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The Dialogical Nature of Religious Freedom in Dignitatis Humanae

The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae proposes that humankind’s search for truth ought to take the form of dialogue, a reflection of the dialogical relationship between God and humankind.

Last summer I wrote a post arguing for the ongoing significance of Pope Paul VI’s 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam for Catholic political theology, despite its relative neglect in subsequent theological discussions. In particular, I focused on Pope Paul’s claim that dialogue is essential to the mission of the Church, and indeed that the concept of dialogue is fundamental to the Christian understanding of the relationship between God and humankind. In this post I want to explore how Pope Paul’s thoughts on dialogue were reflected in Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, which was promulgated the year after Ecclesiam Suam was written.

In Ecclesiam Suam, Pope Paul states that God’s relationship with humankind can rightly be described as the “dialogue of salvation”: “[T]he whole history of man’s salvation is one long, varied dialogue, which marvelously begins with God and which He prolongs with men in so many different ways” (#70). He goes on to say that through the Incarnation, Christ engages in a “conversation” with humankind. Pope Paul claims that the Church must engage in dialogue with the world as an extension of this conversation: “The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make” (#65). He goes on to propose four concentric circles representing the partners with whom the Church must dialogue: 1) humankind as a whole; 2) the practitioners of non-Christian religions; 3) fellow Christians; 4) dialogue within the Catholic Church itself (##96-115).

Pope Paul briefly addresses the question of religious freedom in Ecclesiam Suam, writing that Christ left his hearers free to accept or reject his appeal, even if it imposed on them a serious obligation. Similarly, the Church “dare not entertain any thoughts of external coercion. Instead we will use the legitimate means of human friendliness, interior persuasion, and ordinary conversation. We will offer the gift of salvation while respecting the personal and civic rights of the individual” (#75). These insights are expanded upon in Dignitatis Humanae. The latter was originally conceived as a chapter of what became the council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, suggesting that the link between religious freedom and dialogue is inherent to the argument of the document, although the richness of this link is not always recognized.

Although Dignitatis Humanae does not adopt the phrase “dialogue of salvation,” in the sometimes neglected second half of the document it proposes a very similar way of thinking about God’s relationship with humankind. For example, it affirms that “God calls men to serve Him in spirit and in truth, hence they are bound in conscience but they stand under no compulsion” (#11). Likewise, the Church communicates the Word of God to the world but renounces coercion as unworthy of the Gospel. The submission of faith must be “reasonable and free” (#10). For these reasons the document affirms the traditional teaching that “no one . . . is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will” (#10).

The declaration goes beyond this traditional prohibition against forced conversions or forced baptisms by asserting that recognizing the freedom of all people from coercion in religious matters is, among other things, essential to “the creation of an environment in which men can without hindrance be invited to the Christian faith, embrace it of their own free will, and profess it effectively in their whole manner of life” (#10). In other words, the declaration’s teaching on universal religious freedom is an organic development of the traditional teaching that the act of faith itself must be free.

In this passage, we also see an example of perhaps Dignitatis Humanae’s most distinctive teaching, the linking of religious freedom with the obligation to seek and hold to the truth. In it’s opening article, the document affirms the “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ,” 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” (#1). Dignitatis Humanae goes on to claim, however, that “men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore, the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature” (#2). The document therefore transcends both 1) the liberal view of religious freedom that is not rooted in the obligation to seek the truth and 2) any form of integralism through which the Church authorizes religious coercion by the state to protect the faithful. As Alfred Ancel, then the auxiliary bishop of Lyon, concisely put it in his conciliar intervention on a draft of Dignitatis Humanae:

Not only is there no opposition between religious freedom and the obligation to seek the truth, therefore, but in fact religious freedom has its foundation in this obligation itself, and the obligation to seek the truth in turn requires religious freedom.

This profound insight of Dignitatis Humanae is enriched by the declaration’s insistence that the search for truth is dialogical in nature, or, in other words, that the “environment in which men can without hindrance be invited to the Christian faith” must take the form of dialogue:

Truth . . . is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. (#3)

The human person is not simply “reasonable and free,” but engages in dialogue, both speaking and listening.

It is crucial to recognize how different this account of dialogue is from a liberal account of civil liberties such as John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian defense of free speech. For Mill, the value of free speech is that through a lively public debate, the public is more likely to discover the truth than if debate is curtailed by political or religious authorities. Although Dignitatis Humanae likewise recognizes that dialogue helps us come to better understand the truth, it also affirms that dialogue is not simply a pragmatic tool, but rather is rooted in the dialogical nature of humankind’s relationship with God. God first communicated to us, and our dialogue with one another is the fitting means for us to come to understand God’s Word to us and learn to live out the truth we discover.

As this analysis of the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae and my earlier post on Pope Paul VI”s Ecclesiam Suam illustrate, the “sense of the dignity of the human person [that] has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man” recognized and celebrated in Dignitatis Humanae is closely linked to what both documents describe as the dialogical relationship between God and humankind and the Church’s mission of dialogue with the world. I believe that continuing to articulate this close link between human dignity and dialogue is an important task for Catholic political theology going forward.

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