A Departure from Tradition: On Religious Liberty and the Second Vatican Council

On December 7, 1965, Pope Paul VI promulgated the declaration Dignitatis Humanae, which chiefly proclaimed that an individual has the right to religious freedom [1]. The Council Fathers declared that the right to religious liberty proceeds from the very dignity of the human person, and that said right should become a civil right acknowledged by governing bodies [2]. Throughout the document, the Fathers discussed the ramifications of this“right” at the individual, communal, and societal levels.

But does an individual, or group of people, actually have an inherent claim to religious liberty? Not according to the 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century popes that preceded the Vatican II-era. Throughout their encyclicals, these pre-conciliar pontiffs condemned many propositions that would later be put forward by the Second Vatican Council. An analysis (at the aforementioned levels) of the popes’ writings against the council’s statements reveals that religious freedom for all is not consistent with traditional Catholic teaching.

Individual Level

For individuals, Dignitatis Humanae asserts:

This [religious] 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, nor prevented from acting in a manner according with his conscience, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits [3].

The Council proclaimed that an individual has the right to worship however he sees fit – an extension of the right to liberty of conscience. However, this supposed right to religious liberty, and freedom of conscience in general, had already been condemned by Pope Benedict XIV in 1751. In his encyclical A Quo Primum, Pope Benedict praised the Polish people for resisting various sects that attempted to spread the seeds of their errors, heresies, and evil opinions [4]. He lauded the synods and councils that repelled the Lutheran heretics trying to establish a presence in Poland. Pope Benedict XIV specifically mentioned the prohibition placed on liberty of conscience at the Council of Piotrkow as an action done to the great glory of God [5]. Popes in the next century supported Benedict’s statements.

Agreeing with his predecessor, Pope Gregory XVI also rebuked religious freedom. Referring to liberty of conscience as an absurd and erroneous proposition, the holy father castigated the principle as something that spreads destruction in sacred and civil affairs [6]. He explained how when society removes restraints on individuals, man’s fallen nature, already inclined toward sin, further plunges him into eternal damnation [7]. From this freedom of belief, Pope Gregory ascertained that a complete transformation of the mind, corruption of the youth, and disdain for holy things would occur [8]. Given the dramatic decrease in Mass attendance and belief in the Real Presence since Vatican II, Pope Gregory’s commentary appears to be accurate.

While popes Benedict XIV and Gregory XVI explicitly decried liberty of conscience, the most damning critique on freedom of belief comes from Pope Pius IX. The saintly pontiff labeled the notion of the Catholic Church removing her influence over individuals, peoples, princes, and nations as a false and perverse opinion [9]. He lambasted the assertion that the civil power should not penalize offenders against the Catholic faith, except when public peace requires it, as one against the doctrine of Scripture, of the Church, and of the Holy Fathers [10]. Although this point would more fittingly be placed under the “Societal” section, it is significant enough to be mentioned here. All throughout Dignitatis Humanae, the Council Fathers state that freedom of religion and liberty of conscience should be maintained as long as public order is preserved [11]. Meanwhile, Pope Pius IX openly condemns this stance as not only erroneous, but a crime against Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.

Communal Level

With respect to communities, Dignitatis Humanae states:

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferal of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties. Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by spoken or by written word. [12]

Although many points in the preceding passage deserve attention, the last sentence is noteworthy because popes before Vatican II vehemently condemned error-filled books. Pope Clement XIII, in his encyclical Christianae Reipublicae, exhorted bishops to cut down the shoots of falsehoods and eliminate bad books from their dioceses [13]. He described these works as a plague that infect the minds of the pure [14]. While the pope’s encyclical focused primarily on anti-Catholic writings spewed by atheists and heretics, Clement XIII also asserted that books that lack a Christian atmosphere and are contrary to faith, religion, and good morals are to be despised [15]. Under Vatican II guidelines, religious communities, no matter how detestable their errors are, have the right to publish, print, and disseminate their literature.

Like Clement XIII, popes Pius VII and Gregory XVI also supported the suppression of unholy works. Pope Pius VII bluntly declared that books that oppose the teaching of Christ are to be burned [16]. He emphasized that Catholics are to eat the food of Peter’s voice and authority and reject pestilent writings [17].

One might stop here and say: “But Dignitatis Humanae doesn’t promote that Catholics read these books, just that non-Catholics have the right to produce and distribute them.” But of what use is it to have infected food next to heavenly bread? A shepherd is supposed to protect his flock and make sure that no sheep goes astray. Permitting toxic books that lead to spiritual death is akin to allowing a pack of wolves to circle the flock. The shepherd should strike the wolves and scatter the pack. He should not allow the wolves to circle the flock unchecked.

Echoing Pius VII, Pope Gregory XVI stated that the Church has always striven to eliminate terrible literature [18]. He mentioned how the apostles themselves burned large numbers of books [19]. In Acts 19:19, many newly baptized Catholics burned the bad books they owned before crowds of people. The early Christians, as well as Pope Gregory, understood the need to eradicate harmful writings. The pontiff declared that those who rejected the censure of bad books as too harsh a measure considerably harm the Catholic faithful and the Holy See [20]. He referred to said individuals as being depraved to deny the Church the right to decree and maintain the practice [21]. And yet, almost 135 years later, Pope Paul VI abolished the Index of Forbidden Books originally confirmed by the Council of Trent.

Societal Level

Finally, at the societal level, the Council Fathers declared that government is to protect the religious freedom of all individuals through “just” laws and other reasonable measures [22]. From this acknowledgement of religious liberty as a sacrosanct right, the Fathers stated (emphasis added):

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. [23]

This idea that it is wrong for a country to profess Catholicism as the state religion is inconsistent with Catholic tradition. Commenting on the French law of separation of Church and State, Pope Saint Pius X stated that this separation is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error [24]. He explained how this proposal is a grave offense against God, for God is the founder and owner of all human societies. Therefore, societies owe Him not only private adoration, but also devout public and social worship [25]. Pope Saint Pius X further clarified that separating Church and State is against the supernatural order, for the State becomes limited to its pursuit in earthy goods. Focused on obtaining only temporal wealth and power, the State yokes itself onto the world and forgets about the ultimate object in life: man’s eternal salvation [26]. One needs only to look at how many societies in the West have forgotten their Catholic roots, fixing themselves instead on worldly ambitions. The separation of Church and State is an injustice against God and an ingredient for a faithless society.


Dignitatis Humanae does not follow Apostolic Tradition; it deviates from it.  This is best shown using a simple propositional logic example. In this scenario, you have two statements, A and B, with the expression “If A, then B.” If one cannot accept the absurd conclusion B, then one must also reject A. If (A) Dignitatis Humanae and the Council Fathers are correct, then (B) popes Benedict XIV, Clement XIII, Gregory XVI, Pius VII, Pius IX, and Saint Pius X all promoted false doctrines. If (A), then (B) the Catholic Church for centuries erred in punishing heretics and removing heresy from Catholic kingdoms. If (A), then (B) Holy Mother Church should not have defended the union of Church and State, but instead permitted non-Catholics to worship publicly.

I’ll let the reader try to reconcile tradition in light of the Council’s statements. Of note, 2,308 bishops voted in favor of Dignitatis Humanae, with only 70 voting against and 8 voting invalid [27]. SSPX founder Marcel Lefebvre was one of the 70.

[1] Dignitatis Humanae, Section 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A Quo Primum, Section 1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mirari Vos, Section 14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Quanta Cura, Section 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dignitatis Humanae, Section 2.

[12] Dignitatis Humanae, Section 4.

[13] Christianae Reipublicae, Section 2.

[14] Christianae Reipublicae, Section 1.

[15] Christianae Reipublicae, Section 2.

[16] Diu Satis, Section 15.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Mirari Vos, Section 16.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Dignitatis Humanae, Section 6.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Vehementer Nos, Section 3.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Hudock, Barry (2015, November 19). The Fight for Religious Freedom: John Courtney Murray’s role in ‘Dignitatis Humanae.’ America Magazine, 213 (17).

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