Concluding Thoughts on Dignitatis Humanae

This is Steven Wedgeworth’s response to Thomas Pink’s concluding remarks. It is the final essay in a four-part debate between Thomas Pink and Steven Wedgeworth on the historical and conceptual coherence of Dignitatis Humanae, and thereby the traditional Catholic teachings on church and state. The previous installments are:

Pink: Tyranny, Contradiction or Continuity: A Reformed-Catholic Debate on Digntatis Humanae (with introduction)

Wedgeworth: Design by Committee: The Challenge of Reading Dignitatis Humanae Aright

Pink: Dignitatis Humanae: A Leonine Balancing Act

It has been a pleasure to exchange essays with Professor Pink. He has done an admirable job of showing that one can “disagree agreeably” while at the same time pulling no punches or passing over difficulties in silence. Our spirited debate has been conducted in a spirit of Christian charity, and I am happy to be able to continue that spirit as we wrap things up with a few more punches.

In Prof. Pink’s final reply, he restates his position with greater clarity. He then seeks to answer my questions and  rebut my criticisms. But interestingly, he concludes with his own criticism of Dignitatis Humanae, one which greatly reduces its significance for Roman Catholic political theology. In this, my concluding essay, I will summarize Prof. Pink’s position as stated in his most recent reply, offer my own critical responses to his argument, and then conclude with a few thoughts of my own about Protestant and Catholic political theology.


The Three Parts of Prof. Pink’s Reply

Prof. Pink’s response can be broken down into three basic parts. The first is the restatement and reinforcement of the claim that the relationes do in fact provide the only valid interpretation of DH, and thus that DH can only teach a religious liberty for the civil and temporal jurisdictions. This reading is sustained by noting that the relationes began to address the point under discussion over a year before the final and authoritative reception of the promulgation. Thus while the committee did indeed have internal disagreement, this was resolved in and through the work of the committee. It is the committee’s final work, which is clarified by its stated intent, that is authoritative and binding. Thus, Prof. Pink argues, his reading is not an optional reading of DH, but rather the one that is most faithful to the committee’s stated intent and, thus, the correct one.

How then does this much restrictive understanding of religious liberty square with DH’s grand claim that modern man learned his desire for religious liberty from the example of Christ and His apostles? Prof. Pink argues that this lesson was learned regarding the methods of evangelizing non-believers. This sort of gospel freedom does not preclude coercive religion as such, nor does Prof. Pink believe that it can preclude coercion within properly religious jurisdictions. It simply teaches that coercion may not be used for initial conversion. That is the “leaven of the Gospel” mentioned in DH’s 15th paragraph which inspired the modern quest for religious liberty.

Prof. Pink’s third point is what he calls DH’s “balancing act.” Rejecting my characterization of the relationes as a sort of post hoc resolution, he instead argues that they are “a finely judged balancing act” that functioned as a guide for over a year prior to the document’s completion. This careful “balance” allowed DH to interpret the Church’s prior teaching “in as liberal terms as possible.” Prof. Pink believes that it was possible to do this in a faithful way, a way that did not actually depart from the tradition. Yet, even with this way of framing it, Prof. Pink does go on to say that this balance allowed DH to “advertise” its appealing liberal affirmations–that the secular order cannot employ religious coercion–while “avoid[ing] any disturbing presentation of the teaching behind the Church’s own highly coercive past.” He admits that this is not exactly a “frank” way to present the Church’s teaching and that it was due to external pressure.

Interestingly, Professor Pink even goes on to state that “the pope and his theologians” held to a view which Pink believes is an error, that “the Church would now be able to live in harmony with a religiously plural state… no longer requir[ing] a shared religion, but only a shared respect for natural law.” Pink denies that DH “formally” teaches this view of the relationship between church and state, but he admits that its presence can be detected and indeed has been taught and promoted by Catholic Church since. He states, “Dignitatis Humanae does not formally teach this optimism. ..But this optimism was clearly central to motivating the declaration, and remains a feature of much officially approved theology within the post-Conciliar Church.”


My Response

Prof. Pink says that my mistaken reading of DH derives from the fact that I “insist on” reading DH in a way contrary to the instructions of the relationes. Instead, I insist on scrutinizing the relationes to see if they can actually be sustained in light of the text of DH. They may well have intended to produce a certain sort of document, but committee intentions can and do fail. To a reader who is not committed to an understanding of conciliar infallibility, or even to one who is but who takes the final document as authoritative rather than unpromulgated peripheral texts, the proof will be in the integrity of the grammar and the logic of the final, official product. To insist that a proper understanding of the relationes is essential to understanding DH is actually to elevate them to conciliar status as well, thus showing the inadequacy of the declaration itself.

Of course, Prof. Pink has himself demonstrated that the authorial intentions do not simply dictate one’s interpretation of the final text of DH, since he himself disagrees with one such intention– the vindication of political pluralism as stated just above. Prof. Pink acknowledges that an intent is discernible, and he believes this is further sustained by understanding what motivated the writers in question (the Pope and his theologians). Still, he argues that this does not amount to “formal teaching.” How can the reader know which influences and personal goals rise to the level of formal teaching? It can only be from the grammar of the final document itself.

When it comes to the second point, the point about how the gospel laid the groundwork for religious liberty in civil polities, Prof. Pink’s argument is that the nature of evangelism is sufficient to explain this, without further inquiry into coercion that might be carried out by the Church:

“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.”

Again, the main point is that there is no religious coercion “at the civil level.” There remains religious coercion at the spiritual level, which is to say, on the part of the Church acting as its own potestas, its own sort of government. The Church could even (and must, as Pink argues elsewhere) make use of the state as one of its own instruments. This means that the Church can persecute those it deems to fall within its jurisdiction (the impenitent, apostates, heretics, Protestants), and it can even use the means of the state to achieve this, all while not violating the principles of religious liberty nor departing from the tradition of Christ and the Apostles.

This interpretation greatly restricts the significance of DH. It no longer defends religious liberty as such. Instead it provides a potential and theoretical harmonization between traditional Roman Catholic teaching and modern political settlements, allowing religious liberty “here” but not “there.” But can this reading escape the implication that the document is in fact more than “carefully written,” but rather, actually duplicitous? Consider again the “leaven of the Gospel” of paragraph 15. Prof. Pink restricts this to pre-Christian conversion. It does not negate the concept of temporal coercion as such, but only coercion carried out by the wrong authority. Yet at the very beginning of DH this teaching is said to have impressed itself on “consciousness of contemporary man,” leading him to favor “a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty” (§ 1). Are we really expected to interpret this as saying “a responsible freedom, not driven by [a coercion carried out by the civil potestas] but motivated by a sense of duty”? Instead of applauding Leonine political theology, the contemporary man sees all religious coercion as incompatible with the sacred rights of conscience. In fact, he is likely to believe a church which would use the state as its instrument of coercion to be especially abominable.

Worse still, paragraph 11 of DH sets the contrast not between competing jurisdictions in this life, but rather between the present life and the day of the last judgment.

“[Christ] 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.”

The outside reader would rightly conclude that interpreting this as a church and state distinction makes for a tortured reading. The faithful Catholic, however, must make use of such torture. He is not free to do otherwise, for, as Prof. Pink has demonstrated from the relationes, that is the only reading allowed by the committee, and the only one that squares with previous magisterial teaching.

Thirdly, this highlights the fact that Prof. Pink and I do not actually disagree that much when it comes to evaluating the declaration’s adequacy. When I used the rhetorical expression of the Leonine reading being a “save,” I was not making a claim about chronology. I was not asserting that the relationes were issued at the eleventh hour. Instead, I was describing the very same narrative that Prof. Pink has offered, that of an initially divided committee, facing outside pressure, which attempted to come up with a way to repackage traditional Catholic political doctrine in a way acceptable to the 20th century mind of political liberalism and universal human rights. Prof. Pink defends this as a “finely judged balancing act” on the one hand, but he eventually does say that it is a balancing act which can no longer offer a viable solution to church-state problems. On his reading, DH succeeds in preserving older Church teaching but fails in actually finding a satisfactory harmony between that teaching and political liberalism. Instead, it offered a temporary detente which has now run its course.

So, Prof. Pink and I are ultimately both critical of DH. I question whether the relationes can successfully restrict the broader aspirations of DH, as expressed in its final text. Prof. Pink questions whether the broader claims of DH are much more than rhetorical frippery. I maintain that the balancing act fell off one side of the bar, Prof. Pink maintains that it fell off the other.



Prof. Pink and I agree about quite a lot. He is correct about the earlier Catholic tradition of political theology. The Roman Church has always claimed the right to coerce, even through temporal means. We also agree that Dignitatis Humanae does not offer any kind of lasting harmony between this older Catholic position and modern views of civic pluralism. We disagree on the nature of DH’s attempt at this harmony.

If Prof. Pink is wrong about DH, then it errs in conceding too much to modern desires. It is indeed in contradiction to the earlier magisterial teaching, and thus, as I originally claimed, there has already been a crisis of authority and revision within the Catholic Church

If Prof. Pink is right about DH, then it errs in believing that it has satisfied modern desires. Catholicism really is a very illiberal religion, and DH’s main contribution is actually very slight and purely pragmatic in any case; ideally, for Prof Pink, a more integral church-state alliance should be restored.

We can add that if Prof. Pink is correct about DH, then DH’s apparent praise of the desires of contemporary human consciousness is actually a form of what Prof. Nicholas Shackel has termed “the Motte and Bailey Fallacy.” It makes attractive broad claims about liberty, but when scrutinized, it must retreat to a much more narrow and less attractive claim, that coercion is still permissible when carried out by the proper authority. This may allow for a peaceful society if the diversity is restricted to Catholics and member of other world religions prior to evangelistic endeavors, but it does not actually create the conditions for peace between Catholics and Protestants or other rival Christian groups. This is very much not how the conciliar document has been advertised to the world (see here, here, or here for a few examples), nor is it how it advertises itself in its opening paragraph with its claims about contemporary man and his emerging consciousness. Thus we have the “bailey” of religious liberty as basic human right and the “motte” of the Church’s continued claim to coercive power.

This state of affairs also leaves Roman Catholic apologetics with an undesirable dilemma. If DH teaches what it appears to teach on a normal reading, and if it teaches what the current leadership of the Church has said that it teaches for the past half-century, then it stands in discontinuity with earlier dogma and all claims to ecclesiastical infallibility fail. But if it stands in continuity with the past, then it must affirm teachings quite objectionable to most modern Catholic apologetics, even those from otherwise “conservatives” who presume that the modern Roman Church has somehow embraced political Liberalism. Political constitutions like those of the United States of America are actually an undesirable settlement. In either case, the outside reader is left with a hermeneutical labyrinth. He can only hope to interpret the conciliar documents mediately, by accepting things like the relationes, without allowing the final text of documents to speak for themselves. This makes the council’s authority neither clear nor reliable.

Prof. Pink has done an excellent job in explaining for us the older Catholic teaching on church and state, and he has offered by far the best example of how to read Dignitatis Humanae as a faithful and honest Catholic. This is both intellectually courageous and ecclesially filial, though not ultimately persuasive. The declaration’s lines of argument simply press beyond their assigned limits. Prof. Pink has convinced me that the traditional Roman Catholic body of work on political theology is more intellectually formidable than modern varieties, and thus he has also thereby confirmed me in my conviction that a comprehensive doctrine of religious liberty can only be found in a communion other than that of the Roman Catholic Church

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