Dignitatis humanae

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Dignitatis humanae [lower-alpha 1] (Of the Dignity of the Human Person) is the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom. [1] In the context of the council's stated intention "to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society", Dignitatis humanae spells out the church's support for the protection of religious liberty. It set the ground rules by which the church would relate to secular states.


The passage of this measure by a vote of 2,308 to 70 is considered by many to be one of the most significant events of the council. [2] This declaration was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965.

Dignitatis humanae became one of the key points of dispute between the Vatican and traditionalists such as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who argued that the council document was incompatible with previous authoritatively stated Catholic teaching.


Earlier Catholic view

Historically, the ideal of Catholic political organization was a tightly interwoven structure of the Catholic Church and secular rulers generally known as Christendom, with the Catholic Church having a favoured place in the political structure. [3] In 1520, Pope Leo X in the papal bull Exsurge Domine had condemned the proposition "That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit" as one of a number of errors that were "destructive, pernicious, scandalous, and seductive to pious and simple minds". [4] [5] [6]

This ideal was challenged by the Protestant Reformation, the rise of nation-states and the Enlightenment. The French Revolution, the failed radical Revolutions of 1848 and the loss of the Papal States traumatized many Catholic leaders, who held on to traditional ideas of relations with the secular powers.

Pope Pius IX had condemned the idea of abstract religious freedom. Pope Leo XIII, who had established working relationships with both the French and German secular statesmen, issued the bull Testem benevolentiae nostrae against the Americanist heresy, alleged by some to be a specifically European problem wherein the attempt was made to apply democratic concepts and American models of church–state relations to Catholic Church governance in Europe.

The Spanish model

The result was that as of the mid-20th century, an example of Catholic church–state relations was the Catholic situation in Spain (nacionalcatolicismo), where the Catholic Church:

  • was officially recognized and protected by the state,
  • had substantial control over social policy, and
  • had this relationship explicitly set out in a concordat.

It had long been the policy of the Catholic Church to support toleration of competing religions under such a scheme, but to support legal restrictions on attempts to convert Catholics to those religions.

John Courtney Murray

The Spanish approach to church–state relations was problematic for many American Catholics. By the mid-20th century, the Catholic Church in the United States had managed to overcome much of the deeply held anti-Catholic belief that marked the nativist movements of the 19th century, partly fuelled by concerns about church–state separation. The prohibition of the establishment of a state church, required by the Bill of Rights, had allowed the construction of an extensive network of Catholic educational, health-care and social service institutions. But some, following the view of the influential priest and economist John A. Ryan, believed that established Catholic teachings conflicted with the American experience of religious freedom, holding that if Catholics ever became the majority group, they would be bound to enact, if possible, the kind of church–state relationship that existed in countries such as Spain.[ citation needed ] The arrangements in the United States were permissible only as long as the other model was not politically feasible.[ citation needed ]

By the early 1940s, however, the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray perceived that the most important coming challenge was secularism, a challenge that could best be confronted by many faith communities working together. The American view of separate church and state led to understandable mistrust of the motives of a quickly growing American Catholic community. Murray began to develop a view based on the American experience, where a government limited by law protects the liberty of all religious communities equally, while the church pursues its aims by exercising its influence in society in general, without relying on government intervention to enforce the church's beliefs. This view was developed in a series of articles in such Catholic journals as America, while Joseph Fenton, [7] as editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review, defended the traditional view and asserted that Murray's views contradicted essential Catholic teachings. In 1954 Murray's ideas were censored by the Secretary of the Holy Office and he ceased publishing works on this specific topic until his vindication by Vatican II. [8]

Vatican II and religious freedom

Preparation and first session (1962)

The initial conflict was regarding just what model of religious freedom was to be put before the council, with the traditionalists calling for religious tolerance but claiming that an abstract right to religious liberty was relativistic. [9] Before the council both the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity led by Cardinal Augustin Bea [ citation needed ] and the Theological Commission (led by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani)[ citation needed ] introduced revised drafts of statements to the Central Commission. Pope John XXIII in July appointed an ad hoc joint committee to resolve differences and Bea's "Unity" submitted a revised draft. Negotiations between the various commissions broke down after this point.[ citation needed ]

The first session concentrated mainly on liturgy and on the nature of the church. A declaration on religious freedom, largely drawn from the "Unity" draft, was made part (chapter V) of the schema on Ecumenism; the bishops did not have time to get to it. On January 13, after the close of the first session, Bea indicated at a talk at Pro Deo University in Rome that he intended to prepare a constitution on human freedom for the next session, to make sure the issue would not go away.

On June 3, 1963, Pope John XXIII died in Rome. Pope Paul VI was elected on June 21 and immediately indicated that the council would continue.

Second session (1963)

John Courtney Murray was called to the council in April 1963 at the request of Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York (who was otherwise a theological conservative) to be a peritus , despite Ottaviani's well-known animosity towards him. Much of the material used by various bishops, especially American bishops, on the subject was drafted by Murray. Conflict over a possible declaration on religious liberty continued during this session, with the current draft taken off the agenda at one point during the fall, then placed back on it in response to pressure from the American bishops.

A key point in the process came on Monday, November 11 and Tuesday, November 12, when the generally conservative Theological Commission met to determine if the draft on religious freedom was to be submitted to the council in some form. Both Murray and Fenton were in attendance and Murray was one of the speakers on the subject. Some authors such as Xavier Rynne have reported that the conservative members of the commission attempted to delay the vote on the 12th, but were forced to it by the rest of the members. The vote was 185 in favor of reporting the text to the council for consideration. After this point, the conflict moved from arguing over the content of the proposed declaration, to fighting over whether it would be voted on before the council concluded.

The schema on ecumenism, with chapter V concerning religious freedom, was formally introduced and discussed but not voted on, again due to lack of time. American bishops helped successfully press for papal assurances that chapter V would get a council vote, perhaps as a separate document. During this entire time, pressure continued on Murray, with Apostolic Delegate to the US Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi attempting to silence him. Spellman, along with Murray's Jesuit superiors, continued to shield him from most attempts at Curial interference.

Third session (1964)

The debate on a separate Declaration on Religious Liberty was held on September 23 – September 25, as promised by Pope Paul the year before. However, in October an attempt was made by the Curial party to return this declaration to review by a special commission, which contained many hostile members and was outside the jurisdiction of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. [10] Protest by bishops to Pope Paul resulted in the declaration staying under Unity with a different working commission which reviewed and amended it. [11] This Declaration on Religious Liberty was approved by Theological Commission on November 9.

The showdown on the declaration is often called Black Thursday (Thursday, November 19), though Murray preferred the term "Day of Wrath". The text of the declaration was handed out on Tuesday, November 17 with an announcement that the usual preliminary vote with modifications would be taken on Thursday. The third session overall was slated to close on Saturday November 21. That text had been extensively revised, and in Murray's opinion weakened. The majority of council fathers wanted a vote before the end of the session to approve desired modifications to the text and to reassure observers that the council would indeed approve such a declaration at all. Curial conservatives quietly organized a group of 200 mostly Italian and Spanish bishops to ask for further delay in order to further study the document. This request was introduced suddenly on Thursday and quickly approved by one of the four council Presidents. The resulting furor was reported by many to be the worst during the four years of the council. A handwritten appeal, reportedly signed by as many as 1000 bishops, was made to the pope to allow some kind of vote during third session. Pope Paul, however, ruled that the decision was proper under Council rules and that he could not interfere with it. He did promise publicly that the declaration would be considered at the next session, if possible before any other issue.

Fourth session (1965)

Murray had suffered heart attacks in both January and December 1964, so he did not take a major role in the fourth session. The final debate was held as the first item of business September 15 21, with many prelates speaking. Many issues were raised but it was clear that the declaration's statement of development of church doctrine was a key issue. Members of the council leadership attempted one last time to have the declaration returned again to committee without a vote on September 20, in the apparent hope that time would run out on the council. It was argued that support for the current version of the text was uncertain. That evening, according to some accounts, Pope Paul personally confronted the council leadership and insisted that the declaration be brought to a preliminary vote, where it was overwhelmingly approved 1997 to 224.

This re-revised text was approved by the council on October 25, with only minor amendments allowed afterward (including some disliked by Murray). The final vote was taken and the declaration was promulgated at the end of council on December 7, 1965. The claim by some that this overwhelming majority was due to intense lobbying by the reformist wing of Council Fathers among those prelates who initially had reservations or even objections, [12] however, is not accepted by all.

Stages of the text

Summary of the declaration

The fundamental right to religious liberty

All persons have a right to religious liberty, a right with its foundation in the essential dignity of each human being. All persons must be free to seek the truth without coercion, but are also morally obligated to embrace the truth of the Catholic faith once they recognize it. The highest norm of human life is the divine law and truth, but it can only be sought after in the proper and free manner, with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, and it must be adhered to by personal assent. This freedom from coercion in religious affairs must also be recognized as a right when persons act in community. As such a community, and in fact a society in its own original right, has the right to live its own domestic religious life in freedom, in particular the freedom to choose religious education.

Religious freedom and Christianity

The declaration has its foundation in the dignity of the person as understood through human reason, having its roots in divine revelation. Therefore, Christians are called to an even more conscientious respect for religious freedom. Man's response to God in faith must be free – no person is to be forced to embrace Christianity. This is a major tenet of the Catholic faith, contained in Scripture and proclaimed by the Fathers. Religious freedom contributes to the environment where such free response is possible. God's own call to serve him binds persons in conscience but is not compulsion. God has regard for the dignity of all human beings as shown in the actions of Christ himself. Jesus did acknowledge the legitimacy of governments, but refused to impose his teachings by force. The Apostles followed His word and example. The church is therefore following Christ and the Apostles when it recognized the principle of religious freedom, based both on the dignity of human persons and divine revelation. The church itself does require a full measure of freedom, a sacred freedom, to carry out its mission.

Later discussion

Murray wrote the initial commentaries on Dignitatis humanae, and perhaps made the first translations into English, which remain influential in how the declaration is perceived. As a result of the council process of amendment and compromise there were differences between Murray's own working out of the issue, which is more detailed and is considered by some more "political", and the final declaration.[ citation needed ]

Dignitatis humanae was quickly recognized as one of the foundations of the relations of the church to the world, and was particularly helpful in relationships with other faith communities: it was a key part of establishing the church's credibility in ecumenical actions. Soon after the end of the council, theologians tended to split into two general groups, with a more conservative party stressing a return to the patristic and scriptural sources ( ressourcement ) and a close and literal reading of the conciliar documents in contrast with another party stressing to some extent the continuation of aggiornamento and certain amount of extrapolation from the documents. This split remains to this day, and is a key division on Dignitatis humanae. Some commentators still continue to try to show that the document is fully consistent with the 19th-century papal statements on these issues.

Society of St. Pius X critique

The text almost immediately became a lightning rod for conservative attacks. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre cited this document as one of the fundamental reasons for his difficulties with the Second Vatican Council. It remains a focus for such attacks to this day. [13] The Vatican's position that the SSPX must acknowledge Dignitatis humanae and Nostra aetate as authoritative remained as of April 2017 a key point of difference between the two. [14]

The key issue was not religious freedom itself: almost all parties in the various arguments supported some kind of religious tolerance. The dispute was over the traditional understanding of the relationship of the Catholic Church to secular states and how it supported relations with "confessional" states such as Spain and Italy. The declaration presented a view that fully supported the model of the church in the United States and the United Kingdom, while allowing for confessional states, and stated that it was based on development of doctrine from recent popes. Doctrinal development went from being somewhat suspect to a bedrock theological concept with Vatican II.

The Society of St. Pius X criticized how Dignitatis humanae approached religious freedom with an argument from history:

The saints have never hesitated to break idols, destroy their temples, or legislate against pagan or heretical practices. The Church – without ever forcing anyone to believe or be baptized – has always recognized its right and duty to protect the faith of her children and to impede, whenever possible, the public exercise and propagation of false cults. To accept the teaching of Vatican II is to grant that, for two millennia, the popes, saints, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, bishops, and Catholic kings have constantly violated the natural rights of men without anyone in the Church noticing. Such a thesis is as absurd as it is impious. [15]

On the contradictions some see between Dignitatis humanae and Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors , [16] Brian Mullady has argued that:

the religious freedom condemned in the Syllabus of Errors refers to religious freedom looked at from the point of view of the action of the intellect, or freedom respecting the truth; whereas the freedom of religion guaranteed and encouraged by Dignitatis humanae refers to religious freedom looked at from the point of view of the action of the will in morals. In other words, those who see in these different expressions a change in teaching are committing the fallacy of univocity of terms in logic. The terms "freedom" refer to two very different acts of the soul. [17]

International Theological Commission, 2019

On 21 March 2019, Pope Francis approved the publication of a document produced by the International Theological Commission called "Religious freedom for the good of all: Theological approach to contemporary challenges". It attempts to update Dignitatis humanae in the light of the increasing diversity and secularization seen since the Council: "the cultural complexity of today's civil order". [18] [19]

See also


  1. The document is known by its incipit , the first words of the document in the original Latin text, as is customary for similar Catholic Church documents.

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  1. The full text of a translation into English is available from the Holy See's website Archived February 11, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  2. "Thus, during the final vote on the morning of December 7 (when the fathers had to choose between a simple approval or disapproval of the last draft), Lefebvre was one of the 70 — about 3 percent of the total — who voted against the schema." Marcel Lefebvre: Signatory to Dignitatis humanae, by Brian Harrison
  3. Bokenkotter, Thomas J (2004). A Concise History of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday.
  4. Swinburne, Richard (1992). Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. Oxford University Press. p. 216. ISBN   9780191519529.
  5. Beinert, Wolfgang (1992). Verbindliches Zeugnis (in German). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN   9783451236259.
  6. Hoose, Bernard (1994). Received Wisdom?: Reviewing the Role of Tradition in Christian Ethics. Geoffrey Chapman. p. 21. ISBN   9780225667394.
  7. John Courtney Murray and the American Catholic Experience Archived 2006-05-25 at the Wayback Machine by Michael Tortolani, Acton Institute
  8. "John Courtney Murray's Religious Liberty Error is Doctrine of Vatican II". Novus Ordo Watch. 2013-04-01. Retrieved 2018-12-30.
  9. "Archbishop Lefebvre Preparing the Council". Archived from the original on 2011-10-10. Retrieved 2011-04-29.
  10. "It was suddenly announced that the document on Religious Liberty would be handed to a new commission for revision – a commission that included some of the most moss-backed of the moss-backed conservatives (to borrow a phrase from Archbishop Connolly!), including Archbishop Lefebvre, who later established the schismatic Society of St. Pius X." Vatican II, Part 4: The Third Session Archived September 4, 2007, at the Wayback Machine , Corinna Laughlin, St. James Cathedral, Seattle
  11. "The bishops' letter apparently proved effective. In interviews with Bea and Frings, Paul VI agreed that the Christian Unity office would bear the major responsibility for revising the two declarations, said also that the bishops themselves could decide whether a fourth session was necessary." Cum Magno Dolore [ permanent dead link ], Time Magazine, October 23, 1964
  12. Der Rhein fliesst in den Tiber: eine Geschichte des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils, Wiltgen, Ralph M., Feldkirch. Lins. cop. 1988. p. 316
  13. Egan, Philip A. (2009). Philosophy and Catholic Theology: A Primer. Liturgical Press. p. 56. ISBN   9780814656617.
  14. "Pope Francis' Approval of SSPX Marriages Offers Hopeful Step to Unity". National Catholic Register. 17 April 2017.
  15. "Religious liberty contradicts Tradition". District of the USA. December 3, 2012.
  16. "What Are Catholics to Think of Vatican II?". Archived from the original on 7 March 2011. Retrieved 3 May 2011.
  17. Brian Mullady (1994). "Religious Freedom: Homogeneous or Heterogeneous Development?". The Thomist. 58: 93–108. doi:10.1353/tho.1994.0044. S2CID   171194888 . Retrieved 3 May 2011.
  18. Faggioli, Massimo (9 May 2019). "A Postscript to Dignitatis Humanae". Commonweal Magazine. Retrieved 10 May 2019.
  19. "La LIBERTÀ RELIGIOSA per il Bene di Tutti, Approcio Teologico alle Sfide Contemporanee" (in Italian). International Theological Commission, Subcommission on Religious Freedom. Retrieved 10 May 2019 via Holy See.Cite journal requires |journal= (help) The official text is available only in Italian.

Further reading