Dignitatis Humanae and Its Contribution To International Religious Freedom Since Vatican II

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Article for The Review of Faith and International Affairs

By David Alton

To see the PowerPoint presentation which accompanies this text, click here.

In western democracies the contemporary debate about religious freedom revolves around definitions of legitimate parameters between church and state, secular and religious values. For millions of others religious freedom has long been defined by suppression and persecution. The twentieth century saw more Christian martyrs than the previous nineteen centuries combined. For of the world’s six billion inhabitants, more than half live in countries where being a Christian could cost you your life.  Contemporaneously, 9:11 and the London bombings of July 2005  have thrown the interplay between religious beliefs and co-existence in a plural, free, society into sharp relief.

Forty years ago differing perspectives about the how religious belief can persist in a free society were addressed and reconciled by the Council Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.  Their historic and seminal document, Dignitatis Humanae, one of whose principal proponents was a young Polish bishop, led to a fundamental change in the Catholic understanding of religious freedom and the role of religion in the world. By insisting on each person’s inalienable right to search for religious and spiritual fulfilment, and by asserting the centrality of the proclamation of human dignity, the Council shaped a coherent and intellectually sustainable approach. It was offered as a touchstone for Christian anthropology and Christian statecraft. In these troubled times it has a prophetic resonance.

When Dignitatis Humanae is read alongside   Gaudium et Spes – Joy and Hope -(The Pastoral Constitution on The Church In The Modern World), it lights the dark passages of the last four decades. It helps believer and non-believer alike to understand the role of the Church in confronting secular ideologies – the dictatorships of Marxism, materialism, and fascist military regimes –  and also in combating the use of manipulative technologies by seemingly advanced democracies which promote eugenics and the dehumanising practices of euthanasia, abortion, human embryo experimentation or human cloning.

By contrast the Council insisted that the dignity of the human person is always to be taken as the primary consideration. Dignitatis Humanae constantly reiterates the duty of the religious believer to search for Truth and the simultaneous duty to disavow any form of coercion.   After three public debates, 126 speeches, and some 600 written interventions, article 2 of the final text on religious freedom asserted that:

“This Vatican synod declares that 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 the individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters  religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.  The Synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the Revealed Word of God, and by reason itself. This right of the person to religious freedom is to be recognised in the constitutional law whereby society is governed. Thus it is to become a civil right.”

(“The Documents of Vatican II”, page 678, Geoffrey Chapman, London 1967) .

Article 3 recognised the beneficial role that religion can play in society and insists that  “injury, therefore, is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society when the just requirements of public order do not so require….Government ought to take account of the religious life of the people and show it favour, since the function of government is to make provision for the common good. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power were it to presume to direct or inhibit acts that are religious.”  (ibid, page 681).

The Council Fathers were well aware that the abandonment of Christian quietism would lead to confrontation but they set out the way in which the religious believer should handle the clash of conflicting beliefs. The quietism, which came to haunt the commentaries of the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, was never going to be an option for them:  they had learnt a great deal from the experiences of the first half of that bloody century. Those who did want the Church to stay in the sacristy made significant attempts to dilute or entirely abandon both documents (with the Roman Curia not playing a particularly distinguished role). Perhaps the proximity of the tomb of Peter, a recollection of the circumstances of the role of the State in his death in 64 AD, and a recollection of the apostle’s response to the Quo Vadis question put to him in a vision by the Lord, as he tried to walk along the Via Apia away from Rome, gave them the courage to address the central question of  their own time.

Of course, the debate itself was not a new one. The apostles had wrestled with how to interpret Jesus’ Great Commission to go out and spread the gospel and how to render unto Caesar what was properly his and to withhold what was not.  The Council Fathers also took this as their starting point. In Jerusalem, Paul won the argument about whether the gospel was also intended for the gentiles, becoming the first Christian to engage with the world outside the synagogues. That decision created the universalism which is synonymous with the word catholic but it also created the circumstances in which Christians would be thrown to lions, nailed to crosses, and hunted down in subterranean catacombs.

To this day, in our Catholic liturgies we celebrate and remember the sacrifices of those early martyrs: Peter and Paul, Clement, Calixtus, Sebastian, Cecilia, Felicity, Agatha and the many others. Whether they died as a result of the blood lust of an emperor such as Nero, or because of their refusal to obey Decius’ edict to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods, the consequences were the same.   Their refusal to capitulate to the civil authorities in matters of religious belief brought them a martyr’s crown.  Tertullian would observe with accuracy that this blood of martyrs would become the seed of the church.  Dignitatis Humanae cites the Acts of the Apostles (5:29) that “we must obey God rather than men” and reminds us that “this is the way along which countless martyrs and other believers have walked through all ages and over all the earth” (Article 11, ibid).

The overt persecution of Christians    by the Roman Empire concluded with the Edict of Milan in 313 when the Emperor Constantine allowed freedom of worship. On his deathbed, he converted to Christianity and there followed many centuries of accommodation between throne and altar, church and state. Christendom acknowledged a divine right of kings to rule but this was predicated on an expectation that the emperor would guarantee the church its liberties and privileges. At its best this led to a great flourishing of Christian civilisation, imbuing every aspect of daily life with Christian symbolism and meaning; at its worst, it led to oppression and corruption.  Undoubtedly some nostalgic participants at the Second Vatican Council would like to have returned to privileges bestowed through heredity, concordats and special status; but such nostalgia seemed wholly inappropriate when measured against the experiences of Nazism and Marxism.

The Council also set out the terms for religious evangelisation.  In Chapter 2, Article 10, the declaration states:  “It is one of the major tests of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free. Therefore no one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will.” This should not just be a test for Catholic evangelisation. It should also be measured against attempts to forcibly convert to Islam the peoples of countries like Sudan and Nigeria through bombing campaigns, siege, abduction and enslavement.  Over the past two decades, in an attempt to impose Shari’ a Law in Southern Sudan, some two million Christians and Africans of traditional animist religions have been killed. Simultaneously, any Muslim freely seeking Christian baptism faces execution, imprisonment or torture.

Jihadism and the use of terror are inimical to the upholding of human dignity or the proclamation of religious freedom. When, in October 1962, the Council Fathers came together for the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, it was played out against the history of the twentieth century.  The continuing persecution of the Church (particularly in the Soviet Bloc and the Marxist regimes of the Far East) was reflected in Pope John XIII’s opening speech to the Council where he reflected on the “damage and danger” inflicted by “the princes of this world” on the church: “We confess to you that we feel most poignant sorrow over the fact that very many bishops, so dear to us, are noticeable here today by their absence, because they are imprisoned for their faithfulness to Christ, or impeded by other restraints.” (ibid)

As Archbishop Angello Roncalli, John XXIII had personally witnessed the depredations and atrocities of secular ideologies and the vulnerability of religious minorities.  Although Dignitatis Humanae would not be published until December 7th 1965, by which time Paul VI was pope, the Decree on Religious Freedom emerged from Pope John’s experiences and those of a suffering church.  It became the Council’s response to the erupting challenges of the time.

In 1925 Roncalli had been appointed as apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, told him  “Everyone seems to be fighting with everyone else, the Muslims with the Orthodox, the Greek Catholics with the Latins, and the Latins with each other. Could you go there and find out what is really happening?” During the next decade he did precisely that.

By mule he visited remote Christian communities who “don’t even have oil to light the lamps in the chicken-coops we use as chapels.” He met with the Greek Catholics and wrote “As I joined with them in singing their grieving lamentations, which were the echo of centuries of political and religious slavery, I began to feel myself more catholic, more truly universal.” (John XXIII, Pope of The Council, Peter Hebblethwaite, Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1984) .  Roncalli entered into their suffering and their persecution.

His understanding of religious persecution took on a new dimension when in 1927 he met and forged a deep friendship with the octogenarian Archbishop Stepanosse Hovagnimian, Patriarch of the Bulgarian Armenians. Archbishop Hovagnimian had escaped the Turkish massacres of the Armenians in 1896 and survived the genocide of 1915. During his address to the Council’s Observers in October 1962, the then Pope John would refer to how this friendship had stirred deep emotions within him.

In 2005 the remaining Armenian Christians in Turkey continue to experience hardship while all over the Middle East the ancient churches – from the Copts of Egypt to the Syrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholics – are embattled and beleaguered remnants whose plight is too frequently overlooked.  Elsewhere (“Passion and Pain”, Jubilee Campaign  2003), I have documented graphic examples such as the massacre of 21 Coptic Christians in the Egyptian town of Al-Kosheh. Many were literally hacked to death. 260 Christian homes and businesses were gutted and looted. The authorities brought no-one to justice.

If Pope John had been deeply affected by the plight of the ancient churches, another profound influence on the shaping of Dignitatis Humanae was Pope John’s experience of anti-Semitism,  the Holocaust, and his first encounter with Islam. In 1935 Roncalli had been moved to Istanbul as the Vatican’s representative.  Ataturk’s government had imposed tight police restrictions on all Christian activities. Roncalli’s first duty on arriving in what had been Constantinople was to report to the police. Within a month his diocesan newspaper had been suppressed. Then Ataturk enacted laws prohibiting the wearing of religious habits and Christian schools were suppressed.  He was of course in an Islamic country that had decided to reject religious Islam and denounce all religious belief as outmoded.  In a letter to a friend Roncalli mused that Turkey might follow in the steps of Mexico where priests were being hunted down and shot.

In his first public address in Istanbul, at the church of the Holy Spirit, in whose courtyard stands a statue of Pope Benedict XV – revered in Istanbul for his role in World War One as “protector of the East” –  the future Pope gave  a foreshadowing of what would form the ecclesiology of Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes.  Roncalli said:

“Our Lord has built his Church on the foundation of the Apostles, to whom he gave the command to preach the Gospel to everyone. The Church is not bound to this or that nation; but all nations, without distinction, are called to rally to its standard…having created it, he sent it forth to win over the world” (ibid).

Here is the genesis of the great impulse of the Second Vatican Council to see the Church as the living people of God, as “lumen gentium” – a light to the nations. Without this light there could be no true freedom. But, even as he was writing these words, in 1935, the world was already becoming darker and sliding into chaos. In Russia, Stalin was murderously crushing all dissent and brutally suppressing the Orthodox Church. In Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini were seeking to impose their secular ideologies and the Jewish people were facing annihilation.  On the eve of War, and before the death of Pius XI in February 1939, Roncalli had his final meeting with the Pontiff:

The Pope told his legate: “I am not afraid for the future of the Church. She only wants to be free. I know well what fate may well await her – sorrow and persecutions: but she will always have the last word, because she embodies the divine promises. But on the other hand, I tremble for the nations…” and he contrasted the determined nature of the totalitarian regimes with the weakness and lack of conviction within the democratic nations.

Having returned to Istanbul, Roncalli met with a group of fleeing Polish Jews who gave him an account of what the Nazis were doing in Poland. He gave them practical help to aid them on their way to Israel and wrote in his Journal: “The world is poisoned by morbid nationalism, built up on the basis of race and blood, in contradiction with the Gospel. In this matter, which is of burning topical interest, “deliver me from the men of blood O Lord” ” (Journal of A Soul, Pope John XXIII). Sworn testimonies of those who saw his subsequent work to help Jewish refugees stated that Roncalli personally “helped 24,000 Jews with clothes, money and documents.”

In 1944 he met with Isaac Herzog, the grand rabbi of Jerusalem, and intervened forcibly on behalf of 55,000 Jews in Transnistria. Rabbi Herzog wrote to Roncalli: “The people of Israel will never forget the help brought to its unfortunate brothers and sisters by the Holy See by its highest representative at this the saddest moment of our history.” He responded with a promise to “always be at your service and at the service of all the brothers of Israel” (cited Hebblethwaite ibid).

Israel celebrates Roncalli’s memory as one of “the righteous Gentiles” but the man himself must surely have meditated on the failure of the Church to prevent the unleashing of the hatred that led to the holocaust.

As Roncalli prepared to leave Istanbul, in another part of Europe a recently ordained Polish priest, with a fresh personal experience of the Nazi occupation of Poland,  was coming to terms with his own experience of the holocaust and  the subjugation of  religious belief in a Stalinist communist state.  Both men would hold these memories in their hearts on entering the aula of the Vatican Council. As Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, the future Pope John Paul II, specifically urged the Council to include within the Declaration the belief that human dignity involves a “moral obligation to see the truth, especially religious truth.” He argued strongly that freedom must be used as a force for good not as a libertarian option for selfish gratification. He insisted that real freedom was inextricably bound up with the search for truth. Freedom is not about taking a neutral fence-sitting position where meaningless rhetoric about personal choice eclipses the idea of absolute truth. Wojtyla was never going to live in a spiritual Switzerland.  With the English Catholic writer, G.K.Chesterton, he shared the belief that “to admire mere choice is to refuse to choose” (Orthodoxy, 1906).

As Pope John Paul II said:

“…it is clear that the issue of human freedom is fundamental. Freedom is properly so called to the extent that it implements the truth regarding good. Only then does it become a good in itself. If freedom ceases to be linked with truth and begins to make truth dependent on freedom, it sets the premises for dangerous moral consequences, which can assume incalculable dimensions. When this happens, the abuse of freedom provokes a reaction which takes the form of one totalitarian system or another. This is another form of the corruption of freedom, the consequences of which we have experienced in the twentieth century and beyond.” (Memory and Identity, Wiedenfeld, 2005).

Prophetically, he asserted in Fides et Ratio that “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.”   He passionately argued that much that passes for freedom has been constructed over the edifice of a lie.

Wojtyla’s experiences in Poland meant that when, in 1978, he succeeded to the See of Peter he came as a true son of the Council, deeply imbued by his belief in  human dignity – the sacredness of man because man is made in the image and likeness of God, the  Imago Dei – and in the “personalism” that always puts the upholding of human dignity as the starting point.   How could it be otherwise, coming, as he put it, “from the country, on whose living body Auschwitz was constructed?”

In 1993 one of the fruits of these experiences would be the signing of the “Fundamental Agreement” between the Holy See and the State of Israel.  Few would subsequently fail to be moved by the Pope’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem and, at the Western Wall, his pleas for forgiveness for the sins of Christians against Jews. All of this, along with his plea in Ireland –  “on bended knees” – to the men of violence to renounce the killing and to seek peaceful ways of healing Ulster’s deep-seated divisions, and his attempts in Athens to seek reconciliation with estranged  Orthodox Christians, springs from his conviction that human dignity and religious freedom must march hand in hand.

In “Witness To Hope” (Harper Collins, 1999) George Weigel records an address which Wojtyla gave to the Council in 1965 and says he “concluded with his personalist principle in its most condensed form – the closer human beings come to God, the closer they come to the depth of their humanity and to the truth of the world. Christian faith is not alienating; Christian faith is liberating in the most profound sense of human freedom. That was what the Church should propose to the modern world.”

His first-hand Polish experiences and the philosophy that shaped Dignitatis Humanae , bound up with the ideas of Aristotle, Aquinas, and more recent philosophers such as Jacques Maritain,  gave John Paul a mandate which he used powerfully. We see it played out in the founding of Solidarity, in the confrontation with the Soviet bloc, in his denunciation of military dictatorships, and in constant exhortation to see the resolution of conflict.

As we come to terms with his legacy and, forty years later, review the thinking that led to the proclamation of Dignitatis Humanae , it is clear that this document speaks forcefully to our own times. It is the single conciliar document that is addressed to the whole world – believer and non-believer alike. It speaks volubly to contemporary totalitarian regimes in countries like China and North Korea and to radical Islamist states such as Sudan.  It reminds the secularist that God wants no compulsory conversion and that no government has the right to suppress the freedom of religious profession and practice.

Since 1965 there have been instances where the Church has failed through the inaction or errors of individuals or collective failure by the institution.

A year ago I visited Rwanda and in some of the prisons I met Hutu genocidaires who participated in the genocide of one million Tutsis.  There are notable examples of individual Christians who refused to collaborate and these are detailed by Antoine Rutayisire of African Enterprise in his book “Faith under Fire”.  But Rutayisire also told me that “the position of the church is very complex: it has taken many different positions and reconciliation is not a popular concept. It often sits on the fence.” During the genocide individual pastors, priests and Christian leaders either collaborated in the killing or failed to speak out prophetically against the slaughter.

Notwithstanding individual acts of bravery, this failure of the church to be more outspoken,  the over-identification of individual Christian denominations with one ethnic group or the other, and the failure to inform individual believers and parishes of the duties that go with Christian citizenship represent a serious dereliction.

By contrast, the bravery and prophetic quality of the Church in Sudan is quite striking. Cardinal Garbriel Zubeir Wako, Archbishop of Sudan, – who is often simply known as “Father Courage “– has called for “a new Sudan – the kind of Sudan in which violence, injustice, discrimination find no place, because people’s hearts and minds have been filled with all the that brings and holds them together” (“Roll Back the Stone of Fear” Aid To the Church In Need, 2005). Cardinal Wako and his people have seen huge loss of life and endured great suffering but through it all have been a force for compassion and healing.

Elsewhere in Africa the role which the Church is playing in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where up to 3.7 million have died in the past decade, has been praiseworthy. However, unless the institutions of the Holy See and the dioceses of the developed world recognise the scale and depth of the disaster in countries such as the DRC – and provide appropriate support an commitment – it s difficult to see how  the local church will be able to meet the needs.

Although the principles of Dignitatis Humanae are universally applicable it must be accepted that the way in which they are implemented will vary.

In China, for instance, Pope Benedict XVI is making renewed efforts to heal the breach between the Vatican and the Communist authorities. About 5 million Catholics belong to the Government-controlled “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.” Millions more belong to underground churches and their bishops, priests and believers regularly endure detention, imprisonment, beatings, and torture. The Stichting Ondergrondse Church (Underground Church Foundation) in their publication, “The Voice of the Martyrs”, July 2003, detail testimonies of people who have been tortured using electric cattle prods, burning cigarettes extinguished on their bodies; fingers crushed; women stripped and raped; and one woman who was forced to listen to her child being tortured in the next room as she was forced to submit. In addition, many Catholic families have particularly suffered as part of the Government’s coercive one-child policy – with lack of compliance resulting in forced abortions and sterilisation.

An understandable desire to be reunited with the Catholics of the officially tolerated churches of China should not blind us to the continuing suffering of those who have refused to dilute or renounce their faith. Tricky questions about whether trade sanctions should be invoked against China, and whether there should be a “trade off” in accepting china’s demands that the Church downgrade its recognition of Taiwan, need to be handed with great wisdom and care and always with the centrality of the principle of human dignity in mind.

Western churches, whose governments provide indirect funding to the one child policy, have a mixed record in their willingness to hold their own governments to account.

In the United States, for example, the American bishops have regularly raised the issue of coercive population control, and the first action of President George W.Bush on assuming office was to end US funding. By contrast, the Blair Government continues to fund these programmes and the key advisor to the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales adamantly refused to accept that this was an issue in which his bishops should become involved.

The true nature of the coercive population programme was illustrated on September 21st 2005 by The Independent newspaper, published in London, which documented the latest excesses of the Chinese one child policy.

It stated that  sources in Linyi City, in Shandong Province,  claimed that up to 120,000 women had been coerced into submitting to the procedures and that some of them were in the ninth month of their pregnancies.

The arrests followed the detention on 6 September of a local activist, a blind man, Chen Guangcheng. Mr Chen had claimed that women with two children were being forced to undergo sterilisations, while women pregnant with their third child were required to have abortions.

One 24-year-old women described how she was taken to Feixian hospital in one of Linyi’s surrounding counties in February when nine months pregnant and had an unknown liquid injected into her uterus, forcing a miscarriage and killing her baby. She already had a son and was told her second pregnancy violated family planning limits.

Mr Chen filed a lawsuit accusing Linyi officials of breaching family planning laws but, soon after arriving in Beijing to meet with lawyers sympathetic to his case, he was arrested, held for 30 hours, and placed under house arrest. At the time of writing he was  believed to have gone on hunger strike over his treatment.

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