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VATICANII-FREEDOM Oct-12-2005 (990 words) xxxn

Religious freedom: Vatican II modernizes church-state ties

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- One of the final documents approved by the Second Vatican Council was perhaps its most controversial text, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, which catapulted Catholicism into the modern world of church-state relations.

It set the foundations for church dealings with secular, religiously pluralistic Western democracies and for Pope John Paul II's ringing denunciations of church persecution in communist-ruled countries.

The declaration, "Dignitatis Humanae," also lent credibility to the council's call for ecumenical dialogue and dialogue with non-Christian believers.

In the process, it rehabilitated the declaration's main drafter, Father John Courtney Murray, a U.S. Jesuit who in the 1950s was barred by the Vatican from writing on church-state relations, especially on efforts to reconcile Catholicism with U.S.-style separation of church and state. The priest eventually was invited to joint the Vatican's Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican agency that drafted the document.

The Declaration on Religious Freedom stated that, because of human dignity, each person had the civil right to religious liberty and to practice religious belief in community with others. This was a sharp departure from centuries of church teaching that complete religious freedom belonged only to the Catholic Church as an institution because it contained the fullness of divine truth.

In a commentary after the council, Father Murray noted the implications of the declaration's groundbreaking stance.

"The church does not deal with the secular order in terms of a double standard -- freedom for the church when Catholics are a minority, privilege for the church and intolerance for others when Catholics are a majority," said his 1966 commentary, published a year before his death.

"The declaration has opened the way toward new confidence in ecumenical relations and a new straightforwardness in relationships between the church and the world," Father Murray wrote.

The declaration said that "the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself." This freedom must be recognized and protected by nations as a civil right because the exercise of religious freedom requires "immunity from external coercion," it said.

"The right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking truth and adhering to it," said the declaration.

It was approved by a vote of 2,308-70 Dec. 7, 1965, the last day votes were taken and the day before the council ended.

But the approval came after "vehement debate" with strong opposition from many Vatican officials and bishops from strongly Catholic countries such as Spain and Italy, where Catholicism was the state religion, said Gregory Baum, an expert at the council for the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. The secretariat drafted the religious freedom document because of its significance for ecumenism. At the time, Baum was an Augustinian priest.

"The Catholic Church had condemned religious freedom in the 19th century," said Baum, now a retired religious studies professor at McGill University, Montreal.

Opponents of the declaration "didn't want to admit that the church was wrong," he said.

The previous position was that "truth has all the rights and error has no rights," said Baum.

In practice this meant that because they were following an erroneous religion, non-Catholics had no right to religious freedom and at best could be tolerated in society, he said.

"But this is nonsense," said Baum. "Truth is an abstract concept. People have rights."

Baum noted that the declaration caused the Vatican to revise its treaties with many heavily Catholic countries to remove Catholicism as the state religion.

Opponents of the declaration argued that by accepting the principle of religious freedom the church would be contradicting itself. This view was counter to the view of other theologians, such as Father Murray, that church teachings can evolve based on changing circumstances, a process called "development of doctrine."

Father Murray's 1966 commentary said that resistance to development of doctrine was behind much of the opposition.

"The notion of development, not the notion of religious freedom, was the real sticking point for many of those who opposed the declaration even to the end," wrote Father Murray.

When the declaration was finally approved, it also included a confession of past church transgressions against religious freedom.

"Although in the life of the people of God ... there has at times appeared a form of behavior which was hardly in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel and was even opposed to it, it has always remained the teaching of the church that no one is to be coerced into believing," said the declaration.

This confession was suggested by Cardinal Josef Beran of Prague in the then communist-ruled Czechoslovakia. Noting the burning of heretics and the forced conversions to Catholicism in his country's history, Cardinal Beran asked that the council approve the declaration "in a spirit of atonement for past sins."

Cardinal Beran and other council fathers from communist-ruled countries joined the U.S. bishops as strong supporters of the declaration. Bishops behind the Iron Curtain saw it as necessary to preserve some semblance of church life in their homelands because the declaration did more than establish the principle of religious freedom: It also was a strong call for church independence from the state and for protections against state encroachment against organized religion.

"If it (civil authority) presumes to control or restrict religious activity, it must be said to have exceeded the limits of its power," the declaration said.

Among the declaration's Soviet-bloc supporters was Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, elected Pope John Paul II in 1978. On the council floor in 1965, the 45-year-old archbishop argued that no state has the power to dominate religion.

Archbishop Wojtyla was "keen on the document" and it "converted him to human rights," said Baum. "He became a champion of human rights around the world -- not just religious rights -- based on the human dignity of the person."


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