Council Approves Religious Freedom Text, Starts Debate on Church in Modern World

132nd General Congregation
September 21, 1965

A historic meeting of the ecumenical council voted overwhelmingly to present to the world a definitive document affirming man’s civil right to religious freedom.

The vote was taken after five days of debate on the subject by 62 council Fathers and was a special vote proposed by the council’s board of moderators. The Fathers at the 132nd general council meeting were asked to vote on the question:

“Do the Fathers judge that the revised text on religious liberty can serve as a basis for a definitive declaration which will be perfected in the light of the Catholic teaching on the true religion and according to observations proposed by Fathers during the discussions and which will be approved later according to the regulations of the council?”

The answer to the question was resounding. Of the 2,222 Fathers voting, 1,997 said yes; 224 said no, and one vote was null.

With the closing of the debate on religious liberty the council turned to the next matter on its agenda, the lengthy and complicated schema on the Church in the modern world, sometimes known as schema 13 because of the place it occupied during the third session of the council in 1964.

The first to speak on it was Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, who asked that the present text not be weakened because the document should be a clear affirmation of the Church’s place in the world today. The Church wants to listen, Cardinal Spellman said, and wants to be listened to in a real dialogue.

Before council business got underway, the council’s secretary general, Archbishop Pericle Felici, announced that Pope Paul VI has chosen an international group of cardinals to accompany him on his flight to the United Nations in New York on Oct. 4.

They are Amleto Cardinal Cicognani, Italian-born Papal Secretary of State; French-born Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, dean of the College of Cardinals; Gregorio Pietro Cardinal Agagianian of the Roman curia, who was formerly Armenian-rite patriarch of Cilicia and born in what is now the Soviet Union; Norman Cardinal Gilroy of Sydney, Australia; Cardinal Spellman; Antonio Cardinal Caggiano of Buenos Aires; Peter Cardinal Doi of Tokyo; and Laurcan Cardinal Rugambwa of Bukoba, Tanzania, Africa.

While Cardinal Spellman was warmly in favor of the document, he took exception to one part dealing with military conscription. He said clarification is needed to state that military service is obligatory.

The cardinal, who is head of the Military Ordinariate for the U.S. armed forces and in effect the bishop of Catholics in the services, said the responsibility for judging the necessity of drafting men for service belongs to civil authorities and that individuals cannot refuse their obedience to the state.

Although the New York cardinal was highly favorable to the new text of the 146-page document on the Church in the modern world, most of the day’s other speakers were not.

While approving the document in general, four other cardinals criticized it both for being too long and for its bad Latin. Augustin Cardinal Bea, president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, said he frequently had to consult the French translation of the document to understand the Latin version, despite the fact that he had taught in Latin for 50 years. Cardinal Bea said that as its Latin stands now, “the document does no honor to the council.”

At the start of the day the Gospel was enthroned by Bishop Wilhelm Kempf of Limburg, Germany, and Mass was celebrated by American Father Basil Heiser, O.F.M. Conv., minister general of the Conventual Franciscans. During the meeting seven more votes were taken on sections of the schema on divine revelation. All passed with large majorities.

The morning’s debate began with four council Fathers rising to speak on the fifth day of debate on religious liberty, including Enrico Cardinal Dante of the Roman curia and Switzerland’s Charles Cardinal Journet. After the four had spoken, the day’s moderator, Cardinal Agagianian, noted that 62 speeches had been given on the subject and asked the Fathers if they wanted to close debate. The Fathers approved this by a standing vote. Later the specific vote was taken on the production of a definitive document.

Speaking on religious liberty, Cardinal Dante, longtime secretary of the Congregation of Rites, criticized the schema for containing what he called a “very grave equivocation.”

He said the text smacks of liberalism and objected that the limits set on religious liberty in terms of public order opened the door to dangers to the Catholic Church. In pagan countries the Church’s right to preach the Gospel, he said, would be defensible only in terms of the natural law, and in communist countries public order could be twisted to suit communist regimes. He called for a complete revision of the document.

Cardinal Journet made the point that there exists a doctrinal unity among council Fathers in the matter of religious liberty — as was proved by the vote later in the day — but that there are also disagreements and pastoral preoccupations.

To clear up the disagreements and preoccupations Cardinal Journet offered a number of suggestions. He noted that man is a member of two societies, one spiritual and one temporal. He added that man’s relation with God transcends the temporal order, yet a man in error in matters of religious truth within the temporal order is still a human being and must not be coerced by civil society unless the public welfare is involved.

Civil society must show honor to God and cannot ignore religious groups within its midst, Cardinal Journet said. In the past, religion has turned for support to the secular arm but there has been a progress through the centuries leading away from this attitude. Today, he said, let the Gospel be spread “by the arms of light and not by the arms of force.”

Archbishop Adam Kozlowiecki, S.J., of Lusaka, Zambia, said the document is acceptable. But like many other speakers he objected to locating the right of religious freedom in the dignity of the human person because, he said, it is too vague and could be used against the Church.

He said he wanted some other clarifications and especially a qualification of the notion of liberty which, he stated, is treated too broadly and can lead to independence from religion and even to license.

The last speaker of the day was the former rector of Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, Coadjutor Bishop Paolo Munoz Vega of Quito, Ecuador, who spoke in the name of the Ecuadorian Bishops Conference.

He said the declaration is acceptable but needed more precision to eliminate confusion of ideas. He said he particularly wanted it to be made clearer why the council is dealing with religious liberty in mainly the civil realm.

After the standing vote closed debate on the subject, Bishop Emile De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, presented a closing report on the declaration, thanking the Fathers for a “very constructive discussion” and promising to study all suggestions before returning a revised document to the floor.

He noted that the discussion posed several questions: Whether the document should say more about civil liberty? Whether there should be a stricter definition of religious matters in which the state cannot interfere? What constitutes immunity from coercion?

He said that social and civil religious liberty is a relatively new problem and that it does not involve the moral problem of man’s obligation to seek the truth.

He concluded by noting that many considerations in regard to religious liberty have not been maturely thought out, but said that when the revised text is presented, he hopes it will be accepted with the same almost unanimous majorities that have approved other conciliar documents.

Archbishop Felici, after taking the vote on the proposal for a definitive conciliar statement, and after warm applause finally died out in the hall, indicated that the document will be processed as other documents have been. Outside the council hall officials said that it may be only a matter of a few weeks before the amended document is returned by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity for further action.

With the religious liberty debate off the floor, Giacomo Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna, Italy, took over as moderator of the debate on the Church in the modern world. Before discussion opened, Archbishop Gabriel Garrone of Toulouse, France, read the introductory report in the absence of the secretary of the commission, Bishop Emilio Guano of Leghorn, Italy, who has been ill.

Debate was opened by Cardinal Spellman, who said an essential condition for the Church’s dialogue with the modern world today is the spirit and virtue of obedience toward the authority of the Church. This does not oppose the concept of liberty, he said, but derives truly from the liberty of the sons of God.

The Church, he said, must show itself in every time and every place ready to adapt itself to the service of all men.

Following Cardinal Spellman, Juan Cardinal Landazuri Ricketts of Lima, Peru, said great progress has been made in this draft as compared with the previous one. However, he agreed with Cardinal Bea that the Latin style was poor. He also objected to its modes of expression, saying that at times it spoke almost ex cathedra and then again often used a “TV tone.”

Noting that it runs to more than 30,000 words, Cardinal Landazuri said it is far too long and too repetitious. He also objected that it uses terms in various confusing ways and gave as an example the fact that it speaks of the Church sometimes as the bishops and the pope, sometimes as the whole people of God. This should be corrected, he said.

Raul Cardinal Silva Henriquez of Santiago, Chile, said he found the schema acceptable but also criticized the text for being too long. He asked that it be given a greater doctrinal tone instead of its pastoral tone, so that it could be on a level with the Constitution on the Church.

Lorenz Cardinal Jaeger of Paderborn, Germany, said the substance of the schema is good and that it responds to the needs of modern times.

He said, however, that he found in it an excessive optimism about the state of the world and man, and asked this be eliminated since the devil is still at work in the world and the battle against evil is continuous.

He suggested that at the end of the council a new commission be established to apply theological principles to today’s problems and to issue something similar to the catechism issued after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The aim of this, he said, would be to achieve perfect harmony between progress and Catholic teaching.

The day’s last speaker was Cardinal Bea. In addition to finding fault with the document’s Latin, he also declared it was far too long and repetitious. He recommended saying one thing once and clearly. Still, he said, the work that went into its preparation should be recognized and admired. He added that it seems to have found the special language and tone needed for this type of document.

As debate continued, seven votes were taken on the schema on divine revelation. Three earlier votes had been taken the day before (Sept. 20).

In the first vote of the day and the fourth of the session on the revelation schema — on the first chapter as a whole — 1,822 Fathers voted yes, three voted no, 248 voted yes with reservations and six ballots were null.

Fifth vote — dealing with the presence of the Apostles and their successors as messengers of the Gospel by virtue of the mission received from Christ — yes, 2,049; no, 15; null, 4.

Sixth vote — dealing with the teaching of Scripture and Tradition, its apostolic origin, its living character — yes, 2,071; no, 49; null, 2.

Seventh vote — dealing with the mutual relationship between Scripture and Tradition and with the relation of Scripture and Tradition together with the teaching authority of the Church — yes, 2,214; no, 34; null, 5.

Eighth vote — on the second chapter as a whole — yes, 1,874; no, 9; yes with reservations, 354; null, 9.

Ninth vote — on Scripture’s inspiration and truth — yes, 2,179; no, 56; null, 6.

Tenth vote — on the principles of the interpretation of Scripture, including literary form criticism, and on an article dealing with the parallel between the Incarnation of the Word and the fact that the word of God expresses itself by means of human words — yes, 2,029; no, 28; null, 7.

James C. O’Neill
NCWC News Rome bureau chief

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