Religious Liberty Declaration Summarized

This is the text of the ecumenical council press office’s summary of the proposed declaration on religious freedom.

Introductory note:

The revised text “On Religious Liberty” comprises five pages and appendix to the schema De Ecumenismo with the indication Declaratio I, along with another Declaratio II, dealing with the Jews and non-Christians. The declaration on religious liberty is accompanied by five pages of Notes, a relatio and a brief summary. The text was transmitted to the Council Fathers on April 27, 1964.

The genesis of the amended text on religious liberty

In the second session of the council, on Nov. 19, 1963, the Fathers were given the fascicule on religious liberty as chapter 5 of the schema De Ecumenismo, and in the 70th general congregation held on that same day, Bishop De Smedt, of Bruges, member of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, read to the council an explanatory and introductory relatio. Conflicting opinions were immediately evident among the council Fathers, ranging from enthusiasm to severe criticism. The text was not brought up for discussion on the council floor for want of sufficient time.

Up to Feb. 27, 1964, the Secretariat for Christian Unity accepted observations from the council Fathers and incorporated them into a volume of some 280 pages. Some of the Fathers wanted the text on religious liberty incorporated into the schema of ecumenism, inasmuch as the recognition of religious liberty forms part of the foundation of ecumenism. According to certain other Fathers, however, the text in question should constitute a distinct chapter of the schema on ecumenism. Still others would have abbreviated the presentation and included it in chapter I of the schema, treating of the basic principles of ecumenism. Lastly, others proposed the presentation of the subject as a decree distinct from that on ecumenism, considering the fact that, notwithstanding its ecumenical importance, the subject matter exceeds the limits of ecumenism strictly so called.

The text was amended by the Secretariat for Christian Unity according to the recommendations made by many of the Fathers, but 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 schema on ecumenism. Thus, according to the desire expressed by the Coordinating Commission in its meeting of April 18, 1964, the text on religious liberty, like that on the Jews and non-Christians, is now submitted to the council as a “declaration” distinct from but annexed to the schema on ecumenism.

The criteria followed in the revision of the text

After a careful study of all the observations sent in by the council Fathers concerning the revision of the text, the Secretariat for Christian Unity saw fit to retain five principal points:

  1. a) A clearer expression of the concept of religious liberty

The purpose of this clarification is to forestall any fallacious or equivocal interpretations of the text. Consequently, at the very beginning of the new text, an additional paragraph explains the exact significance of the concept of religious liberty. A distinction must be made between freedom as far as relations with God are concerned, and freedom in relations with men. The text is concerned exclusively with religious liberty in relation with other men, considered either as individuals (or) as members of religious groups. The foundation of these rights 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. Freedom to follow one’s own religious conscience is the greatest advantage of every person and for this reason it is a strictly personal right in social association, and there must be respect for freedom for following the call of God, in which we behold the peak of the dignity of the human person.

  1. b) Explicit indications of the rights of religious groups


To these groups is recognized authentic religious liberty in those things which develop spiritual life among men.

  1. c) A better explanation of the principle by which our rights can be restricted

The aim of society is the complexus of those conditions of social life which aid men to achieve the more fully and the more expeditiously the perfection at which they are aiming. It is thus the duty of public authority in matters of religion to reconcile and to harmonize among themselves the exercise of the rights of both, in such wise that the exercise of the rights of one group will not constitute an obstacle to the exercise of the rights of the other.

  1. d) Emphasis on the objective truth of the Divine Law with all its exigencies


A distinction must also be made between the right to propagate sincerely and honestly one’s own religion and the abuses of this right when dishonest means are employed in religious propaganda.

This is done in such a way as to exclude all danger of subjectivism and indifferentism.

  1. e) Present-day circumstances confirm the necessity and the rights of religious liberty

The urgency of this problem becomes all the more evident because of the closer bonds created among men of diverse cultures and religions, along with the increased consciousness of personal responsibility, with the evolution of the juridical structures of civil institutions.

Summary of the Declaration on Religious Liberty

The numbering of the articles follows that of the schema on ecumenism, which comprises 24 numbers. Hence the articles of this declaration begin with No. 25.

No. 25 — The consideration of the problem of religious liberty favors contacts among Christians. This emphasized its ecumenical aspect.

No. 26 — The nature of religious liberty

  1. a) Its foundation: In the religious field, it is both a duty and an honor for man to follow the will of God, according to the dictates of conscience. This is the very root of the right to religious liberty.
  1. b) The right to religious liberty in society puts men in a position to be able to practice privately and publicly their own religion, and no restriction must be placed on this religious practice.
  1. c) Religious liberty demands that there should be established in society the conditions required to guarantee it.
  1. d) The council, in its affirmation of man’s dependence on God, proclaims that religious liberty in society must be recognized and respected by all and everywhere.

No. 27 — The task of the Church

According to the mandate received from the Lord, the Church propagates the Word of God and prays for the salvation of all men, exhorting her own children to spread the life-giving light of the Gospel.

No. 28 — No one can be forced to embrace the Faith.

With love, prudence and patience, in accordance with the ways of God, contact is established with those who do not have the true Faith. But all coercion, direct or indirect, is to be excluded from the preaching of the Truth, because according to the traditional norm of the Church, based on the very nature of the act of Faith, the acceptance of Faith must be fully free.

No. 29 — The religious liberty of the individual in human society

In human society, religious liberty is to be respected not only by Christians and for Christians, but by all and for all — persons, individuals and religious groups.

Freedom to follow God’s call is the peak of human dignity, and consequently this liberty in social coexistence is a right in the truest sense of the term and is the foundation and safeguard of other freedoms.

The objective, absolute and universal Divine Law is the norm of our relationships with God, whence there derives man’s obligation to acquire diligently the knowledge of this law. But man can follow the Divine Law only through the judgment of his own conscience, which he forms for himself under the guidance of prudence. In sincere obedience to conscience, a man implicitly obeys God. If, in his attempts to know the Will of God, a man falls into an erroneous interpretation of that Will, no man and no power has the right to induce him to act contrary to the dictate of his conscience.

An essential element of religious liberty is the right to practice one’s religion publicly. Hence the Church proclaims not only the right to one’s opinion and freedom to practice the rites of one’s own religion, but also an individual’s genuine right to observe and to witness his private and public worship before God and men, whether individuals or groups, and to organize according to the precepts of his religion the whole of his own individual, family, educational, cultural, social and charitable life.

The exercise of this right must be adapted to the exigencies of the social nature of man. Hence it can be subject to restrictions. But it can be restricted legitimately only when it is in grave conflict with the end of society. Consequently, it is unlawful for state authorities to discriminate in any way against religion. It is, on the contrary, their duty to protect and to encourage religious liberty.

No. 30 — The freedom of religious groups in social coexistence

Men have the right of free assembly in groups, which groups in turn, within the limits determined by the end of society, have the right to govern themselves according to their own laws, to honor God with public worship, to assist their members in their religious life and to create institutions of social character based on religious principles.

The Catholic Church expects from state authorities a recognition of the right of religious liberty in social coexistence.

Any violent oppression of religion itself or of the religion of a determined religious group is in opposition with the Divine Will and with human rights.

Religious groups are entitled to carry on sincere and honest propagation of their religion, but they must refrain from any “proselytism” which would employ dishonest means.

Civil authorities have no direct power to regulate the relationships of their citizens with God. Consequently, 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.

No. 31 — Religious life in the world today

Today in particular, the problem of religious liberty is of greater urgency because of the more extended contacts which exist between men of different cultures and different religions, because of an increased consciousness of personal responsibility, because of the juridical organization of today’s civil order — all of which set off in a clearer light the incompetence of the state to establish itself as a judge of religious truth.

There can be no peaceful coexistence in the human family in the world today without religious liberty in society.

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