Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
Associate Editor: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.  Not to be republished without permission.
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No. 16 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program March 1988

Grenada: Our Lady Defeats the "Errors of Russia" - Brian W. Harrison
Religious Liberty: "Rights" versus "Tolerance" - Brian W. Harrison

IN THIS ISSUE: Fr. Brian Harrison presents the true story about Grenada and then, in a second article, adds some further considerations to his earlier discussion of religious liberty.

Grenada: Our Lady Defeats the "Errors of Russia"

by Brian W. Harrison

        "Do you like our new airport?" the taxi driver asked me. "It was so kind of the Cubans and Russians to build it for us!" he observed with a wry smile. Then the smile faded as he added, "It cost a lot of blood, though, that airport."

        An Airport Paid For in Blood.   We were winding along the road from Point Salines Airport to St. George's, the capital of Grenada, with the sparkling blue-gold scenario of Caribbean beaches on one side of the road, and lush green tropical vegetation covering sharply rising hills on the other. As a priest currently studying in Rome, I was coming for two months' pastoral work in this island nation which covers about the same area as the Isle of Wight - or double the size of the District of Columbia: 133 square miles.

        Point Salines has a runway nearly two miles long - in a nation measuring only about nine miles by seventeen. It has become undoubtedly the most visible and durable symbol of what Grenadians now call the years "under the PRG" - the "People's Revolutionary Government." These were the four-and-a-half years (1979-1983) during which Marxist Prime Minister Maurice Bishop succeeded in imposing on the islanders what he and his cronies proudly styled (behind closed doors) a "dictatorship of the proletariat." Contrary to some reports at the time of its construction, the new airport was not designed specifically as a military base, but it certainly would have given a much longer reach - over the Eastern Caribbean and oil-rich Venezuela, and as a convenient stepping-stone to Angola - to the steel-clad arms of Bishop's close friend and benefactor, Fidel Castro.

        As our taxi rolled into St. George's, a town of 25,000 built around the hillsides overlooking a deep and attractive harbour, my eye was caught by another prominent landmark - a long, low, cream-coloured building dotted with a row of small windows and flanked by grey walls and barbed wire. It was several hundred feet above sea level, on the crest of a high ridge which runs in a rough semicircle round the back of the town. As I soon found out, this was Richmond Hill Prison, which currently bears a grim and ironic witness to that dramatic turn of events in October 1983 which prevented the Cubans and Russians from sending any hardware down the giant runway they had just built and paid for.

        Jailed Without Trial for "Suspected Intentions".   Under the PRG, the prison was bulging with up to two hundred political prisoners - "counter-revolutionaries" (or just "counters," as they were called in the regime's jargon). Since Grenada's population is only around 100,000, about one citizen in every 300 was imprisoned - often under harsh conditions - at some stage of the PRG's regime. To gain some idea of the resulting climate of fear and repression, one need only imagine how Britain would be if 200,000 citizens - an equivalent proportion of the population - were jailed without trial for political offences, real or imaginary. Many Grenadians fled the island, voting with their feet.

        If anything, the emphasis in Communist Grenada was as much on "imaginary" as on "real" offences - and by the revolutionaries' own showing. On seizing power in March 1979, Bishop and his comrades of the New Jewel Movement (Grenada's Communist Party) suspended the country's Westminster-style constitution, which had undeniably been abused by the corrupt and brutal (though freely and repeatedly elected) government of the previous Prime Minister, Eric Gairy. Soon, under "People's Law No. 8," it was not necessary to have spoken out or acted against the regime in order to be jailed indefinitely, nor even to be suspected of having done so; it was quite enough to be "reasonably suspected of intending" to do so. In 1982 Bishop put it more bluntly and brashly in a confidential policy speech to Party members which was subsequently captured by the invading U.S. forces: "Consider how people get detained in this country. We don't go and call for no votes. You get detained when I sign an order after discussing it with the National Security Committee of the Party or with a higher Party body. Once I sign it - like it or don't like it - it's up the hill for them."

        An Aborted Revolution.   Today, however, Richmond Hill Prison breathes a very different spirit. Behind those rows of windows there are now thirteen men and a woman under sentence of death since December 1986 (appeals are now in process). After seemingly interminable legal proceedings (the accused were given a trial by jury, having demanded for themselves all the "bourgeois" due process which they so scornfully denied to others when they were in power) these fourteen former leaders in the Marxist government and armed forces were found guilty of murdering their colleague Maurice Bishop, along with a number of other cabinet ministers and ordinary citizens, on 19 October 1983. Led by Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard and General Hudson Austin of the People's Revolutionary Army, this faction of hard-line ideologues decided that Comrade Bishop was deviating from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, and placed him under house arrest on 13 October. When a crowd of supporters released him (Bishop was a tall, youthful, charismatic figure who enjoyed much personal popularity in spite of widespread disillusionment with the PRG's overall performance), Coard and Austin simply sent in a clutch of armoured cars. The troops shot their way through the crowds outside Fort George, leaving scores of civilians dead; they then lined up Bishop, his concubine Jacqueline Creft, and several other key supporters for summary execution.

        By this desperate act of fanaticism, however, the Grenadian revolution had aborted itself. Coard and Austin had hardly any popular support, and the heads of government of surrounding West Indian islands met in alarm and decided - with the secretly communicated support of Grenada's Governor-General, Sir Paul Scoon - to seek U.S. armed intervention. Fidel Castro, too, had enough sense of loyalty to his friend Bishop to denounce these assassinations vehemently, which left only distant Moscow - untroubled by petty scruples of that sort! - supporting the new ruling junta on the "broad-minded" grounds that the revolution must go on, come what may. After Grenada survived several days of terror at gunpoint, the Americans and other Caribbean forces landed on 25 October, to be welcomed with open arms as liberators by at least 90% of the islanders.

        A Unique Triumph for Our Lady of Fatima.   Was it just a coincidence that the coup d'etat which in less than two weeks had led to the collapse of a Communist dictatorship took place on 13 October 1983? That of course was exactly 66 years (double the life-span of Our Lord) after the great miracle of the sun at Fatima in 1917. Or was it a disposition of God's Providence?

        As a priest, I soon found out something which the world never learned from the secular news reports which briefly dominated the headlines round the world in October 1983: vast numbers of Grenadians - a religious people on the whole - honestly consider President Reagan's "rescue operation," as they tend to call it, an answer to prayer. Grenada is two-thirds Catholic, and the faith has left a deep imprint on the island's history and culture ever since Columbus discovered it on the Feast of the Assumption, 1498, naming it "Concepción" in honour of the Immaculate Mother. The islanders have a strong devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, whose messages of course include grave warnings about the "errors of Russia." Throughout the PRG years Bishop Sydney Charles continued a custom which had already become well-established before he became the Ordinary of the Diocese of St. George's in 1975: he led his clergy and people in a public procession along the roads from Grenville up to the Battle Hill shrine on the East coast, six times a year - rain or shine - on the anniversaries of Mary's apparitions at Fatima. The Marxist regime never felt strong enough to ban these processions, although it made sure there were young revolutionaries lining the streets to jeer and heckle as the faithful passed by praying the Rosary, singing the same good old Marian hymns that our readers know so well, and lifting high a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

        During my stay I had the privilege of taking part in two of these processions, which conclude with a concelebrated Mass in honour of Our Lady. Especially since we were in the Marian Year, it was a moving experience to share in a common act of faith involving the Bishop and a thousand or so faithful of all ages and conditions, together with the great majority of the island's priests and nuns (the latter wearing their veils and habits as always). What a joy it was to participate in the life of a local Church which has so far been spared the tragic discord that has ravaged Catholicism in the affluent Western countries, as a result of widespread scepticism, permissiveness and scorn for papal authority amongst supercilious, dissident clergy and rebellious, worldly-minded nuns! The Catholic Church in Grenada has its problems, like any community of sinful human beings; but thank God it is still one Church, with Peter and under Peter!

        In Europe and North America - as in my own country, Australia - the title "Catholic" has very largely been reduced to little more than a flimsy piece of paper plastered unconvincingly over a widening crack between what are basically two Churches - Roman and anti-Roman. This has now been going on since well before I became a Catholic in 1972, so I suppose I have become "battle-hardened" or "desensitized" without knowing it. A monstrous, pathological situation of suspicion, conflict and disunity has for me been the "normal" experience of Catholic life for as long as I have been in the Church - that Church which is intended to be a sign of Christ to the world by virtue of the love which its members have for each other (John 13:35)! So it was like seeing the first blossom of spring to find a national Catholic community where that rarest of qualities - common, sane, ordinary Catholicity - still prevails amongst the priests and religious!

        Small wonder, I reflected as I walked along in the crowd with my Rosary, that so many devout islanders see the intercession of Christ's Mother as the unseen force behind their deliverance from Communism. Instead of "Yankee Go Home," the graffiti on Grenadian walls today proclaim messages like "Thank God for the U.S.," and "K.G.B. behave!" The Yankee troops did in any case go home once order was restored with the culprits under arrest; and in the free elections held the following year the remnants of the New Jewel Movement could not win even one of the 14 seats in the nations's little House of Representatives. If I am not mistaken, Grenada thus enjoys the distinction of being the only country in the world so far in which a thorough-going Marxist dictatorship has been replaced by parliamentary democracy.

        A Salutary Lesson: Communism Conceals Its True Aims.   What lessons can be learned from Grenada's experience with Marxism? Of much value in this respect is the swag of secret documents captured from the People's Revolutionary Government by the American forces in 1983. Published by the U.S. State Department the following year in the form of direct, unedited photocopies, these documents - all conveniently in the English language - have provided for the West a unique inside look at the hidden workings of a Communist regime.

        Perhaps the most striking fact is the way in which Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and his cohorts managed to conceal their true motivations and intentions from the West - and indeed, from their own people.

        Grenada was and is a society strongly influenced by the Christian Churches, and permeated by what its Marxist rulers described ruefully (in secret) as a "petit bourgeois" mentality. "Communism" was held in bad repute even amongst the most uneducated islanders, who had heard little more than that it was something atheistic and oppressive. Consequently, the tactics of the revolutionaries included frequent and explicit public denials - both before and after their seizure of power - that their New Jewel Movement was a "Communist" party. The original JEWEL Movement - standing for Joint Endeavour for Welfare, Education and Liberation - began in the early 1970s under the inspiration of Catholic social teaching. As Bishop, Coard and others soon gained power, the movement swung further to the left and was re-established on a new basis. JEWEL's young founder, Teddy Victor (an active Catholic), resigned in disillusionment; and as soon as the NJM gained political power, those who had subverted and taken over Victor's movement threw him without trial into prison, where he remained until the Americans freed him over four years later. (Since then he has devoted his efforts to a new ecumenical centre which gives training in carpentry, plumbing and other much-needed trade skills. As they say, you can't keep a good man down!)

        The simple expedient of substituting words like "revolution" and "socialism" for "Communism" and "Marxism-Leninism" in public rhetoric proved highly effective. Along with the poor and lesser-educated, many sophisticated and "forward-looking" persons thought it very "simplistic" to regard the NJM as Communist just because it consistently said and did Communist things. The Western news media - for example TIME magazine as recently as 23 November 1987 - customarily spoke of Bishop's regime as "leftist" or "socialist." And when Prime Minister Eric Gairy branded the rising NJM as "Marxist" and "Communist" in the 1970s, his denunciations were automatically dismissed as crude propaganda by enlightened, "progressive" observers, just because Gairy was who he was - an "authoritarian right-winger," on good terms with Somoza, Duvalier and Pinochet.

        But Gairy was right, as the captured documents proved years later. For instance, in a confidential policy speech to party members of September 1982 ("Line of March of the Party," pp. 38-40), Bishop reviewed the history of the NJM. He reminded the comrades of how, as a result of early "mistakes" at a time when "a deep class approach was not taken," a secret party gathering of April 1974 "decided in theory and in principle that we should build a Leninist party," even though it was not possible to implement this policy immediately and openly.

        So much for the American media pundits who, by the time Bishop delivered this speech, were beating their breasts over Grenada (as they had done over Vietnam and are doing now over Nicaragua), assuring the public that these Caribbean revolutionaries were really honest-to-goodness social democrats at heart, but that "we" (i.e., the U.S. Administration) were "driving them to seek help from the Cubans and Soviets" by "our" suspicious, interfering and aggressive attitude. But this standard cliche of Western liberals - that when Third World regimes move leftwards it's because the Pentagon and the White House are clumsily pushing them in that direction - is untenable in the case of Grenada: in April 1974 (five years before Bishop carne to power) Washington was barely aware of Grenada's existence - much less was it doing any "pushing."

        Indeed, in the same secret speech of 1982 (p. 18), Bishop scoffed at how easy it was to fool gullible Westerners. He reminded party members that there were several token "bourgeois" and "capitalist" figures in ostensibly influential government positions in Grenada, and added, "This was done deliberately so that imperialism won't get too excited and would say, 'well they have some nice fellas in that thing; everything alright' (sic). And as a result wouldn't think about sending in troops."

        Mere "Socialists"? A Ploy to Deceive the West.   Grenada's membership in the Socialist International was also a ploy used by the Bishop regime to allay Western fears, while at the same time helping to push the S.I. as far to the left as possible. To help promote Grenada's "non-aligned" image, the regime actually hosted a S.I. Regional Committee meeting in 1981, during which Bishop lavished praise on the organization's president, Willi Brandt, and eulogized the S.I.'s "critical and crucial role ... in supporting and defending progressive and just causes" in the Western Hemisphere. The cynicism of this sort of public posturing emerges from the captured documents: a secret party position paper pointed out that "so-called democratic socialism," which "Lenin brilliantly defined and rejected," was to be seen as "a permanent enemy of the essential objectives of the communist and left movements in that this trend intends to prevent the triumph of socialist revolutions and the materialization of the communist ideal." But "while ideological struggle against this trend is necessary," the paper observed, "it is obvious that certain political positions of Social Democracy can be used by the revolutionary and progressive forces of the continent at given junctures of the struggle" against "fascism" and "U.S. imperialism." Obvious indeed - but not to those Westerners for whom the first principle of political sophistication is that one should not look for Reds Under the Bed.

        Callous Double Standards.   Another lesson to be learned from the Grenada Revolution is the callous double standards adopted by the NJM. Before the party came to power, Maurice Bishop posed as a champion of free speech and due process, and like a good fashionable liberal cooperated zealously with Amnesty International. After the 1979 coup, however, when hundreds languished without trial in Richmond Hill Prison and all opposition to the regime from press and radio was brutally silenced, Comrade Bishop sang a different tune. Amnesty wrote to him, shocked and puzzled by the discrepancy between his former words and his present deeds. The new Prime Minister simply wrote back saying that, well, frankly, he had now changed his mind about these things.

        When foreigners were not listening, Bishop's language was even more blunt. I spoke to another indomitable Catholic layman who suffered for Christ at the hands of the Revolution, Jerry Romain. As a radio personality well-known all over the island, Romain was targeted by the NJM as a potential threat to Communist influence, and was jailed without trial immediately following the party's seizure of power. Like many others, he was not released until the Americans landed over four years later. Romain spoke of an occasion when Prime Minister Bishop visited the prison, and there was a chance for a brief conversation. "I asked Bishop why I was in prison," he told me. "I wanted to know what crime I was supposed to have committed. You know what he said? 'Comrade,' he said to me cynically, 'you're not in here for anything you've done; you're here because we know what you're capable of doing!'"

        "When the Revolution Talks, No Parasites Must Bark in Their Corner!"   At a public rally in June 1981, shortly after suppressing the opposition Torchlight newspaper and jailing its editors, Comrade Bishop showed just how easy it was to justify such action. Being careful not to mention the word "Communism," he declared to the crowds:

This is a revolution, we live in a revolutionary Grenada ... and there is a revolutionary legality. ... When the revolution speaks, it must be heard, listened to. Whatever the revolution commands, it must be carried out; when the revolution talks, no parasites must bark in their corner. The voice of the masses must be listened to, their rule must be obeyed!

        Today: The Revolution Down, But Not Out.   Parasites. That was a word that chilled me when I heard it on the lips of a young Grenadian during my recent visit. I happened to recall to him how the Bishop regime jailed hundreds without trial. "So what," he replied, "they were only parasites!" He then launched into a tirade against the present government of Herbert Blaize.

        In fact, as I soon realized, the Grenada Revolution is down, but not out. Fresh problems - including an increase in drugs, crime, and unemployment - have arisen. (The Communists handled unemployment largely by swelling the ranks of the People's Revolutionary Army, financed and trained by Cuba and the Soviets. This of course meant that with the collapse of the regime and its army, the island was suddenly left with an acute unemployment problem, amongst youths who had moreover undergone years of intensive Marxist propaganda.) Democracy, along with its blessings, has also brought a certain political instability and rather weak leadership, in the opinion of many Grenadians who spoke to me. All this creates the kind of social unrest in which totalitarian trends can easily take root again. A "Maurice Bishop Patriotic Movement" has been formed, casting the slain leader as a martyr-hero; and although few locals think it has much chance of gaining power, there is enough uncertainty to produce definite undercurrents of tension and uneasiness. After all, it only took a few dozen determined militants to take over the country in 1979.

        The Future: A Vital Role for the Church.   In this situation the Grenada Churches - especially the dominant Catholic Church - will have a vital role to play. One of the captured documents - a July 1983 report on religion stamped "Top Secret" - singled out the local Catholic Church as "the No. 1 antagonist of the Revolution." Precisely in order to weaken her from within, the Marxist author urged, the government must (amongst other things) "promote contacts among clergymen and members of the laity from Nicaragua and other Latin American countries linked to the theology of liberation." (Thus, while armchair theologians in the West occupy themselves with subtle academic distinctions regarding which "strands" of liberation theology may be in harmony with Catholic orthodoxy, the avowed enemies of the Church, being men of action, have no interest in such hair-splitting: liberation theology as such is seen by them simply as a weapon with which the naive "children of light" may hopefully be persuaded to commit institutional suicide.) The "Top Secret" report deplored the lack of "progressive elements" in Grenada's Church leaders, and noted that the "reactionary" influence of Bishop Charles and his clergy was "a very dangerous one": the author warned that "if serious measures are not taken, we can find ourselves faced with a Poland situation."

        Famous last words. Mercifully, there was no time for these "serious measures" to be fully implemented, and less than four months later the shadow which still hangs over Poland was dispelled from Grenada. For those who have eyes to see, it is surely no coincidence that this signal defeat for the "errors of Russia" took place in a land (and how many such lands are there?) where the chief shepherd and his flock paid public honour to Our Lady of Fatima not once, but six times every year. As Grenada was originally named after the Blessed Virgin by Columbus, she remains the island's Patroness under the title he specified - the Immaculate Conception. May she who "crushes the serpent's head" continue to keep Grenada free from that menacing shadow; and may the rest of the world learn a lesson from a story it has not yet heard.

Andrew J. Zwerneman, In Bloody Terms: The Betrayal of the Church in Marxist Grenada (South Bend, Indiana: Greenlawn Press, 1986).
Gerry R.S. Hopkin, Grenada Topples the Balance in West Indian History, (St. George's, Grenada, 1984).
George Brizan, Grenada, Island of Conflict: From Amerindians to People's Revolution, 1498-1979 (London: Zed Books, 1984).

        Religious Liberty: "Rights" versus "Tolerance"  

by Brian W. Harrison

The following article is an adaptation of a chapter in Father Harrison's book, Religious Liberty and Contraception, published in Australia by the John XXIII Fellowship Cooperative.

        In an earlier issue of Living Tradition (No. 9, January 1987), I argued that Vatican Council II's Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) does not contradict the traditional doctrinal statements of the Catholic Magisterium - in particular, Pius IX's encyclical Quanta Cura - on the question of state coercion in matters touching religion and morals.

        That article was concerned with the legitimate extent of such coercion. Pius IX said it should be more than what is merely required in order to maintain "public peace." Vatican II says it should be no more than what is required for maintaining a "just public order." And since it can be shown that by "public peace" Pius IX did not mean what Vatican II meant by a "just public order," I concluded that there was no contradiction between the two documents, even though they manifest undeniable differences in approach and emphasis.

        However, over and above the question of to what extent religious and moral error should be permitted by civil authorities, there is the question of the nature of the permission given. Many commentators on the conciliar Declaration - including both those who applaud it and those who attack it - insist that here we have a real contradiction between the Council and earlier teaching on a fundamental point of principle. Traditional doctrine, they say, maintained that when the state permits non-Catholic propaganda in society, this is a case of "tolerance," implying that the activity in question is something evil. Vatican II, on the other hand, affirms a natural human right to religious liberty in society, even for non-Catholics. Now, one can have a "right" only to what is good and true. So there is a real contradiction, it is argued, between affirming "rights," and conceding a mere "tolerance," for non-Catholic religions in civil society. Indeed, this was a point of serious disagreement during the debates amongst the Council Fathers. As Fr. Donald Wolf, S.J., remarks,

One constant point of disagreement ran through the entire debate on all the various texts and showed itself in the final vote which approved the Declaration. This was the dispute over whether religious liberty was to be simply tolerated or whether it was to be affirmed in principle as a right of each human being.1

        And Bishop Emil de Smedt, the official relator for the conciliar schema on religious liberty, made the following remarks in presenting one of the earlier drafts to the assembled Fathers of Vatican II:

For, in regard to the modern institution of religious liberty, it cannot be said that, while being something evil in itself, it may be tolerated as a lesser evil or in order to secure a greater good. On the contrary, this institution is to be affirmed as good in itself, since it is solidly founded in human dignity, both personal and civil.2

        In spite of the apparent incompatibility of the two approaches referred to by Wolf and de Smedt, we believe there is no true contradiction. The appearance of contradiction derives from a lack of precision in thought, which has led to a confusion between two distinct (though closely related) ideas.

        We need to ask Wolf and de Smedt what they mean, precisely, by "religious liberty." Is it the non-interference of civil authority in the propagation of false religions? Or is it the actual propagation of them? It is the former alone which Vatican II says is due to the human person as a right; but it isthe latter which pre-conciliar teaching said can be the object of "toleration." In other words, it is evil activity itself which the State tolerates, not the per mission for it. On the contrary, even before Vatican II the permission, ex hypothesi, was under stood to be for the sake of the common good, and hence could not itself be evil. The Spanish Dominican Fr. Victorino Rodriguez rightly criticises de Smedt's failure (at that stage of the Council) to appreciate the difference we have just pointed out - a failure which doubtless contributed to further confusion in the minds of many Council Fathers:

In the relationes of Mons. de Smedt regarding the right to religious liberty, not the tolerance of it, an appeal was made to the fact that the laws guaranteeing religious liberty in many countries could not be seen as an evil to be tolerated, but as something good and just. This argumentation displayed a dreadful quid pro quo: the fact that the tolerance of an evil is something good does not mean that the evil tolerated is itself good!3
        Another way of making the same basic point is to distinguish between the two following propositions:

                (i) Non-Catholics have a right to propagate their religion publicly (to the extent that it does not violate public order).

                (ii) Non-Catholics have a right to immunity from coercion in propagating their religion publicly (to the extent that it does not violate public order).

        Now, (i) would certainly be incompatible with the traditional doctrine of the Church. But Dignitatis Humanae does not teach (i), and in effect rejects it in article 1, by reaffirming the moral duty of all men (and societies) towards the true religion. Clearly, one cannot have a "right" to deny certain things which one has a "moral duty" to affirm. The Council is most careful to teach only (ii) above, and is thus making the point that not everything which is objectively false or wrong may justly be repressed by human authority: in some cases God alone must be left to judge. We are reminded of the Gospel parable of the wheat and tares: "Let both grow together till the harvest" (Matt. 13:30).

        Not until the last minute was the confusion between the above two propositions adequately cleared up on the floor of the Council. (Unfortunately, as Wolf's post-conciliar commentary, cited above, and innumerable traditionalist attacks on Vatican II illustrate,4   that confusion remains widespread to this day amongst Catholics of quite varying attitudes towards the Council.) In Bishop de Smedt's final relatio (19 November 1965) he mentioned that some Fathers (very prominent ones, in fact - Cardinals Ruffini, Siri, Florit, and Ottaviani) had requested that the Declaration should "set out the particular right of the Church to diffuse the truth - a right which she alone possesses." Other Fathers had insisted that "truth and falsehood do not have the same right of diffusion," and that "there is no liberty against objective truth." De Smedt, in replying on behalf of the Secretariat to these interventions, insisted that such points were already sufficiently covered in the text, and stressed that the "right" affirmed in the schema has for its object

immunity from coercion and not the content of this or that religion. Nowhere is it affirmed - nor could it be truly affirmed, as is evident - that there is any right to propagate error (Nullibi affirmatur nec affirmare licet [quod evidens est] dari ius ad errorem diffundendum). If people propagate error, this is not the exercise of a right, but the abuse of a right, which can and should be restrained if it seriously harms public order, as is affirmed a number of times in the text and explained in article 7. If these fundamental elements are kept clearly in mind, many proposed amendments to the text can be seen as unacceptable: if a right of this sort were to be denied, such an amendment would be opposed to the substance of the text which has been approved by the Fathers. This cannot be admitted.5
        As Rodriguez comments, the foundation of this right to immunity from coercion in spreading even a false religion (whenever this activity does not seriously harm the common good)

is simply that the control of this activity is not within the competence of the public authorities. Someone who commits an offence against justly constituted authority in Italy has the right not to be tried for it in Indonesia: not because a criminal action is the foundation of any right, but because the criminal is socially responsible only before the competent tribunal of his country.6

        Rodriguez perhaps overstates his case by the use of that sort of analogy, but at least it brings out the crucial distinction clearly.

        Difficulty in appreciating that distinction also lay behind some of the requests which conservative Fathers submitted to the Secretariat, asking that the document define the "right" to religious liberty as a "civil right" - a term which in fact was studiously avoided by the Council in its definition of religious liberty. No less then 209 Fathers jointly expressed dissatisfaction with the official sub-title of the schema: "On the right of persons and communities to social and civil liberty in matters of religion." They suggested that this be replaced by "on the civil right to liberty in matters of religion" - clearly because the idea of a "civil right" does not necessarily imply any right in the strict sense - a moral right. It thus seemed to these Fathers easier to reconcile with the traditional language of "tolerance."7   But Bishop de Smedt, in explaining the Secretariat's rejection of that suggestion, pointed out why it was important to insist on a "right to civil liberty" in religious matters, not a "civil right to liberty." The proposed change in the title, he said,

is not fully in accord with the substance of the text. It is indeed true that religious liberty is, or should be, a positive civil right; but this should be precisely as a recognition of a right which pertains to the person. Moreover, if it were said to be nothing more than a positive civil right, this could be used against the Church herself.8
        Thus, the Council insisted that religious liberty is a right in the strict sense of the word, not merely a currently opportune provision of positive civil law. However, this did not involve contradicting the traditional doctrine that the propagation of false religions was something that the civil power might "tolerate." What it amounted to was a genuinely new doctrinal development which posited something which at first sight seems paradoxical: a right to be tolerated. That expression was not used by the Council - doubtless in order to avoid confusion, and to give added emphasis to what was new in the doctrine (the part that the modern world wanted to hear) rather than what was traditional. But this is nonetheless what the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae amounts to. The "right to be tolerated" is not a self-contradictory expression, because the idea of "tolerance" towards a certain activity does not necessarily imply that the authority tolerating it has the right to suppress it; it need imply no more than that the authority regards the activity as evil (at least in some respects) and has the physical power to suppress it.

        Traditional Catholic moral philosophy defined a "right" as the "moral faculty" of doing something, having something, or requiring someone else to do (or not do) something: agendi, habendi, or exigendi. Both liberal and conservative extremes in the Catholic Church in recent years have often supposed (with either satisfaction or alarm as the case may be) that Vatican II has reversed pre-conciliar doctrine by attributing the first kind of right - a ius agendi - to the promoters of false religious beliefs. But in fact the Council's teaching places the right to religious liberty in the third of these traditional categories, the ius exigendi. However, it does so in a novel and unexpected way - one which reflects the democratic social and political climate of the twentieth century. Traditionally, the ius exigendi was thought of mainly as the kind of right which superiors have over their subjects: the right of ordering or requiring them to do (or not do) something. In this case, however, the ius exigendi pertains to the "subjects" over against their "superiors." Those ordinary citizens who conscientiously adhere to mistaken religious beliefs do not indeed possess an objective ius agendi in propagating those errors; but they do (according to the Council) have an objective ius exigendi: the right of demanding that other human beings - and in particular, civil authorities - do not impede or interfere with their propagation of these beliefs, in such cases where this does not endanger public order.

        Thus, the old and the new teachings on "tolerance" and "rights," though heading, so to speak, in different directions (one towards less liberty in society, the other towards more), do not collide head-on: like two well-driven vehicles approaching each other on the highway, they skim safely past each other.


1. Donald Wolf, Toward Consensus: Catholic-Protestant Interpretations of Church and State (New York: Doubleday: Anchor Books, 1968), p. 105.

2. Cited in Victorino Rodriguez, O.P., "Estudio historico-doctrinal de la declaración sabre libertad religiosa del Concìlio Vaticano II," La Ciencia Tomista, vol. 93 (1966), p. 306. Original text in Acta Synodalia, vol. III, part VIII, p. 465. (Author's translation from Latin original.)

3. Rodriguez, op. cit., p. 321, note 124 (emphasis in original). (Author's translation from Spanish original.)

4. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, for instance, shows himself still innocent of the distinction eventually explained by Bishop de Smedt when he asserts (with no justification from the text) that Vatican II "proclaims the right to scandal and the right to propagate error" (in Michael Davies, Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre  (Dickinson, Texas: Angelus Press, 1983), vol. II, p. 139). Again, Lefebvre shows a twofold confusion on page 142, in affirming, "there can be a moral right only to truth, not to error. If it is a question of a civil right, that can only mean tolerance and not a strict right." Not only does he confuse the right to do something with the right to immunity from coercion in doing it; he also speaks misleadingly of the opposition between "moral right" and "civil right."

5. Acta Synodalia, vol. IV, part VI, p. 725. (Author's translation from Latin original.)

6. Rodriguez, op. cit., p. 321. (Author's translation from Spanish original.)

7. Acta Synodalia, vol. IV, part VI, p. 726.

8. Ibid. (Author's translation from Latin original.)

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