Text of Speech Introducing Proposal on Religious Liberty

Following is the text of the address made by Bishop Emile De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, on Nov. 19 as he introduced the draft on religious liberty.

Very many conciliar Fathers have insistently demanded that this sacred synod clearly explain and proclaim the right of man to religious liberty. Among the reasons given, four principal ones should be listed:

1) Truth: The Church must teach and defend the right to religious liberty because there is question of the truth, the care of which was committed to her by Christ;

2) Defense: The Church cannot remain silent today when almost half of mankind is deprived of religious liberty by atheistic materialism of various kinds;

3) Peaceful Social Life: Today in all nations of the world, men who adhere to different religions or who lack all religious belief must live together in one and the same human society; in the light of truth, the Church should point the way toward living together peacefully;

4) Ecumenism: Many non-Catholics harbor an aversion against the Church or at least suspect her of a kind of Machiavellism because we seem to them to demand the free exercise of religion when Catholics are in a minority in any nation and at the same time refuse and deny the same religious liberty when Catholics are in the majority.

Religious liberty is such a grave problem in modern society that it cannot be omitted in a pastoral decree on ecumenism. Therefore, we submit to your deliberations this fifth chapter of our schema on ecumenism. The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, to the best of its ability, has carefully watched over the preparation of this material.

Since we are treating of a most difficult question and at the same time one of great importance in modem life, the authors of the schema cherish the hope that your attention and pastoral consideration will amend what needs amendment and perfect what is still imperfect in the schema now offered to you.

The term  “religious liberty” has a definite meaning in our text. In the forthcoming discussion, great confusion might arise if any of the Fathers give to the expression a meaning that differs from the one intended by the text.

When religious liberty is defended, it is not asserted that it is proper for man to consider the religious problem according to his own whim without any moral obligation and decide for himself according to his own will whether or not to embrace religion (religious indifferentism).

Nor is it affirmed that the human conscience is free in the sense that it is as it were outside the law, absolved from any obligation toward God (laicism).

Nor is it said that falsehood is to be considered on an equal footing with truth, as though there were no objective norm of truth (doctrinal relativism).

Nor is it admitted that man in any way has a quasi­right to maintain a peaceful complacency in the midst of uncertainty (dilettantistic pessimism).

If anyone were to insist upon giving any of the aforesaid meaning to “religious liberty,” he would attribute to our text a meaning which neither the words nor our intention possess.

What therefore is meant in the text by “religious liberty”?

Positively, religious liberty is the right of the human person to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of his conscience. Negatively, it is immunity from all external force in his personal relations with God, which the conscience of man vindicates to itself.

Religious liberty implies human autonomy, not from within certainly but from without. From within, man is not freed of the obligations toward the religious problem. From without, his liberty is offended when obedience to the dictates of his conscience in religious matters is impeded.

At this point, two questions must be asked: 1) Can each man claim for himself religious liberty as a sacred right given to him by God? 2) Is there, and to what extent is there, a duty on the part of others to recognize the aforesaid religious liberty?

Our decree, since it is pastoral, tries to treat the present matter especially from the practical point of view and, after the manner of John XXIII, will carefully strive to remove the whole question from that world of abstractions which was so dear to the 19th century. The question is put therefore regarding real man in his real dealings with other men, in contemporary human and civil societies.


The first pastoral problem which must be examined now by this sacred synod is this: How must Catholics because of their Faith conduct themselves toward men who do not belong to the Catholic Faith? We propose the following answer for your deliberations:

1) All Catholics are invited by Christ to strive by prayer, penance, witness and evangelizing in the Holy Spirit to bring our non-Catholic brothers to the blessing of the evangelical light and of the life of the Church. The sacred, absolute rights of God as well as the evangelical and natural truths must always and everywhere be honored and observed by them.

2) They must abstain from all direct and indirect coercion. Although God wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, the disciples of Christ may not infringe upon the religious liberty of the individual person. On the contrary, they must respect and esteem the right and duty of non-Catholics to follow the dictate of their own conscience even when, after sincere and sufficient study, it errs in good faith.

What is the reason of faith why non-Catholics can be forced by no one to admit the Catholic doctrine against their conscience? This reason is found in the very nature of the act of faith. For this act, on God’s part, is a supernatural gift which the Holy Spirit most freely gives to whom and when He wills; and, on man’s part, it is and must be an assent which man freely gives to God.

3) All Catholics are bound, by the command of the Lord, to love and to help their non-Catholic brothers with a sincere and active charity.


At this point, the schema takes a step forward and asserts that each and every man who follows his conscience in religious matters has a natural right to true and authentic religious liberty. In this second part, it is proposed that the sacred synod solemnly demand religious liberty for the whole human family, for all religious groups, for each human person whether his conscience be sincere (rectam) and true or sincere and false concerning faith, provided only that he sincerely follow the dictate of conscience. Therefore, a general principle is laid down: No human person can be the object of coercion or intolerance.

What is the reason why observance of religious liberty is demanded of all? The human person, endowed with conscious and free activity, since he can fulfill the will of God only as the divine law is perceived through the dictate of conscience, can obtain his ultimate end only by prudently forming the judgment of conscience and by faithfully carrying out its dictate.

From the nature of things, in forming this judgment, whereby man tries freely to conform to the absolute demands of God’s rights, neither any other man nor any human institution can take the place of the free judgment of man’s conscience. Therefore, the man who sincerely obeys his own conscience intends to obey God himself, although at times confusedly and unknowingly, and is to be considered worthy of esteem.

When religious liberty is violated, then the very freedom of the human person is violated in its principal matter, in a fundamental demand, in man’s ordination to the supreme and ultimate end. The greatest injury is to prevent man from worshipping God and from obeying God according to the dictate of his own conscience.


The schema takes still another step forward and enters upon a most difficult question. Religious liberty would be fruitless and empty if men were not able to carry out the dictate of their conscience in external acts whether in private life, in social life, or in public life, or if human persons were prevented from forming religious groups whose members could worship the Supreme Deity by common and social acts and lead a religious life.

Here, however, there arises a most difficult problem. For, if a human person carries out the dictate of his conscience by external acts, there is danger of violating the rights and duties of another or of others. Since man is a social being and since in the human family men are subject to error and to sin, the conflict of rights and the conflict of duties cannot always be avoided.

From this it is evident that the right and duty to manifest externally the dictate of conscience is not unlimited, but can be and at times must be tempered and regulated for the common good.

This ordering of the common good must be done juridically in human society and belongs to public authority (potestati publicae). “One of the fundamental duties of civil authorities, therefore,” we read in Pacem in Terris (trans. NCWC rev. No. 62), “is to coordinate social relations in such fashion that the exercise of one man’s rights does not threaten others in the exercise of their own rights nor hinder them in the fulfillment of their duties. Finally, the rights of all should be effectively safeguarded and, if they have been violated, completely restored.”

How is public authority to carry out this duty? In establishing order for the common good, public authority can never act contrary to the order of justice established by God. As St. Thomas says: “Human law is truly law to the extent that it is in accordance with right reason; and therefore it is evident that it is derived from the eternal law. Insofar as it departs from reason, it is a so-called ‘wicked law,’ and therefore is not truly a law but a kind of violence” (I-ii, q. 93, a. 3, ad 2um).

Recent Roman Pontiffs again and again have bewailed the fact that not a few governments have gone too far in this matter, ignoring and violating religious liberty. In our own day, there are some regions in which tolerance in religious matters has been so little observed that the Supreme Pontiff, Paul VI, in his allocution to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council on Sept. 29, 1963, said, speaking of the violated right to religious liberty:

“Because of sufferings of this kind, with what sadness are we affected, and how deeply we are grieved, when we behold that in some territories religious liberty, together with the other principal rights of man, is suppressed by the principles and arts of those who do not tolerate opinions different from theirs on politics, on races of men, or on religion of any kind. We are sorrowed also by the many injuries which are done to those who would like to profess their religion honestly and freely.”


In order that we might clearly understand the doctrine of the Church on the extent and limits of the civil power’s duty relating to religious liberty, we must, in a few words, develop the history of this doctrine. Bear with me, Venerable Fathers, if I seem to make more than just demands on your patience. But the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity is convinced that many difficulties and confusions can be avoided in the study of the schema if, before the discussion begins, I show very briefly what the supreme pontiffs since the time of Pius IX have taught concerning the duties of public authority in religious matters.

On the question of religious liberty, the principal document is the encyclical Pacem in Terris, in which Pope John XXIII especially developed these two points of doctrine: 1) By the law of nature, the human person has the right to the free exercise of religion in society according to the dictates of a sincere conscience (conscientia recta) whether the conscience be true (conscientia vera), or the captive either of error or of inadequate knowledge of truth and of sacred things. 2) To this right corresponds the duty incumbent upon other men and the public authority to recognize and respect that right in such a way that the human person in society is kept immune from all coercion of any kind (cf. Acta Apostolicae Seda 55, 1963, p. 299; p. 264 and pp. 273-274).

Moreover, this doctrine must be understood as the contemporary terminus of a process of evolution both in the doctrine on the dignity of the human person and in the Church’s pastoral solicitude for man’s freedom. This doctrinal evolution took place according to a twofold law:

1) Law of continuity: The Church’s doctrine and solicitude are always self-consistent, always remain the same. This perennial doctrine can be expressed in the words of Pope John: “The dignity of the human person demands this, that in his actions man should enjoy his own counsel and freedom” (ibid. p. 265). This doctrine has its deepest roots in the Sacred Scriptures which teach that man was made to the image of God. From this doctrine stems the continual pastoral solicitude of the Church for man’s true freedom.

2) Law of progress: The ecclesiastical magisterium adapts, explains, and defends genuine doctrine according to the demands of errors which are spread and according to the needs which arise from the development of man and of society. By this progress, the mind of the Church is led to search more deeply into doctrine and to understand it more clearly.

In this way, there has arisen in two areas a distinction which no one has explained more clearly than Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in Terris:

1) A clearer distinction between false “philosophical teachings” and the “endeavors and institutions” which these ideologies give rise to or nourish. While on the one hand the ideologies are always to be condemned, on the other hand the economic, social and civil institutions which have arisen therefrom can contain something that is good and worthy of approval.

2) A clearer distinction between “errors” and the “person” who errs in good faith. While on the one hand errors must always be rejected, on the other hand the man in error “does not cease to be endowed with human nature, nor does he ever lose his dignity as a person, due consideration of which must always be maintained” (ibid. pp. 299-300).

These two laws of continuity and progress must be kept before our eyes always when the documents of the Apostolic See are read and interpreted.


In this way the door is opened to a correct understanding of many pontifical documents which in the 19th century treated of religious liberty in such words that this liberty appeared as something that had to be condemned. The clearest example is found in the encyclical Quanta Cura of Pius IX, in which we read: “From this completely false concept of social rule (naturalism), they do not hesitate to foster that erroneous opinion which is especially injurious to the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by our predecessor Gregory XVI ‘deliramentum,’ namely that the freedom of conscience and of cults is the proper right of each man, and this should be proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society” (ASS 3, 1867, p. 162).

As is evident, this freedom of conscience is condemned because of the ideology of the rationalists who founded their conclusions upon the principle that the individual conscience is under no law, and, therefore, is subject to no divinely given norms (cf. Syllabus, prop. 3, ASS 3, p. 168). Freedom of worship is condemned also when it is based upon religious indifferentism (ibid. prop. 15, p. 170).

Finally, there is condemned that separation of the Church from the State which is based upon the rationalistic principle of the juridical omnicompetence of the State, according to which the Church is to be incorporated into the monistic organism of the State and is to be subjected to its supreme authority (ibid., prop. 39, p. 172).

To understand these condemnations correctly, we must see in them the constant doctrine and solicitude of the Church concerning the true dignity of the human person and his true liberty (law of continuity). For the ultimate basis of human dignity lies in the fact that man is a creature of God. He is not God himself, but an image of God.

From this absolute dependence of man upon God there flows every right and duty of man to claim for himself and for others true religious liberty. For man is subjectively bound to worship God according to the sincere dictate of his own conscience (juxta rectam suae conscientiae normam) because objectively he is absolutely dependent upon God.

In order, therefore, that his absolute dependence upon God might not be infringed in any way, man must not be impeded in any way by others or even by public authority from freely practicing his religion. Therefore, in opposing the philosophical and political tenets of laicism, the Church was fighting for the dignity and true liberty of the human person.

In accordance with the law of continuity, then, the Church, in spite of changing conditions, has remained consistent both in the past and in the present.

Leo XIII had already started this doctrinal development when he distinguished clearly between the Church, the People of God, and the civil society, a terrestrial and temporal people (cf. Immortale Dei, ASS 18, 1885, pp. 166-167). By this means, he opened the way to a new affirmation of the due and lawful autonomy which belongs to the civil order and to its juridical dispositions. Because of this, it was possible to take a step forward (law of progress) toward a new judgment on “modern freedoms.”

These freedoms can be tolerated (cf. ibid., p. 174; Libertas Praestantisimum, ASS 20, 1887, pp. 609-610). And yet they were to be tolerated only. The reason was evident. For at that time in Europe, the regimes which proclaimed the modem freedoms, religious liberty among them, consciously drew their inspiration from the laicist ideology.

There was danger, therefore — and Leo XIII sensed this — that the civil and political institutions of this kind of republic, since they were of laicist orientation, would lead to such abuses that they would necessarily do violence to the dignity and true liberty of the human person. In accordance with the law of continuity, what was dear to Leo XIII is always dear to the Church — the safeguarding of the human person.

With the rise of state-totalitarianism in its various forms, Pope Pius XI brought the pastoral and doctrinal development to a new height. There is no longer any danger, as there was in the 19th century, that the false concept of liberty might do violence to human dignity. There is a new danger, that every kind of human and civil liberty, and above all religious liberty, will be destroyed. For this reason, the Church is beginning in a new way to manifest her concern, which through the centuries has never wavered, for human liberty and dignity. With the increase of her pastoral concern, the Church’s doctrine continues to develop.

Faithfully observing the law of continuity, Pius XI maintained the unstinting opposition of the Church to anti-religious laicism: “Those things which Pius X condemned we also condemn; as often as there is in ‘laicism’ any meaning or purpose that is harmful or contrary to God or religion, we condemn laicism, and openly declare that it must be condemned, as alien to God and religion” (Maximam gravissimamque, AAS 16, 1924, p. 10).

But observing the rule of progress no less, Pius XI introduced a new distinction which was of great importance for a deeper understanding of Catholic doctrine. He made a distinction between the “freedom of consciences” and the “freedom of conscience.” The latter he rejected as “equivocal,” as often used by the laicist to signify “an absolute independence of conscience, which is an absurdity in man who was created and redeemed by God”; the former, however, “freedom of consciences,” he accepted, stating that he would joyfully fight the good fight for “freedom of consciences” (Non abbiamo bisogno, AAS 23, 1931, pp. 301-302).

Moreover, Pius XI not only fought for the religious liberty of the faithful, but he was at the same time compelled to show the pastoral concern of the Church on a wider basis. For not only Christian, but human reality was at stake, if we can rightly distinguish between two things that are in reality one.

By way of new advances, Pius XI developed a truly liberal and Christian doctrine when he taught: “Man as a person possesses God-given rights which must remain immune from all denial, privation, or interference on the part of society” (Mit brennender Sorge, AAS 29, 1937, p. 159). And he continues in no ambiguous words:

“The believer possesses the inalienable right to profess his Faith and to practice it in a proper way. Laws which interfere with or render difficult this profession and practice are in contradiction to the natural law” (ibid. p. 160). No one who understands the condition of the times and the purpose of this encyclical can fail to understand the universal intent of this statement.

Deeply sharing the pastoral solicitude of his predecessor, Pius XII developed further and expanded his doctrine (law of progress). One thing he kept before his mind, the human person, created by God, redeemed by Christ Jesus, yet placed in stringent circumstances and surrounded on all sides by dangers.

In this context of doctrine and pastoral solicitude (law of continuity) must we read the text which in this matter is supreme. Enumerating “the fundamental rights of the person,” which must be recognized and respected in every well-ordered society, he repeats the doctrine of Pius XI and vests it with new authority, affirming “the right to the private and public worship of God, including religious ‘actio caritativa’” (Nuntius radiophonicus, Dec. 24, 1942, AAS 35, 1943, p. 19).

The Roman Pontiff did not propose this doctrine as a tenuous opinion or as a theory belonging to the schools. On the contrary, he carries the doctrine to its juridical conclusions so that it becomes a principle according to which just limits are placed on public authority: “The chief duty of any public authority is to safeguard the inviolable rights that are proper to men and so to provide that each one might more easily fulfill his duties” (Nuntius radiophonicus, June I, 1941, AAS 33, 1941, p. 200).

Here we must recall especially the doctrine of Pius XII on the limitation of the state, because it deals with the suppression of errors within society: “Could it be that in certain circumstances He (God) would not give men any mandate, would not impose any duty, and would not even communicate the right to impede or to repress what is erroneous and false? A look at things as they are gives an affirmative answer.”

Then, having cited the example of divine providence, he proceeds: “Hence the affirmation: religious and moral error must always be impeded, when it is possible, because toleration of them is in itself immoral, is not valid absolutely and unconditionally. Moreover, God has not given even to human authority such an absolute and universal command in matters of faith and morality. Such a command is unknown to the common convictions of mankind, to Christian conscience, to the sources of Revelation, and to the practice of the Church” (Ci Riesce, AAS 45, 1953, pp. 798-799).

This declaration (law of progress) is of the greatest importance for our question, especially if we keep in mind what was in the past held concerning the role of the state.

At the end of this historical development comes the encyclical Pacem in Terris. This document comes forth as the ripe fruit of a slow process of growth which has taken place within the Church, under the light of the Holy Spirit, throughout the whole of the last century.

Our schema had already been prepared and had been studied by the Central Commission and by the Commission for Coordination when Pope John, on April 11 of this year, published his last encyclical, Pacem in Terris. We believe that our text is in complete conformity with his pellucid doctrine, which was received within the Church and outside of the Church with unprecedented praise.

We now submit this text for your consideration. In the historical conspectus of this doctrine, we have shown that, in the pontifical documents, along with continuity, we must look for a progressive spelling out of doctrine. It is evident that certain quotations from the popes, because of a difference of words, can be put in opposition to our schema. But I beseech you, Venerable Fathers, not to force the text to speak outside of its historical and doctrinal context, not, in other words, to make the fish swim out of water.

Let our document be studied as it stands. It is not a dogmatic treatise, but a pastoral decree directed to men of our time. The whole world is waiting for this decree. The voice of the Church on religious liberty is being waited for in universities, in national and international organizations, in Christian and non-Christian communities, in the papers, and in public opinion — and it is being waited for with urgent expectancy.

We hope that it will be possible to complete the discussion and the approbation of this very brief, but very important, decree before the end of this second session. How fruitful our work would appear to the world if the conciliar Fathers, with the voice of Peter’s successor, could announce this liberating doctrine on religious liberty!

Venerable Fathers, we will add our labors to yours. Our secretariat will study your emendations most attentively and also with the utmost speed. We will work day and night. But our hope is in the Lord. May Jesus Christ assist all of us with His grace.

If at the end of this session He asks of us: “Young men, do you have any fish?” seeing the faith and good will of this council, He might say to their successors what once He said to the Apostles: “Cast the net to the right of the boat; and you will find” (John 21, 6).

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