John Courtney Murray: World Wants Council to Back Religious Liberty

What the world most awaits from the Second Vatican Council is a clear statement safeguarding religious liberty, according to Father John Courtney Murray, SJ, a council expert.

“This is the big issue of the council in the world’s eyes,” the American theologian declared in an interview with the N.C.W.C. News Service. “If the council side­steps religious liberty, we arc done for,” he said.

Father Murray noted that a chapter on religious freedom has already been written into the council schema on ecumenism, that is, on interfaith relations. He noted that this question is a source of great friction among religious bodies.

But the council’s Commission on Faith and Morals has challenged the competence of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in the field of religious liberty, he said. The secretariat prepared a schema on ecumenism. “There is no doubt that the Unity Secretariat has the right to deal with religious liberty,” Father Murray said.

The least the council will do in the matter of religious freedom, he added, will be to “reaffirm the doctrine of Pope John’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris.”

This, he said, would be a twofold statement: that a man has the right to worship God according to the demands of an upright conscience and that this and other human rights limit the powers of the state. The state must respect this right not only in theory but also in practice.

“The Soviet constitution contains a declaration of the right to religious freedom,” he said, “but this is purely verbal.”

But the Church is no friend of the “outlaw conscience,” Father Murray emphasized. This notion of the conscience as an outlaw bound by no norms of right action was condemned by Leo XIII.

“When you say conscience is free,” he said, “you are not saying it owes obedience to no moral standards. Quite the contrary.

“The declaration in favor of religious freedom is not an approval of error, nor does it situate error on the same plane as truth.

“It is rather an affirmation of the dignity of the human person, which consists essentially in his freedom.”

During the 19th century and for about two decades of the 20th, he said, the Church was highly suspicious of the word freedom. Father Murray traced this suspicion to the violence and injustice perpetrated by the French Revolution in the name of freedom. He pointed out that most 19thcentury political movements that waved the banner of freedom stemmed in some way from the French Revolution.

“The context changed radically with the rise of totalitarianism in the 1920s,” he said.

“Throughout the 19th century, the Church’s well justified suspicion of freedom mellowed. When totalitarianism posed a threat to human freedom, the Church rallied to freedom’s defense.

“This defense reached a peak in Pope John’s great embrace of freedom. It will reach another peak, I hope, in the council’s reaffirmation of the right of religious liberty.”

Patrick Riley
NCWC News Rome correspondent

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