Archive Civic Polity Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

The Dignitatis Humanae Revolution

A little over a week ago, we began the argument that the disruption currently occurring within the Roman Catholic Church is an inevitable reverberation of the 20th century. A fundamental transformation then occurred, and the classic position on religious liberty and the rights of the human conscience was been replaced by a new teaching. We explained the classic position in our first installment. Now we turn our attention to the new position, that of Dignitatis Humanae.

Dignitatis Humanae is, as its full name indicates, a declaration “on the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in matters religious.” It goes on to defend religious liberty as an “inviolable right” founded on the “dignity” of the human person. It was immediately controversial upon its passing, and while some faithful Roman Catholics do still debate its status, it has sufficiently “won the day” as to be the received teaching of the magisterium for the last fifty years.

Historical Development And Conciliar Intent

Before highlighting its key teachings, it is important to take note of the way in which Dignitatis Humanae came about. It tells us that:

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. (DH, 1)

This was the sort of human progress that Mirari Vos and Libertas both spoke out against. However, Dignitatis Humanae takes a different approach:

This Vatican Council takes careful note of these desires in the minds of men. It proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice. To this end, it searches into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church-the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old. (1)

The Second Vatican Council does not merely intend to correct and redirect modern desires for religious liberty, but instead, it wishes “to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice.” It then goes on to say, “Over and above all this, the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.”

To readers familiar with the 19th century Papacy, and even the 20th century Pius XI, this manner of speaking comes as quite a jolt. The 19th century popes roundly rejected the claim that human persons have an absolute right to religious liberty. They claimed that those persons had a right to pursue the true liberty and that true freedom came by bringing one’s self into harmony with the divine law, as interpreted and governed by the Church. To this end, books could be censored and burned, and the state ought to protect and defend the Roman Catholic Church. Pure neutrality was condemned. Yet now, less than a hundred years later, this position is said to be capable of development in an entirely different direction. How has such a dramatic shift happened in so little time, and (we might add) with so little explanation?

Is There An Ambiguity The Scope of the Definition of Religious Freedom?

There is no need to stretch Dignitatis Humanae beyond its own claims. It qualifies that it is not promoting religious indifferentism. It still maintains that the Roman Catholic Church is the “one true religion” and that all men “are bound to seek the truth.” Further, Dignitatis Humanae states that it is only discussing “immunity from coercion in civil society.” “Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”

This qualification will be important later in our essay. Dignitatis Humanae is a declaration on civil rights specifically. It is not a repudiation of the rights of the Catholic Church, and it certainly does not condemn past Church action. Neither does it renounce the Church’s rights to be a perfect political society of its own, complete with judicial and coercive power. Still, what it does claim stands in stark contrast to earlier magisterial statements, and it does make universal statements about human dignity, inviolable rights, and the demands of justice. These claims will have necessary implications and consequents.

It is important to note the definition of religious liberty given by Dignitatis Humanae. While lacking the rigor and clarity of earlier magisterial documents, one can find a consistent definition of religious liberty in Dignitatis Humanae. It is immunity from coercion so that one may seek the truth, as understood by their conscience.

This definition can be seen in a few places. After stating that “all men are bound to seek the truth,” it adds:

This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power. Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. (DH, 1)

Thus we see that the obligations of the eternal law fall upon the “human conscience” and there “exert their binding.” The truth must enter “into the mind” and bring about its quiet and powerful work by means of its actual veracity. This is why, it would seem, coercion is an inappropriate means of bringing men to the truth.

This is certainly a straightforward reading and one that makes good sense in terms of the “consciousness of the contemporary man” which Dignitatis Humanae claimed to want to justify. Yet immediately after this statement, it adds a qualification, “Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”

Since the “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” is precisely the teaching that the Church has coercive power and can even command the state to likewise coerce, this qualification seems to raise more questions than it answers. What exactly is Dignitatis Humanae trying to do?

Freedom From Coercion Based Upon Human Nature and the Role of Conscience

Certain judicious Roman Catholics have noted this ambiguity and appealed to it as a way to “rescue” the clear magisterial tradition prior to Vatican II from the surface reading of Dignitatis Humanae. The most famous representative of this way of reading is Thomas Pink, whose very worthy argument can be found here. After all, it is the civil magistrate who receives instruction from Dignitatis Humanae. Not once does the document claim to reform the teaching of the Church. Therefore, the only thing that Dignitatis Humanae is doing is making clear the limits of civil power, as such. It “sidesteps” (as Pink puts it) the question of the Church’s coercive authority altogether.

However, this quick fix faces considerable challenges from other statements in Dignitatis Humanae. The declaration goes on to add more, and what it adds is consistent with the understanding of religious freedom as “freedom from coercion.” We will return to Prof. Pink later in our consideration, but at this time we would like to demonstrate the internal logic of Dignitatis Humanae. It argues from human nature and the sacred role of the conscience.

It says:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. 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 no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. 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. (DH, 2)

What is clear is that Dignitatis Humanae is setting out religious liberty as a moral imperative for civil governments. It says that “the human person has a right to religious freedom,” and it also says that freedom “means” immunity from “coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power” when it comes to one’s “beliefs.” This applies to both private and public scenarios, so long as the “due limits,” explained later as the limits of a common-good order, are respected.

Dignitatis Humanae adds that this right is founded in the “dignity” of the “human person,” which is “known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” Thus, it would follow, that any polity which did not respect this freedom would be violating the dignity of the human person and contradicting the teachings of both special revelation and the natural law.

If this were not provocative enough, the declaration goes further. It states:

[M]en cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed. (2)

So we see that the religious freedom under discussion requires both “immunity from external coercion” and “psychological freedom.” This latter term is not defined, but one would presume that it entails the individual’s right to form their conscience through free study and persuasion. This freedom is then explicitly given even to those who “do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth,” which would include heretics, pagans, and non-believers. Error may have no rights, but people have a right to err, even in religious matters. And again, they have a right to such freedom because of their “very nature.”

This argument from nature appears again a little later, and it is used as an argument against coercion:

Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. (3)

Again, we see the foundation for religious liberty: “the dignity of the human person and his social nature.” This argument is made throughout the document.

Dignitatis Humanae also appeals to the conscience as the proper means by which one should arrive at the truth, thus, again, making coercion improper:

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. 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. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. (3)

Putting these statements together, we can say that, no matter which entity Dignitatis Humanae is addressing, it is stating that liberty of conscience, which means immunity from coercion and the guarantee of psychological freedom, is a right of justice founded on human nature and the dignity of the human person. A violation of this freedom would also be a violation of that dignity and a contradiction of that nature.

This Religious Freedom Extends To Communities

Dignitatis Humanae makes it clear in several places that this religious freedom applies to individuals as well as communities, thus families and even corporate social entities must be given the right to religious expression:

The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself. (DH,4)

This means that “religious communities” have the right to “public teaching and witness to their faith” and that they may use “the spoken or written word” to do so. The one restriction given is that they “ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people.” Coercion or “unworthy persuasion” would be “an abuse of one’s right and a violation of the right of others.” As written, this is a universal statement, applicable to all religious groups. It is written in the imperative, and it both calls for the right to public writing and speaking and gives limits on what can be said, namely prohibiting coercive religious views.

This would certainly appear to forbid the closing down of differing churches or religious centers, as well as the burning of books (except, perhaps, those books which promote religious coercion). Indeed, such tactics would be seem to be “a violation of the right of others.” Dignitatis Humanae does not explain itself further on this point or its relation to prior magisterial statements, and so the reader is left to follow his own conscience, using the tools of grammar and reason.

The Duties and Limits of Civil Government

Dignitatis Humanae makes several clear statements about the duties of civil government regarding religion, and it sets clear limitations on the power of civil government. It says that civil governments must support religion in general, understanding it as a requirement of justice and a means of supporting the common good, and yet it forbids civil governments from coercing anyone to act contrary to their conscience or preventing them from following the dictates of their conscience.

This is set forth succinctly in the third section of Dignitatis Humanae:

Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.

This is then explained in much more detail in the sixth section:

The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man ranks among the essential duties of government. Therefore government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appropriate means.

Government is also to help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties, and also in order that society itself may profit by the moral qualities of justice and peace which have their origin in men’s faithfulness to God and to His holy will.

The declaration acknowledges that many countries, including the very obvious Catholic nations, do still retain state churches and grant priority to one religion over others, and so it adds a qualification:

If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society, 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)

While this is acknowledged, it is clearly stated as an exception to the preferred condition of religious pluralism, and the declaration goes on to say:

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. All the more is it a violation of the will of God and of the sacred rights of the person and the family of nations when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion, either in the whole of mankind or in a particular country or in a definite community. (6)

This is very strong language. “Wrong is done” when government uses “force or fear or other means” to coerce “the profession or repudiation of any religion.” Notice here, the language is universal. All religions are in view. Further, if force is “brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion” then God’s will has been violated and the “sacred rights of the person” have been violated.

Therefore civil governments must support and protect the pursuit of religion, and they are to do this by protecting religious liberty for all people and communities. They may, due to “peculiar circumstances,” grant special civil recognition to one community over others, but they cannot use force to hinder men from joining or leaving other religious groups.

Can the Church Continue to Coerce?

Dignitatis Humanae clearly condemns the use of coercive force in religion by the civil magistrate. It does not merely state that the civil magistrate should exercise maximum restraint in coercing religion, nor does it say that the civil magistrate is free to choose whether or not to coerce depending on the historical situation. It says that the use of coercion is a violation of justice, human dignity, and the will of God.

As such, it might seem strange to ask whether this document can possibly allow for the Roman Catholic Church to continue to use coercion in matters of faith. Shouldn’t the answer obviously follow from all of the same points?

Yet if Dignitatis Humanae obviously condemned all religious coercion, then it would also obviously condemn Roman Catholic dogma—indeed longstanding and emphatic dogma. It would also then contradict itself, as it had earlier claimed to “[leave] untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” Thus, as we have already mentioned, Professor Pink has made a valiant effort to explain that this is not the case.1

Professor Pink’s argument is that Dignitatis Humanae only addresses religious freedom in relation to the civil magistrate, and that it only speaks of the very specific use of coercion by the civil powers. It says nothing, one way or the other, about the Church’s use of coercion, and therefore, the prior magisterial teaching in favor of coercion stands. Indeed, as he shows, Roman canon law still today includes coercion as a proper means of ecclesiastical penalty. This also means that whenever the various popes instructed civil magistrates to use coercive force in matters of religion, and especially when they attacked what they believed to be heretical movements, this was not actually the “civil government” coercing religion but rather the Church.2 Thus there was no violation of religious liberty as exposited by Dignitatis Humanae.

Before issuing our altogether predictable dissent from this reading, we should first state that it is actually the responsible thing to do for a faithful Roman Catholic. The earlier position is undeniable. The Roman Catholic Church has frankly championed the use of coercive force in matters of faith. To simply say that that was wrong is to admit one’s need to become a Protestant. To say “that was then, this is now,” is to declare one’s self an unprincipled progressive and thus give up any claim to consistency or coherency. Prof. Pink’s option really does seem the only option for good Catholics. Further, anyone willing to make such an argument in public must be a very courageous person given how extremely unfashionable the position is.

And yet, even with those admirable features being the case, we do not believe that this reading can be sustained. It already feels like a clinging to the “letter of the law” in direct contradiction to its spirit. This has been made more and more plain by the fact that religious freedom, conceived of as a universal good for all peoples and institutions, has been taught by leading figures of the Roman Catholic Church, including its popes, for the past half-century. Indeed, the current pope has said that “A state must be secular. Confessional states end badly. This goes against history.”

More than this, Dignitatis Humanae grounds its argument for religious liberty on human nature and dignity. In several places it says that human nature and the role of the conscience demonstrate that coercion is unfitting. Religious coercion is not a perfection of nature but rather a distortion and destruction of it. It would be passing strange indeed to argue that on the one hand, on the part of civil governments, the use of coercion in religious matters is a violation of sacred rights, but on the other hand, when done by the Church, the use of coercion in religious matters is the perfect counsel of God and indeed a part of the new law given by Jesus Christ. This would create a contradiction between nature and grace and would, if accepted, require a very strong separation of church and state indeed.

There are two more points worth considering. In the sixth section, Dignitatis Humanae actually does address the Church directly. In an effort to explain who bears the burden of religious freedom in a society, it says:

Since the common welfare of society consists in the entirety of those conditions of social life under which men enjoy the possibility of achieving their own perfection in a certain fullness of measure and also with some relative ease, it chiefly consists in the protection of the rights, and in the performance of the duties, of the human person. Therefore the care of the right to religious freedom devolves upon the whole citizenry, upon social groups, upon government, and upon the Church and other religious communities, in virtue of the duty of all toward the common welfare, and in the manner proper to each. (DH, 6)

Notice that “the care of the right to religious freedom devolves upon the whole citizenry,” and then a number of specific entities are named. It lists “social groups, government, the Church, and other religious communities.” Thus, at least in this one instance, it is not true that Dignitatis Humanae only applies religious liberty to the civil magistrate. Here it says that the Church must also see to the care of religious freedom for the common welfare. This would mean that the Church ought to also work towards that same “fitting” liberty that is desired for civil society.

Finally, Dignitatis Humanae also makes a claim about the nature of faith itself. It is said to be “of its very nature a free act” and therefore religious freedom is a contribution towards the appropriate environment for this faith:

It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will. This doctrine is contained in the word of God and it was constantly proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act. Man, redeemed by Christ the Savior and through Christ Jesus called to be God’s adopted son, cannot give his adherence to God revealing Himself unless, under the drawing of the Father, he offers to God the reasonable and free submission of faith.  It is therefore completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded. In consequence, the principle of religious freedom makes no small contribution to the creation of an environment in which men can without hindrance be invited to the Christian faith, embrace it of their own free will, and profess it effectively in their whole manner of life. (DH, 10)

Is this merely another statement about the civil magistrate’s duty? That seems difficult to maintain. After all, “It is therefore completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded.” The Pink reading would have to be incredibly subtle and maintain that the Church’s use of coercion is not a “manner of coercion on the part of men” but rather coercion on the part of God, the use of humans to carry it out notwithstanding. Yet even here it would run into the horns of its own dilemma. Why would God use means to maintain faith which are contrary to the nature of faith? Why would it be that faith should be “entered into” freely but not retained freely? Again the Church would be contradicting nature at this point and setting forth a very “unfitting” picture of the kingdom of Christ.


This last question is thrown into sharp relief when we near the end of Dignitatis Humanae. Its fourteenth section states, “The disciple is bound by a grave obligation toward Christ, his Master, ever more fully to understand the truth received from Him, faithfully to proclaim it, and vigorously to defend it, never–be it understood–having recourse to means that are incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel.” How is it that coercion is incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel in the civil realm but not so in the Church? Remembering all that has been said above, we could reframe the question this way: Would a Roman Catholic truly wish to argue that conscience is sacred and inviolable but only prior to baptism?

A more natural reading of Dignitatis Humanae avoids these contradictions. It simply notes what is plain to be seen. The declaration on religious freedom revolutionizes the Catholic Church’s teaching about freedom, coercion, and conscience. It shifts the logic from a hierarchy of laws and jurisdictions to the “dignity of the human person” and his inviolable rights. It develops the doctrine and brings forth new things in order to demonstrate that the consciousness of contemporary man stands in accordance with truth and justice. The individual conscience is the final mediator between man and God, capable of bypassing even the clergy and their disciplinary office. The Maltese interpretation of Amoris Laetitia stands on exactly this ground.

Traditional Roman Catholics will, no doubt, continue to propose appropriate responses to this dilemma. We suspect that even the Pink reading will lose persuasive power over time, leaving the best option to be a relativization or principled renunciation of Dignitatis Humanae. It was ordinary rather than extraordinary or pastoral rather than doctrinal. In all events, it was fallible and, in point of fact, mistaken. The force of the earlier tradition is just too strong.

But if this is the case, then it will also have been demonstrated that reason, historical scholarship, and pious Christians working in concert have the ability to accurately perceive when the magisterium has taught error. And they also have the ability to accurately offer the appropriate correction to that magisterium. Indeed, a principled traditional orthodox church can exist and faithfully protect its doctrine even with a fallible and sometimes errant human head.

  1. Prof. Pink’s most extensive treatment of this question can be found here: A more popular-level exposition is available here:
  2. This can be seen in Pink’s First Things article where he writes: “Was the Church not wrong in the past to license state involvement in religious coercion and even demand that Christian states coerce on her behalf and on her authority? Opinions will differ on what is a very complex question. But this is a question concerning the coercive authority of the Church herself, and not one that Dignitatis Humanae actually addresses. All the declaration states is that, as things stand, and given rights against the state attaching to human nature, state coercion of religion cannot be justified.”

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.