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Rev. Stewart is pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland. Previous article in this series: October 15, 2008, p. 40.

The Declaration on Religious Freedom (1965)


According to Pope Paul VI (1963-1978), the Declaration on Religious Freedom, produced at Roman Catholicism’s Vatican II (1962-1965), is “one of the major texts of the Council.”¹ American Jesuit John Courtney Murray goes further: “the document is a significant event in the history of the Church” (p. 673).² Of all the 16 documents of Vatican II, the Declaration on Religious Freedom is the one that most clearly evinces the spirit of “updating” (Italian: aggiornamento)—Rome’s “opening its windows” to modernity.³

The very first line of the Declaration on Religious Freedom indicates that Vatican II was well aware of, and seeking to respond to, the modern political climate: “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man” (p. 675). Chapter 1 begins with a ringing affirmation that has all the hallmarks of an echo from the United Nations: “This Vatican Synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom” (p. 678). This decree came over 400 years too late to save English Bible translator William Tyndale from burning at the stake at the behest of the Roman Catholic Church. So much for his “right to religious freedom.”

Rome’s Declaration on Religious Freedom requires the civil magistrate to act justly and without partiality on account of religion: “government is to see to it that the equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common welfare, is never violated for religious reasons whether openly or covertly” (p. 685). A Roman Catholic editorial footnote at this point observes, “This statement about equality before the law has an accent of newness in official Catholic statements” (p. 685, n. 18; italics mine). John Courtney Murray states, A long-standing ambiguity has finally been cleared up. The Church does not deal with the secular order in terms of a double standard—freedom for the Church when Catholics are in a minority, privilege for the Church and intolerance for others when Catholics are a majority (p. 673). What Murray euphemistically calls an “ambiguity” is actually Rome’s historic theory and practice—she pleads for equality in a state in which she is in a minority, but claims supremacy in a state in which she is in a majority. Murray’s adjective “long-standing” is more accurate. Just ask the French Huguenots.

Later, the Declaration on Religious Freedom declares,

It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free. Therefore no one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will. This doctrine is contained in the Word of God and it was constantly proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church (p. 689).

What utter disingenuousness! First, free or unforced faith is declared to be Roman Catholic teaching, even a “major tenet,” while no indication is given of this being a 180-degree turn. In fact, given Rome’s claim that she is unchangeable, the unwary might think that this was always her position. Second, what about the Protestant martyrs who were tortured in an attempt to make them recant and confess Roman dogma! What about the pagans in central and eastern Europe in the Dark Ages who were forced to submit to baptism at the edge of a sword!4 Third, in support of free or unforced faith, Rome (rightly) appeals to the Bible and the (early) Fathers. But the real issue is Rome’s theology and practice from the Middle Ages onwards, until modern, humanistic states no longer permitted her coercing of “heretics” and pagans.

The Declaration on Religious Freedom becomes even more duplicitous:

The Church . . . recognizes, and gives support to, the principle of religious freedom . . . . 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 (pp. 692-693).

An unsuspecting reader might think from this that the Roman Church “has always stood firm” on “the principle of religious freedom” and that “throughout the ages” this doctrine has been “kept safe,” “handed on,” “recognized,” and “supported” by her! The part of the quotation above that suggests some contrition (“there have at times appeared ways of acting which were less in accord with the spirit of the gospel and even opposed to it”) requires closer examination. First, no examples or specifics are given as to the denial of religious freedom, never mind any indication of the horror of Rome’s terrible persecution of the people of God. Second, such things were apparently not frequent (“at times”). Third, the possibility of an excuse is raised, because the saints were passing “through the vicissitudes of human history.” Fourth, whatever wrong was done was performed by “the People of God” (i.e., members of the Roman Church) but not by the Church of Rome herself—Rome’s standard way of merely appearing to confess sins while still maintaining her claim to infallibility.

The “Development” of Roman Catholic Political Doctrine


John Courtney Murray’s remarks on the development of Rome’s political doctrine in her Declaration on Religious Freedom bear quoting at some length:

It was, of course, the most controversial document of the whole Council, largely because it raised with sharp emphasis the issue that lay continually below the surface of all the conciliar debates—the issue of the development of doctrine. The notion of development, not the notion of religious freedom, was the real sticking-point for many of those who opposed the Declaration even to the end. The course of the development between the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and [the Declaration on Religious Freedom] (1965) still remains to be explained by theologians. But the Council formally sanctioned the validity of the development itself; and this was a doctrinal event of high importance for theological thought in many other areas (p. 673).

We should note, first, that Vatican II and all its sixteen documents were designed to promote aggiornamento or “updating” in the Roman Church. Second, because Rome’s historic political theory was the aspect of its theology most out of step with the modern, democratic, liberal world, and therefore in greatest need of “updating,” the Declaration on Religious Freedom “was, of course, the most controversial document of the whole Council” (p. 673; italics mine). Murray states, “The debate was full and free and vigorous, if at times confused and emotional” (p. 672). Third, the controversy was not so much whether people should have religious freedom (though there were differences as to the model of religious freedom), but how this could be reconciled with earlier Roman Catholic teaching and practice. Fourth, the council decided that the idea of the development of doctrine was the best way of accounting for the changes. The Declaration on Religious Freedom “intends to develop the doctrine of recent Popes” on religious freedom (p. 677), but it wisely does not mention here the (contradictory) teaching of earlier popes or the traditional Roman Catholic position. Fifth, the problem is that no one can explain how the “new things” of Vatican II “are in harmony with the things that are old” (p. 676), that is, how Rome’s opposition to democracy, the separation of church and state, religious freedom, etc., turned (or “developed”) into endorsing what look like their opposites! As Murray delightfully understates it, “The course of the development between the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and [the Declaration on Religious Freedom] (1965) still remains to be explained by theologians” (p. 673; italics mine)! They certainly have their work cut out for them:

Here are a few of Pius IX’s own words stating in a positive way some of the principles of [his Syllabus of Errors]: 15. No man is free to embrace and profess that religion which he believes to be true, guided by the light of reason… 23. The Roman Pontiffs and Ecumenical Councils have never exceeded the limits of their power, or usurped the rights of Princes, much less committed errors in defining matters of faith and morals. 24. The [Roman] Church has the power of employing force and of exercising direct and indirect temporal power. 34. The doctrine which equaled the Roman Pontiff to an absolute Prince, acting in the universal [Roman] Church is not a doctrine which merely prevailed in the Middle Ages. 54. Kings and Princes are not only not exempt from jurisdiction of the [Roman] Church, but are subordinate to the Church in litigated questions of jurisdiction. 55. The [Roman] Church ought to be in union with the State, and the State with the [Roman] Church… 77. It is necessary even in the present day that the [Roman] Catholic religion shall be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship. 80. The Roman Pontiff cannot and ought not reconcile himself to, or agree with, progress, Liberalism, and Modern Civilization.5

Also one has to ask, What fellowship or communion or concord or agreement is there between the political theory of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (1965) and that of Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam (1302)? One of Boniface’s “two swords” (the temporal one) appears to have been sheathed. The triple tiara, in which he marked an important development, seems to have been laid aside. Boniface’s “biblical exegesis” and arguments have been “updated,” such that they are now almost stood on their head.

All these changes, and yet Rome boasts that she is unchangeable (semper eadem)! All this “updating” (or “reforms”), yet Rome is, by her own definition, irreformable! How, despite all these contradictions in her political doctrine—as well as in other areas of dogma—Rome still maintains that she is infallible, it would take a canon lawyer to work out!

Yet all this does not spell the end of Rome’s political influence and desires. Much more remains to be said on this score. Machiavelli, that most wily of Italian political theorists, is the de facto patron saint of that most resilient of Italian religious (and political) institutions: the holy Roman Catholic Church.

. . . to be continued


¹ Quoted in Walter M. Abbot (gen. ed.), The Documents of Vatican II (The America Press, 1966), p. 674. Henceforward, pages in parentheses refer to this book.

² By “Church,” Roman Catholic authors mean the Roman Catholic Church; by “Catholic,” they mean Roman Catholic.

³ The Roman Catholic Church in America in general and John Courtney Murray in particular were the staunchest advocates of liberalizing Rome’s political theory.

4 In Vatican II’s Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (1965), the church of the Inquisition now declares that she “repudiates all persecutions against any man” (p. 666).

5 John W. Robbins, Ecclesiastical Megalomania: The Economic and Political Thought of the Roman Catholic Church (USA: The Trinity Foundation, 1999), pp. 143-144.