Text of Cardinal Cushing’s Address on Religious Liberty

This is a translation of the Latin address by Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, supporting the ecumenical council’s draft declaration on religious liberty, at the council session of Sept. 23.

The declaration on religious liberty in general is acceptable. In saying this I speak not only in my own name but also in the name of almost all the bishops of the United States.

It is most gratifying to us that at long last a full and free discussion on this subject will take place in this council hall. For in our time this is a practical question of great importance, both for the life of the Church and for the social and civil life. It is also a doctrinal question. For the doctrine of the Church on religious liberty in modern civil society has not yet been declared clearly and unambiguously.

This clear declaration is owed to the whole world — both Catholic and non-Catholic — which is indeed awaiting it. Therefore, in making this declaration, this ecumenical council will manifest, if I may quote words famous in our American history, “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”

As His Excellency, the relator has said, the text of the declaration as it stands needs amendment here and there. But it is earnestly hoped that the amendments be such that the declaration be stronger in the meaning it already expresses and not weaker. For the substance of the doctrine as we have it here is true and solid. And it is aptly appropriate for our times. Therefore the declaration must remain intact as to its essential meaning.

One thing is of the greatest importance. In this declaration the Church must show herself to the entire modern world as the champion of liberty, of human liberty and of civil liberty, specifically in the matter of religion.

On the one hand this whole question of religious liberty is somewhat complicated. On the other hand, it seems to me, the question is simple. The whole matter can be reduced to two propositions.

First: Throughout her history the Catholic Church has ever insisted upon her own freedom in civil society and before the public powers. She has fought for the freedom of the Pope, of the bishops to teach and govern the people of God. She has fought for the freedom of this same people of God, who have the right to live in civil society according to the dictates of Christian conscience without interference. The first proposition, therefore, is contained in the traditional formula libertas Ecclesiae.

The second proposition is this: That same freedom in civil society which the Church has ever insisted upon for herself and her members, she now in this our age also champions for other churches and their members, indeed for every human person.

Let me present some reasons, briefly, for this statement. They are taken from the encyclical letter Pacem in Terris, of Pope John XXIII, of most blessed memory.

For Pope John said in his encyclical that every well-ordered society is grounded in truth, in justice, in love, in liberty. Now in the first place, equal and universal religious liberty is demanded by that fundamental truth according to which all men, insofar as they are human persons, are of equal dignity; equally endowed with the same human rights, among which Pope John specified the right to religious liberty.

Secondly, religious liberty is demanded by justice. For justice requires that all citizens equally enjoy the same civil rights which in our age are acknowledged as necessary for due civil dignity. And among these rights the first is the right to religious liberty.

Thirdly, religious liberty is demanded by love. For nothing is more violently destructive of unity and civic concord than coercion or discrimination, either legally or illegally, because of religious reasons.

Fourthly, religious liberty is demanded by the very principle of civil liberty. For as Lord Acton said, speaking in the tradition of Christian civilization: “Freedom is the highest political end.” Now, as the highest political end, civil liberty is also the means necessary to attain the higher ends of the human person. And this is the mind of Pope John. In particular, religious freedom — or the immunity from all coercion in religious affairs — is a necessary means by which man, in a manner which is human and willed by God, can seek God, can find Him, can serve Him.

There are other arguments for the validity of the human and civil right to religious liberty in society, and these are stated in this declaration, which as I say “in general is acceptable.” And so I praise and approve this declaration.

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