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Resisting the Eclipse of Dignitatis Humanae

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Mary Doak
University of Notre Dame


Vatican II's announcement of the Catholic Church's acceptance of religious freedom in its Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) ought to have ushered in a period of ecumenical agreement on the topic of religious disestablishment. Instead, forty years after this most controversial document was promulgated, we find that public, academic, and even ecclesial discussions of the role of religion in public life are confused and in fact deeply contentious. The problem, however, is not that Dignitatis Humanae was incoherent or naïve in its understanding of religious freedom, but that we have failed to grasp its nuanced and coherent manner of reconciling a robust religious freedom with a profound view of the political significance of religious beliefs. Careful attention to this Declaration provides a solid foundation for continuing political theology and a public presence of religion without infringing the important value of religious “disestablishment.”

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2006

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1 My ideas and arguments in this article have benefited from the opportunity to share this research at an early stage with the College Theology Society's Religion and Society section at their 2004 annual meeting, and from further discussion with Professor Gerald P. McKenny and Ms. Anselma Dolcich-Ashley. Gratitude is also due to Ms. Dolcich-Ashley for her assistance with research for this article.

2 John Courtney Murray, S.J., “The Matter of Religious Freedom,” as quoted by Kauffman, Christopher J., “American Reactions to Dignitatis Humanae” in Ford, John T. C.S.C., ed., Religious Liberty: Paul VI and Dignitatis Humanae (Rome: Brescia, 1995), 79.Google Scholar

3 See for example, Audi, Robert, “The State, the Church, and the Citizen” in Weithman, Paul J., ed., Religion and Contemporary Liberalism (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 3875Google Scholar; Hauerwas, Stanley, “The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity,” in his A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 7286Google Scholar; and Milbank, John, Theology and Social Theory (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990).Google Scholar

4 See S.J., Hermínio Rico, Paul, John II and the Legacy of Dignitatis Humanae (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2002), esp. 127.Google Scholar

5 Murray, John Courtney S.J., “Introduction [to Religious Freedom]” in Abbott, Walter S.J., ed., The Documents of Vatican II (Piscataway, NJ: New Century, 1966), 673.Google Scholar

6 Hauerwas, Stanley, “Not Late Enough: The Divided Mind of Dignitatis Humanae Personae” in his A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2000), 109116.Google Scholar

7 Notwithstanding the importance of historical studies, I concur with Pietro Pavan that “the document is what it is, and it can only be understood by giving its words the meaning they have in common usage and in the context of the document itself” (Pavan, Pietro, “Ecumenism and Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom” in Burghardt, Walter J. S.J., ed., Religious Freedom: 1965 & 1975 [New York: Paulist, 1976], 738Google Scholar at 33).

8 See for example John Courtney Murray's arguments against the secularism that privatizes religion while he nevertheless defends the proper secularity of civil government, thus acknowledging its limits with regard to religious truth, especially in his “Are There Two or One? The Question of Religious Freedom” in Murray, John Courtney S.J., We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 197217Google Scholar; as well as his “The Declaration on Religious Freedom” in Murray, John Courtney S.J., Bridging the Sacred and the Secular: Selected Writings (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1994), 187199.Google Scholar

9 See, for example, the early drafts on religious freedom rejected by Vatican II as described by Pavan, Pietro, “Declaration on Religious Freedom” in Vorgrimler, Herbert, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. IV (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 4986Google Scholar at 50.

10 Rico has a good, brief discussion of this issue in John Paul II, 1–5.

11 McDonagh, Enda, Freedom or Tolerance? The Declaration on Religious Freedom of Vatican Council II (Albany: Magi, 1967), 3842Google Scholar; John Courtney Murray's commentary on Dignitatis Humanae in Abbott, , Documents, 678Google Scholar, and Pavan, , “Declaration,” 6365.Google Scholar

12 Dignitatis Humanae [Declaration on Religious Freedom], art. 3.

13 See especially Paul, John II, Veritatis Splendor [On the Splendor of the Truth], 1993, esp. arts. 31 and 32.Google Scholar

14 Dignitatis Humanae, art. 1.

15 Ibid., art. 2.

16 Ibid., art. 1.

17 See the discussion summary following Kauffman, 's “American Reactions,” 90Google Scholar; Pavan, Declaration,” 69Google Scholar; and Murray's commentary in Abbott, , Documents, 678.Google Scholar Further support for Pavan and Murray can be found in the fact that Gaudium et Spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] art. 21 also explicitly repudiated any distinction in civil rights between believers and unbelievers. This document was issued on the same day as Dignitatis Humanae.

18 Dignitatis Humanae, art. 7.

19 For pre-Vatican II discussions of the importance of avoiding religious skepticism and the privatization of religion, see McDonagh, Freedom, as well as John Courtney Murray's work in We Hold.

20 Dignitatis Humanae, art. 3.

21 Hauerwas fails to grasp the Declaration's deep commitment to this basic connection between religious freedom and the search for the truth, as he rather surprisingly insists that the right to religious freedom in Dignitatis Humanae “is in no way governed by the duty to seek the true and the good.” See Hauerwas, , “Not Late Enough,” 111.Google Scholar

22 Gamwell, Franklin I., “Religion and Reason in American Politics” in Lovin, Robin W., ed., Religion and American Public Life: Interpretations and Explorations (New York: Paulist, 1986) 88112Google Scholar, at 88–89.

23 Religion is of course notoriously difficult to define. Nevertheless, Gamwell is right to give such a broad definition that any system of ultimate meaning would be included, so that the issue is not what is or is nota “religion,” but rather the issue of legal protection afforded to all answers to the ultimately “religious” question of the final good of human life.

24 In addition to the concise presentation of this argument in Gamwell, 's “Religion and Reason,” see his Meaning of Religious Freedom (Albany: SUNY, 1995).Google Scholar A similarly insightful discussion of the inevitability of religious values in governmental legislation is provided by Thiemann, Ronald, Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

25 Dignitatis Humanae, art. 6.

28 In his commentary notes on Dignitatis Humanae, John Courtney Murray argues that the paragraph on legal recognition was carefully worded to avoid taking a position on whether such legal recognition was potentially consistent with religious freedom (as some maintain) or never consistent with religious freedom (as others insisted). See Abbott, 685.

29 McDonagh, , Freedom, esp. 116120.Google Scholar

30 Ibid., 92. The essay from which this quote is drawn was first published in 1962.

31 Hauerwas, , “Not Late Enough,” 112.Google Scholar

32 See Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion in Lawrence v. Texas 123 S. Ct. 2472 (2003) and the discussion of this case in Doak, Mary, Reclaiming Narrative for Public Theology (Albany: SUNY, 2004), 6062.Google Scholar

33 McDonagh, , Freedom, 9294.Google Scholar

34 Dignitatis Humanae, art. 1.

35 Weigel, George, Soul of the World: Notes on the Future of Public Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), esp. 75.Google Scholar

36 Murray, , We Hold, 161.Google Scholar

37 Murray, John Courtney S.J., “Should There Be a Law? The Question of Censorship” in We Hold, 155174Google Scholar at esp. 166.

38 Dignitatis Humanae art. 7.

39 “EU Seeking a Divine Definition,” International Herald Tribune, February 5, 2003; also, “John Paul II Resumes Call for Constitution to Recognize Christianity,” Zenit News Agency, January 9, 2004,

40 Dignitatis Humanae, art. 1.

41 See especially John Paul II, “Homily for the Advent Mass for the Students of the Roman State Universities,” Thursday, 11 December, 2003,

43 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Responding to Legislative Proposals on Discrimination Against Homosexuals,” Origins 22 no. 10 (Aug. 6, 1992), nos. 12 & 13.Google Scholar

44 Ibid., no. 14.

45 Hollenbach, David S.J., “Freedom and Truth: Religious Liberty as Immunity and Empowerment” in Leon Hooper, J. S.J., and Whitmore, Todd David, eds., John Courtney Murray and the Growth of Tradition (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1996), 129148Google Scholar at 146.

46 Ibid., 132–134.

47 John Paul II, as quoted by Hollenbach, ibid., 134.

48 Pope Paul VI, in his message to civic authorities on Dec. 8, 2005, as quoted in Abbott, , Documents, 730.Google Scholar See also Gaudium et Spes art. 42 on the Church's desire to develop freely in a just society.

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