Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedon
“Context and Perspective”
The history of the council’s Declaration on religious freedom is extremely complex. Much of the controversy associated with the document was due to the widely perceived view (especially held by European and Latin American bishops) that the council was being asked to consider a genuine change in church doctrine, a movement away from what had been taught by both Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius X in their battle against “Modernism”. In fact, according to John Courtney Murray, S.J., the prime architect of this document, the question of the development of doctrine was the “issue under all issues” at the council.
The Declaration on Religious Freedom reflects the council’s effort to interface the rich doctrinal heritage of the church with the realities of a new and different world. The Catholic Church in the 1960s was coming to grips with a new self-consciousness as a world church and could no longer envision itself under the old model of Christendom under the rule of a single, unified empire.
“Dignitatis Humanae” begins with the recognition of the increasing awareness of the dignity of the human person, and the aspiration of people to exercise fully their own judgment in matters of faith, free of coercion and excessive restrictions on their actions. Therefore, the right to religious freedom is understood not only as a moral principle that can be known through human reason and ought to be protected in the constitutional ordering of society but also that this right is seen as belonging to the truth about human dignity revealed by the word of God.
Accordingly, at the end of our searching is a personal God who endows us with the gift of freedom to discover and grow in relationship with others, to mature in our relationship with God and to assume our responsibilities in the world. But this freedom is not unlimited nor is it reckless. It is “responsible freedom”, a freedom that helps us to inform our conscience.
Ultimately, the conciliar document ties together the mystery of conscience with the freedom of faith:
“The individual must not be forced to act against conscience nor be prevented from acting according to conscience, especially in religious matters. The reason is because the practice of religion, of its very nature, consists primarily of those voluntary and free internal acts by which human beings direct themselves to God. Acts of this kind cannot be commanded or forbidden by any mere human authority…” (“Dignitatis Humanae” n.3)