Text of Marist Superior’s Address on Religious Liberty

This is a translation of the Latin address by Father Joseph Buckley, S.M., superior general of the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers), on the council’s draft statement on religious liberty at its Sept. 24, 1964, session.


This intervention of mine is dictated by two main considerations. First, I am concerned that this ecumenical council should issue a declaration of the inalienable right of man to follow the dictates of a sincere conscience, especially in matters of religion.

In the second place, I am concerned that the council’s affirmation of religious liberty should be set forth on a firm foundation — one that is also understandable and congenial to men generally.

While in the text which is now before us a number of ameliorations seem desirable, let me deal with just one which appears to merit public review, namely the very foundation of personal liberty in the religious order.

Throughout the document, repeatedly, the right to liberty of a sincere conscience (conscientia recta) is based on the principle of a “call from God” (vocatio divina). According to this principle, every sincere conscience, even if mistaken (erroneous), is a call from God: a divine vocation. Calling an erroneous conscience a divine vocation, even from the viewpoint that it is written in the “heart of nature,” constitutes the ultimate point attained thus far in a most unhappy evolution of the concept of divine vocation.

Originally in the New Testament, a divine vocation was a call to follow Christ (Mark 3,13); to the Christian faith (II Thess. 1, 11); to heaven (Heb. 3, 1); and to the holiness which befits those who are so privileged (I Thess. 4, 7).

In the New Testament the priesthood is also called a divine vocation (Heb. 5, 4).

This is not a suitable occasion for a discussion of the idea of a divine vocation to the priesthood, but spare me, venerable Fathers, if I recall to mind for you a tendency to speak as if the call of God to the priesthood was recognizable to each of us in the human psychological order, as if each of us knew that he was called by God.

From the evolution of the idea of divine call it has become customary to speak also of a divine vocation even to the married state. So far has the term “divine vocation” been extended that we now read and hear of a divine vocation to become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a nurse.

Finally, in the document before us, we have the reductio ad absurdum of this entire unfortunate evolution: the imperative of a conscience, right but erroneous, is a divine vocation.

This way of speaking is a long way from the teaching of the Common Doctor, St. Thomas, in the Summa Theologica (Ia IIae, q. 19, a. 10), where he asks: “For the human will to be good, is it necessary that it agree with God’s will in the thing willed?” St. Thomas answers: “In individual matters we are ignorant of what God wills. Hence in these things we are under no obligation of trying to make our will agree with God’s.”

Most talk of divine vocation and finding out God’s will is a lot of pseudo-mysticism.

I suggest as the foundation of religious liberty not some divine vocation but the obligation of conscience: the categoric imperative of conscience itself, under God. Under God for those who believe in God, but for all men the categoric imperative of conscience.

The right to religious liberty, like all the other rights of man, springs from an obligation. In created things no right exists which is not founded in a prior obligation.

If a man feels that he should worship God in a particular way, he has a right to fulfill this obligation. If a man, as a social person, judges that he is obliged to worship God socially, he has a right to social worship. There is no authority superior to the individual conscience under God, unless it is an authority sincerely perceived by the conscience itself. This is how Catholics accept the authority of the Church over them.

The exercise of the right of an individual or association can be limited by society but only inasmuch as the exercise infringes on the rights of others. Such a conflict of obligations and of rights should not be supposed too readily.

It is on this solid basis that I hope to see the declaration on religious liberty erected by the Council.

Liberty is most precious to all men. Whatever we priests may like to think, the Catholic Church does not enjoy a very high reputation in the world generally for its sponsorship of liberty. Still, such is the esteem of the world for the Church that it welcomes any earnest indication that the Catholic Church is on the side of liberty. Witness the enthusiastic reception universally given to the encyclical of Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris.

The Council must not disappoint the world!

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