Text of Baltimore Cardinal’s Speech on Religious Liberty

Following is a translation of all but one paragraph of the speech on religious liberty delivered Sept. 20 in the ecumenical council by Lawrence Cardinal Shehan of Baltimore. The omitted paragraph, the first, urged council Fathers to vote either “yes” or “no” on the religious liberty schema — not “yes with reservations” — so that the schema’s principles could be kept intact while it is being amended by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

The schema on religious liberty has my wholehearted support. I particularly commend the remarks which His Eminence [Giovanni] Cardinal Urbani [of Venice] has made on the development of the schema’s doctrine, a doctrine whose seeds are found in the Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person and whose support is drawn from Sacred Scriptures, notably from the way God has dealt with man and from the words and acts of Jesus Christ and His Apostles. Here I intend to speak only of the modern development of this doctrine.

The first stages of this development are found in the many writings of Pope Leo XIII, whose name has occurred so often in our discussions. No one holds that the doctrine of this schema is found explicitly in the writings of Pope Leo. But the teaching of Leo already presents to us a notable development over the doctrine commonly held during the Middle Ages and during the post-Reformation period. Furthermore in his teaching Pope Leo took the first steps along that path followed by subsequent popes, particularly Popes Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII.

It would be a mistake to see Leo’s doctrine on toleration as the central point of his own teaching or as the final and unchangeable teaching of the Church on religious liberty. The doctrine of Leo, itself a development, in no way prevents us from going on, in the light of experience and a deeper understanding of the dignity of the human person, to find religious liberty properly understood as a universal human right.

It would also be a mistake to say that Leo’s master idea, in what concerns the public care of religion, was the exclusive right of truth and the denial of all right to error. He does insist that truth and error, right and wrong, do not enter the juridical order on an equal title, which was a sophism of the rationalists. What is true and good may receive positive juridical authorization. This is the only concrete juridical sense that can attach to the otherwise unhelpful abstraction that error has no rights, and no sensible man would quarrel with this concrete sense. But strictly speaking rights inhere in persons; they cannot inhere in abstractions.

There are two central ideas in the teaching of Leo, the clear distinction between the authority of the Church and the authority of the state, and the freedom of the Church.

Leo emphasized in a new way the transcendence of the Church both as a spiritual authority and as the people of God, who are ruled by His law, revealed in Christ. He also emphasized in a new way the relative autonomy of the secular order of human life, the proper autonomy of the people temporal who are ruled by civil law, under civil authority, whose powers are limited by a higher order of law which is not of its own making.

But the heart of Leo’s teaching was the freedom of the Church. Implicit in his teaching on this point was a declaration of the freedom of the people, once the people had fulfilled the conditions of freedom, that is, the growth of personal and political consciousness. And implicit in the freedom of the people is religious freedom as a juridical institution correlative with constitutional government. By his central emphasis on the freedom of the Church, Leo has caused the recognition that this freedom includes freedom of the human person and hence religious freedom as a legal institution within a system of constitutional government.

Thus Leo opened the way to the teaching of Pius XI who in [the encyclical] Non Abbiamo Bisogno (1931) undertook “to fight the good fight for freedom of consciences,” who in [the encyclical] Firmissimam Constantiam (1937) stated “the faithful have a right to live in a civil society according to the dictates of reason and conscience,” who in [the encyclical] Mit Brennender Sorge (1937) declared: “The man of religious faith has an inalienable right to profess his faith and practice it in appropriate ways.”

Pius XII took a further step toward our doctrine of religious freedom. In his radio message of 1942, among the “fundamental rights of the person which are to be recognized and promoted” he included “the right to public and private worship of God, including also religious actions of a charitable kind.” Religious freedom as a juridical notion which required legal recognition has emerged into the open. From the vast corpus of Pius XII’s letters and speeches it is possible to assemble all the principles which underlie the doctrine of our schema. It is true the Pope does not systematize these principles and he does not explicitly draw our conclusions. But the principles are there and they point in the direction of the explicit teaching of this proposed “declaration.”

The teaching of Pope John XXIII, particularly as contained in [the encyclical] Pacem in Terris, carrying the development of religious liberty one step further, is too recent and too well known to need repetition.

We do not deny that there are packages in the writings of Pius XI and Pius XII which can be cited in favor of mere toleration rather than true religious freedom. But it is clear that Leo XIII had already opened the door, and Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII directly contributed to the doctrine of this schema, whose seeds were in the Church’s teachings from the beginning.

In his address to a seminar of the United Nations more than a year ago, Pope Paul VI said: “The Church also is busy with a problem that is not without affinity with the present object of your research. It is the problem of religious freedom. The importance and the amplitude of the question are so great that it has claimed the attention of the ecumenical council. It is legitimate to expect the promulgation of a text on this subject that will be of great import not only for the Church but also for all those, countless in number, who feel that an authoritative declaration on the subject is a matter of concern to them.”

It is obvious that the whole world expects of this council a declaration of religious liberty. The world needs such a declaration, for without the recognition of the right to religious liberty there can be no true and lasting peace among men. The Church too needs such a declaration, for only through the recognition of religious liberty can the Church be revived in those countries where her life has been virtually stamped out, only through recognition of religious liberty can the Church be free in those countries where she is in shackles, only in an atmosphere of religious freedom can the Church flourish in those new and developing nations which hold out so much promise for the future. The doctrine of religious freedom in our schema is a sound doctrine, in full harmony with the body of the Church’s traditional teaching.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that this schema will receive overwhelming approval from the Fathers.

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