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Religion and Society

Before and After Dignitatis Humanae



Author: G. del Pozo Abejón


Title: La Iglesia y la libertad religiosa


Publisher: BAC, Madrid 2007





Is the doctrine of the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council Dignitatis humanae on religious freedom in contradiction with the previous magisterium of the Popes? Or should one speak about continuity? But in this case does to speak about continuity mean denying the presence of a real novelty in the teaching of the Church?


To answer these questions, which in a succinct way summarise the debates on this Declaration on religious freedom of the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary to identify what the precise contents of this teaching of that Council really are. This volume by Gerardo del Pozo Abejón, who holds a chair at the Facultad de Teología San Dámaso of Madrid, constitutes an accurate study and one that is able to offer a precise answer to these questions.



This long essay is divided into four chapters. In the first, which has the title ‘The Historical Question of Dignitatis humanae’, the author presents a description of the historical situation beginning with the Second World War which accompanied the drawing up and approval of this Declaration of the Second Vatican Council and the way in which it was received immediately after that Council. A characteristic of the thought of the author is his insistence on the importance of the historical conditions which led the Church, guided by the Spirit, to an exploration of her own faith and its consequences in the sphere of social organisation. Through the discussions between the Theological Commission of the Council (Ottavini) and the Secretariat for the Unity of Christians (Bea), the influence of the proposals that came from the United States of America, and the subsequent revisions of the document, the final text was presented and approved on 7 December 1965. The Council Fathers, however, were aware that two questions had to be further investigated: ‘to demonstrate the continuity with the previous magisterium and to found religious freedom on a theology of Christian freedom’. The second part of the chapter addresses the turbulent reception of Dignitatis humanae after the Second Vatican Council. Two tendencies followed each other in the interpretation of this Declaration. For some it was a choice in favour of discontinuity with the previous magisterium. For others, on the other hand, one was dealing with a more or less successful homogenous ¬development of doctrine. This second line of interpretation is substantially shared by Del Pozo even though in his long essay he introduces a decisive clarification: homogenous development does not simply mean that the doctrine of the Second Vatican Council on religious freedom was a broadening and application of the traditional doctrine on tolerance; it is necessary to recognise an authentic progress in the receiving of Revelation that the Church, guided by the Spirit, achieved in the specific historical conditions that it was then living through.



The title of the second chapter is ‘The Popes Condemn the System of Freedom of Conscience and Worship that Followed the French Declaration of 1789’. The analysis begins with a presentation of the French Declaration of 1789, with special attention paid to its ideological sources and to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The condemnation of Pius VI attacked the idea of absolute moral liberty as proposed by the French Declaration. Subsequently, Gregory XVI in his encyclical Mirari vos condemned absolute freedom of conscience in religious matters because it was founded on indifferentism. The third step in this nineteenth century pathway had as its protagonist Pius IX and the very famous documents Quanta cura e Syllabusby which the Supreme Pontiff condemned freedom of conscience and worship as a consequence of political and philosophical naturalism. The author ends his analysis by stating that ‘Pius VI, Gregory XVI and Pius IX opposed laicism, the proclamation of the autonomy of the individual and society in relation to God and His Church. But they did not deny the freedom that man should enjoy in relation to the State to search for truth’ (p. 133). For this reason, the condemnations of the Popes did not attack religious freedom as taught in Dignitatis humanae.



‘The Popes Defend Fundamental Human Rights’ is the title of the third chapter and constituted the third stage of the development of the doctrine of the Church on religious freedom. We thus encounter the teachings of Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII. The Supreme Pontiff of Rerum novarum had a relationship of progress and continuity with his predecessors: ‘Continuity, because he continued to condemn theoretical indifferentism both at an individual and a social level, the positive authorisation by law of such indifferentism, and consequent freedom without limits. Progress, because he distinguished – and thus avoided confusion – between freedom of conscience founded on indifferentism and true freedom of conscience in relation to the State in order to follow, in conscience, the will of God and carry out His commandments without any obstacles’. It was in particular the tragedy of the totalitarianisms which led Pius XI to a strenuous and systematic defence of the dignity-freedom and rights of the human person and to the objective opening up of the path to the upholding of the right to religious freedom. These subjects were then taken up by Pius XII in his address Ci riesce of 1953 and the contribution of John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in terris lay in his stress on the right of man to be able to worship God according to his upright conscience.



The fourth and last chapter of this long essay – ‘The Church Declares in the Second Vatican Council the Universal Right to Civil Religious Freedom’ – addresses a study of the teaching on religious freedom of Dignitatis humanae. Del Pozo begins his analysis with a long and precise reference to the teaching of the Constitution Gaudium et spes which offered two fundamental coordinates: the recognition of the dignity and the freedom of the human person as a sign of the times explored in a Christological key and the new understanding of the relations between the Church and the political community.



What were the fundamental novelties in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council? The author identifies two: ‘The first and principal novelty: the declaration that every man has a right to religious freedom... The second ¬novelty was the explanation of the essential elements of the freedom that had just been declared. In it are described its active (the human person) and passive (individual persons, groups and the political power) subjects, its foundation (the dignity of the human person), its nature (natural/fundamental law which has to civilly recognised), its object (immunity from external compulsion in order to act socially in conscience in religious matters), and its limits in the extension of the object (within due limits, the right public order).



Del Pozo repeatedly emphasises when speaking about religious freedom that the Second Vatican Council does not refer to a moral freedom in relation to truth but to a juridical freedom in the sphere of relations between persons and in social life. In addition, one is dealing with a negative right that involves immunity from coercion in a dual sense: man has the right not to be compelled to act against his conscience and not to be impeded, within due limits, from acting in conformity with it.



The chapter ends with a tentative analysis of the contribution of the magisterium of John Paul II who was a strenuous defender of the dignity of the human person and at the same time of the duties of conscience as regards truth and good.



This long essay offers the reader a picture that is at one and the same time detailed and summarising as regards the teaching of the Church on religious freedom. Particularly illuminating is the stress of the author on the juridical and negative character of this freedom. Not only because it suitably defines the field as regards the absolute and unlimited concept of moral freedom, in this demonstrating the continuity with traditional doctrine, but also because it shows with clarity the anthropological weight of its social dimension.