Much has been made of the innovation of Vatican II in the question of religious freedom. Was this really a change in doctrine?

Question: Much has been made of the innovation of Vatican II in the question of religious freedom. Was this really a change in doctrine?

From Homiletic & Pastoral Review: Questions Answered


Answer: [In a nutshell, yes]

The question of religious freedom is one which occupies a good deal of dissatisfaction with Vatican II. The understanding of the Council regarding this can be found in the document, Dignitatis Humanae. From the outset, it is important to keep clear that though there should be a freedom of conscience in embracing the truth, this is not true regarding what constitutes the truth itself, and especially, the religious truth in relation to the society of the Church.

Some theologians after Vatican II saw the Council’s teaching as an assault on the Scholastic idea of an objective nature of man which had been the basis for moral teaching in the Church for centuries. For example, John Mahoney, S.J., in the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford published in 1987, opines:

It may also be a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional concept of “nature” which has contributed in recent years to the focus on moral attention moving from “human nature” to “human person” or “human dignity.” Thus, the Second Vatican Council was certainly not unaware of the whole moral tradition centered on the law of nature when it nevertheless considered basing objective moral standards on “the dignity of the human person,” and finally decided to propose the need for such standards as based on the “nature of the {human} person and his act.”

One should beware of reading a denial of the philosophia perennis. Mahoney seems to imply that this was the purpose of the Council Fathers.

People like Daniel Maguire used the teaching on religious liberty as a touchstone to show that the Church had basically jettisoned the traditional Scholastic idea of an objective human nature.

Even this brief look at the history of our moral teaching should prompt us to describe our teaching competence in more modern terms. Either we must admit a drastic relativism which would allege that all of that teaching was right in its day or we must admit the presence of error in the history of the pilgrim church […] To stress the point: […] the teaching of Gregory XVI and Pius IX that it was “madness” to allege religious freedom as a right of man, and a necessity of society, and the proclamation of Vatican II that such freedom is a right and necessity in society—such teachings are not consistent or mutually irreconcilable. Even full recognition of the historical context that spawned these statements does not establish doctrinal continuity. (In Readings in Moral Theology, 1982, 45)

Daniel Maquire even goes so far as to say:

Still, to assert that in all this there is no {doctrinal} change is to play semantic games.(Ibid.)

Though it is true that for many centuries the Church had taught the importance of the state having an established religion, this was never represented in such a way as to teach that people should be coerced into a particular religion by the state. In fact, long before Vatican II, Leo XIII had emphasized a kind of civil right of religion free from coercion, in a distinction he made in one of his encyclicals, Libertas Praestissimum:

Another liberty is widely advocated, namely, liberty of conscience. If by this is meant that everyone, as he chooses, worship God or not, it is sufficiently refuted by the arguments adduced. But it may also be taken to mean that every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey his commands. This indeed, is true liberty, a liberty worthy of the sons of God. (30)

Vatican II makes clear that the religious freedom referred to is that freedom from coercion, which is based on the nature of the will, embracing any moral act invoked by Leo XIII.

But men cannot satisfy their obligation in a way in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy both psychological freedom, and immunity from external coercion. Therefore, the right to religious freedom has its foundation, not in the subjective attitude of the individual, but in his very nature. (Dignitatis Humanae, 2)

Nor is this just an accretion of Enlightenment thinking. Thomas Aquinas teaches this same freedom from coercion which is taught by Vatican II:

Among the unbelievers, there are some who have never received the faith, such as heathens and Jews: and these are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will. Nevertheless, they should be compelled by the faithful, if it be possible to do so, so that they may not hinder the faith either by blasphemies, or by evil persuasions, or even by open persecutions. (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 10, 8 ad corp.)

The key to the solution to this problem lies in an important distinction which first recognizes the obligation of the intellect to assent to the truth. Conscience is bound to seek the truth, and there is only one true religion. From the standpoint of truth, there is only one true religion, and all are morally obliged to seek it. There is no religious freedom in the sense of indifferentism, which teaches that all religions are really saying the same thing. But the other side of the distinction expresses the necessity of seeking this truth, without compromising the freedom of the will by coercion. Coerced conversions would be both immoral and contrary to faith. The act of faith must be free to be moral.

The Church recognized in Vatican II that state coercion in religion might not only compromise the truth of Christian conversion, but also lead to coercion of the Church as has been practiced many times in civil societies, even Catholic ones, over the centuries.

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One comment on “Much has been made of the innovation of Vatican II in the question of religious freedom. Was this really a change in doctrine?

  1. How would Fr. Mullady explain that based on the teachings of Vatican II some Catholic governments were pressured by the Vatican to revise their constitutions in such a way as to become less Catholic?

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