Dignitatis Humanae – A Leonine Balancing Act

This is Thomas Pink’s concluding argument in a series of exchanges on Dignitatis Humanae. His kick-off essay can be found here (along with an introduction to the overall debate), with a response essay here from Steven Wedgeworth. Next week, Wedgeworth will make his final arguments.


I have presented a Leonine interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae – an account that is based closely on the official relationes by which the drafting commission explained the content of the declaration to the Council Fathers, as the basis on which they were to decide to vote for it or against. According to these relationes, the declaration rests not on a disavowal of religious coercion as such, but on a transfer, with the coming of Christ, of coercive authority over religion from the state to the Church. As a key relatio of September 1965 puts it:

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.

The declaration, then, is simply concerned with liberty and coercion in the civil order that is based on natural law. It is entirely silent about liberty and coercion in the legal order of religion that is based on the divine positive law of the New Covenant. So the declaration says nothing about the authority of the Church as religious potestas to impose temporal as well as spiritual sanctions on those subject to her authority. The declaration is consequently silent too about the Church’s right to use a Christian state as her agent to enforce those sanctions. That is because such use of the state as an agent would involve the Church’s authority as religious potestas, which the declaration is not addressing, and not the state’s native authority as civil potestas.

Steven Wedgeworth argues, engagingly and interestingly, that Dignitatis Humanae really does exclude all earthly coercion from religion. He admits that the relationes might teach that the Church is a coercive authority – a genuine potestas. But he claims that we have here a classic case of composition by committee, where those responsible for the relationes are in conflict with those responsible for drafting the final declaration. The relationes, he suggests at one point, are just a last minute ‘save’ – a last minute attempt to secure at least an appearance of continuity with the Church’s previous magisterium.

Wedgeworth observes that, unlike the relationes, the declaration itself does not say anything about any transfer, with the coming of Christ, of coercive authority over religion from state to Church. Instead its portrayal of Christ and the Apostles, in paragraph 12, entirely emphasises their radical disavowal of any form of coercion in matters of religion. This, he argues, is surely inconsistent with the very idea of the Church as a potestas.

Wedgeworth anticipates a reply to this point – that the declaration’s account in paragraph 12 is of evangelisation by Christ and the Apostles of those who are not yet the Church’s members, and so who are not yet subject to her jurisdiction and authority as a potestas, This reply will not establish continuity, he argues, because the declaration goes on to present belief in the right to religious liberty as a fruit of the gospel itself – which surely implies that the gospel, far from transferring coercive authority from the state to a new and specifically religious potestas, the Church, directly opposes religious coercion in all its forms. If the Church really had been granted an authority to coerce religiously, how could her example ever have inspired the state to renounce religious coercion?

If the declaration had really been faithful to the political teaching of Leo XIII, as the relationes claim that it is, surely it would have explicitly presented the state’s detachment from the Church as a regrettable faute de mieux. Instead great emphasis is put both on the state’s obligation to respect religious liberty as ‘among the essential duties of government’, and on the Church’s obligation to foster this commitment on the part of the state. Surely, then, Dignitatis Humanae is denying the traditional Catholic view of the ordination of nature to the supernatural. The natural law-based authority of the state should no longer subordinate itself, in matters of religion, to the authority of the Church. This is a declaration that far from applying the teaching of Leo XIII, as the relationes claim it to do, in fact flatly contradicts that teaching.

There are serious difficulties for Wedgeworth’s reading. First, it is quite incorrect to present the relationes as a last minute ‘save’ that is disconnected from the final draft of the declaration. The presentation of the declaration as an application of the teaching of Leo XIII is not a last-minute ploy, but a consistent policy of the drafting commission from 1964, and comes with a fundamental revision of the declaration. In April 1964, the declaration was still designed as a chapter of the decree on ecumenism, centring on liberty within the Church. A treatment of the authority of the Church over the baptised could not have been avoided. But by the autumn of 1964 the draft turns into a stand-alone declaration on authority and coercion in the civil order only, and at the same time relationes appear stating that the declaration is to be read as an application of the political teaching of Leo XIII. We have a consistent Leonine plan, from 1964 onwards, linking relationes to a coordinated reframing of the declaration itself.

Secondly, the declaration’s silence about the Church’s status as a potestas, and so about any transfer of coercive authority over religion to Church from state, is not a departure from or a contradiction of the Leonine relationes. It is announced by those very relationes, which both declare that the Church is a potestas, but also repeatedly emphasise that her authority as a potestas over the faithful is not to be stated or explored within the declaration, as involving questions importantly distinct from the declaration’s remit, which is limited to authority and coercion in the civil order. The declaration’s complete silence about the coercive authority of the Church is not therefore in tension with the Leonine relationes. It is a design feature which those relationes consistently advertise.

The relationes insist that though it does not address the Church’s identity as a religious potestas, the declaration is still to be interpreted in a way consistent with that identity. Hence the famous clause within the declaration preserving traditional Catholic teaching – a clause which an accompanying relatio explains includes earlier papal teaching up to Leo XIII on the obligations of the Christian state towards the ‘true religion and the one Church of Christ’. The declaration is very carefully written to respect this earlier teaching. Nothing that Wedgeworth cites from the declaration is inconsistent with the Church’s traditional identity as a potestas.

The conduct of Christ and the Apostles, as described by the declaration’s paragraph 12, really is descriptive only of evangelization of those not yet the Church’s members. The conduct is all occurring outside the legal order of religion – in a way that does not involve the authority over those already her members that belongs to the Church as specifically religious potestas – and illustrates exactly what the declaration teaches, the absence of any authority to coerce religiously at the civil level. Now there are other scriptural passages that have often traditionally been interpreted (rightly or wrongly) to show that religion does not exclude coercion – passages, such as the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, that have been supposed to reveal the Church’s possession of a supernaturally based authority over her members to use appropriate force for religious ends. The drafting commission explicitly declared that these incidents and their possible import were not relevant to the declaration, which does not address the internal life of the Church:

Examples and statements brought against the text taken from the New Testament (and also many from the Old Testament) either concern the internal life of the religious community of Israel, in which Jesus and the Apostles lived, or the intra-ecclesial life of the early Christian community. And the declaration does not treat of this life.

The declaration’s account of the conduct of Christ and the Apostles is selective by design. It covers only conduct clearly disconnected from what the declaration deliberately bypasses – the Church’s identity as a potestas.

But then we face Wedgeworth’s very natural question. If Christ really did come to establish the Church as a religious potestas, how could his gospel ever have inspired the state to eschew religious coercion? But a moment’s reflection provides the answer to this question. The declaration is dealing with authority and coercion at the civil order only. The state is being inspired to eschew religious coercion when acting simply as civil potestas, just on its own native authority. And then the answer is not so mysterious. The state can be inspired by the gospel to eschew religious coercion as civil potestas because the gospel proclaims, and Christ’s evangelizing conduct shows, that no right to coerce for religious ends exists within the civil order. Christ and the Apostles eschew religious coercion when relating to persons within the civil order – and so too must the state.

But according to Leonine teaching, the state should not be acting as a civil potestas merely. Where possible, the state should recognize Catholicism as true and then unite to the Church, serving in matters of religion as an agent enforcing the Church’s authority in the order of religion. For Leo XIII, if the state is detached from the Church, and acting only as a civil potestas, that is something to be regretted. Yet, in seeming contrast, the declaration still presents the detached state’s respect for religious liberty as ‘an essential duty of government’, and as a commitment to be supported by the Church, not deprecated by her.

But again, this is not a problem if we remember that, as its final title advertises, and the relationes consistently insist, the declaration is addressing authority and coercion in the civil order only. For then of course the state can be considered and addressed only in its role as civil potestas. But as civil potestas it has no authority to coerce religiously – according to the very Leonine teaching that the declaration is supposed to be applying.

Would it be better for the state not to be acting as civil potestas only? The declaration does not address this question, and cannot address it, according to the limits to its remit announced by all the Leonine relationes. For that question involves the Church’s role as a potestas within the order of religion, and the possible obligations to her, under baptism, of the rulers of a formally Christian state – and this involves a legal order which the declaration simply does not address.

It is an essential duty of government that when acting just as civil potestas – on its own native authority – the state not seek legally to direct and regulate religion. That claim lies at the heart of Leonine political theology. The removal of all authority over religion from the native competence of the state is central to Leo XIII’s teaching in Immortale Dei. And of course the Church is fully committed to insisting that the state recognize and respect this fundamental limit to its own authority, which is restricted to the temporal sphere. What the Church should say to a state united to her and acting as her agent in the order of religion – that is a different question, and has nothing to do with the civil order that is the declaration’s sole concern.

The central problem with Wedgeworth’s reading is this. He notes that the relationes limit Dignitatis Humanae to questions of liberty and coercion as they arise in the civil order only, bypassing the order of religion. But then he insists on reading Dignitatis Humanae as making claims about liberty and coercion that are not so limited, but quite general. And of course, so read, the declaration must conflict with the relationes. That hardly undermines the authority of the relationes, though, but simply advertises Wedgeworth’s determination to ignore them.

The Leonine relationes are not just optional. They were issued by its drafting commission, on the instructions of the pope, to explain the declaration’s meaning to the Council about to vote. Not just at the last minute, but from 1964 on they are consistent, and from that same date come with a fundamentally reframed declaration to suit. If they consistently restrict the declaration to addressing the civil order only, then so the declaration must be read.

It is clear that the declaration is very carefully written – to read in as liberal terms as possible consistent with respect for (but without actual statement of) earlier (and highly illiberal) Catholic teaching about the Church’s role as a potestas within the order of religion. The declaration and the relationes are not rival texts from a last-minute battle between warring committee members. Rather the declaration and the relationes together form a finely judged balancing act, an act that begins with the abandonment after April 1964 of a very different non-Leonine draft, and that continues to the declaration’s final passage in November 1965. This balancing act combined a liberal project – reconciling the Church with a secular world – with a non-negotiable because dogmatically based commitment to the Church’s identity as a religious potestas. A Leonine declaration addressing the civil order alone was the only possible way to balance. The declaration’s treatment of the civil order allowed it to advertise the absence, in that order, of any legitimate basis for religious coercion. Bypassing the order of religion avoided any disturbing presentation of the teaching behind the Church’s own highly coercive past.

Could not the declaration have been more frank about the traditional teaching? Paul VI and his drafting commission were under pressure. By 1964-5, with the pope due to address the United Nations, the world expected a liberal declaration. Still, the pope and his theologians may have kept silence with a good conscience. For following Maritain they did indeed think that, thanks to the influence of divine grace, the Church would now be able to live in harmony with a religiously plural state. That harmony would no longer require a shared religion, but only a shared respect for natural law. The past duty of the state to become Christian and then unite as faithful helpmeet to the Church had been genuine, and appropriate to an earlier and less spiritually advanced sacral age; and Dignitatis Humanae would say nothing to contradict that past duty. But Dignitatis Humanae did not need to rehearse and explain that duty precisely because it now belonged to the past. Paul VI and his theologians did not deny that nature was ordered to the supernatural. They simply believed that, thanks to the influence of the gospel, this ordering had so advanced as no longer to require a specifically Christian state.

Dignitatis Humanae does not formally teach this optimism. Dignitatis Humanae teaches only a right to religious liberty within the civil order. But this optimism was clearly central to motivating the declaration, and remains a feature of much officially approved theology within the post-Conciliar Church.

Unfortunately, the optimism is proving misplaced. Once detached from each other, Church and modern secular state have not enjoyed mutual harmony within a shared framework of natural law. Rather, once detached from membership of the Church and from visible participation in her faith and sacramental life, the political community has degraded with extreme rapidity within the order of nature. And this is exactly as Pius IX and Leo XIII predicted:

…where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost… Pius IX Quanta Cura §4

Therefore the law of Christ ought to prevail in human society and be the guide and teacher of public as well as of private life. Since this is so by divine decree, and no man may with impunity contravene it, it is an evil thing for any state where Christianity does not hold the place that belongs to it. When Jesus Christ is absent, human reason fails, being bereft of its chief protection and light, and the very end is lost sight of, for which, under God’s providence, human society has been built up. This end is the obtaining by the members of society of natural good through the aid of civil unity, though always in harmony with the perfect and eternal good which is above nature. But when men’s minds are clouded, both rulers and ruled go astray, for they have no safe line to follow nor end to aim at. Leo XIII Tametsi futura §8

Perhaps, as Rahner and his school have supposed, grace can reliably elevate us to the supernatural end ‘anonymously’, even apart from actual participation in the visible structures of the Church. Perhaps; but whether this is so or not, grace does not seem reliably to heal anonymously. Once a political community is detached from the visible Church, grace will decreasingly repair the damage done by original and actual sin to that community’s nature and understanding. For detachment of the political community from the Church through political secularisation has led to what the nineteenth century popes very clearly predicted – a collapse in the state’s respect for and knowledge of the natural law. Instead of Church-state harmony, political secularisation is leading to ever increasing Church-state conflict.

Without a Christian state, there can be no articles of peace between Church and state, and the state will become the gospel’s determined enemy. On this central point, Pius IX and Leo XIII were surely right – and Paul VI and the theologians of Vatican II quite wrong.

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