The new draft of the Vatican Council’s religious liberty declaration limits itself to the problem of the “human and civil right to liberty in matters religious.”
Thus did Bishop Emile De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, sum up the long awaited document in a preliminary report delivered in the council hall on the first working day of this session.
The bishop’s talk preceded debate on the subject. Following is an extract of his report:
“Although the discussion of religious liberty gives rise to many problems, only one is explicitly treated in our declaration, namely, the object and the foundation of the human and civil right to liberty in matters religious as indicated in present-day society.
“Its object is that good of the human person which is owed to him in justice, namely, that we should be free from coercion in religious matters. Its foundation is that truth of the dignity of the human person on whom rests the whole of the social order.
“Men today are increasingly aware that they have a right to personal independence or to responsible freedom. More acutely than before, men recognize the truth of the axiom that the use of liberty is not to be restricted when there is a valid, proportionately serious reason making it necessary.
“According to the modern mentality, it is owed to the human person in justice that, so to speak, he should be surrounded by a certain zone of liberty. There are many elements implied in this zone of liberty, but first place belongs to religious freedom.
“No restriction of this liberty can be admitted except because of serious demands of public order.
“Modern men want this liberty to find expression in civil legislation. Before 1947, religious liberty was recognized in more than 50 national constitutions and is now found in more than 100. Thus, the idea of religious liberty in social life and civil legislation has a technical meaning. We are dealing explicitly only with this liberty. Hence our subject matter is well determined and very limited.
“Our question is only this, namely, does each human individual or group enjoy immunity from coercion in religious matters?
“Some Fathers wanted an explanation of the Scriptural and theological background of our teaching on liberty. However, since we are addressing non-Christians as well as Christians, it was thought best to begin with arguments which would be understandable by non-Christians as well.
“The objections against our document were carefully weighed, but the secretariat felt that there was no real opposition between our declaration and the objections formulated against us concerning the relationships of Church and state.
“Difficulties were formulated against the declaration.
“1. Concerning the method followed. Our question deals with the right of individuals and of groups consisting in immunity from coercion. We simply mean to say that no civil authority has the right to ask a man to act against his conscience in matters dealing with religion.
“2. Against our arguments. It is to no point to assert that truth and error cannot be given equal rights. This is not the question. We are dealing only with freedom from external influences. The man with a true conscience and a man with an erroneous conscience both enjoy this right until such time as it is proved that civil authority has the right to prevent this or that external act of religion.
“This does not mean that truth and falsehood are placed on the same footing. It is not up to the state to pass judgment on the truth or falsehood of a religion. The principle is always affirmed that public authority has no power to pass judgment on the truth or falsehood of a religion, but it has the duty to omit coercive action unless in an individual case one can prove the existence of a public crime.
“3. The opinion is sometimes expressed that civil intolerance must be practiced wherever this is necessary. This principle seems to presume that there is an absolute moral obligation to suppress errors in faith and morals whenever this is possible and that such error could be tolerated only when this tolerance is necessary. This is incompatible with the teaching of Pius XII.”