Issue of Religious Freedom Gets Major Airing at Council

70th General Congregation
November 19, 1963

The subject of religious liberty has come to the fore at the ecumenical council.

At the Nov. 19 meeting a report on the ecumenism schema’s chapter on the matter was read, and for the first time in the Second Vatican Council’s 70 meetings a report on a schema chapter was given more emphasis than the speeches of the Fathers discussing it.

Bishop Emile De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, read the report with the same dramatic delivery he used in his well-remembered address on “triumphalism” at the council’s first session last year. (Triumphalism is a view of the Church that concentrates only on its good points and minimizes its human weaknesses.)

At the start of the meeting the second chapter of the amended liturgy schema and the fifth chapter of the schema on ecumenism were distributed. The latter was the subject of Bishop De Smedt’s report.

After distribution of the two documents, the day’s moderator — Gregorio Cardinal Agagianian, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith — announced that the four council moderators had decided that there would be no more discussion of the schema’s general acceptability until all the reports on its five chapters had been read.

Then Coadjutor Archbishop Gabriel Bukatko of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, presented the report on the part of chapter III that deals with separated Eastern churches. Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ, president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, reported on the chapter dealing with Catholic-Jewish relations.

Cardinal Bea said that the Jews are not to be made scapegoats for the crucifixion of Christ. He emphasized the fact that the statement on anti-Semitism is purely religious in nature and that there is no question of the council involving itself in Arab-Israel politics.

The Cardinal recalled what the Church has received from the Old Testament and noted that the Church today is the continuation of the Law through Christ.

While the Jews called Christ’s blood down upon their heads and the heads of their children, Cardinal Bea said, it was Christ Himself who prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

At the U.S. bishops’ press panel after the council meeting, Father John Long, SJ, of New York, an official of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, said that Cardinal Bea’s report revealed that the idea of a chapter on the Jews was not initiated by the secretariat but was the specific request of Pope John XXIII.

Father Long said that the general feeling of the Secretariat is that it is a good thing that the chapter is out on the floor of the council but that it is up to the Fathers to decide how to handle it.

After Cardinal Bea finished his report on relations with Jews, Bishop De Smedt read his report on religious freedom.

His report was considerably longer than those usually devoted to a whole schema, much less a single chapter. Strong and prolonged applause rose from the council Fathers when he concluded.

The Belgian prelate began by giving four reasons why the council, in response to numerous requests “from council Fathers and others,” must consider the subject:

“1. For the sake of truth, because the Church has always taught this principle [of religious freedom] as part of the truth entrusted to her by Christ.

“2. Because of the need of defense, since the Church cannot be silent when atheistic materialism is depriving almost half the world of religious liberty.

“3. Because of the need for peaceful coexistence, since all men of all religious beliefs, as well as those without any, must live together in one human society, and the Church must show the way in the light of truth.

“4. For ecumenical considerations, in view of the fact that many non-Catholics hold the Church in aversion and suspect her of Machiavellianism for allegedly demanding religious freedom where she is in a minority and ignoring it when she gets control.”

The term “religious liberty,” Bishop De Smedt explained, has a very definite meaning and should not be understood in any other sense than that intended by the authors of the text.

It does not mean, he said, that a person is free to solve his religious problems according to personal whim with no moral obligations toward God [religious indifferentism].

It does not mean that a person’s conscience can be free of all moral law and obligation toward God [laicism].

It does not mean that error is to be equated with truth [doctrinal relativism].

It does not mean that man has a right to sit back and enjoy his religious uncertainty [dilettantistic pessimism].

The specific meaning of religious liberty was defined as follows:

“In positive terms religious freedom means the right to free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience. Looked at negatively, it means immunity from outside coercion.”

Bishop De Smedt said that the right and duty to manifest a religion externally according to one’s conscience is not an unlimited one. It must be regulated in view of the common good, he said, and this common good can at times subject it to modification and control.

He noted that the chapter compares various papal documents on the subject. One of these is Pius IX’s encyclical, Quanta Cura, which, he said, has frequently been quoted in support of the charge that the Church does not favor religious liberty.

The teaching of the Church on this topic reached its culminating point, he continued, in John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, whose teaching is faithfully reflected in the ecumenism schema’s chapter on religious freedom. ·

But Bishop De Smedt stressed the fact that the chapter is not a dogmatic treatise but a pastoral decree intended for the men of today. He concluded:

“It is to be hoped that this topic may be discussed and voted on before the end of this session. This would be an eloquent proof to the entire world of the fruitfulness of the council’s efforts. The members of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity will spare no effort, even working day and night, to give due consideration to all observations and criticisms in order to bring about the achievement of this all important goal.”

Father Bernard Haering, CSSR, council expert, told the bishops’ press panel that it would be almost a miracle if the council could answer Bishop De Smedt’s plea and end debate on religious freedom before the end of the current session.

Bishop De Smedt’s remark that the external manifestation of one’s religious freedom must be regulated for the common good came in for lengthy discussion at the panel.

Archbishop Karl J. Alter of Cincinnati cited as an example the U.S. government’s prohibition of the former Mormon practice of polygamy.

Father Long paraphrased Bishop De Smedt as saying that the government can never act against the order of justice established by God.

First to speak at the council meeting following the presentation of reports was Paul Cardinal Leger of Montreal. He praised the chapter, saying: “Never before has Christ’s prayer for unity been heeded so effectively.”

He said the schema was both acceptable and necessary, but objected to the inclusion in it of the chapters dealing with Catholic-Jewish relations and religious freedom. Both topics must be discussed, he said, but they should be dealt with elsewhere.

The same objection was made by Armenian Rite Patriarch Ignace Pierre XVI Batanian of Cilicia. On the question of ecumenism, he said, “we must make it clear that we will hold fast to our Faith but that this determination is no obstacle to mutual friendly understanding.”

Franziskus Cardinal Koenig of Vienna replied directly to the objection made the day before by Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini of Palermo, Italy, against the use of the word “ecumenical.” Cardinal Ruffini had said that the term was used in the sense given to it by Protestants.

Cardinal Koenig replied that such words as “ecumenism” and “ecumenical” have acquired new meanings with the passage of time. He said the schema should indicate clearly the precise sense in which the terms are used.

On the whole, he observed, “30 years ago no one would have regarded as possible the progress we are witnessing today. Christ has brought this about through His Spirit, thanks to the dialogue of recent years.”

Laurean Cardinal Rugambwa of Bukoba, Tanganyika, recommended charity and humility in the approach toward separated Christians: “By humility as we remind ourselves that faith is a gift and that we have nothing that we have not received … and since love is the first of the commandments.”

With obvious reference to the Jews, Latin Rite Patriarch Alberto Gori, OFM, of Jerusalem said: “The text should make no particular mention of any one non­Christian confession. Either they should all be mentioned or none.”

Archbishop Gabriel Garrone of Toulouse, France, said it would forestall misunderstanding if it were made clear at the outset that “our ecumenism is based on integral and unshaken faith.” He said that there are as many elements of ecumenism as there are matters of faith and that it would be a mistake to “see such elements only in some words or some aspects of revealed doctrine.”

Coadjutor Bishop Arthur Elchinger of Strasbourg, France, hailed the schema as “a special grace and favor from God.” He warned, however, that “a condition of all progress and success is a profound reform in our methods of investigating the truth.”

In this respect, he said: “It is time to acknowledge and admit historical truth even when it is bitter to the taste. The Church is holy, but God’s holy things are carried in vessels of clay. … We must admit that many leaders of the ecumenical movement in the Catholic Church have had to face serious and even discouraging difficulties. … Our separated brethren, we must further admit, show more confidence in their scholars than we do. … Too many Catholics hold revealed truth passively and statically and have failed in their duty to study carefully those doctrines which are at the root of the separation we deplore.”

Archbishop John McQuaid, CSSp, of Dublin recommended caution, saying that “so many Catholics today interpret certain kindly feelings toward the Church on the part of non-Catholics as indicating a desire and a will to accept the whole doctrine of the Church.”

What many want, he said, are explanations of Catholic truth in clear terms, and not from private theologians but from the Apostolic See.

The final speaker of the day — Archbishop Charles De Provencheres of Aix, France — saw a serious defect in the schema.

“There are three steps to union,” he said, “first charity, then dialogue and then the internal renewal of the Church. The text treats adequately of the first two, but not of the third. There should be more emphasis on the interior renewal of the Church through the liturgy, the revamping of some ecclesiastical institutions and even in research into theological doctrine.”

Msgr. James I. Tucek
NCWC News Rome bureau chief

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