One of the options for a paper topic in the Catholic Social Teaching class that Katie and I are taking this semester is a look at the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis humanae) in comparison to the magisterial teaching of the popes prior to the Council. This little essay proposes one possible solution to the apparent contradictions between pre- and post- Vatican II teaching on religious liberty.
An Interpretation of the Second Vatican Council's
Declaration on Religious Liberty
in Light of Catholic Tradition
One of the most controversial statements of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) appears in Dignitatis humanæ (1965), the Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty:
This Vatican Council declares that 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.At first glance, this declaration seems radically incompatible with the Church's traditional social doctrine. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular, the papal magisterium has explicitly and repeatedly condemned "liberty of conscience" and "liberty of worship" as false doctrines, generally in connection with the idea that error has no rights; the popes have also taught unequivocally that states are morally obliged both to profess the truth of the Catholic faith and to repress religious error (that is, non-Catholic religions). Fidelity to the magisterium of the Church, both past and present, demands that these apparent contradictions be reconciled.
As Pope Benedict XVI indicated in his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, the Second Vatican Council cannot be rightly interpreted through a "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture," but only through a "hermeneutic of reform," that is, of renewal in continuity with the past. The proper interpretation of Dignitatis humanæ therefore also requires the application of a hermeneutic of continuity. That the declaration of the Second Vatican Council on religious liberty is reconcilable with the traditional social doctrine of the Church can and must be demonstrated through an interpretation which does not contradict Catholic tradition, but unfolds in its light.
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