Can Dignitatis Humanae be reconciled with traditional Catholic doctrine? A new book-length debate on this question between Credo Spiritual Adviser Fr. Brian Harrison O.S. and Arnold T. Guminski has just come off the press and is available for order from St. Augustine’s Press by clicking here.
One of the gravest and most divisive issues confronting the Catholic Church in recent decades—a major factor in an ongoing institutionalized rupture between Rome and at least half a million traditionalist Catholics – is the question of whether Vatican II’s Declaration Dignitatis Humanae (DH) can be reconciled with traditional Church doctrine on religious liberty. Although the book is not a primer on the Church’s traditional teaching and is not an exhaustive treatment of DH, it does provide a tour and “a sound albeit select introduction to the history of Church teaching on religious liberty.”
Guminski argues that DH teaches that there is (and always has been) a natural right not to be prevented from publicly propagating or manifesting non-Catholic religions, subject to the exigencies of a just public order which is to be understood as not presupposing the truth of natural or any positive religion (including Catholicism), or any supernatural considerations. This, according to him, means that DH teaches that authoritative Catholic doctrine of the past was simply unjust.
Harrison disagrees. In his view, DH nowhere teaches that it is always and everywhere unjust for civil authorities to presuppose the truth of Roman Catholicism in determining what restrictions a just public order allows. According to him, the central innovative feature of DH is its clearly implied prudential policy judgment, or norm of ecclesiastical public law, to the effect that in the modern world—so very different from the old Christendom—repression of the public propagation or manifestation of non-Catholic religions as such can no longer be justified by the requirements of the common good. Harrison argues that precisely because this undeniable reversal of the Church’s previous position belongs in the category of changeable prudential judgments, it does not constitute a doctrinal rupture with Catholic tradition.
At the Christ the King Forum in November, Fr. Harrison will touch on this debate in a talk titled Did Vatican II Change Catholic Teaching on the Kingship of Christ? which you will not want to miss. We can see that it is already important for Catholics to understand the right relationship between Church and State, and that the question will only grow more and more acute.
For Saint Augustine’s Press
Religious Freedom: Did Vatican II Contradict Traditional Catholic Doctrine?
By: Arnold T. Guminski and Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
Dialectic is a reliable pathway to sound understanding, and to truth. Plato’s dialogues are classics of disciplined inquiry. Aquinas famously worked towards enlightenment by sympathetically stating, and then refuting, objections. Some (mostly, older) law professors continue to teach according to the Socratic method. Lawyers engage in structured oral argument before the bench. Presidential debates roll around every fourth autumn.
Unfortunately, dialectic today is often a caricature of the real thing. Political debate tends to be theater. Judges joust with lawyers more than they try to learn from them. Scholarly “exchanges” (nee: debates) are typically sequences of set speeches, not fluid, critical discussions. “Socratic dialogue” was once the norm of law school teaching. But it is fast disappearing, and today’s law students do not miss it. They scarcely know what they are missing: they were passive learners in college, and it is two generations since “forensics” was a staple of high-school and collegiate life. The scholastic “debate” team (if there is one) is now just for geeks.
Dialectic may be a vanishing art. But its decline owes not to any lost prowess as a pathway to truth. Its decline owes instead to reduced interest in the possibility of truth, and to lethargy about pursuing it. Dialectic is still the best way to reconnoiter certain questions. When expertly practiced it can still illumine as no other method of inquiry can. In the right hands, a spirited adversarial presentation still outperforms other ways of seeking the truth of a disputed question, or the right meaning of a subtle text.
Dignitatis humanae – the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty – is ripe for dialectical investigation. Nearly fifty years out, the meaning of parts of this hugely important text remains controversial, and even obscure. What are the legitimate grounds for civil society’s suppression of religious activity? Are they compressed into something called “public order”? What does that term encompass? Does DH teach that the recognition of a religion as the state’s “establishment” is never just? Or is it sometimes just, but only so long as Catholicism is recognized by public authority as uniquely true?
Perhaps most important: what is “the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ” which the Council Fathers expressly left “intact”? Is this a question only about an important norm around which DH detours? Or is it the hermeneutical key to the whole document, as if the Fathers said: interpret DH throughout so that its meaning in each case is consistent with “traditional teaching” about the “moral obligation of individuals and societies to the truth? If so, then the precise meaning of that tradition is of paramount importance.
In this book Arnold Guminski and Rev. Brian Harrison take up this most difficult of all the questions about DH, namely its compatibility with traditional Church teaching on religious liberty. Each author possesses expert knowledge and they explore the subject via a sustained and disciplined dialectical exchange.
Quite simply, it works.
Religious Freedom: A Debate is not a primer. It is not a comprehensive treatment of DH. Nor is it a full-dress narrative of DH’s genesis and evolution at the Council. Father Harrison and Mr. Guminski relentlessly pursue the question of doctrinal continuity, especially with regard to what the Church has taught – up to and including DH – about the liberties of non-Catholics, about public manifestations of their faiths and their proselytizing. In so doing, however, the authors take readers on a tour of DH and of the world (of Scripture, Church teaching, and theological opining) from which it emerged. Religious Freedom: A Debate turns out to be a sound albeit select introduction to the history of Church teaching on religious liberty.
The authors affirm some points (concerning DH) which other commentators deny. The most important example is Mr. Guminski’s and Father Harrison’s agreement that DH teaches that civil authorities may without injustice recognize the Catholic faith as uniquely true, so long as everyone’s right to religious freedom is respected. (One might call this a very mild “establishment”.) They also agree (in effect) that way too many scholarly treatments of DH have read way too much of John Courtney Murray into that document.
A Debate also includes extensive treatments of matters wholly ignored by other scholars. Chief among these (and the presentation of it in Appendix A is largely a joint one) is the nature and scope of the Church’s inherent coercive power pertaining to religious activities. By “inherent coercive power” the authors do not mean those penalties which we associate with public authority. Rather, they have in mind mainly spiritual penalties, such as excommunication and the like, which have contingent temporal effects and preconditions (such as concrete acts as a condition of absolution from sin or cessation of interdict). Mr. Guminski and Fr. Harrison affirm that DH teaches the truth that the act of faith must be free. This means that no one may be coerced into professing religious faith, nor that anyone may be coerced to remain in a household of faith once freely chosen. Thus they affirm (and say that DH affirms) the immunity from coercion of apostates, schismatics, and heretics. But the Church possesses “inherent coercive power” nonetheless. In all cases, however, exercises of this power must be within the limits of a just public order.
Mr. Guminski and Father Harrison focus chiefly in Religious Freedom: A Debate on that part of DH which pertains to the “right” of individuals and religious communities “not to be prevented from publicly teaching and bearing witness to their beliefs by the spoken or written word”. [My added emphasis] Persons and communities have concomitant “right[s]” to manifest their beliefs in “public worship”, “in erecting buildings for religious purposes”, and to “hold meetings or establish educational, cultural charitable or social organizations”. All these “rights” pertain to non-Catholic religions. The precise meaning of this teaching, as well as its compatibility with prior authoritative Church doctrine, is the main focus of the book.
The authors agree that, according to DH, there is no circumstance in today’s world wherein suppression of non-Catholic propaganda or worship as such could be justified by the requirements of the common good. The authors disagree, however, about the status (if you will) of that teaching and – more so – about its relationship to the tradition prior to Vatican II. They agree that the prior doctrine was that such repression could be, and was, sometimes justified. Then they part company.
Fr. Harrison argues that DH is compatible with that prior doctrine insofar as it does not affirm or imply that the repression in question has always and everywhere been unjust. In Father Harrison’s view, the innovative feature of DH is its clearly implied prudential policy judgment, or norm of ecclesiastical public law, to the effect that in the modern world – so very different from old Christendom – such repression can no longer be justified, even in Catholic countries, by the requirements of the common good.
Mr. Guminski argues, on the other hand, that DH teaches that there is (and always has been) a natural right not to be prevented from propagating non-Catholic religions just as such, subject to the exigencies of a just public order understood not to presuppose the truth of natural or of any positive religion (including Catholicism), or any other supernatural considerations. This teaching of DH implies, then, the injustice of pre-conciliar doctrine incompatible with it. And here I take Mr. Guminski to be talking about authoritative, but not infallible, Church doctrine..
The importance of a sound understanding of DH is great, and growing. For Catholics, coming to a sound understanding of such terms in DH as “public morality”, “public order” and the “common good” – as well as to the more precise matters debated by our authors – contributes strategically to understanding what the Church teaches about political life in general. DH treats authoritatively the first freedom, that of religion. In doing so it constitutes itself as a primer on political society. Religious Freedom: A Debate is therefore helpful to comprehending the Church’s whole political theology.
Anyone can see that questions about the scope and foundations of religious liberty are in every day’s news. The nature and bases of Church teaching on religious liberty are thus, in light of the Church’s influence upon human rights’ thinking, important well beyond the Church’s confines. The congruence of Catholic teaching with authoritative secular teachings, such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, magnifies the importance of Church teaching, too. Religious Freedom: A Debate is therefore potentially valuable reading for anyone who wishes to bring Church teaching to bear upon our world’s affairs.