Religious Liberty Debate Closes After Three Days

88th General Congregation
September 25, 1964

Debate of the Second Vatican Council on the important declaration on religious liberty was brought to a close after three days of praise and criticism.

One of the last to speak in its favor was Archbishop Karl J. Alter of Cincinnati. Another was a former personal theologian of Pope Paul VI.

Several other bishops, including some Americans who had been scheduled to speak, did not take the floor because the moderator, Leo Cardinal Suenens of Malines-Brussels, moved that debate had been sufficient to expose the areas of opinions on the document. A vast majority of the council favored closing debate.

A few more interventions would be heard later if the bishops can secure the signatures showing that each speaks in the name of 70 or more council Fathers.

Archbishop Alter told the council that the declaration does not affirm a personal right of any individual to teach error or to do harm. He insisted that the declaration does not speak at all of the possible senses in which religious freedom can be understood, but only refers to the right of every human being to be free from outside force in his worship of God.

Archbishop Alter noted that persons do not have a personal right to teach error or to do harm. What the declaration claims for the individual is only freedom from social coercion, he said.

The prelate said that peace and harmony would be promoted if the council issues a clear declaration on this point, especially in areas where the Church is living in a pluralistic society.

Because Catholics have been accused of inconsistency and even of insincerity, as though they shifted their stand on religious liberty according to their majority or minority in social society, the text should be so formulated as to forestall any repetition of these doubts and suspicions, he said.

Archbishop Alter added that the Fathers should affirm the absolute incompetence of public officials to judge religious matters, and should reiterate that these officials have the obligation to use all appropriate means to insure free practice of religion with safety to the individual.

This declaration, said the archbishop, is good for the Church. It does not say that men enjoy an absolute right to independence from all authority on earth, including the Church, he added.

But without liberty for the Church’s individual members, that liberty which the Church has always claimed for herself would be useless and meaningless, he said.

Archbishop Alter also rejected the frequent criticism that the schema jumps illicitly from the subjective order (conscience) to the objective order (social rights).

Support of the declaration also came from Bishop Carlo Colombo, head of the theological faculty of the Milan archdiocesan seminary, who was Pope Paul’s theologian when the Pontiff was Archbishop of Milan and who remains a close friend of the Pope.

Bishop Colombo defended the doctrinal character of the text and said it should be retained. He said the text, although pastoral in intent, cannot avoid being doctrinal at the same time, and it should set forth principles governing relationships of persons with moral and religious truth.

Offering a number of principles to guide in drawing up this doctrine, Bishop Colombo noted that problems offered by the exercise of freedom of religion cannot be solved always and everywhere in the same way. Solutions will differ according to circumstance.

Not all of the day’s 11 speakers were so in favor. Bishop Ubaldo Cibrian Fernandez, CP, for Corocoro. Bolivia, called the declaration unacceptable. He gave as his reason his belief that it was not based on adequate doctrinal principles.

As it stands now, he said, its teaching is in conflict with the magisterium [teaching authority] of the Church.

The Master General of the Dominicans, Father Aniceto Fernandez, O.P., also criticized the declaration. He called it a sign of our times in that it shows a desire to avoid all division and criticism. He called it weak because it affirms merely the subject principle as the basis for freedom of religion, and because, by leaving too much to the dictates of conscience, it obscures the principal fonts of Christian doctrine.

The 88th session opened with Mass in the Syro-Antiochene rite celebrated by Archbishop Cyrille Emmanuel Benni of Mossul, Iraq, with Aramaic, the language of Our Lord, used in the rite and singing. Bishop Jean Karroum of Hassake, Syria, enthroned the Gospel.

Archbishop Felici announced the distribution of the declaration on the Jews, and also that the Pope has granted all council Fathers who are not bishops the same powers to hear confessions in Rome as were granted to the Bishops last December.

It was also announced that the six schemata, which have been reduced to propositions and which were only to be voted on without debate, will now be accompanied by a brief discussion in the council hall before voting. Archbishop Felici said this was in response to requests from many bishops.

During the session votes were taken on six more amendments to the schema on the Church, dealing largely with aspects of infallibility.

The first speaker of the day was Francesco Cardinal Roberti, president of the Commission on the Reform of the Roman Curia. This identification was given in the council press bulletin and was the first disclosure of this title, although it had been known generally that he had been named to the post earlier by the Pope.

Cardinal Roberti stated that a clear distinction was needed between freedom of conscience and freedom of consciences. As freedom of conscience is often understood today, he said, it means conferring on an individual right of free personal choice, even when confronted with the law of God. The Church cannot admit freedom of conscience in its present-day sense because the Church could thereby be in contradiction with itself. However, the Church can admit freedom of consciences, he said, because this implies freedom from all external coercion in the belief and exercise of religion.

Archbishop Denis E. Hurley of Durban, South Africa, made a speech which was a vigorous attempt to refute the classic argument for a state’s right to intervene in religious matters. He pointed out that if the state has such a right, then the schema should be altered.

He reduced this classic argument to skeletal form. It begins with the premise that man is a social being and is therefore obliged to worship in a social way. Therefore, society should worship God in the way God points out.

Archbishop Hurley said that the flaw of this argument is that it jumps from its premise to the unwarranted conclusion that civil society as such must be concerned with this worship.

He said that if God founded a special society for this purpose, then the “famous principle of subsidiarity” releases civil society from competence over religious matters. But God did found such a society, the Church.

He said the classical argument holds that the Church has direct power over civil society, and not merely in what pertains to worship but even in the civil constitution itself. But this, he said, is no longer admitted.

He said that a declaration that civil society has no obligation or authority in religious matters would not harm the Church. On the contrary, it could pave the way for the Church’s broader influence in a society that is not resentful against the Church on account of any authoritarianism.

Spanish-born Bishop Cibrian Fernandez followed the South African prelate. He objected to the text on the grounds that its foundation should be in God and the nature of truth. He warned the council that the declaration cannot be in conflict with the Church’s magisterium. Basically we should declare simply that religious liberty must be implemented in practice and with all due respect for the rights of others, he said.

Exiled Archbishop Frederick Melendro, S.J., of Anking, China, another Spaniard, also called for textual re-organization and suggested it would be best if the whole discussion of the subject were postponed to allow the matter to mature.

Objecting that the declaration bases religious liberty on the norm of the dictates of conscience, he stated that it is not sufficient to say that men are invited to embrace the true faith. Rather, they are bound to do so by the divine law, he said.

Polish Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Cracow declared that all should make ceaseless efforts to secure full religious liberty from the state, because no state has the power to dominate religion. A declaration of this kind is expected from the council by peoples of all faiths, he said.

Archbishop Gabriel Garrone of Toulouse, France, said the apparent contradiction between the declaration’s doctrine and the actual practice of the Church is not a real one. Noting the profound changes which have taken place in the past century, he indicated that the Church formerly emphasized what it saw as the threat from doctrinaire liberalism. Today, he said, it stresses the rights of man in his daily life. There have been regrettable incidents in the past, and for these the Church is humbly penitent, he said. But he added that the doctrine of the declaration should point out that no real contradiction exists.

Vietnamese Bishop Simon Hoa Nguyen van Hies of Dalat said the declaration is of immense importance for dialogues with other Christians and in areas where Christians are a minority. He called for a change in the title to “Basic Principles of Religious Liberty” and asked for a new paragraph treating of man’s objective calling from God and of the mission and function of the Church in relation to civil society.

Archbishop Alter was next on the roster of speakers, and he was followed by the Dominican superior general, who warned that the text could cause confusion.

In the text, he said, religious liberty arises from below, namely from the consciences of men, whereas its real source is from above. He added that the text proceeds in a manner which is too worldly and naturalistic, and that the council document should not reflect only the present day.

Ireland’s Bishop Cornelius Lucey of Cork and Ross declared that the liberty of conscience is a human right and is not to be understood as a personal moral right. There is a universal obligation to respect good faith no matter where it may be found, he said. There are even atheists in good faith, he said, and added that while man’s personal acts of religion are always acceptable to God, this gives no right to interfere with the acts of religion performed by others.

Last speaker of the day was Bishop Colombo, who suggested some principles concerning relationships of humans with moral and religious truth. First of these was that the foundation of all religious liberty is twofold, first a natural right to investigate moral and religious truth and to follow it according to the dictates of conscience; and second, the freedom of the act of Christian and Catholic faith.

The second principle he offered was that the council should insist on two other principles, the obligation to investigate truth and to follow it, and to investigate it through adequate means, chief among which is the doctrinal authority of the Church and secondly the special value of truth among the benefits of society. He offered a third idea, that of the relationship of personal rights and freedom of faith with the demands of the common good. This problem cannot be solved always and everywhere in the same way, he warned.

With that, debate was closed. Amendments and votes cast that day on the schema on the Church follow:

Amendment 25 — that bishops do not have the gift of infallibility as individuals, but that the universal body of bishops is infallible when it teaches solemnly, in union with the successor of Peter, especially in ecumenical councils. The vote was, 2,134 “yes” and 63 “no.”

Amendment 26 — that the scope of this infallibility is coterminus with the deposit of divine revelation. The vote was 2,059 “yes” and 32 “no.”

Amendment 27 — that the Roman Pontiff is infallible when he definitively proclaims a point of faith or morals as pastor and teacher of the faithful of Christ. His infallibility does not depend on the consent of the Church. This is because he does not declare his opinions as a private person but as supreme teacher of the universal Church. The vote was 2,140 “yes” and 45 “no.”

Amendment 28 — that the infallibility promised to the Church is found in the body of bishops when it exercises the supreme magisterium in union with the successor of Peter. Such definitions always have the assent of the Church because of the action of the Holy Spirit. The vote was 2,139 “yes” and 46 “no.”

Amendment 29 — that when the Roman Pontiff or the council issues a definition, this is in keeping with Revelation, which all are bound to accept. In the investigation and formulation of definitions, the Roman Pontiff and the bishops, according to circumstances, cooperate but they can never proclaim a new public revelation as belonging to the divine deposit of faith. The vote was 2,155 “yes” and 25 “no.”

Amendment 30 — that the bishops’ office of sanctifying is exercised especially through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The vote was 2,139 “yes” and 21 “no.”

James C. O’Neill
NCWC News Rome correspondent

* * * *

What has happened to the proposed council statement on the Jews and other non-Christians since the first version which was released to the public press last year?

Answering questions at the American bishops’ press panel meeting following the introduction of the schema on the floor of the council (Sept. 25), Father Thomas Stransky, C.S.P., of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, pointed out that the new version which was leaked to the press a few weeks earlier obviously omits some items contained in the first one. He also revealed that a second version prepared after the March meeting of the unity secretariat has never been released and is still under council secrecy.

Father Stransky, a Paulist Father from Milwaukee, said the third version, now on the council floor, omits two statements contained in the original:

  1. The theological explanation, based on the Council of Trent, that all men are guilty of the death of Christ.
  1. A historical explanation of the instrumentality of Christ’s death which eliminates from the responsibility of deicide the Jewish people as a whole at the time of Christ.

He said the text has retained the original statement exonerating the Jewish people of the present time from any responsibility. Father Stransky pointed out, as had Cardinal Bea in the statement introducing the text, that there were four and one-half million Jews outside Jerusalem at the time of Christ, which was then a majority of the Jews, and that even those who were directly involved in the death of Christ could not have been formally responsible since, as Christ said from the cross, “They know not what they do.”

Father Stransky said both points of the original are omitted in the present version, but were included in the second text prepared in March. He said that it is no secret that since the unity secretariat had no time to call together the bishops of the commission to discuss eliminations after the March meeting, the only body competent to make changes was the Coordinating Commission. Why they did it had not been explained yet, but there was no point in speculating why, he said, adding: “The council Fathers will have to decide whether these statements should be returned to the text.”

In defense of the new version, Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher, of the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J., told the press panel: “It meets many of the concerns of Jews today. If the original had not been revealed to the press, the present version would have been quite satisfactory to many. The public is not generally aware that all schemas have undergone many changes since their original versions were drawn up. They are aware of this one because of the leak.”

Msgr. Oesterreicher added: “Many wrong conclusions and misstatements have followed the publication of the present version. For one, there is no invitation to Jews to join the Church. No talk of coming back. No proselytism intended. The word adunatio [drawing together] used in the present text is a supple and tender one. It implies eschatological hope for the final union of all people in the people of God and is an exact counterpart of the Jewish hope for the same union envisioned by the prophets.”

Father Stransky added that the council will not settle the problem of what is meant by adunatio — whether this “calling together” will take place in the pilgrim church on earth or only in heaven.

Father Francis J. McCool, of the New York province of Jesuits and stationed at Rome’s Biblical Institute, pointed out that St. Paul’s struggle with this notion (in Romans 9, 11) was prompted by his conviction that God’s promises to Abraham and the prophets for the salvation of the chosen people could not fail to be fulfilled. Hence salvation must come to the Jews in some way.

Father John P. Donnelly
NCWC News Rome correspondent

* * * *

The length of debate in the Second Vatican Council on the proposed religious liberty declaration should not occasion surprise, Archbishop Karl J. Alter of Cincinnati said here.

Speaking as a press panelist after participating in the council debate, the archbishop reminded newsmen that debate in the U.S. Constitutional convention lasted from June to September in 1787 before settling on a simple statement contained in the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion.

Archbishop Alter, a pioneer in the religious liberty field, recalled that he wrote an article on the subject 30 years ago for the American Ecclesiastical Review.

He said much of the difficulty involved concerns the definition of religious liberty, which means different things to different people. Some approach the issue from the logical sphere, others from the practical side favored by the U.S. hierarchy, concerned with the juridical order, Archbishop Alter said.

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