Domestic Religious Liberty

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November 15, 2017

How Much Religious Liberty Doctrine Can Catholics and Protestants Hold?

Dr. Korey Maas, Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College, and an ordained pastor in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, discussed current Catholic teaching and common interpretations of it in the contemporary Catholic Church, and “their possible significance for ecumenical dialogue,” at a conference commemorating the Reformation sponsored by the Center for Evangelical Catholicism in Greenville, S.C., on Oct. 21.

Maas noted that different Protestant traditions have held different positions on religious liberty, and even these positions have not been well articulated at a confessional level or maintained over time. By contrast, Roman Catholicism has been noted for its restrictive view of religious liberty prior to the Second Vatican Council, and its advocacy of religious liberty since then. Maas therefore focused on the religious freedom teaching document of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, to discuss how religious liberty has been regarded in the post-Vatican II church, and what possibilities this might hold for agreement with Protestants.

“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 accord with his own beliefs,” the document said. Religious liberty was held to be required by the “dignity of the human person.” The right was held to be, therefore “inviolable.”

While Protestants generally “applauded” the document, some Catholic leaders withheld applause. The document went through nine separate drafts. It was the belief of many, Maas said, that Dignitatis Humanae contradicted the moral duty of man and doctrine of a single church, although Pope Paul VI assured otherwise. There was no explanation in the document of how religious freedom is consistent with previous Catholic doctrine. Supporters of the document claimed that this reconciliation would have to occur in “future theological and historical studies.” Many attempted clarifications have followed in the years since, Maas said, some of them “entirely incompatible with the others.”

While not attempting to evaluate the alternatives, Maas observed that Dignitatis Humanae defies traditional Catholic teaching. Examples given of this were Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) declaring “absurd” the doctrine that everyone should be free to practice religion of his conviction, while Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) declared that “whatever is opposed to virtue and truth may not be brought temptingly before the eyes of man.” These nineteenth century papal statements, and others, simply reiterated teachings that long pre-date the nineteenth century popes, Maas observed.

Maas quoted Cistercian theologian Edmund Walstein as saying “that while the post-concilar church presents herself as a passionate defender of religious liberty, pre-concilar church seems to be the implacable enemy of such liberty.” Maas said a key difference between post-Vatican II Catholics has been over whether the words “presents herself,” and “seems to be” should be replaced with “is.” The “hermeneutic of rupture” claims that such a clarification of Walstein’s observation is necessary. In contrast, the “hermeneutic of continuity” denies any substantial change in Catholic doctrine.

Based on these two different hermeneutics, Maas identified four distinct theses among Catholics about the Catholic Church’s position regarding religious liberty. Following the “hermeneutic of rupture”:

1) Liberal Catholics hold that the post-concilar church is an advocate of religious liberty, while the pre-concilar church was wrong to oppose it.

2) Traditionalist Catholics, such as the Society of St. Pius X, hold that the pre-concilar church was an implacable enemy of religious liberty, while the post-concilar church is wrong to support religious liberty.

In contrast to the “hermeneutic of rupture,” Maas believes that one of two “hermeneutic of continuity” positions are likely ultimately to prevail in the church. Following the “hermeneutic of continuity,” two positions (for which Maas borrowed Patrick Deneen’s designations) are:

3) “Neoconservative Catholics” hold that the post-concilar church is passionate advocate of religious liberty, while the pre-concilar church held religious liberty as a “profound intention” above the words of preconcilar statements, although some, such as John Courtney Murray, concede that the pre-concilar words were dogmatic. But Maas noted the late Avery Dulles and Robert George have advocated a variant position. This position, Maas said, simply denies that the pre-concilar church was dogmatic. Implied in the neo-conservative position is that religious liberty is the perennial teaching of the Church. It is, Maas said, “the most popular” position arguing for continuity.

4) “Radical Catholics” hold that the pre-concilar church was an implaccable enemy of religious liberty. This doctrine, they maintain, is clear and expresses the truth. On the other hand Dignitatis Humanae is unclear and needs clarification. They contend that Dignitatis Humanae is not dogmatic and so pre-concilar doctrine must be the truth. This then raises the question of what Dignitatas Humanae is saying. Maas said that they variously hold that:

a. Dignitatis Humanae teaches the free exercise of religion, but within “due limits” and “public order.” They then deny that non-Catholics can possess these.

b. Ecclesiastical power may be delegated to the state. The Church herself has the duty to require the state to coerce everyone who has been baptized.

Finally, Maas pointed out that “until the magisterium speaks,” all of these interpretations of Catholic religious liberty doctrine must remain private interpretations. Referring to the expression of Richard John Neuhaus, “ecumenism of the trenches,” Maas said that prudence dictates that Catholics, Protestants, and any others in agreement with religious liberty “stand ground and cooperate” in the current conflict over religious liberty. The lack of clarity as to exactly what the final Catholic position is on religious liberty makes a degree of dialog between Protestants and Catholics possible which would not be possible on other, irreformable Catholic doctrines, Maas said.

The ecumenical possibilities, Maas believes, will be largely determined by what Catholic position emerges over the others. The first (liberal/progressive) and third (neoconservative) finally allow religious liberty for non-Catholic Christians, whereas the second (traditionalist) does not, and the fourth (radical Catholic) ultimately does not.

But for fruitful dialogue on principle, Maas believes that there must be clear Protestant and Catholic doctrines of religious liberty. Should these appear and should they be sufficiently compatible, conversations on a common religious liberty doctrine, or at least greater agreement, could lead to ecumenical discussions in other doctrinal areas.


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