Summary of Text on Religious Liberty

The ecumenical council’s draft text of the celebrated declaration on religious liberty proclaims that the freedom to follow God’s call is the peak of human dignity and the foundation and safeguard of other freedoms.

If adopted as it now stands the declaration would proclaim the right of every man to follow his own conscience even if it leads him into error, provided he forms his conscience under the guidance of prudence and sincerity.

Details of the proposed declaration, drafted by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, were released in summary form by the council press office as debate on the document began (Sept. 23). The text was introduced at the council during last year’s session but failed to reach the floor for discussion. The “summary” runs to 5,000 words.

The text in defining the term religious liberty distinguishes between the freedom of the individual in his relations with God and his freedom in relation with other men. The declaration is concerned exclusively with the latter, “other men” being considered either as individuals or as members of religious groups.

It states that the foundation of man’s religious freedom “comes from the very serious obligation of respecting human dignity and following the law of God according to the dictates of a conscience sincerely formed.”

According to the press office summary, the declaration as it stands is reminiscent of the phrasing in Pope John XXIII’s encyclical on peace, Pacem in Terris. The encyclical states in its first section: “Every human being has the right to honor God according to the dictates of an upright conscience and the right to profess his religion privately and publicly.”

The draft declaration recognizes for religious groups authentic religious liberty in those things which develop spiritual life among men, both private and public. It demands the establishment in society of the conditions necessary to guarantee this.

The problem is an urgent one, it states, noting that closer bonds between people of diverse cultures and religions as well as increased awareness of personal responsibility have resulted from the evolution of modern law and society.

It places emphasis on the objective truth — absolute and universal — of divine law “in such a way as to exclude all danger of subjectivism and indifferentism.”

Regarding the question as to when religious rights may be restricted, the text states the principle that it is the duty of governments, in matters of religion, to reconcile and harmonize things so that the exercise of these rights by one group does not constitute an obstacle to the exercise of the rights of another.

In this connection it recognizes society’s right to restrict religious freedom as legitimate only when this exercise is “in grave conflict with the purpose of society.” It adds: “Consequently, it is unlawful for state authorities to discriminate against religion in any way. It is on the contrary their duty to protect and encourage religious liberty.

“Civil authorities have no direct power to regulate relationships of citizens with God. Hence they may not subject religious groups to the temporal aims of the state. On the contrary, it contributes to the common welfare when conditions are created which will favor religious life.”

The summary makes a distinction between the right to propagate one’s own religion sincerely and honestly and abuses of this right when “dishonest means” are employed in religious propaganda.

Concerning missionary activity and the spreading of the Gospel according to the Church’s mandate from Christ, the text urges “love, prudence and patience, in accordance with the ways of God.” It condemns all coercion, direct or indirect, citing the traditional teaching of the Church that by its very nature an act of faith must be fully free.

Proselytism is condemned. Father Thomas Stransky, C.S.P., of the Christian unity secretariat, defined proselytism as using “bad means” to achieve conversion.

Among the “bad means” which were cited by the American priest were “cajolery, bribery, blackening the name of other religions, or whitewashing one’s own.”

(He also specified the luring of hungry persons into the Faith by giving them food — so-called “rice” Christianity. Father Stransky said that the terms used here are the same as those used by the World Council of Churches. He said that ecumenists are just beginning to discuss their implications.)

The text proclaims that religious liberty is to be respected “not only by Christians and for Christians, but by all and for all — persons, individuals and religious groups.”

The press office summary states that the document ends with the ringing assertion: “There can be no peaceful coexistence in the human family in the world today without religious liberty in society.”

The draft declaration is divided into seven articles still numbered 25 to 31 — its position in the schema on ecumenism, from which it was removed last fall and made a separate declaration.

The press office in presenting the summary said it was taken out of the ecumenism schema because “its great importance did not permit it to be compressed into such compact form as would have permitted its insertion into Chapter I of the ecumenism schema, as some Fathers suggested.

“Thus according to the desire expressed by the Coordinating Commission in its meeting of April 18, 1964 … it is now submitted to the council as a declaration distinct from, but annexed to, the schema on ecumenism.”

Following debate, the document will be sent to the Christian unity secretariat for consideration of the objections and suggestions made on the council floor. Then it will be returned to the council to be voted on, first article by article, then on the declaration as a whole.

Father John P. Donnelly
NCWC News Rome correspondent

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