Religious Liberty and Tradition IV

This is the last of four parts of an essay on the interpretation of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanæ. Part I considered inadequate interpretations; Part II considered Thomas Pink’s interpretive breakthrough; Part III considered the history of the relation of spiritual and temporal power. A printable version of the whole essay can be found here.


Part IV: The concerns of the conciliar theologians

Dignitatis Humanæ begins with an optimistic reading of one of the signs of the times: “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man.”[1] A footnote referring to Pope Pius XII’s famous Christmas Radio Message of 1944 shows that the Council fathers had a very specific development in mind— a change that had came about through the experience of the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century. This experience seemed to make a rapprochement between the Church and modernity possible; suddenly it seemed that the enmity between the Church and modernity that had been so pronounced since the Enlightenment might come to an end. At the beginning of the 20th century much of public opinion had still considered the Church to be an enemy of progress and freedom, but after the World Wars opinion had shifted, and many saw the Church as a moral beacon that had stood strong against irrational slaughter and destructive ideology. In Western Europe especially the experience of a totalitarianism that had wanted to entirely subordinate the human person to this-worldly goals made many think that it was necessary to recover a sense of the dignity of the human person as a creation of God with a transcendent destiny. Within the Church many thought that this new atmosphere presented a chance to re-convert the world to Christianity.[2]

Although the 1950s did not quite see the mass conversions that some expected, nevertheless the Church enjoyed unusual prestige. In many parts of Western Europe Christian social-democratic parties came to power. Many of these were influenced by the thought of the French philosopher and convert Jacques Maritain.[3] Maritain had recognized the opportunity of an anti-totalitarian reaction quite early. In the 1920s he had been an integralist and a supporter of Action Française,[4] but in the 30s he promoted a democratic philosophy based on respect for the dignity of man as an image of God. In Integral Humanism (1936) he argued for a new form of the relation of Church and state suitable to the modern age. He tried to show that the principle of the distinction between spiritual and worldly power, and the primacy of the former, could be realized in different ways at different times. In the Middle Ages the Church’s exercise of potestas indirecta over the worldly power was appropriate to the stage of development mankind had then reached. But with mankind at its current stage of development it would be better for the Church to give up the exercise of such a potestas, and exert only a moral influence on political life.[5] Maritain’s theory was meant to enable him to propose a new model of Church-state relations without rejecting traditional teaching.

In the United States of America a somewhat analogous development was taking place. In the 19th and early 20th centuries American Catholics had been considered un-American, since their European political theology seemed irreconcilable with the principles of the American Republic. In the 1950s the Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray tried to prove the compatibility of Catholicism and American political philosophy. Murray acted as advisor to the Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960 seemed to Murray and many American Catholics to represent the acceptance of such compatibility on the part of the American public.[6]

Murray argued for an even stricter separation of Church and state than Maritain. Murray founds this separation on a strict distinction of nature and grace— the state as a community rooted in natural law has a different end from the Church, the Church’s end being given by grace. As the Murray scholar Leon Hooper, S.J., put it:

[In] this world there are two sources of moral authority. Early on these were for Murray the state and the church, or, more generally, the natural law and the revealed law. Later they became civil societies and religious communities, or the secular and the sacred. Each of the two orders is differently based (in creation and redemption) and is directed toward different ends (civic friendship and eternal beatitude). Each can legitimately claim its own autonomy.[7]

From these principles Murray argues for a consistent neutrality of the state in religious matters.[8]

Against the background of the developments exemplified by Maritain and Murray one can understand the widespread opinion in the Church in the run-up to the Second Vatican Council that the Church had to re-formulate her teachings in a manner suitable to the modern age in order to take the great opportunity the times offered her. In one of his last speeches as Pope, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the atmosphere at the time of the beginning of the Council with the following words:

There was an incredible sense of expectation. […] we knew that the relationship between the Church and the modern period, right from the outset, had been slightly fraught, beginning with the Church’s error in the case of Galileo Galilei; we were looking to correct this mistaken start and to rediscover the union between the Church and the best forces of the world, so as to open up humanity’s future, to open up true progress.[9]

The question of the Church’s stance towards progress was a central question of the council. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes addressed this problem with a certain ambivalence. Consider the following passages:

Sacred Scripture teaches the human family what the experience of the ages confirms: that while human progress is a great advantage to man, it brings with it a strong temptation. […] That is why Christ’s Church, trusting in the design of the Creator, acknowledges that human progress can serve man’s true happiness, yet she cannot help echoing the Apostle’s warning: ‘Be not conformed to this world’ (Rom. 12:2). Here by the world is meant that spirit of vanity and malice which transforms into an instrument of sin those human energies intended for the service of God and man. […] While earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God.[10]

Gaudium et Spes was trying to strike a delicate balance. It was trying as it were to subvert the Enlightenment idea of progress, to use the language of progress but give it a new meaning.

The danger here was that the opposite would happen, that Enlightenment ideas would subvert the teachings of the Church, making of them a metaphor for inner-worldly progress. This was the danger of “modernism,” which had been condemned as far back as 1907. In order to avoid this danger it was necessary to give an exact account of the relation of nature and grace. The French conciliar theologian Henri de Lubac, S.J., one of the main authors of Gaudium et Spes, tried to develop the implications of the scholastic principle gratia non destruit naturam, sed eam supponit et perficit et elevat (grace does not destroy nature, but presupposes, perfects, and elevates it). He argued that the relative disregard for natural goods in the Catholic contemptus mundi does not imply a reduction or a poisoning of human culture, but on the contrary allows for a truly noble development of culture in view of the coming elevation and sublation of human nature.[11]

In the aftermath of the Council, in his preface to a German translation of Augustinisme et théologie modern, de Lubac complained of a “rising tide of immanentism,” that was trying to “dissolve the Church into the world,”[12] and against which de Lubac wanted to preserve the distinction between nature and grace. Before and during the Council, however, he saw the danger as coming primarily from the other direction— from those who made that distinction too sharp, separating nature and grace too much.[13] This is the problem that we saw in John Courtney Murray. While de Lubac recognized this problem clearly, recent work by theologians such as Steven Long suggests that he misidentified its roots. De Lubac argued that the problem lay in the idea of “pure nature” ordered to a natural end intelligible in abstraction from grace. But Long has convincingly argued that the real problem lies in a conception of nature that is not theonomic enough, a conception that makes nature appear as a closed system indifferent toward the divine. De Lubac’s misidentification of the root of the problem leads him to postulate a natural desire for a supernatural end, an idea that tends towards a monism of grace.[14]

As we saw in Calvin’s case, a monistic view of the relation of nature and grace leads to an exaggeratedly dualistic view of the relation of Church and state, and so it is no surprise that de Lubac’s slight tendency toward a monism of grace leads him to exaggerate the autonomy of the state. Thus already in 1932 de Lubac denied that the state ought to be juridically subordinated to the Church, arguing that just as grace transforms nature from within, the Church should inspire the state through the hearts of its citizens, but without giving it external commands:

The law of the relations between nature and grace, in its generality, is everywhere the same. It is from within that grace seizes nature, and, far from diminishing nature, raises it up, in order to make it serve its (grace’s) own ends. It is from within that faith transforms reason, that the Church influences the state. As the messenger of Christ, the Church is not the guardian of the state; on the contrary she ennobles the state, inspiring it to be a Christian state and thereby more human.[15]

De Lubac thus went further than Maritain, whose disciple Charles Journet he cites unfavorably, since de Lubac considers a potestas indirecta of the Church over temporal affairs illegitimate at all times.[16]

In the debates on Dignitatis Humanæ old fashioned traditionalists such as Cardinal Siri of Genoa were on one side, and various proponents of a new approach were on the other. But the proponents of a new approach had very different conceptions of what that approach should look like. Jacques Maritain’s approach had many influential proponents including Pope Paul VI himself, who had translated Maritain’s Integral Humanism into Italian,[17] and Charles Cardinal Journet, Maritain’s favorite student.[18] Fr. John Courtney Murray was himself involved in drafting Dignitatis Humanæ as a peritus, and his theory was promoted by the American bishops.[19] Henri de Lubac was also involved as a peritus, and his concerns were shared by several bishops including de Lubac’s friend, the then-Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyła.[20]

The supporters of Maritain and of de Lubac were united in thinking that an “Americanist” dualism such as that promoted by Murray was inadequate. They wanted the text to argue from the duty of man toward the truth, an approach that Murray thought incoherent.[21] But Maritainians and de Lubacians could agree neither on de Lubac’s rejection of potestas indirecta nor on Maritain’s theory of different epochs. The solution to which they came was simply to bracket the question of the relation of Church and state, and simply to treat of religious liberty in relation to the state’s native powers, showing how such liberty is founded in the dignity of man’s transcendent end. This solution was probably suggested by Cardinal Journet,[22] and it is expressed above all in the following passage of Dignitatis Humanæ § 1 that I have already quoted:

Religious freedom […] which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with 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 solution enabled the post-conciliar Church to engage in an energetic defense of religious liberty around the globe without giving up the continuity of her teaching. But since Dignitatis Humanæ did not explain its solution clearly enough to avoid the impression of discontinuity, it contributed to a crisis of authority in post-conciliar theology.[23]


[1] Dignitatis Humanæ § 1.

[2] See: Edmund Waldstein, “The Papacy Against the False Gospel of Progress,” Sancrucensis (blog), February 22, 2013: (accessed December 29, 2014).

[3] See: Alan Fimister, Robert Schuman: Neo Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe (Brussels 2008).

[4] Fimister, Robert Schuman 106-108.

[5] See: Pink, “Jacques Maritain;” Fimister, Robert Schuman 113-125.

[6] See: Thomas W. O’Brien, John Courtney Murray in a Cold War Context (Lanham, Maryland 2004) 65-66, 100 and passim.

[7] Leon Hooper, General Introduction to John Courtney Murray, Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles With Pluralism, ed. by Leon Hooper (Louiseville 1993) 25; citation following: David Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Lieberalism, and Liberation (Grand Rapids 1996) 77.

[8] See: Schindler, Heart of the World, ch. 1.

[9] Pope Benedict XVI, E’ per me un dono, Address to Parish Priests and the Clergy of Rome, 14. Februar 2013: (accessed December 29, 2014).

[10] Gaudium et Spes §§ 37, 39.

[11] Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Representatives from the World of Culture, Collège des Bernardins, Paris, September 12, 2008: (accessed November 17, 2014); cf. also idem, Spe Salvi §§ 13-15, note especially the references to de Lubac, §§ 13-14.

[12] Henri de Lubac, Die Erbe Augustins, trans. Hans Urs von Balthasar (Einsiedeln 1971), Vorwort des Verfassers zur deutschen Ausgabe 9-11.

[13] De Lubac, Die Erbe Augustins 7-8.

[14] See: Steven A. Long, Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace (New York 2010). While I agree with Long’s main thesis, I think that he exaggerates certain points—see: Edmund Waldstein, “De Lubac and His Critics Make the Same Error,” in: Sancrucensis (blog), July 20, 2014: (accessed November 17, 2014).

[15] Henri de Lubac, “Le Pouvoir de l’église en matière temporelle,” Revue de Sciences Religieuses 12 (1932): 329-54, at 343-44, citation and translation following Schindler, Heart of the World 78.

[16] See: Bryan C. Holton, Everything is Sacred: Spiritual Exegesis in the Political Theology of Henri de Lubac (Cambridge 2009) 41-46.

[17] Fimister, Robert Schuman 101.

[18] See: Pink, “Jacques Maritain.”

[19] See: O’Brien, John Courtney Murray 100-104.

[20] See: Massimo Serretti, “I due amici che fecero la ‘rivoluzione’ del Concilio Vaticano II,” in: Illusidario, October 12, 2012: (accessed November 17, 2014).

[21] Schindler, Heart of the World 61.

[22] See: Pink, “Jacques Maritain.”

[23] Cf. John Conley, “Religious Freedom as Catholic Crisis,” in: The Human Person and a Culture of Freedom, ed. Peter A. Pagan Aguiar and Terese Auer (Washington 2009) 226-241.