What follows cannot be dignified with the title of “essay.” It is more of a note, expressing some thoughts inspired by an interesting essay by Dr. Larry Chapp, in which he addresses probably the most controversial document of Vatican II: the declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, On the Right of Persons and Communities to Social and Religious Freedom in Matters Religious. I agree with many of the points Dr. Chapp makes in his essay, though not all. In particular, it is not clear to me that Dignitatis Humanae (despite appearances) jettisons any of the tradition expressed in pre-Vatican II magisterial teaching on religious liberty. I say, “despite appearances,” for I think the declaration fails to show how the “new things” it proposes “are in harmony with things that are old” (DH 1) or how it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (DH 1). The reader can be led to believe that it does anything but.
In a nutshell, religious freedom has had in traditional Catholic thought a rather narrow purview. If there is a “right” to religious freedom, it belongs properly to the Church, for error in itself has no rights. All things being equal, the civitas (state or polis), which is bound to recognize the true religion, to protect it and promote it, should (under the guidance of the Church) restrict the public expression of ideas or practices contrary to the Catholic faith in order to protect the simple and ignorant from deception and to undergird the moral and religious foundations of society. Of course, any restriction directed to coercing the individual conscience must always be eschewed. Public order and civil peace, too, may demand tolerance of the public expression of religion when its restriction would elicit grave evils. Otherwise, the common good demands that the state should restrict the expression of error in the public sphere. So runs the traditional Catholic understanding of religious liberty. [Go to page 2]