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.
Please address all correspondence    e-mail:
Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA

No. 23 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program May 1989

Classroom Dictatorship and the Hierarchy of Truths   by John F. McCarthy
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Ils L'Ont Découronné   reviewed by Brian W. Harrison

by John F. McCarthy

        From the Declaration of Cologne Against Incapacitation - for an Open Catholicism, signed by 163 theologians from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, and published on 27 January 1989, through similar declarations in France and Spain to the declaration of 63 Italian theologians and others published in the May issue of Il Regno, we have seen some spectacular examples of the "growing tension between faithful, theologians, and ecclesiastical authority" (Jesus, June 1989). These "representatives of the intelligentsia" are moved to assert their freedom of expression "by an emerging socio-religious reality which requires both diversified and timely answers for which the traditional organisms are not prepared" (ibid.) They base their case on the "hierarchy of truths" referred to in the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism (no. 11), and aim their strongest charges against the papal teaching on contraception. Thus, the Declaration of Cologne, noting that, in recent addresses to theologians and bishops, Pope John Paul II "has linked the teaching on birth control with fundamental truths of the Faith, like the divinity of God and salvation through Jesus Christ," regrets "the intense fixation of the papal teaching on this problem area."

        Dismantlers of the Church are always disturbed by too much papal attention to the little areas of the ecclesiastical dike wherein they are producing "secondary" holes as contemporary expressions of the "emerging socio-religious reality" for which the traditional structures are not prepared. Regarding the "hierarchy of truths," the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave some clear elucidation in its Declaration in Defense of the Catholic Doctrine on the Church against Certain Errors of the Present Day Mysterium Ecclesiae of 24 June 1973, where it explained: "It is true that there exists an order and as it were a hierarchy of the Church's dogmas, as a result of their varying relationship to the foundation of the Faith. This hierarchy means that some dogmas are founded on other dogmas which are the principal ones, and are illuminated by these latter. But all dogmas, since they are revealed, must be believed with the same divine faith" (no. 4).

        The Declaration of Cologne claims against the Pope that "particular questions of ethical and dogmatic detail" should not be "blown up to become questions concerning the very identity of the Faith." Now, this is false, because the virtue of faith can live and bear fruit only in a chaste conscience, and these thinkers are by their specious arguments opening the defenses of the Catholic conscience to the inroads of immoral contraception. The eating of the forbidden fruit of contraception cannot be a legitimate exercise of conscience, nor is the recommending of such immoral action a legitimate way of understanding the Faith "in full obedience of intellect and will to God Who reveals" (Mysterium Ecclesiae, 4). Theologians who promote this immorality, no matter what academic degrees or experience they may otherwise have, are thereby not really qualified to receive official Church permission to teach Catholic theology.

        The fact is that the "hierarchy of truths" motif is being used by unorthodox theologians as a pretext for harming the integrity of Catholic faith and morals. The existentialist stripping-away of dogmatic and moral truths that they consider "secondary" or less essential to Catholic faith is actually a false essentialism that puts out of focus the integral character of these truths. In the radical use of this existentialist method, such thinkers are really no longer theologians at all, because they have abandoned the true light of faith in favor of a philosophical method that is rationalist in its origins.

        On the issue of academic freedom, what needs to be said above all is that the method of these teachers of theology often does injustice to their students, who are not only subjected to distorted presentations of Catholic doctrine but also forced to profess the same false ideas or suffer the penalty of lowered grades and failures. The problem is not basically one of unjust treatment of theologians by bishops but of unjust treatment of Catholic students by unfaithful theologians who impose their dissenting ideas upon the consciences of students who have a right to believe and to be imbued with the integral Catholic Faith. It is time that the Church recognize this socio-religious reality of today and provide a process of appeal by students against arbitrary grades issued to them by dissenting teachers of theology.

        BOOK REVIEW: Ils L'Ont Découronné, by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (Editions "Fideliter," 03110 Escurolles, France, 1987, 270 pp, 95FRF.) 

reviewed by Brian W. Harrison

        This book, the title of which means "They Have Uncrowned Him," has its origin in a series of lectures given by Archbishop Lefebvre to his seminarians at Ecône, Switzerland. The declared purpose of these lectures, according to the Archbishop's preface, has been "to enlighten the understanding of these future priests regarding the most grave and harmful error of modern times," namely, that form of "liberalism" which the French traditionalist prelate says has been "enthroned in the Vatican and amongst the episcopates."

        Essentially, the book is an ardent defence of the doctrine of Christ's social kingship - his rights over societies and nations as well as individual souls - and an attack on "the fundamental principle of '89" (i.e., the French Revolution), which the author identifies with "religious independence, the secularization of society, and especially religious liberty."

        In this bicentennial year of the French Revolution we are seeing a renewed spate of books and magazine articles - often polemical in tone - dealing with every aspect of that great upheaval which indeed struck a savage blow against the reign of Christ over the nations, and ushered into European and world history a strange new phenomenon which has since become part of the very air we breathe, so to speak: the secular state, in which God is ousted for all practical purposes from affairs of state, leaving man as the measure of all things.

        While every orthodox Catholic who understands his Church's teaching will sympathize to a large extent with Archbishop Lefebvre's zeal for Christ the King, and his indictment of that secularism which (in different ways) has come to dominate both the Eastern and Western blocs of what used to be Christendom, it should be recognized that he exaggerates the extent to which "liberalism" has come to influence the Catholic Church's leadership. In particular, one must take issue with his contention that Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty Dignitatis Humanae is irreconcilable with the doctrine of previous Popes on the subject of Church-State relations. These exaggerations are especially unfortunate in the light of the definitive rupture which took place at Ecône on June 30, 1988, a year or so after the book was published. The rest of this review article will focus on the Archbishop's objections to Dignitatis Humanae, mindful of Pope John Paul's Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei (2 July 1988), which calls on the Church's scholars to study the Vatican II documents more deeply, with a view to bringing out more clearly their essential continuity with traditional doctrine.

        1.   On page 183 an important hermeneutical point seems to be neglected. Archbishop Lefebvre there cites the preamble to Dignitatis Humanae (which reaffirms the "traditional Catholic doctrine" concerning the "moral duty of men and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ") as a statement "which immediately precedes the conciliar Declaration on Religious Liberty." (Translations from the French original throughout this review are those of the present writer.)

        To read this sentence, and similar remarks about Pope Paul VI's alleged intervention (pp. 168-169), one would think that the preamble to the Declaration is simply an independent commentary on it. But it is in fact an integral part of the text of the Declaration itself. The addition of the words ac societatum ("and societies") to the final draft of the schema therefore contributes in a positive way to the meaning of everything which follows - especially article 6, which speaks of situations in which "special recognition" is given in civil law to one particular religion. Precisely because of strong dissatisfaction with article 6 on the part of conciliar Fathers who thought it implied that State recognition of the true religion was to be seen henceforth as somehow abnormal or anachronistic, article 1 was revised so as to correct that impression. Thus, article 6 cannot be taken as the Council's last word on this subject; it must be read in the light of article 1, not vice versa. If we synthesize the relevant statements in these two articles, together with article 7, which speaks of the just limits on activity carried out in the name of "religion" or "conscience," we see that the teaching of Vatican II is much more traditional than members of the Society of St. Pius X have realised. Such a synthesis could be expressed as follows:

In those particular circumstances where a people as a whole professes the Catholic faith, the society as such and its public authorities must fulfil their moral duty to give special recognition to the true religion and the one Church of Christ. This special recognition, however, should be such as to recognize and respect the right to religious liberty of all other citizens and religious communities, insofar as their activities do not violate public peace, public morality, or other rights of citizens.

        (The term "public authorities" does not occur in this context in Dignitatis Humanae itself; however, in his official relatio (explanation) on behalf of the drafting Commission, Bishop Emil de Smedt told the assembled Fathers that in voting on the revised text of article 1, they should understand it to reaffirm "the duties of the public authority towards the true religion" [officia potestatis publicae erga veram religionem]. Cf. Acta Synodalia, IV, VI, p. 719.)

        2.   Archbishop Lefebvre maintains that the right to immunity from coercion for non-Catholics as well as Catholics (a right recognized by Dignitatis Humanae) implies that all forms of worship, true and false alike, are thereby "reduced absolutely to the same level of equality" (p. 196). This inference is surely unwarranted. Society can still give special recognition and a pre-eminent status to the true religion, without necessarily repressing the public exercise of all other religions. It is in no way incompatible with Dignitatis Humanae, for instance, to recognize special rights for the Catholic Church in regard to public education, matrimonial legislation and other laws on moral issues, ceremonies to be used in civil religious ceremonies, use of the mass media, chaplaincy rights for armed forces, prisons, and so on. Such rights are in fact recognized in the post-conciliar concordat between the Republic of Colombia and the Holy See ratified on 2 July 1975 (cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 67 (1975), pp. 421-434). Article I of this concordat specifies that the Catholic religion is to be regarded as "a fundamental element of the common good and of the integral development of the national community." Hence it is clear that Dignitatis Humanae, as interpreted by the Holy See itself, by no means implies (as Archbishop Lefebvre thinks it does) a contradiction of Pius IX's teaching in article 3 of the Encyclical Quanta Cura, where the Pontiff solemnly condemned the idea that society ought to be governed "without making any distinction between true and false religion."

        3.   The Archbishop's severe views on religious tolerance seem somewhat difficult to reconcile even with the pre-conciliar teaching of Pope Pius XII. We read on pages 196-197:

It is quite plain that, by the simple fact of their being in error, the followers of a false religion do not enjoy any natural right to immunity (from coercion). Let me illustrate this truth by a concrete example. If you felt moved to repress the public prayer of a group of Moslems in the street, or even to interrupt their worship in a mosque, you would possibly sin against charity, and certainly against prudence, but you would not do these believers any injustice.

        The author here makes no distinctions or qualifications regarding the circumstances of such possible repression of Moslem worship. He therefore seems to imply that, always and everywhere, one may, without injustice, impede the public exercise of any non-Catholic cult. However, in his allocution Ci Riesce (December 1953) Pope Pius XII explicitly taught that "in determined circumstances" governments may have "no right ... to impede and repress what is erroneous and false" (AAS 1953, pp. 798-799, emphasis in original). Such language seems to imply that, under those circumstances, repression would not merely be imprudent or uncharitable, but - contrary to what Archbishop Lefebvre seems to think - an injustice against those repressed. This in turn implies that, under certain circumstances at least, non-Catholics can indeed have a right to immunity from coercion from other human beings, even though they have no objective right to worship or spread religious ideas except in accordance with Catholic belief. And this is what Vatican II teaches. Such a right could be termed a "right to be tolerated," even though Dignitatis Humanae avoids that traditional language. In failing to appreciate this distinction between the right to do something and the right not to be prevented from doing it, the followers of this unduly rigorous doctrine have chosen a road which logically leads towards conclusions which they themselves would surely find awkward and disquieting. Nobody could be more opposed to Communist tyranny than Archbishop Lefebvre; but his own doctrine implies Russian Orthodox Christians, like all non-Catholics, have "no right to immunity," and hence suffer "no injustice" when Soviet leaders close down their churches, prohibit their public teaching, and so on. (Stalin might well have been amused to learn that "Catholic doctrine" - supposedly of the most "orthodox" variety! - implied such a mild evaluation of his policies towards Russian Orthodox, Moslems, and other non-Catholics in his Soviet empire!)

        Archbishop Lefebvre goes on to tell us (p. 197) that the rights of a non-Catholic cult cannot be infringed by suppression, because one has a right to worship God only according to the Catholic religion. But this begs the vital question. It assumes that civil authority always has the right to suppress any kind of behaviour which is objectively unjustifiable. It forgets that injustice may be done to someone not only by virtue of what suffering is inflicted on him, but also by virtue of who inflicts it. If I overpower a burglar in my house and keep him locked up in my cellar for two years, I am doing him an injustice; not because he necessarily deserves a lighter penalty - he may in fact deserve three years in prison - but because I as a private citizen have no right to impose any kind of imprisonment on him. Similarly, Pius XII and Dignitatis Humanae are making the point that in some circumstances - namely, when the common good or public order of society are not seriously endangered by the public exercise of non-Catholic religions - this exercise may not justly be suppressed by human authority: God alone should be left to judge it. We can recall the Gospel parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30), wherein Our Lord rebukes an untimely zeal in attempting to root out evil. Vatican II lays it down that the human dignity of non-Catholics gives them a prima facie claim (not an absolute or inviolable claim) to be left free by other human beings in carrying out activity which we, their fellow-creatures, must presume is motivated by a sense of obedience to Almighty God, and which may well be subjectively meritorious in his sight. Although this doctrine was never spelt out before Vatican II, we can see it foreshadowed in earlier teaching, not only in Pius XII's 1953 allocution, but as far back as the Middle Ages. The distinction between a right to do something and a right to immunity from human interference in doing it was implicit already in the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, who denies the right of Christian rulers to take Jewish or Moslem children away from their parents in order to save them from false religious teaching (cf. Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 10, art. 12). Such parents certainly have no right to believe (much less to teach others) that Christ is not God. But the natural right of fathers over their families, according to St. Thomas, takes precedence over this fact. The implication is that the father's rights are being violated if the State tries to stop him from teaching his religion to his own children. St. Thomas also lays it down that it does not pertain to human law to repress any and every kind of wrong-doing (Summa Theologica I-II, q. 96, art. 2). His main reason is that people who cannot yet be reasonably expected to live up to the highest standards should not have those standards imposed on them by means of penal sanctions from the government. Now, it is true, of course, that St. Thomas does not draw from these premises a doctrine of religious liberty as wide and tolerant as that of Vatican II. Nevertheless, such premises have implications for a world which is vastly different today from that mediaeval Christendom in which St. Thomas himself lived; and perhaps these implications have not been given sufficient attention by members of the Society of St. Pius X.

        4.   Archbishop Lefebvre seems to interpret too severely the teaching of Quanta Cura on "violators of the Catholic religion." He says on page 205 that (in article 3 of this encyclical) Pius IX

condemns the opinion of those who, "contrary to the doctrine of Scripture, of the Church, and of the holy Fathers, do not hesitate to affirm that, 'the best government is that in which no duty is recognized of correcting, by enacted penalties, violators of the Catholic religion, except insofar as the public peace requires it.'"... The obvious sense of the expression "violators of the Catholic religion" is: those who publicly exercise a cult other than the Catholic religion, or who publicly disobey the laws of the Church. Pius IX thus teaches that the State governs in a better way when it recognizes a duty of repressing the public exercise of false religions, for the sole reason that they are false, and not only in order to safeguard public peace.

        Many of us, however, would by no means regard this as being the "obvious" meaning of Pius IX's condemnation:

        (a)   To begin with, the text says or implies nothing whatever of the distinction between "public" and "private" activity in determining what is to be understood by a "violation" of the Catholic religion. Insofar as the distinction is used as a criterion of what should or should not be permitted to non-Catholics in a predominantly Catholic society, it pertains not to divine law (that is, Catholic doctrine), but to mutable ecclesiastical law dating from the last two centuries or so. If we go back further in history we find that the Church's public law allowed for the repression even of "privately" diffused error: in the Middle Ages a baptised person could be in grave trouble with both Church and State for voicing heretical opinions to his next-door neighbour. It is in any case impossible to determine in practice any generally accepted border-line between what counts as "public" and what counts as "private" activity. Any line drawn between the two would have to be somewhat arbitrary.

        (b)   The text of Quanta Cura does not say or necessarily imply anything about a supposed "duty of repressing the public exercise of false religions, for the sole reason that they are false." This is an unwarranted gloss on the text. In fact, it never was Catholic doctrine that error may be justly suppressed simply because of its erroneous nature; rather, it has always been seen as liable to suppression to the extent that it injures the common good of society - especially the salvation of souls.

        (c)   Archbishop Lefebvre does not here observe the principle that, in interpreting condemnations or penal legislation, one should remember the maxim odiosa sunt restringenda: that is, the Church favours lenient rather than harsh interpretations of the law in such matters. In case of doubt or ambiguity, the benefit of the doubt should be given to the party who is liable to be penalized. Thus, if a papal condemnation leaves some doubt as to whether it proscribes both opinions A and B, or only A, a person who holds B, but not A, should not be seen as condemned. Hence, even if there were some doubt regarding the passage of Quanta Cura under discussion, it should be held as condemning only the view that in the best condition of society, "public peace" is the only criterion which the State may appeal to in penalizing violators of the Catholic religion. And Vatican II certainly does not teach this condemned view: it allows the State to penalize such persons not only when they endanger "public peace," but also when they endanger public morality or any other rights of citizens (Dignitatis Humanae, 7). (We might add that Archbishop Lefebvre would not be entitled to assume that "public peace" in Quanta Cura includes "public morality" in the sense intended by Vatican II, namely, as conforming to the "objective moral order." This can include both revealed moral principles as well as the natural law; in fact, Paul VI, the chief signatory of Dignitatis Humanae, reaffirmed this traditional doctrine in an allocution of 24 September 1970 to a congress of civil lawyers, to whom he asserted that human law must be based on the principles of "the divine law, natural and positive." This is a doctrine far removed from that of the "naturalists" whom Pius IX was denouncing in Quanta Cura. They were insisting on complete separation of Church and State as an ideal, and hence would not allow the Catholic Church to have a stronger voice than anyone else in determining the ethical principles to be followed in legislation.)

        We must, in short, be careful to distinguish between a policy which Pius IX adopted in implementing Catholic doctrine and what he formally proposed as the doctrine itself in his encyclical. Concordats and other papal documents of this period certainly regard the public diffusion of error as per se a sufficiently serious threat to the common good as to warrant legal repression. However, in Quanta Cura the Pope does not condemn all possible expressions of disagreement with this policy, but only the rejection of the doctrine itself.

        5.   For similar reasons, one cannot agree with Archbishop Lefebvre when he says (p. 184) that the "liberty of conscience and of cult" condemned by Gregory XVI and Pius IX is coextensive and synonymous with the "religious liberty" affirmed by Vatican II. The historical and literary context of this condemnation in Quanta Cura make it clear that the condemned "liberty" is that excessive degree of liberty which follows logically and practically from separation of Church and State, according to which Catholic principles (including the Church's unique right to interpret authentically the natural law) cannot even be taken into account in determining the limits of civic tolerance. The condemned "liberty of conscience and of cult" is thus one in which propaganda should be "restrained by no law, whether ecclesiastical or civil, by which (citizens) may be enabled to manifest openly and publicly their ideas, by word of mouth, through the press, or by any other means" (Quanta Cura, 3, emphasis added).

        This condemned "liberty of conscience and worship," for instance, is one which would allow - even in an overwhelmingly Catholic country - such "violations of the Catholic religion" as blasphemy, contraceptives, divorce, pornography, atheistic and irreligious propaganda, Satanic cults, free proselytism amongst the Catholic populace by foreign Protestant and non-Christian activists (i.e., those who are not citizens), and the kind of "dishonest" and "unworthy" religious propaganda which blatantly misrepresents Catholic doctrine or discipline, and makes demonstrably false and libellous accusations against representatives of the Church, past or present. Since all of the above abuses could be repressed by civil authorities in a Catholic nation without contravening the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae, it cannot be said that the "liberty" affirmed by Vatican II is the same as that condemned in Mirari Vos and Quanta Cura. Thus, there is not even a material contradiction of these documents on the part of Dignitatis Humanae - much less a formal one.

        6.   Archbishop Lefebvre does not seem to be aware of the ambiguity in the term "State," which can mean either "nation" or "city" (civitas) or else "government" (princeps or potestas publica). Pre-conciliar doctrine is that the civitas, acting through its juridically supreme authority, has a duty to recognize the Catholic religion as true. This is reaffirmed in Dignitatis Humanae, 1. However, if we understand "State" in the sense of potestas publica, not civitas, and recall that in modern democratic societies the juridically supreme authority is understood to be not the potestas publica but the body of all citizens who make up the civitas, then it is not necessarily true that the "State" has any competence or duty to pass judgment on religious truth and falsity. Pre-conciliar doctrine did not insist that the State in this sense must judge which is the true religion. The civitas, which holds juridical sovereignty over the potestas publica, may legitimately withdraw that competence from the latter, provided that the civitas itself gives a mandate to the potestas publica to reflect its own Catholicity in legislative and executive action. (This last proviso distinguishes what I am saying from the similar, but more liberal, thesis of John Courtney Murray, which was not endorsed by Vatican II.)

        We can see this kind of recognition by the civitas in the post-conciliar (1975) concordat between Colombia and the Holy See: the Colombian "nation," but not the Colombian "State," is said to be Catholic. Archbishop Lefebvre should therefore realise that the post-conciliar Vatican has not "dethroned" Christ from his social reign, simply by discarding the concept of a "Catholic State." The Council would have "dethroned" or "uncrowned" Our Lord only if its documents proposed that a civitas of Catholic citizens (and France, Italy and Spain can no longer realistically be considered as such) has the right in principle to make its communal decisions and laws (through the instrumentality of the State) without in any way recognizing the unique truth of the Catholic religion as a criterion for judgment. But Dignitatis Humanae does not propose this thesis, and, indeed, rejects it in article l.

        The diplomatic policy of the post-conciliar Vatican should of course be distinguished from the doctrine of the Council itself. The present writer would personally agree with those who say that the social rights of Christ the King may well deserve a greater emphasis today, instead of the near-silence which has been kept with regard to those rights during the era of "Ostpolitik." However, a reconciliation between Ecône and the Vatican should surely be able to allow for differences of opinion over such matters: the Church has never equated criticism of Vatican diplomacy with dissent from Catholic doctrine.

        7.   It could still be objected that pre-conciliar doctrine approved repression of religious error per se in a Catholic nation, and that Dignitatis Humanae does not allow for this. Now, it is indeed true that in regard to an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, religious error per se was traditionally judged to be a sufficiently serious threat to the common good as to warrant legal prohibition. But this was essentially a prudential policy judgment, not a doctrinal principle. It expressed a concrete application of a general doctrinal principle - the principle that religious and moral error should be restrained by public authority to the extent that the common good requires. Such an application makes a prudential judgment as to what seems an appropriate means towards a given end. But the Church's doctrinal competence does not extend in principle to the ability to judge what penal measures, if any, are proportionate for this or that type of activity which can lead others into sin, any more than it extends to the determination of what is the "best possible" form of penance and fasting for the faithful to undertake; or whether an index of forbidden books is the most appropriate form of guarding the faithful from doctrinally unsound literature; or to the determination of whether such-and-such a war is "just" or not; or whether a strike by workers is justified on such-and-such an occasion; or of how much money, precisely, constitutes a "just wage" for workers in a given set of social conditions. Church leaders can and should speak out on such matters at times, in order to provide guidance for the faithful, and even norms binding under pain of sin. But they can never claim infallibility in such judgments, which are, therefore, always mutable in principle.

        Now, Dignitatis Humanae does not formally exclude the thesis that the diffusion of religious error per se may under some circumstances (especially in past centuries) be justly seen as a sufficiently serious violation of the rights of other citizens as to warrant legal repression. It is content with the general affirmation in article 7 that any religious activity which does violate the rights of others may be so repressed. However, the spirit of the Declaration is certainly very much against any such repression of non-Catholic cults simply insofar as they are non-Catholic - at least in our own day. And the post-conciliar revision of various concordats, at the insistence of the Holy See, provides us with what may be seen as an authoritative interpretation of the Council's teaching. So, while Dignitatis Humanae does not pass judgment on the morality of the earlier public law enjoining the repression of public religious error per se in some circumstances, the conciliar Declaration in effect legislates (just as fallibly and non-doctrinally as the old norm of public law which it replaces) that the diffusion of religious error per se shall no longer - not even in Catholic countries - be deemed by the Church a sufficiently serious threat to the common good (or public order) to outweigh other considerations, above all the dignity of the human person and his or her conscience, which incline towards non-interference on the part of civil authority. Therefore, the Holy see will no longer be a party to any concordat which allows for the repression of public non-Catholic manifestations per se.

        Let us attempt to summarize the central points of the above reflections, which we hope may be of some help to those who, like Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers, have found difficulty in accepting Dignitatis Humanae. The most crucial point is to distinguish the strictly doctrinal development represented by Dignitatis Humanae from the new situation of ecclesiastical public law which this development has occasioned.

        A.   The new doctrinal development of Vatican II can be reduced quintessentially to the proposition - neither affirmed nor denied by the pre-conciliar magisterium, but seemingly implied in Ci Riesce of Pius XII - that under some circumstances (namely, when the common good1  of society is not seriously endangered) the public exercise of non-Catholic cults may not be justly repressed by human authority. In other words, the Declaration clarifies and affirms the teaching that there can be a right to immunity from human coercion for those who believe and practise a religion other than the Catholic religion. That is, it rejects as unorthodox an unduly rigorous view which, however, remained uncensured prior to Vatican II, namely, the view that there is never under any circumstances a human right to immunity from human coercion in the public and private exercise of any non-Catholic cult.

        B.   The new norm of ecclesiastical public law concerns the question of fact as to when the exercise of such cults does seriously endanger the common good. This is a matter of prudential judgment concerning an appropriate means toward a good end, and the Church's doctrinal competence and guarantee of infallibility do not in principle extend to this sphere (except that a consensus of theologians has traditionally held that the Holy Spirit could not allow the Church to impose a universal disciplinary norm which was intrinsically evil - as would be, for instance, a command to do what was per se sinful, or a universal prohibition of some activity which is objectively required by divine law). The traditional norm of public law for predominantly Catholic countries was that the public diffusion of religious error as such was deemed a sufficiently serious threat to the common good as to warrant legal repression. With the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae, however, this traditional norm has in effect been rescinded, and the Holy See will not recognize it in any further concordats. While the diffusion of religious error as such is still (as always) seen as an evil by the Church, it is no longer deemed so seriously evil as to outweigh the other factors which argue in favour of non-interference.

        C.   The main reasons for the above development of doctrine and change in the ecclesiastical public law would be:

        (i)   An increased emphasis on the dignity of the human person, and on the positive value of a social atmosphere in which people are reasonably free to think, speak, and decide about religious issues without fear of coercion. No religious behaviour, after all, is meritorious in God's sight unless it is freely chosen.

        (ii)   An increased emphasis on, and awareness of, the elements of goodness and truth to be found in non-Catholic religions, and the fact that non-Catholics in good conscience may find grace and salvation through these elements of goodness and truth - sincere adherence to which can constitute an implicit desire for the true Church.

        (iii)   A new situation which has arisen in the 20th century, in which atheism - especially in its persecuting Communist form - has at the global level become a greater threat to the Church and to souls than non-Catholic religions. For purposes of diplomacy in resisting this greater evil, the Church deems it more expedient, as well as more in keeping with human dignity and with the positive values to be found in other religions, to adopt a universal stance in favour of immunity from coercion for most instances of non-Catholic religious activity. This means the Church cannot now be repressed on the grounds (or excuse) that she herself represses others when she is sufficiently powerful to do so.


1. As Bishop de Smedt's relationes make clear, no doctrinal change is implied in the use of the term "public order" rather than "common good."

Go to: Roman Theological Forum | Living Tradition Index | Previous Issue | Next Issue