An expression of this teaching may be found in that classical restatement of Catholic teaching on Church-state relations – Pope Leo XIII’s 1885 encyclical, Immortale Dei. In section 36 of this encyclical (section 18 in the Latin text), after stating that there is no “reason why anyone should accuse the Church  … of being opposed to real and lawful liberty,” Pope Leo says:

“The Church, indeed, deems it unlawful to place the various forms of divine worship on the same footing as the true religion, but does not, on that account, condemn those rulers who, for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, allow patiently custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the State. And, in fact, the Church is wont to take earnest heed that no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will, for, as St. Augustine wisely reminds us, ‘Man cannot believe otherwise than of his own will.’” [Emphasis added.]

[Revera si divina cultus varia genera eodem iure esse quo veram religionem, Ecclesia iudicat non licere, non ideo tamen eos damnat rerum publicarum moderatores, qui magni alicuius aut adipiscendi boni, aut prohibendi causa mali, moribus atque usu patienter ferunt, ut ea habeant singula in civitatem locum.—Atque illud quoque magnopere cavere Ecclesia solet ut ad amplexandam fidem Catholicam nemo invitus cogatur, quia quod sapienter Augustinus monet, credere non potest homo nisi volens (Tract. XXVI in Ioan., n. 2).]

Here, Leo evokes the principle I have outlined above – that, considered absolutely, the state has the duty of according to the true religion a unique status that it recognizes for no other religion (the burden of Immortale Dei as a whole). This status rests on the simple fact that truth cannot be set on the same level with error; God’s establishment with any merely human construct. Only the Catholic Church possesses the fulness of revealed truth and offers the worship by which God wills to be honored. To place that Church on the same level as any other religion would be to contravene the divine will and obscure the truth by which alone man can assuage his longing for his end or purpose: happiness in Christ – the way, the truth, and the light.

So far, it would seem that Leo here would simply reiterate traditional teaching on religious tolerance – that, to avoid greater evils, the state may tolerate the public expression of a false religion. Yet, it is significant, I think, that in the passage cited above, Leo does not speak only, or even first, of avoiding evil but of securing an advantage (adipiscendi boni). Sadly, he does not expand on this theme. He fairly drops the matter to move on to other topics. Nevertheless, I think that his language allows for a development in the direction of a view of religious liberty in the civil sphere consonant with the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae. The pope’s insistence that “the Church is wont to take earnest heed that no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will” hints at this development.

The burden of Dignitatis Humanae is that freedom is the necessary condition for the exercise of man’s duty to pursue truth; that men should be granted the widest berth possible to seek the truth, even when (as it often does) the search entails a stumbling through error. Dignitatis Humanae presents this freedom, ordered as it is to the attainment of truth, not as an evil but a positive good. As the means by which man attains truth, it cannot be discouraged; rather, it should enjoy the positive encouragement of the state. The search for truth for us is like the tentative steps a child takes in learning to walk. The child may fall and bruise himself; he may stumble and knock over a lamp. But such mishaps we allow, for without the freedom to fall, the child will never learn how to walk.

That the mood of Leo’s words should be redolent of the older view that we may only tolerate non-Catholic religion is understandable both historically and theologically. Leo’s thought was conditioned and governed by the older tradition. Moreover, that tradition makes eminent sense. For if non-Catholic religion is admixed with error, it is, on that account, an evil, for which condemnation or mere tolerance is the only conceivable response. One may not condone error or grant it the same status as truth.

Yet, nowhere does Dignitatis Humanae grant error and truth equal rights. It is rather the rights of the natural person, not his religion, that the declaration defends. Such rights of the person are what should be respected, and only because they are involved with the duty everyone has to seek the truth. As Dignitatis Humanae states, “on their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.” The embrace of the truth is a “great good” that must be actively promoted. Yet, the search for truth is also a great good on which the ruling authorities should cast a benign eye. In doing so, rulers do not simply tolerate an evil but act “for the sake of securing some great good,” in Pope Leo XIII’s words And, since the necessary condition for this “great good” is freedom (understood as what one may do), one may conclude to a view of religious liberty as a positive component of the order of society. Here freedom is not understood as a license to believe whatever one wants but as a right to the means necessary for the fulfillment of a duty.

Yet, unlike the confession and practice of the Catholic faith, the right to act according to erroneous belief is not absolute even in Dignitatis Humanae. Quite the contrary. For, though the Council says the right to religious liberty “continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it,” it states that “the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided the just public order be preserved.” (Emphasis added.) By evoking a controlling factor (the preservation of a “just public order”) for the civil exercise of religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae allows for limitations on religious expression. In impeding such expression, the state’s action must “be controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order.” Still, when such conditions are met, society “has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion” (DH 7).[i]

Still, it is not clear from Dignitatis Humanae what sort of “possible abuses” justify a curtailment of religious expression in society. Moreover, it is unclear if the same limitations on governmental action in regards to religion are called for in every age and condition. We are thus left with the question whether what constitutes a proper expression of governmental authority vis-à-vis false religion in one age necessarily applies in another. May it be that different times permit different responses?

Thus, one cannot so easily conclude that Dignitatis Humanae simply cancels the basic justification made in previous ages to curtail the public expression of false religion – that, to protect the faithful from the evil of error, the public authority (under the guidance of the Church) may circumscribe and limit heretical speech and practice. If, in a previous age, the common good was intimately bound up with the establishment of the Catholic faith, it is conceivable that the defense of that good (which is finally moral in character) required restrictions on the public expression of heresy.[ii] If it did, would not such an exercise of governmental authority fall under its right to defend society against “possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion”? After all, as the declaration states, public peace arises “finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality” (DH 7).

Nevertheless, I think that Dignitatis Humanae offers an important development to our understanding of society’s religious duty and the role of rulers in protecting religion, even in a largely Catholic society. Even in a Catholic order (if such should ever again come to be), the Church and the rulers she directs by her teaching not only have a positive duty to protect the faithful, especially the weak and ignorant, from the poison of error, but they must have a care that those who are presumably searching for truth may do so in the best way possible – by free inquiry and obedience to conscience – to the degree this is possible. Dignitatis Humanae establishes that freedom here should be a presumption, not merely a concession we grant when we deem it is impossible to act otherwise. It should be a principle alongside that of defense of the good of religious truth that guides the state’s relations with religion. The common good, to be truly common, demands the defense and promotion of the well-being of everyone, both of him who already dwells in his Father’s house and the one who is, even if only presumably, seeking it. Balancing this freedom with the just demands of the common good is a necessary task that requires a wisdom that seeks the good of all concerned.

End Note:

It is often said that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. Yet, I would argue, so is history. Tradition, through which in part Revelation is communicated to us, takes on the expressions of time and history. We understand its contents not only through what is said but what is done. Thus, to discuss such ideas as religious liberty, one must wrestle not only with what the Church has said on the subject but how she has acted. History, too, helps us to understand ideas through their effects in the concrete experience of societies throughout the ages. History keeps us from falling into mere abstraction. Those who may want to explore how one age acted in the face of religious dissent may enjoy reading my historical novel, A Song for Else: The Vow, volume one of a trilogy set in the foundational years of the German Reformation. Among the novel’s themes is conscience and its relation to authority — the authority of the Church — and how one young man negotiates this labyrinth. (Of course, there is also the typical stuff of a novel — romance and the like.) The interested reader may purchase A Song for Else from the publisher, Arouca Press. By the way, the book may also be found on — though I encourage my readers to patronize my fine publisher, not Leviathan.


[i] Public order is a component of the common good, not a good distinct from it. Dignitatis Humanae places  public order under the category of the common good: Haec omnia partem boni communis fundamentalem constituunt et sub ratione ordinis publici veniunt – “All these things constitute the fundamental duty of the common good and come under the notion of public order” (DH 7, my translation).

[ii] Even today, the public good requires an adhesion to Catholic truth. Yet, the fact of widespread dissent from the Faith creates conditions that alter the means permitted to protect and promote that faith. The common good today (which can be realized only partially without the light of the Faith) does not today rest on the establishment of the Church like it once did.