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The very mention of names such as Constance, the Inquisition, “Bloody” Mary, and St. Bartholomew’s Eve is a sufficient reminder that Roman Catholicism has a far from unsullied record in the annals of religious toleration. It is not unjust to say that, both constitutionally and historically, persecution of “heretics” is a principle that has been built into the papal system. That this is not just a thing of the past is evident, for example, in the cruelties and indignities Protestants have suffered in Spain and Colombia in recent years.

There is a certain logic in the argument that, since Rome claims to be the one true Church and ark of salvation, the extermination of dissidents and heretics is justified to protect the multitudes of the faithful from their deadly poison; but it is not a logic that can be reconciled with the spirit of the Gospel. It is no surprise that this same logic has in this century been appropriated by those who are sworn enemies of the Gospel—the Nazis of Hitler’s Germany and the anti-God regimes of contemporary Communist states, whose policy was and is to silence, by the assassination of either the body or the personality, any who dare to dissent.

With genuine pleasure, then, one notes that the Second Vatican Council was an important turn toward tolerance. The Declaration on Religious Freedom, which was the most hotly disputed of all council documents and had its opponents right to the end, is in effect a retraction or annulment of the notorious Syllabus of Errors issued by Pope Pius IX a century ago. This compendium of papal encyclicals listed and condemned eighty “heresies.” Among the “errors” denounced were modern doctrines and theories in religion; socialism; Bible societies and “other pests of this description”; speculations that call in question the existence of God; and the notions that it was no longer expedient that papalism should be the only religion of the state, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship, and that foreign settlers should be permitted free exercise of their religion. Liberty of conscience and worship was condemned as raving madness (deliramentum), together with freedom of speech and of the press; and the denial of the Church’s power to resort to coercion was repudiated. Indeed, the belief that “every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true” was decried as one of the principal errors of the time. No wonder that John Courtney Murray, S. J., says, in his introduction to the Declaration on Religious Freedom, that “in all honesty it must be admitted that the Church is late in acknowledging the validity of the principle” of religious freedom (The Documents of Vatican II, New York, 1966, p. 673; further references to this volume will use the abbreviation DV II).

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Father Murray’s judgment may be accepted as no less objective when he states that “the Declaration has opened the way toward new confidence in ecumenical relationships, and a new straightforwardness in relationships between the Church and the world.” So radical a change of attitude raises a serious question about the reliability and validity of the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Roman church. Those who try to explain this volte-face in terms of the “development of doctrine” are hard put to make out a persuasive case. Nevertheless, the willingness and determination to reconsider the whole matter of the relation of Roman Catholicism to those outside the papal ranks and to the world at large is laudable, and this Declaration on Religious Fredom is a most welcome milestone on the road to aggiornamento.

To be sure, the opening section affirms that the “one true religion subsists in the catholic and apostolic Church”; but it goes on to assert that “the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth,” and that religious freedom “has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society” and “the inviolable rights of the human person” (DV II, 677). Religious freedom is defined in this way:

This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits [DV II, 678],

The principle of freedom of conscience is plainly stated:

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In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious [DV II, 681].

Religious bodies, too, have a right to attend to their own affairs free of state interference, and a right “freely to hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable, and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense.” Stress is given, moreover, to the right of parents “to determine, in accordance with their own religious beliefs, the kind of religious education that their children are to receive” (DV II, 682).

A cynic may be tempted to explain this new emphasis as a predictable reaction to the tensions of our day, when so much of the world’s population is under the anti-Christian domination of Communism and revived tribalism. Under such regimes what possible hope is there for the survival of the Church unless the principle of religious freedom is proclaimed and applied?

Now, it is no doubt true that the Declaration on Religious Freedom is an appeal to Moscow and Peking and their satellites to practice toleration and to respect the dignity of the individual and the rights of the Church. But it would be a mistake to dismiss it as no more than this. Far from being merely an adjustment to the times, this declaration is a renunciation by Rome of its former exclusivism and an open manifesto of human rights addressed to mankind by a group that still wields immense power in the world. It is a crossing of the Rubicon in the sphere of human relations, and it demands a response of attentiveness and congratulations rather than cynicism.

The declaration gives evidence, too, of a new appreciation of the proper duties of civil government. Hence the qualification in a quotation given above that the permission of religious fredom must be “within due limits,” and the recognition that the exercise of this right should not be impeded, “provided that the just requirements of public order are observed” (DV II, pp. 679, 680). This is a very necessary qualification, for in the interests of the common good the civil power has a duty to prevent due liberty from degenerating into criminal license. In other words, there are reasonable limits to the kind and degree of freedom that may be permitted. To give an exaggerated example, it would be grossly improper to grant freedom of action to a sect that claimed the right to dismember grandparents and practice cannibalism. Whatever else it may have to do, civil government must maintain the accepted standards of decent behavior.

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Furthermore, the doctrine of religious freedom, far from being dependent on shifting human convention or expediency, “has its roots in divine revelation” (DV II, 688). The requirement that “man’s response to God in faith must be free,” with the consequence that “therefore no one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will,” recognized that:

The principle of religious freedom makes no small contribution to the creation of an environment in which men can without hindrance be invited to Christian faith, and embrace it of their own free will, and profess it effectively in their whole manner of life [DV II, 690].

Welcome prominence is given to the fact that there is a power inherent in the word of the Gospel, which, being God’s Word, is powerful in its own right and stands in no need of any compulsion that originates in man.

From the very origins of the Church the disciples of Christ strove to convert men to faith in Christ as the Lord—not, however, by the use of coercion or by devices unworthy of the gospel, but by the power, above all, of the Word of God [DV II, 691].

Rejecting all “carnal weapons,” the apostles “preached the Word of God in the full confidence that there was resident in this Word itself a divine power able to destroy all the forces arrayed against God and to bring men to faith in Christ and to His service” (DV II, 692). Therefore this conclusion is reached:

The Church is being faithful to the truth of the Gospel, and 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 being in accord with divine revelation [ibid.].

The concession is made, though in somewhat too incidental and laconic a manner, that “there have at times appeared ways of acting which were less in accord with the spirit of the gospel and even opposed to it” (ibid.). Despite its inadequacy, this brief acknowledgment should be sympathetically received as a sincere sign of humility, confession, and repentance.

We must ask, finally, whether the discovery of this new spirit of tolerance, and the desire to present the claims of the papal church in such a way that they will prove attractive to the whole world, did not cause the Second Vatican Council to slide at times dangerously close to universalism. There is a strange disharmony between the familiar dogmatism of Rome and the theological flabbiness apparent in parts of the council documents. For example, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church assures us that:

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The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place among these there are the Moslems, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God Himself far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is he who gives to all men life and breath and every other gift (cf. Acts 17:25–28), and who as Saviour wills that all men be saved (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4) [DV II, 35].

This atitude finds further expression in the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. We can only object here that Moslems and the heathen do not worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and, like all others who are strangers to the light of the Gospel, are in gross spiritual darkness under the domination of Satan. To deny this is to deny the necessity for the Gospel and make nonsense of the Incarnation and the Cross. As liberty can degenerate into license, so benevolence can melt into a mush of relativism. This is a matter, not of tolerance or intolerance, but of preserving those absolutes of a unique Saviour and a unique Gospel without which Christianity has no meaning at all.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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