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Dignitatis Humanæ is the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom. The full text in English is available from the Holy See's website The passage of this measure by a vote of 2,308 to 70 by the assembled bishops of the Catholic Church is considered by many one of the most significant events of the Council. This declaration was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965.
Nineteenth-century Catholic view of religious freedom
The ideal of Catholic political organisation was a tightly inverwoven structure of the Catholic Church and secular rulers generally known as Christendom, with the Catholic church having a favoured place in the political structure. The idea was challenged by the 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 XI had condemned the idea of religious freedom. Pope Leo XIII, who had established working relationships with both the French and German secular statesmen issued the bull Testem Benevolentiae against the Americanist heresy, a desire to apply democratic concepts to Catholic Church governance and American models of church-state relations.
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 under Franco (nacionalcatolicismo), where the Catholic Church:
- was officially recognized and protected by the state,
- had substantial control over social policy, and
- had this relationship explicitily 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 proselytizing of Catholics, under the motto that "error has no rights".
John Courtney Murray
This approach to church-state relations was problematic for some American Catholics. By the mid-20th century, the Catholic Church in the United States had managed to overcome much of the deeply entrenched anti-Catholic prejudice that marked the Nativist reactions of the 19th century. The separation of church and state required by the U.S. Constitution had allowed the construction of an extensive network of Catholic educational, health-care and social service institutions. But some saw 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. The arrangements in America were permissible only as long as the other model was not politically feasible.
Prior to World War II, Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray agreed with this established Catholic view of church-state relations. By the early 1940s however, he 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 status. This view was developed in a series of articles in such Catholic journals as America, while Msgr. Joseph Fenton, as editor of the American Ecclesiological Review defended the traditional view and asserted that Murray's views contradicted essential Catholic teachings. By 1954, Murray had been advised by his superiors not to publish any more works on this specific topic.
Vatican II and religious freedom
Preparation and first session (1962)
The initial conflict was over 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. Before the council both the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity led by Cardinal Bea and the Theological Commission (led by Cardinal Ottaviani)introduced revised drafts of statements to the Central Commission. Pope John 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.
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, Cardinal Bea of Unity 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 Spellman of New York (who was otherwise a theological conservative) to be a peritus, despite Cardinal 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 Father Murray and Monsignor 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 18–5 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 U.S. Archbishop Egidio Cardinal Vagnozzi attempting to silence him. Cardinal Spellman, along with his Jesuit superiors, continued to shield Murray 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, with many hostile members and away from the jurisdiction of Unity. Protest by bishops to Pope Paul resulted in Declaration staying under Unity with a different working commission which reviewed and amended it. 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)
Fr. Murray had suffered heart attacks in both January and December of 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 was 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 however is not accepted by all.
Stages of the text
- First draft submitted by the Council for Promoting Christian Unity
- First draft submitted by Theological Commission
- The version of the Declaration first debated as Chapter V of Declaration on Ecumentism – Textus prior
- Modified version at the end of third session – Textus emendatus
- Further modified version debated as separate Declaration on Religious Freedom – Textus re-emendatus
- Version approved – Textus recongitus
- Final Version – Dignitatis Humanæ
Summary of the Declaration
The stated intention of the council was “to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.”
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. 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.
The responsibility of the state
The government is to protect the rights and equality of all citizens as part of its essential role in promoting the public good, and a wrong is done when a government imposes profession or repudiation of any religion. Religious freedom is exercised in society, therefore is subject to certain regulatory norms, again to ensure the common welfare. Freedom and responsibility must balance and religious freedom must have as its aim to promote persons acting with greater responsibility.
Religious freedom and the Christian faith
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 she recognized the principle of religious freedom, based both on the dignity of human persons and divine revelation. The Church herself does require a full measure of freedom, a sacred freedom, to carry out her mission.
Dignitatis Humanæ 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. It became, however, almost immediately a lightning rod for ultra-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.
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 Britain, while allowing for confessional states, and freely 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 extreme level of conflict between 80 to 90% of the bishops at the Council with the Curial minority masked the serious differences within the majority. Soon after the end of the council, theologians tended to split into two general groups:
- a more conservative party stressing a return to the patristic and scriptural sources (ressourcement) and a close and literal reading of the conciliar documents;
- another stressing to some extent the continuation of aggiornamento and some amount of extrapolation from the documents.
This split remains to this day, and is a key division on Dignitatis Humanæ. Some commentators still continue to try to show that the document is fully consistent with the 19th century papal statements on these issues.
Murray wrote the initial commentaries on Dignitatis Humanæ, 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.