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Father Richard Neuhaus: Vatican II, 40 Years Later: "Dignitatis Humanae"

11/21/2003 - 6:00 AM PST

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Father Richard Neuhaus on the Declaration on Religious Freedom

NEW YORK, NOV. 20, 2003 (Zenit) - As part of its series on the documents of Second Vatican Council, Zenit turned to Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, for his views on "Dignitatis Humanae," the 1965 declaration on religious freedom.

Q: What is the chief point of "Dignitatis Humanae"?

Father Neuhaus: The chief point is already evident in the first three words of the declaration, "Dignitatis humanae personae." The dignity of the human person, as John Paul II has repeatedly said, is the pivot on which the entirety of Catholic social doctrine turns.

The argument of the declaration, based on reason, the natural order, and revelation, is that the dignity of the human person, and of the person in community, requires religious freedom.

The Holy Father, who is every inch a man of the Council, has further enhanced the argument of the declaration by a philosophy of "personalism" that explores even more deeply the connection between freedom and the dignity of the person.

This is evident in many documents of this pontificate, and especially, with particular application to social doctrine, in the 1991 encyclical "Centesimus Annus." In numerous ways, "Dignitatis Humanae" has been foundational for subsequent magisterial teaching.

Q: Why was the declaration on religious freedom considered so controversial at the time?

Father Neuhaus: There were at least four reasons. First, this was during the Cold War, and a Council that aimed at being "positive" and "pastoral" wanted to avoid condemnations, even of Communism. This was hardly possible, however, when the subject was religious freedom.

So the Council said: "All the more is it a violation of the will of God and of the sacred rights of the person and the family of nations when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion, either in the whole of mankind or in a particular country or in a specific community." Nobody could miss the reference to officially atheistic Communist states.

The other reasons for controversy are interrelated. Non-Catholics had long viewed the public influence of Catholicism with deep suspicion, and not without reason. It was feared that Catholics, if we had the power, would work to establish Catholicism as the state religion, to the detriment or even the exclusion of other religions.

Some Catholic authorities reinforced this fear by teaching that "error has no rights." The declaration's argument is that, while error has no rights, errors are attached to persons, and persons do have rights.

The fear of Catholic political power was a major source of tension with other Christians. It is worth noting that the first draft of what became the declaration was drawn up by the Secretariat for Christian Unity, and, indeed, the original idea was that the statement on religious freedom would be a chapter in the decree on ecumenism. So that is the second reason for controversy, the worry of some that affirming religious freedom and ecumenism would suggest a moral equivalence between religious error and religious truth.

A third reason has to do with what Cardinal Newman called the development of doctrine. This is the only document of the Council that explicitly asserts an intention to develop doctrine: "[T]he council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society." Development is the unfolding and making explicit what was implicit in prior teaching, but it understandably raises concerns about changes and even contradictions within the tradition.

Which brings us to the fourth reason for controversy, namely, the acknowledgment that Catholics have not always been faithful to what we now understand to be the Church's teaching.

That point is handled delicately in the declaration: "Throughout the ages, the Church has kept safe and handed on the doctrine received from the Master and from the apostles. In the life of the People of God as it has made its pilgrim way through the vicissitudes of human history, there have at times appeared ways of acting which were less in accord with the spirit of the Gospel and even opposed to it. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Church that no one is to be coerced into faith has always stood firm."

In the vicissitudes of history, the idea and practice of religious freedom is little more than 200 years old, and it was, more often than not, championed by forces in explicit opposition to the Catholic Church. The fierce anti-clericalism of the French Revolution of 1789 cast a long shadow over Catholic thinking.

With the declaration on religious freedom, the Council drew on the dramatically different ...

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