Declaration on Religious Freedom Gaining Support

131st General Congregation
September 20, 1965

Approval of the proposed council declaration on religious freedom was favored by a majority of the speakers as discussion of the statement’s revised text entered its fourth day.

Thirteen council Fathers, including nine cardinals, took the floor during the 131st general meeting of the council. At the same meeting voting began on the initial parts of the schema on divine revelation.

Before discussion opened, the council’s secretary general, Archbishop Pericle Felici, read the text of a letter written by Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, dean of the College of Cardinals, to Pope Paul VI. The letter thanked the Pope for establishing the new synod of the world’s bishops which will meet with the pope to aid him in governing the Church.

The letter also thanked the Pope for publishing the encyclical on the Eucharist, Mysterium Fidei, and promised him the united prayers of the bishops for the success of his trip to the United Nations. Warm applause broke out at the conclusion of the reading and this was interpreted as a sign of approval of the letter’s contents.

Before discussion began it had been widely expected that this would be the final day of the debate on religious liberty and that the council would vote to close discussion and then go on to its next business.

However, a procedural difficulty, according to the council’s English press officer, Father Edward Heston, C.S.C., has arisen. It seems there is a question of what procedure should be followed at present because, contrary to usual conciliar procedure, no vote to accept the document as a general basis for discussion was taken in the initial phase of discussions. So debate was scheduled on the same subject for the following day and a solution had to await a decision of the council officials.

Among speakers of the day was Lawrence Cardinal Shehan of Baltimore, who declared that the text as it stands is acceptable in its ideas, structure and style. He urged its adoption, pointing out that it has been three years in composition and has been discussed at two council sessions.

The Baltimore cardinal took issue with those who have maintained that the teaching in the text on religious liberty is contrary to the Church’s traditional teaching, particularly to the teachings of popes since Leo XIII.

Cardinal Shehan said that on the contrary, the doctrine in the text can be implicitly found in the teaching of Leo XIII and that it is not a new doctrine. Leo XIII taught that the purpose of the Church and the state differ and that the liberty of the Church from state interference is based on the liberty of the people within the state. Thus his teaching implicitly contained the idea of religious liberty. Cardinal Shehan cited other teachings of Popes Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII along the same lines.

The cardinal also advocated prompt passage of the document, together with an official explanation, so that its doctrine is clearly understood.

Agreeing with Cardinal Shehan that the document should be accompanied by an explanation was Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Muldoon of Sydney, Australia. He said that the introductory report in the document, which was read by Bishop Emile De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, on the opening day of discussion, was in parts clearer than the text of the declaration. He suggested that parts of the report be appended to the declaration so there would be no confusion concerning the precise teaching of the declaration and so that it would not give the impression that man is free to accept false religions but only that the state cannot interfere with his choice.

The tenor of the day’s debate was decidedly favorable to the document, with the only major criticism of the text coming from Michael Cardinal Browne, O.P., of the Roman curia and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who is superior general of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.

Two Iron Curtain prelates — Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Primate of Poland, and Josef Cardinal Beran of Prague — both favored the document, as did Agnelo Cardinal Rossi of Sao Paulo, Brazil, speaking in the name of 82 Brazilian bishops.

Observers at the council pointed out that while over the past four days of debate, the speeches favoring or against the declaration seemed to be about 50-50, this is not exactly correct. They pointed out that speeches by Fathers speaking in the name of many other bishops — such as the one by Cardinal Rossi — have been highly favorable to the document. Those opposing it have been generally speaking in their name alone.

The day opened with the Gospel enthroned by Archbishop John J. Krol of Philadelphia. Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Luis Aponte Martinez of San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the 2,204 Fathers present.

Leadoff speaker of the day was Joseph Cardinal Lefebvre of Bourges, France. The cardinal, who is considered by many to be rather conservative in his views, presented a strong defense of the document and challenged many of the criticisms aimed at it by those who oppose it. He took up objections point by point and answered them.

To those who say it opens the way to subjectivism and indifferentism, he answered that the text clearly states that it is dealing with the problem of the civil liberty of man to seek religious truth and expressly condemns religious indifference and affirms man’s obligation to seek the truth.

To those who say that the text runs the risk of weakening the teaching that there is only one true religion and one true Church, he pointed out that the text clearly underlines this teaching.

To those who worry that the text will lead to spreading religious error, he replied that the declaration will be an effective barrier against dishonest propaganda. As for those who object that it will diminish missionary ardor, Cardinal Lefebvre noted that where there is an absence of religious freedom there are to be found obstacles placed against the preaching of the Gospel.

To those who say the document gives rise to a false humanism or is in conflict with the Church’s earlier teaching, he answered that the declaration stresses man’s need to seek God and that it is necessary to take into account the evolution of circumstances through the centuries.

Cardinal Wyszynski said the declaration is in the interest of all and should be issued by the council in the name of the teaching Church. He said the world today is composed of two camps — those countries whose governments are based on Christian principles and those which are based on dialectical materialism.

In the latter states, the cardinal declared, the only principle followed is that of the good of the class, permitting no rights to the individual unless the state judges them compatible or useful to the class. There is no firm principle except that the end justifies the means.

The Polish Primate said that when these states enter into agreements with the Church, it is their attitude that it is the Church which is obliged to follow the provisions of the agreement. Thus when priests or others hold onto traditional views and methods of action, they are branded as reactionary, while in truth they are holding onto life.

As an example, he pointed to the text of Pope John’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, which was universally applauded but not universally interpreted in the same way by all.

When some interpreted its teaching in a way contrary to the state view, they have been accused of deforming the Pope’s thought.

Cardinal Wyszynski asked for clear notions of the concepts of the rights of the state and of liberty since there are great parts of the world governed by regimes which follow principles profoundly at variance with Christian and classical traditions.

Rufino Cardinal Santos of Manila asked that the declaration begin not with the recounting of historical facts but by proclaiming the principle of submission to God and man’s relation to God. He asked that the schema also treat of the rights of religious groups and associations as well as those of individuals. He said he wanted it to stress the positive obligation of man to worship God. He added that only the Catholic Church has received from God the duty and right to preach the Gospel.

When Cardinal Beran rose to speak, he was greeted with loud applause in tribute to his long trials in Czechoslovakia. Although applause is forbidden in the council hall, the day’s moderator, Gregorio Pietro Cardinal Agagianian, was heard to say: “Bene, bene” (good, good).

Cardinal Beran said the declaration “is of great moment both theologically and practically.” He drew on his personal experience in Red-ruled Czechoslovakia.

“From the very moment in which freedom of conscience was radically restricted in my country, I witnessed the grave temptations which under such circumstances confront so many. In my whole flock, even among priests, I have observed not only grave temptations to faith, but also to lying, hypocrisy and other moral vices which easily corrupt people who lack true freedom of conscience.”

Recalling that even the Catholic Church has restricted religious freedom in the past, such as the 15th-century burning of Jan Hus and the 17th century’s forced reconversion of a great part of the Czech people, he said the secular arm carried this out “wishing or pretending to serve the Catholic Church, but in reality it left a hidden wound in the hearts of the people.”

Cardinal Beran declared: “So history also warns us that in this council the principle of religious liberty and of liberty of conscience must be enunciated in very clear terms and without restrictions which might stem from opportunistic motives.”

He asked the council not to diminish the declaration but to add to it an appeal to all governments to grant their citizens religious freedom and to free priests and laymen who are in prison for religious activities.

He also asked that bishops and priests impeded from fulfilling their office be allowed to return to their flocks. Cardinal Beran has not been able to return to Prague since he came to Rome for the consistory in February.

Owen Cardinal McCann of Cape Town, South Africa, urged that the text be accepted and left substantially unchanged. But he also asked that there be more emphasis on the moral obligation man has to conform to the dictates of his conscience and to seek the truth and God.

He also said he wanted it to be made clear that where a church enjoys a privileged position or is a state church, there should be no special burden of any kind imposed on others of different faiths.

Cardinal Rossi said he found the text worthy of praise because of its opportuneness, its structure and its depth. He asked, however, that some pastoral characteristics be added as guidelines for the bishops and the clergy.

He asked that two elements be omitted from the text as it stands. One is the section dealing with the privileged status for religion, and the second is the one dealing with the historical details of the past. He said that present historical studies show there is not sufficient information for a full and complete picture.

Cardinal Browne proposed a re-synthesizing of the text, taking into account the teachings of the popes. He said that in regard to the dignity of the human person, man’s greatest dignity consists in his elevation to the supernatural order. Therefore, it is necessary to defend the Faith and impede the preaching of other religions not founded on supernatural faith, he said, adding:

“Authorities in Catholic countries know that preserving the Church works for the greatest benefit of their citizens and that spreading other religions in a Catholic nation is a violation of public morality because it is contrary to the rights of Catholic citizens and endangers the Faith. One cannot expose to danger, but must rather defend, the faith of Catholic citizens and of their children.”

Joseph Cardinal Cardijn, founder of the Young Christian Workers, heartily approved the declaration. He said 60 years of experience in working with youth have convinced him of the need for a solemn and clear proclamation on civil liberty in religious matters.

Noting that there are dangers in a regime of liberty, he said there are even greater dangers in a regime of non-liberty. Where freedom of religion is lacking, he said, the peaceful coexistence of citizens is impossible and mutual trust is lacking.

Religious liberty is a condition for the effective ecumenical and missionary activity of the Church, he said. Where Catholics are a minority, they can base their actions only on the power of the word of God, poverty and the testimony of the Christian life of the laity, Cardinal Cardijn concluded.

A major critic of the text, Archbishop Lefebvre, said its doctrine must be rejected because it is based on principles developed outside the Catholic Church. He traced these principles to the philosophers Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

He called for a defense of the traditional teaching of the Church and of the teaching authority of the Church, saying that the text as it stands tends to pay greater tribute to conscience than to the Church’s teaching authority. He disagreed with Cardinal Shehan and said the text contradicts the teaching of Leo XIII.

Bishop John Gran of Oslo, Norway, a convert, said the declaration shows the sincerity of the Catholic Church to the whole world and said that if it is not approved, it will cause scandal in Scandinavia.

He favored approval and promulgation, warning that it would be a mistake to deny religious freedom in the guise of respecting religion.

Bishop Antonio Anoveros Ataun of Cadiz, Spain, called for setting the exact limits of religious liberty. He said the state has the right to limit the right of religious freedom to safeguard a political good, that is, the public peace; a moral good, that is, the defense of public morality; or a civil good, that is, the harmony of citizens in the exercise of their legitimate rights. The text must spell out the details or limits of these in each of the situations, he said.

He suggested it might be well to put the text before a new subcommission composed of jurists, theologians and experts in matters of public right. He also called for a change in the title, suggesting “Civil Liberty in Religious Matters.”

The votes taken on the initial sections of the schema on divine revelation were as follows:

First vote — concerning the fact that the schema will deal with doctrine on revelation and its transmission and define the nature and object of revelation — yes, 2,175; no, 19; null, 5.

Second vote — expounding on the preparation for revelation in the Old Testament and showing that Christ completes revelation and establishes a new and definitive alliance—yes, 2,180; no, 0; null, 3.

Third vote — expounding on the revelation received by means of the faith and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and dealing with revealed truth and its relating of man to God — yes, 2,049; no, 20; null, 2.

James C. O’Neill
NCWC News Rome bureau chief

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