Tyranny, Contradiction or Continuity? A Reformed-Catholic Debate on Dignitatis Humanae and Religious Liberty

The editors of The Regensburg Forum are pleased to host an exchange between Dr. Thomas Pink and Pastor Steven Wedgeworth on the coherence and historical context of the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on the state’s obligations to facilitate true religion, specifically as expressed in the most comprehensive and authoritative of its modern documents, Dignitatis Humanae. Wedgeworth recently wrote a series for the online forum The Calvinist International, in which he argued that Dignitatis Humanae, rather than crystallizing the Catholic Church’s teaching on religious freedom and coercion, exacerbates the problem of Roman interpretation and ultimately reveals a contradiction at the heart of Roman claims to unbroken doctrinal development. Dignitatis Humanae, on Wedgeworth’s account, contradicts historic Roman teaching on Church and state. Consequently, we ought not view the current conflicts between so-called progressive and conservative factions under Francis’ papacy as aberrant, but rather as another reflex caused by the inherent contradiction in Roman teaching on conscience, coercion, Church, and state.

Wedgeworth points out that magisterial Protestants are not purely negative critics of a contradictory Catholic Church. Rather, magisterial Protestants recognize that it is precisely Rome’s resistance to the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone which generates an irresolvable tension in its teaching on the state and religion. Indeed, the much-invoked but often little-understood Reformed doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms” develops a way of thinking about duties of the state in regards to religion without subsuming the state to the authority of Pope and the Roman Church or binding civil consciences to Church authority. In other words, for the Reformed, there is a direct, positive correlation between the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the protection of human dignity and religious liberty in the civil-political order. Rome runs aground in its relating church to state precisely because of its confusions over grace, faith, merit, and their relation to civil-political order.

In these articles, Wedgeworth engages the writing of Dr. Thomas Pink, who has insisted that, while Dignitatis Humane remains a conflicted and underdeveloped statement, it by no means contradicts or conflicts doctrinally with the Catholic Church’s binding teaching on these matters. Especially when interpreted within a “Leonine” paradigm, Pink argued that Dignitatis Humane represents a Church in the process of developing both binding and prudential teaching in the context of a rapidly secularizing world, where liberal democracy sets the terms and conditions for discerning the possibility of communal, transcendent goods. The contribution of Dignitatis Humanae, therefore, involves reassertions of historic doctrine on religious truth and liberty, as well as certain prudential claims in light of the ascendance of modern, liberal forms of society – and it is here that much of the debate among Catholics rages, with deep disagreements over the philosophical, cultural, and social assumptions that inform Dignitatis Humanae‘s prudential judgments. For Pink, dogmatic Church teaching does contain some uncomfortable and, for post-Vatican II Catholics, unfamiliar claims regarding the limits of the secular realm and the rights of the Church to coerce its members. But, these claims are the traditional ones, upheld essentially in the transmission of Rome’s historic teaching on church and state. Dignitatis Humanae, rightly interpreted under Leonine principles, should be viewed as leaving these traditional claims intact, thereby saving the Roman magisterium from the charge of rupture in doctrine.

In this exchange, Pink begins by responding directly to Wedgeworth’s arguments from a Catholic perspective. In following weeks, Wedgeworth will respond, with a concluding response afforded to each. The Regensburg Forum thanks each contributor for their detailed and charitable engagements, and hopes to continue to host exchanges of this kind, especially on contested themes in Reformed and Catholic political theology. Twentieth century theology in the west has often taken for granted – whether begrudgingly or gleefully – its consignment within societies organized around liberal principles, but the bursts of illiberal thought and organizing of the last year are cause for a fresh re-analysis of the presumption of liberalism, especially in ecumenical theology. Consequently, The Regensburg Forum finds the timing of this particular exchange very appropriate.

Dignitatis Humanae: Continuity or Rupture?

Thomas Pink – Professor of Philosophy, King’s College, London

Coercion involves subjecting people to direction backed by threats of sanction or punishment if the direction is ignored. State law is coercive, and often justifiably so. But can the coercive direction of religion ever be justified as a legitimate use of law?

The Catholic Church once clearly taught that it could be. The Church used to call on states publicly to profess Catholicism as the true religion, and legally to restrict the public expression of other religions that were false. But at Vatican II, in Dignitatis Humanae, the declaration on religious liberty, the Church declared that we have a right not be coerced in our religious belief or practice by the state or other civic institutions where this coercion was imposed on specifically religious grounds. The state might legitimately restrict religious practices that threatened just public order (such as those involving threats to life and property). But it could never legitimately seek to restrict religious belief or practice for specifically religious ends, such as to preserve religious truth or for people’s religious good. This right against the state was based by the declaration on the dignity of human nature.

Did Dignitatis Humanae contradict previous Catholic doctrine about the right to religious liberty? The declaration itself claims not. Its own text claims to preserve traditional Catholic teaching. And I have argued how the declaration does this. The declaration opposes religious coercion by the state, but not by the Church, about which it says nothing. Yet in historic Catholic teaching the authority to coerce religiously never belonged to the state itself in any case but only to the Church, with the state’s past involvement only as the Church’s agent. Dignitatis Humanae simply addresses a situation where the state is no longer acting on the Church’s authority and as the Church’s agent, but only on its own native political authority, which is entirely lacking in matters of religion.

Steven Wedgeworth claims against me that there really has been doctrinal revision, by appeal both to the deeper implications of the text itself, and to subsequent understanding of it within the Church.

Central to his case is the declaration’s basing of the right to religious liberty on human nature. It seems that religious coercion is opposed by the very dignity of human nature and so must contradict natural law. But then for religious coercion by the Church to be permitted, grace – the basis of the authority of the Church – would have to contradict nature. But grace and nature must be in harmony. Grace cannot permit what would be contradictory of human nature and its governing law. Similarly the declaration opposes religious coercion by the state by appealing, in particular, to the very nature of the act of faith as a metaphysically free religious act. But if the very nature of the act of faith opposes its coercion by the state, how can the act of faith ever be legitimately coerced by the Church?

Then, Wedgeworth notes, Dignitatis Humanae explicitly insists that the Church herself is bound to respect and foster the right to religious liberty. So the declaration seems, after all, to be addressing the authority of the Church as much as that of the state, and so to be contradictory of previous doctrine about the Church’s possession of a right to coerce religiously.

Finally he appeals to current understanding of religious liberty within the Church, and to the present pope Francis, who has attacked the very idea of a union between Church and state and of Catholicism as a state religion.

Central to my reply to Wedgeworth is this. My reading of the declaration is a Leonine reading. It interprets the declaration as an application of the teaching of Leo XIII (pope 1878-1903) for the case where the state is operating detached from the Church and not acting as the Church’s agent and on her authority. Now this Leonine reading of the declaration is not just my invention. It was actually the official interpretation of the declaration at Vatican II. From the autumn of 1964 on, in a series of relationes or official interpretative statements, the commission drafting the declaration gave it an overtly Leonine reading to explain its meaning to the council fathers before the final vote.

An interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae must be legitimate if it was the interpretation officially given at Vatican II.

Moreover the Leonine interpretation dissolves Wedgeworth’s problem of an apparent conflict between grace and nature. On a Leonine reading, religious coercion by the state is wrong, but not because religious coercion as such is opposed to natural law. What is opposed to natural law is religious coercion without adequate authority – and the state lacks the authority.

Why religious coercion by the state is wrong

According to Dignitatis Humanae, religious coercion by the state is wrong because religion is a good that transcends state authority:

Furthermore, those private and public acts of religion by which people relate themselves to God from the sincerity of their hearts, of their nature transcend the earthly and temporal levels of reality. So the state, whose peculiar purpose it is to provide for the temporal common good, should certainly recognise and promote the religious life of its citizens. With equal certainty it exceeds the limits of its authority if it takes upon itself to direct or prevent religious activity. Dignitatis Humanae §3

This is a radical doctrine of liberty in religion from state authority. Human nature gives us rights to many important forms of liberty. Take one other such right – to liberty of movement. This is a vital right that the state must also respect. But no one would claim that the good of movement transcends state authority. The right to liberty of movement does not preclude some legitimate state regulation of movement, through traffic laws and the like. The right can be thus limited by the state for the communal good. Such regulation will need weighty justification, however – such as in terms of the very same good of movement that the right involves.

Religion, according to Dignitatis Humanae, is different. It is a good that transcends state authority altogether, as the good of movement, though it too involves a vital right to liberty, clearly does not. Why is this? Secular liberalism certainly does not see religion as a good transcending state authority, if it sees religion as a distinctive good at all. For the secular liberal, where liberal values are at stake religion is no more exempt from state coercive direction than is any other area of life.

The Catholic Church already taught this radical right to liberty of religion from state authority long before Vatican II. But this radical right is not an ordinary natural right. It is not dictated by the natural order alone, and is not a matter of simple natural law. It reflects a redirection of religion by Christ from a natural to a supernatural end.

Religion as worship of the one creator God could have been no more than another natural good, albeit one of surpassing importance at the natural level. Religion so understood would have been an essential component of the natural happiness served by the authority of the state. Then any natural right to liberty in religious matters against the state need no more have been unlimited than the right to liberty of movement. The state could still have regulated religion for the good of all.

But the coming of Christ has fundamentally changed the nature of religion, from an essential component of the natural happiness served by the authority of the state, to serving a supernatural end that transcends nature – the attainment of the beatific vision in heaven. Christ has revealed to us the promise of an end that transcends nature – and this revelation involves a transforming reorientation of religion that profoundly affects its character. Instead of taking the form of a worship of God centred on the happiness of a natural human community served by the authority of the state, religion is now to involve a worship of God that participates in sacraments imparting supernatural grace, and that is directed to attaining the beatific vision of God in heaven. The offer of the supernatural life does not radically transform the nature of other goods, such as movement or fidelity to promises, so as completely to remove these from the authority of the state. But it does transform the good of religion, to remove religion as such from the civil order, the order involving the coercive legal direction of natural goods served by the authority of the state, and locate it in a quite separate coercive legal order of its own – an order of religion – with its own potestas or governing coercive authority, the Church.

The Church herself is established by Christ not just as a doctrinal auctoritas with a right to teach but as a sovereign potestas with a right to make laws to protect the good of religion for the community she serves – the community of the baptised – and to enforce those laws on the baptised by threats of punishments (on the truly culpable) that may be temporal as well as spiritual. The laws, that remain part of the Church’s current canon law, include laws prohibiting heresy (belief contrary to defined teaching, when openly expressed) and apostasy. The considerable doctrinal basis for this teaching extends very far back. But the classic modern magisterial statement is from Leo XIII, distinguishing in Immortale Dei of 1885 between the good of religion which is served by the potestas of the Church and natural goods of the civil order served by the potestas of the state.

The Almighty, therefore, has given the charge of the human race to two powers [potestates], the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, the other over human, things…. While one of the two powers has for its immediate and chief object care of the goods of this mortal life, the other provides for goods that are heavenly and everlasting. Whatever, therefore, in things human is in any way of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls or to the worship of God, falls wholly within the power of the Church and is wholly subject to her judgment.

Leo XIII also provides the classic modern magisterial statement of the proper ordering of Church and state. This is the theory of soul-body union. Each authority of Church and state is sovereign in its own sphere, but where the supreme good of religion is concerned, the state should subordinate itself to the Church as the body is subject in intellectual matters to the rational soul. The state should publicly acknowledge Catholicism as the true religion, and then, bound by obligations to the Church imposed through their baptism, state authorities must be prepared at the Church’s behest to use legitimately sanction-backed law to protect the good of religion. But in so doing they are acting on the authority of the Church, as her brachium saeculare or secular arm, and so in the order of religion. They are not acting in the civil order governed by the state’s own native political authority – a civil order from which religion has been removed.

But just as Leonine teaching permits the state to privilege the true religion when in a soul-body union with the Church, so it teaches that state direction of religion is wrong and a violation of human dignity outside the context of such a union. Where the state is not publicly Christian, and is detached from the Church, the state has no authority whatsoever to coerce religiously and nor has it any direct obligation to the Church, which then stands to the state as just another community within civil society. Because the state lacks the required authority, we have a natural right based on the dignity of our human nature not to be coerced religiously by the state – just as we would have the same natural right not to be coerced by some private individual without authority over us, whether in religion or in other matters.

Natural law gives us a right to liberty. But that does not imply that all coercive direction is wrong as a violation of our dignity. Coercion is wrong and a violation of our dignity if it lacks adequate authority – and in the case of religion and of a state acting apart from the Church, that authority is indeed entirely lacking. The legitimacy of religious coercion by the Church does not imply any conflict between grace and nature. Rather it involves something very different – a removal of the good of religion from a legal order proper to nature and its transfer to a new and divinely revealed supernatural legal order of its own.

Vatican II

By the mid-twentieth century, political secularisation left the prospects for a soul-body union of Church and state increasingly bleak. Many Catholic theologians began to wonder if such a Church-state union was still worth defending, even as an ideal. Two new views were developing, each designed to endorse a detachment of Church from state and the ending of state’s legal privileging of religious truth. One of these views sought nevertheless to preserve strict continuity with Leonine teaching. The other was much more radical and anti-Leonine.

Jacques Maritain wanted to remain faithful in fundamentals to the teaching of Leo XIII. He agreed that the Church is indeed a potestas – an authority with the right to direct coercively – and that her past use of the state as her coercive agent for the good of religion had been fully legitimate. In the past, in the medieval ‘sacral age’, a soul-body union of Church and state had indeed been necessary to ensuring that the state respected both the Church’s mission and the status of  religion as a supreme good transcending its own political authority. But then Maritain went beyond Leo XIII, proposing a novel and progressivist theory of history and its transformation through grace. Through the influence of the gospel on human life something had now become possible that was not possible before. There could still be a harmony of Church and state with due state respect for religion as a transcendent good – but now without the need for any state recognition of Catholicism as true. In the new ‘secular age’ the Church could harmoniously coexist with a religiously plural state in a framework of shared respect for natural law, with the state according the Church no more than the freedom given any other religious institution within the civil order.

More radical was the position of John Courtney Murray. He flatly denied the teaching of Leo XIII because he came to deny that the Church is a potestas – a coercive authority – at all. The Church has an authority to teach, but not to legislate with temporal punishments. The state possesses a monopoly of coercive authority – but entirely lacks it over religion. So for Courtney Murray religion excludes coercive authority altogether.

Which party at Vatican II would dictate the content of the new declaration on religious liberty? The initial proposal looked to favour the school of Courtney Murray. The declaration was originally planned as a final chapter of Unitatis Redintegratio, the decree on ecumenism. That chapter, which took drafted form as ‘Schema 2’ of April 1964, would address religious liberty as a right within the Church, and then generalise it as a right within human society generally.

But in 1964 this plan was abandoned. It came up against the coercive authority of the Church and her past use of the state ruled by the baptised as her coercive agent. Paul VI was pope, and he was a disciple of Maritain. Like Maritain Paul VI would not disavow Leo XIII. The declaration was now to retain the Leonine doctrine of the two coercive legal orders, religious and civil, and the two governing potestates for those orders, Church and state. Presupposing the new context where Church and state are now detached, the declaration would bypass the order of religion entirely and the authority that served that order – the Church and her jurisdiction over the baptised. Dignitatis Humanae would now be a stand-alone declaration not on religious liberty in general, but on religious liberty in the civil order only.

So in 1964-5 a series of relationes was issued by the drafting commission to the council fathers which consistently and emphatically stated that the declaration is faithful to the teaching on Church and state of Leo XIII, which it is applying for a new situation of Church-state separation. As a key relatio of September 1965 explains, just before the declaration’s final passing:

For the schema rests on the traditional doctrine between a double order of human life, that is sacred and profane, civil and religious. In modern times Leo XIII has wonderfully expounded and developed this doctrine, teaching more clearly than ever before that there are two societies, and so two legal orders, and two powers (potestates), each divinely constituted but in a different way, that is by natural law and by the positive law of Christ. As the nature of religious liberty rests on this distinction of orders, so the distinction provides a means to preserving it against the confusions which history has frequently produced.

So religious liberty in relation to the state does not rest on a general exclusion of coercion from religion. Quite the opposite, in fact – it presupposes a coercive legal order specifically for religion. Some coercive direction of religion must be legitimate, because there is a religious potestas with the right so to direct. It is just that the state is now functioning only in its native character, as civil potestas, and so entirely outside this order of religion.

The commission makes it extremely clear that everything claimed about liberty in the declaration applies to the civil order only – not to the order of religion. The commission repeatedly emphasises the exclusion of the order of religion and the authority of the Church from the declaration’s remit. The liberty defended in the declaration is civil – that is, it applies in the civil order only, that is in contexts where the Church’s coercive authority over the baptised is not involved. Another relatio for that same September 1965 clearly asserts:

There this question of religious liberty, since it has to do with the civil order, is to be distinguished from other questions which are of a theological order [such as] relations between freedom and authority within the Church herself.

The point is made again, most emphatically, by the relator for the drafting commission, Bishop de Smedt, at that crucial final stage of the debate on 25 October 1965, just before the final vote, and in relation to an important change in the declaration’s subtitle:

The subtitle now reads “On the right of the person and of communities to a social and civil liberty in religious matters”. The liberty or immunity from coercion which the declaration addresses does not have to do with the relation of man to the truth or to God, nor does it have to do with relations between the faithful and authorities within the Church: it really has to do with relations between people in human and civil society, that is relations of people with other individuals, with social groups and with the civil power. For these reasons the freedom is termed social and civil.

The declaration’s famous assertion of its own consistency with past Church teaching can now be clearly understood. This assertion was added in the autumn of 1965, just before the final vote, at Paul VI’s insistence. It reads:

Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfil their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves intact (integer) traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.  Dignitatis Humanae §1

We see now the significance of the italicised qualifier ‘in civil society’ and how it supports what follows ‘Therefore’. It is repeating the insistence that the declaration is addressing coercion and liberty in the civil order only, outside the order of religion where the authority of the Church as religious potestas is in play. But this order of religion was of course the context for the Church’s past use of the state as her coercive agent. It was in that context of enforcing a legal order of religion that the nineteenth century popes and earlier general councils had instructed the state on its duty legally to privilege the Church and the true religion. The restriction of the declaration’s remit to the civil order only and the exclusion of coercion in the order of religion had one clear purpose, therefore – to block any doctrinal conflict with that earlier magisterial teaching.

On the 19th November 1965, again just before the final vote, commenting on this very passage, de Smedt, acting on the direct instructions of Paul VI, emphasised that the teachings preserved integer or intact specifically included nineteenth-century papal teaching on the duties to the true religion of the state. There was to be no doubt about it. This specific teaching, which called on the state, when acting as the Church’s agent, to use its coercive power to privilege religious truth, was being preserved.

Some Fathers maintain that the declaration does not sufficiently show how our doctrine is not opposed to ecclesiastical documents up to the Supreme Pontiff Leo XIII. As regards the substance of the problem these things must be said: while pontifical documents up to Leo XIII emphasized the moral duties of the public power [the state] to the true religion, the last supreme pontiffs, while retaining this doctrine, complete it by expounding another duty of the public power, namely the duty of respecting the demands of the dignity of the human person as a necessary element of the common good. The text presented to you today [the newly added passage cited above asserting doctrinal continuity] recalls more clearly the duties of the public power towards the true religion; from which it is clear that this part of the doctrine is not omitted.


The right to religious liberty taught at Vatican II is indeed a right that is based on the dignity of human nature – just as are other vital rights to liberty, such as the right to liberty of movement. As based on human nature these rights are not unlimited however. They do protect us against coercion that lacks adequate justification. But they do not, just as natural rights to liberty, preclude some limitation of those rights by some legitimate authority with care of the common good, including a duty to protect for the community as a whole the very good that the right involves.

Now where religion is concerned, Catholic teaching has long been clear – the state and other institutions operating in the civil order are not such legitimate authorities. But that is not something dictated by human nature alone. It is dictated by something else that Dignitatis Humanae presupposes, and that it was explicitly presented to the council fathers as presupposing – the institution ‘by the positive law of Christ’ of a new and distinct legal order of religion, and the removal of all coercive authority over religion from the state and other natural law-based institutions of the civil order, and its transfer to a new and distinctively religious potestas, the Church, which can then use the power of a Christian state to help direct religion, but only as an extension of her own authority as religious potestas.

The drafting commission made emphatically clear to the council fathers that the legal order of religion is excluded from the declaration’s remit. So everything in the declaration has to be understood as concerning the civil order only. Wedgeworth notes that the Church herself is called on by the declaration to respect and foster religious liberty; but this is a liberty in the civil order. The Church must of course oppose any directive restricting religious belief and practice that is based on civil authority – on authority native to the state. That does not commit the Church to opposing coercion within the order of religion – coercion based on a legitimate authority attaching to the Church herself as religious potestas. Again, the freedom of faith as a religious act protects it against all coercion – in the civil order, where authority for such coercion is entirely lacking. What holds for the order of religion is another matter, where heresy remains a punishable crime in the Church’s current canon law, as it always has been.

The declaration assumes that the state is now acting just on its own native authority and not as an agent of the Church. But nothing in the declaration expressly asserts, in contradiction of Leo XIII, that this separation of Church and state is ideal. No doubt many of the Council fathers thought with Maritain and Paul VI that it was, at least for the modern secular age. But this is not something expressly taught by the declaration. All that the declaration teaches is the existence, in this context of Church-state separation, of a natural right not to be coerced religiously by the state.

Now any magisterial teaching binds Catholics only in relation to what is expressly taught by it, and the implications of that. Moreover the true meaning of this teaching – what precisely it binds Catholics to believe – is not a matter of arbitrary decision. The teaching must be interpreted according to the understanding and intentions of those who actually issued it. In the case of Dignitatis Humanae, the official relationes make that understanding clear. The declaration was drafted and presented at Vatican II as a Leonine document that applies to the civil order only, as distinguished by Leo XIII from the order of religion.

Pope Francis may favour Church-state separation as did Maritain. But this goes beyond what Dignitatis Humanae actually teaches. Perhaps (I do not know) this pope may even have suggested somewhere like Courtney Murray that the Church is not really a potestas at all, and that religion excludes coercion altogether. But even so this would remain simply his theological opinion – not binding on Catholics until expressed as formal magisterial teaching. Such formal teaching, in clear rejection of that of Leo XIII, would require some future Vatican III, or at least some suitably weighty and unambiguous encyclical. That would certainly then leave the consistency of the Catholic magisterium in crisis. Dignitatis Humanae itself, however, does not constitute such a crisis. Far from rejecting the teaching of Leo XIII, Dignitatis Humanae simply applies it, for the case of states that are secular and function in the civil order only.

For more detailed argument see:

Thomas Pink – ‘Dignitatis Humanae: continuity after Leo XIII’

One thought on “Tyranny, Contradiction or Continuity? A Reformed-Catholic Debate on Dignitatis Humanae and Religious Liberty

  1. What pope has said any state has a right not to recognize the law of God in its civil law? It was a done deal in most states after the protestant rebellion, Vatican II accepted it. But no state has that right, and we have no right to drop the struggle to restore the full Catholic state to the suffering people!

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