness of religious freedom as criterion and starting-point of the human rights politics meets quite open ears, because also today in many regions of the world the demand for religious freedom is by no means caught up with {28}, and almost daily its denial is the reason for new and bitter conflicts and for experiences of injustice.

But also in those states in which religious freedom is long since a secured fundamental right recognized by all citizens, it is - in view of the threat by acts of violence in the name of religion and in view of the fragility of the living together with people of other cultures and religions - exposed to wholly new tests. While the first of those two dangers in the Declaration on Religious Freedom is already clear-sightedly anticipated by taking the question about the limits of religious freedom as theme (DH 7), the second problem is completely new in its urgency: By events as the collective suicide of more than 500 sectarians in Uganda (2000) or the murder of the Islam-critical film producer Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands (in November 2004) the society



is suddenly and brutally confronted with the question whether religious freedom is sufficiently realized by the sole practice of passive tolerance and indifference or whether it requires also the active respect for (cultural and religious) differences and the fighting engagement for one's own value convictions.

Active respect and fighting commitment are possibly not only important for the relationship between religions but probably represent - in view of the many differing evaluations which exist in modern society - a challenge for quite a lot of social areas.



{1} Details for this with O. H. Pesch, Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil (1962-1965), Vorgeschichte, Verlauf, Ergebnisse, Nachgeschichte (Würzburg ²1994) 78-81; F. X. Bischof, Die Konzilserklärung über die Religionsfreiheit Dignitatis humanae, in: Vierzig Jahre II. Vatikanum. Zur Wirkgeschichte der Konzilstexte, edited by the same and St. Leimgruber (Würzburg 2004) 334-354.

{2} S. O. Kimminich, Einführung in das Völkerrecht (München ³1987) 455.

{3} R. Aubert u. C. Soetens, Resultate, in: Die Geschichte des Christentums: Religion - Politik - Kultur, volume 13, edited by J.-M. Mayeur and others (Freiburg 2002) 72-104, 90.

{4} The previous history is in detail explained with P. Pavan, Einleitung u. Kommentar zur Erklärung über die Religionsfreiheit, in: LThK. E 2, 704-748; most recently: R. A. Siebenrock, Theologischer Kommentar zur Erklärung über die religiöse Freiheit Dignitatis humanae, in: Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil, volume 4, edited by P. Hünermann and B. J. Hilberath (Freiburg 2005) 125-218.

{5} For experiencing that day see autobiographically Y. Congar, Mon Journal du Concile, volume 2 (Paris 2002) 278-284.

{6} See a detailed explanation of that principle in: Leo XIII., Enzyklika "Libertas praestantissimum" (1888), in: Die Katholische Sozialdoktrin in ihrer geschichtlichen Entfaltung, 4 volumes, edited by A. Utz and B. v. Galen (Aachen 1976) marginal no. II/59.

{7} Augustinus, ep. 166: PL 33, 720.

{8} For instance Leo XIII., Enzyklika "Immortale Dei" (1885): ASS 18 (1885/86) 162-175; 174f; the same, Enzyklika "Libertas praestantissimum" (1887): ASS 20 (1887/88) 593-595, 609f.; Pius XII., Ansprache an die Mitglieder der Sacra Rota v. 6.10.1946: ASS 38 (1946) 394f.; the same, Ansprache an den Verband der katholischen Juristen Italiens v. 6.12.1953: ASS 45 (1953) 799.

{9} Cited after J. Isensee, Die katholische Kritik an den Menschenrechten. Der liberale Freiheitsentwurf in der Sicht der Päpste des 19. Jahrhunderts, in: Menschenrechte u. Menschenwürde. Historische Voraussetzungen - säkulare Gestalt - christliches Verständnis, edited by E.-W. Böckenförde and R. Spaemann (Stuttgart 1987) 138-174, 154.

{10} Pius VI., Breve "Quod aliquantum" (1791), in : Sozialdoktrin (note 6) marginal no. XXVI/10.

{11} Gregor XVI., Enzyklika "Mirari vos" (1832), In the same place marginal no. II/29.

{12} In the same place marginal no. II/14.

{13} In the same place; Pius IX., Enzyklika "Quanta cura" (1864), In the same place marginal no. II/29.

{14} Cited after DH 2915 and 2916.

{15} Cited after: In the same place 2976 and 2977.

{16} Cf. note 12.

{17} Pavan (note 4) 709, 710.

{18} Text in: Erinnern u. Versöhnen. Die Kirche u. die Verfehlungen in ihrer Vergangenheit, edited by the International Theological Commission (Einsiedeln 2000) 120-128, 122.

{19} Cf. Notes 4, 8 and 9 of the Declaration.

{20} Cf. Notes 4, 5 and 9 of the Declaration.

{21} "Es geht ganz zentral um Lehrfragen. (It is quite central about questions of doctrine)" Ein Gespräch mit F. Schmidberger, in: HerKorr 42 (1988) 417-424.

{22} At the same place 418, 423.

{23} At the same place 418.

{24} J. Ratzinger, Ergebnisse u. Probleme der dritten Konzilsperiode (Köln 1965) 31.

{25} Johannes Paul II., Botschaft zur Feier des Weltfriedenstages 1988: Religionsfreiheit, Bedingung für friedliches Zusammenleben, in: Der Apostolische Stuhl 1988 (Köln without year) 883-890, 883 (Introduction).

{26} The same: Botschaft zur Feier des Weltfriedenstages 1999, no. 5.

{27} The same: Enzyklika "Redemptoris Missio" on the lasting validity of the missionary order (1990), VApSt 100 (Bonn 1990) 43f., no. 39.

{28} Cf. to it inter alia the dossier "Christen in der Bedrängnis" of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Mai/Juni 2003.


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