Educating ourselves about our past on religious liberty

By Father Peter J. Daly
Catholic News Service

        Our parish is doing a “teach-in” on religious liberty. Back in the 1960s, during the days of the Vietnam War, universities did “teach-ins” to discuss the war as a way of learning. We are following that pattern, but our topic is religious liberty.

Knowledge of history is important. Intellectual honesty is necessary. Consistency is good.

As a church, we will do ourselves and our society a favor if we are historically accurate, intellectually honest and philosophically consistent in our approach to religious liberty. If we demand religious liberty for ourselves, we should and do support it for everyone.

Our teach-in has shown us that the Roman Catholic Church has not always been a defender of religious liberty. Until 1965, our official position was opposed to religious liberty. That is why non-Catholics were nervous about electing a Catholic as president in 1960. Then-candidate John F. Kennedy had to go to Houston to allay the fears of Baptist ministers that a Catholic president would take away their religious freedom.

For centuries before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), some say the Catholic Church was opposed to religious liberty. We lived in a time of “error has no rights,” interpreted by some to mean that all erroneous religions (any “non-Catholic” religion) had no rights.

The church thought governments would “institute” Catholicism as the official religion of any nation if Catholics were the dominant group in the population. We also said that government should stamp out false (non-Catholic) religions.

This view was expressed most clearly in a declaration known as the “Syllabus of Errors” promulgated by Pope Pius IX in December 1864.

The pope listed 80 “errors” of the modern age. Among the “errors” condemned by Pius IX was error No. 15, which said that it was an error to think that “Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.”

In error No. 55, the pope said it was wrong to say that “the church ought to be separated from the state and the state from the church.” Error No. 77 said it was wrong to think that “in the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the state, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.” Pope Pius further said that non-Catholic religions should not be permitted to worship freely in Catholic countries (error No. 78.)

It was not until 1965, in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty (“Dignitatis Humanae”) that the Catholic Church official recognized religious liberty as a human right.

“Dignitatis Humanae” said in No. 2: “The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

The declaration was mostly drafted by John Courtney Murray, an American Jesuit. Murray’s idea of religious liberty was a change in policy for the church.

“Dignitatis Humanae” was the last document promulgated by Vatican II before it adjourned. It almost did not get adopted because of bitter opposition by ecclesiastical conservatives such as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who left the church largely over his disagreement on religious liberty.

An honest reading of history teaches us the importance of religious liberty to humanity. An honest reading of church history teaches us to be a humble in our lecturing others on religious liberty.

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