Design by Committee: the Challenge of Reading Dignitatis Humanae Aright

This is part II in a debate between Thomas Pink  and Steven Wedgeworth (Roman Catholic and Reformed, respectively) on Dignitatis Humanae and Catholic teaching on religious liberty and coercion. Part I may be found here, along with a short introduction and context for the debate.

Steven Wedgeworth – Christ Church in Lakeland, Director for the Davenant Trust

Professor Thomas Pink is a thinker whom I hold in very high regard and whom I have relied upon over the years in order to better understand Roman Catholic political thought. As such, I consider this exchange a privilege, and I thank him for his time and willingness to interact. I would also like to thank the Regensburg Forum for providing us with this all-too rare platform to pursue our argument in a friendly but forthright manner.

That said, let me now return to the role of Protestant critic. Prof. Pink, in his reply to me, has offered a very helpful and effective alternative interpretation of the logic of Dignitatis Humanae (Hereafter DH). He explains what he calls a “Leonine reading” which explicitly frames the document in light of the teaching of Pope Leo XIII. A Leonine reading does not simply argue that DH is addressing the state and not the church, but rather that it is addressing the civil or temporal potestas as such. The civil potestas does indeed operate according to natural law, and thus the various rights which DH ascribes to the dignity of the human person are natural and universal. The key qualification, however, is that this is natural and universal within the earthly realm and for its jurisdiction. If another potestas exists, one that of a higher order, then it can transcend or surpass the boundaries of the civic order, even those of natural law. This would not violate justice or the dignity of the human person because this supernatural potestas is actually invested with new rights—chiefly in this case, the right to use coercion in religious matters—by Jesus Christ Himself.

With this more sophisticated understanding, Prof. Pink argues that DH teaches that religious liberty is a natural right applicable to the social and civil realms, but not a supernatural prerogative that applies within the sphere of  the church’s unique authority. This means that civil or temporal powers have no right to use coercive measures in religious matters, not because it is always absolutely wrong to do so, but because they lack the appropriate authority and purpose. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, may use religious coercion, if done for purposes consistent with its spiritual end, because it is a spiritual institution which possesses a higher authority. Thus, Prof. Pink believes my criticisms have been nullified, and DH can be read as entirely consistent with prior magisterial teaching.

This is a very worthy defense, and it usefully highlights a number of basic points on which Protestants and Roman Catholics disagree. I will not address all of the possible corollary topics, but instead will focus on DH’s explicit logic regarding civil liberty. As I will demonstrate, DH does not merely argue that religious liberty was achieved by the gospel’s transferring the power of religious coercion from civic authority to the Church. Rather, it argues that Jesus and the apostles actually rejected coercive force in matters of faith. From this uniquely Christian revelation, DH argues, the modern doctrine of religious liberty developed. This then leads to the conclusion that all forms of religious coercion by the civil authorities, even those done as a servant to the Roman Catholic Church and for its ends, are now inappropriate and to be rejected. This last point will highlight how DH really does contradict past magisterial statements, as well as at least one necessary conclusion argued for by Prof. Pink.

How Did the Gospel Set Man Free?

In one of my earlier essays, I had argued that Prof. Pink’s reading of DH would create a contradiction between nature and grace. It would do that by stating that religious coercion is wrong when done by temporal powers in natural law conditions but permissible and even good when done by spiritual powers. He responded that any contradiction was merely apparent, reconcilable by a proper understanding of how the supernatural potestas possess different rights and ends. Indeed, Prof. Pink argued that his understanding of that relationship was essential for the way in which DH itself grounded religious liberty. He writes:

Dignitatis Humanae presupposes …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. (pg. 7, in the concluding section)

This is how the gospel sets men free. The “positive law of Christ” removed “all coercive authority over religion from the state and other natural law-based institutions of the civil order” and transferred it to the Roman Catholic Church. The Church then can, if it chooses, employ the power of a “Christian state” in certain ways, so long as it does so “as an extension of her own authority as religious potestas” (and not, we might add, for merely civic purposes).

Prof. Pink cited a relatio to support this claim, which says “the nature of religious liberty rests on this distinction of orders.”  So again, his logic makes good sense. Yet the final document of DH lays out an argument which appears strikingly different. It argues, not that Jesus transferred the coercive power from the natural realm to the Church, but that, in fact, Jesus left an entirely contrary example.

Paragraph 11 of DH gives us an extended explanation of Jesus’ relationship to coercive power. It says this:

Christ is at once our Master and our Lord and also meek and humble of heart. In attracting and inviting His disciples He used patience. He wrought miracles to illuminate His teaching and to establish its truth, but His intention was to rouse faith in His hearers and to confirm them in faith, not to exert coercion upon them. He did indeed denounce the unbelief of some who listened to Him, but He left vengeance to God in expectation of the day of judgment. …He Himself, noting that the cockle had been sown amid the wheat, gave orders that both should be allowed to grow until the harvest time, which will come at the end of the world. He refused to be a political messiah, ruling by force… (DH §11, emphasis mine)

It does go on to say that Christ “gave clear warning that the higher rights of God are to be kept inviolate,” and yet it does not simply conclude from this that Christ established a new and better potestas. Instead, it claims that He rejected coercion as a means of His rule:

For He bore witness to the truth, but He refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it. Not by force of blows does His rule assert its claims. It is established by witnessing to the truth and by hearing the truth, and it extends its dominion by the love whereby Christ, lifted up on the cross, draws all men to Himself. (DH §11, emphasis mine)

This is no passing remark. The paragraph goes on to argue that “the Apostles followed the same way.” They rejected “the use of coercion” and “all ‘carnal weapons’” (DH §11). Reframing this section along Leonine qualifiers would not resolve the problem at all, as the argument is that not simply that Christ evacuated the civic sphere of certain coercive powers but that Christ Himself rejected those powers.

The Gospel Roots of Religious Liberty

Perhaps Prof. Pink would counter me at this point by saying that this only applies to bringing men to faith, the initial actions of evangelism and conversion, and it says nothing about the Church’s power to coerce its current members once having entered the Church’s jurisdiction through baptism, nor does it extend to more complicated matters of church and state relations within formally Catholic nations. DH is simply, as Pink put it in another essay, “sidestepping” these matters.

I do not believe this response can withstand scrutiny. It is not the case that DH is content to pass over these issues in silence. Instead, it makes a specific argument about how mankind came to hold to our modern feelings about religious liberty. It argues that this came about in large part because the Church applied the truth of the gospel to society:

In faithfulness therefore to the truth of the Gospel, the Church is following the way of Christ and the apostles when she recognizes and gives support to the principle of religious freedom as befitting the dignity of man and as being in accord with divine revelation. (DH §12).

Indeed, DH argues that this logic is the reason for the growth of religious freedom across the world:

Thus the leaven of the Gospel has long been about its quiet work in the minds of men, and to it is due in great measure the fact that in the course of time men have come more widely to recognize their dignity as persons, and the conviction has grown stronger that the person in society is to be kept free from all manner of coercion in matters religious. (DH §12)

Nowhere in this section do we see an argument that coercive power has been transferred from one realm to the other, leaving a space of relative freedom in the civic realm, freedom primarily to find one’s way from the outside into the jurisdiction of the Church, within which religious freedom no longer obtains. Instead, we have been told that the example of Christ and His Apostles was one of rejecting coercive power. This example, then, is what is claimed to have been handed down through ages by the Church and is now the basis for religious freedom in the civil realm. How could civil powers learn the lesson of the dignity of persons and the natural rights which follow from that truth by imitating a Church which continues to claim and even practice religious coercion?  How can grounding religious liberty upon the natural dignity of the human person reasonably be said to be an imitation of the example of Christ and the Church if what Christ and the Church actually did was transfer coercive power from the natural powers to the supernatural powers? Worse still, how can this hold if the Church could still make use of the state in religious coercion?

Does the Church Retain the Right to Use the Coercive Power of the State?

At this point, faithful Catholics will likely concede that DH is an inelegantly expressed document. They might even be willing to grant that it was composed in various stages, with the final “Leonine” interpretation being added as a sort of “save” for the final product. Still, the history of the Church is always messy, they might say, and this is but one example of God delivering His “treasure in earthen vessels.” DH need not be great literature or exhibit great conceptual and argumentative clarity. The challenge is simply to find a possible way of harmonizing it with prior magisterial teaching. Even if the Protestant critic believes this simply proves the old adage, “A camel is a horse designed by committee,” the Roman Catholic is conscience-bound to hold the right interpretation.

Prof. Pink indeed supplies the historical narrative to allow for just this explanation. He explained that the delegates to Vatican II were divided between at least two parties, those of Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray. Prof. Pink clearly believes that the Murray party stood in contradiction to earlier church teaching on the power of the church, and he believes that the Maritain party was able to carry the day through the influence of the newly-elected Pope Paul VI. In another essay, Prof. Pink states that even Maritain went farther than Leo XIII, when he argued that the Church should relinquish even its claims to use the state as one of its arms. This is a question which, Prof. Pink argues, was left outside the parameters of DH, and so while DH may well bear the marks of both the Maritain party and the Murray party, its final form is free of the errors of both men and consistent with the great Catholic tradition.

I do not believe that DH is actually this nimble, however, and I think that this final question brings the declaration to its clearest breaking point. Let us specify the exact point with this question: Can the Roman Catholic Church reassert its influence over a civil government and use a state as its own arm in order to restrict religious liberty? Prof. Pink answers that it must be able to do so, but DH argues that this would be inappropriate and unjust.

At the end of his Regensburg Forum essay, Prof. Pink cited a lengthier essay where he expands on this discussion. In that essay, he makes this arresting argument:

If the Church has a divinely given right, under certain conditions, to use the state as her secular arm, and if, as the tradition holds, this use is made possible by the very nature of baptism, such use of the state as the Church’s secular arm must potentially be desirable and good. As divinely provided for, through the very nature of baptism, its possibility is, after all, part of the very gospel. In fact popes and councils did indeed teach, over many centuries, that such a role for the state was not only desirable and good, but, once the state was Christian, actually mandatory. (Pink, pg. 21

Notice the use of the word mandatory. According to Prof. Pink, the Roman Catholic Church must retain its right to use state power in order to remain continuous with its own tradition. This is, in fact, “part of the very gospel.” Were DH to disclaim this approach, then it would indeed stand in contradiction to the magisterial Catholic tradition.

I fully agree with how Prof. Pink has framed this necessity. His understanding of the Catholic tradition is the correct one, in my estimation. But this is the very point at which DH can no longer be defended. It does not merely allow for religious liberty in civil polities. It says that this sort of religious liberty is now an imperative.

The second paragraph states, “This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right” (emphasis mine). It goes on to say that “the common welfare of society …chiefly consists in the protection of the rights, and in the performance of the duties, of the human person” (DH §6). It then adds that “the care of the right to religious freedom devolves upon the whole citizenry, upon social groups, upon government, and upon the Church” (DH §6). Therefore, the Church must promote religious freedom in the civil realm. To choose to restrict it would injure “the common welfare of society.”

The language gets even stronger. “The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man ranks among the essential duties of government” (DH §6). Would not the removal of these inviolable rights actually then subvert the essential duties of government?

In its concluding paragraphs, DH expresses, in no uncertain terms, that it views religious freedom in civil and political society as a positive good and the restriction of it as something to be condemned. Because of this, it declares that constitutional guarantees for religious freedom are necessary:

Consequently, in order that relationships of peace and harmony be established and maintained within the whole of mankind, it is necessary that religious freedom be everywhere provided with an effective constitutional guarantee and that respect be shown for the high duty and right of man freely to lead his religious life in society. (§15)

These various statements can only be called prescriptive. In fact, in the one point where DH anticipates a polity that grants special constitutional privilege to one religious community, it says that, “it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice” (§6). The end of that paragraph even states “It follows that a wrong is done when government imposes upon its people, by force or fear or other means, the profession or repudiation of any religion, or when it hinders men from joining or leaving a religious community” (§6). On traditional Catholic principles, this would seem to deny the ordination of nature to supernature, and to adopt something more like a radicalized version of Dante’s “two ends of man.” It is hard to imagine anything farther from the old magisterial position.


As we have seen, even with the appropriate Leonine hermeneutics, the text of DH still argues that civil polities should create constitutions which protect the freedom of religion for all citizens and religious communities, and they should do so because of the teaching of Christ. Thus, the natural reading of DH is that it is wrong for all civil polities to establish laws which “impose …the profession or repudiation of any religion.”

But as Prof. Pink has also shown, this is dramatically different from earlier magisterial statements. To be salvageable, DH would have to reserve the right for the state to act as the arm of the church in certain conditions, and to be fully Leonine, it would also would say that such a possibility, even if only theoretical, was ideal. But if it does this, then its argument that Christ left an example of renouncing religious coercion would fall apart, and its numerous mandates for civil constitutions to enshrine religious liberty as an inviolable right ring hollow.

Prof. Pink’s reading is admirable, and it demonstrates what good historians and good jurists must always do. It pays close attention to detail and weighs every word. It even shows us the intentions of the original designers. But it runs against a major problem when we read the final product as a coherent whole. The committee plans call for a horse, but when we look at the document itself, we see what can only be called a camel.

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