Church, State & Conscience

The Freedom of the Church & the Responsibility of the State

On January 24, 2002, more than 200 religious leaders representing creeds and peoples from around the world gathered in Assisi, Italy, the home of St. Francis, at the invitation of Pope John Paul II, to participate in the second Day of Peace for the World. (The first was held on October 27, 1986.) Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, Confucians, and Buddhists all came together to pray for that peace that had been so brutally repudiated in the terrorist attacks of September 11.

While crediting the pope’s good intentions, some Catholics—and other Christians—have, nonetheless, disapproved of the Assisi gathering. These critical voices allege that John Paul II’s inclusion of non-Christians compromised the claims of Christianity to be divinely revealed truth. These critics believe that by appearing with non-Christian religious leaders, and despite the pope’s statement that there were no moments of common prayer during the Day of Peace, John Paul II continued and deepened a fundamental mistake made at the Second Vatican Council.

Are these critics correct about Vatican II? Assuming John Paul II is, as he has always claimed, a faithful interpreter, even implementer, of Vatican II, did that council teach propositions that are incompatible with and even undermine Christian truth claims? More specifically, did Vatican II’s teaching on the subject of religious freedom fundamentally break with Catholic tradition? Did Vatican II put the Catholic Church on a path that fosters, and necessarily leads to acceptance of, religious indifferentism?

Conscience & Coercion

In Dignitatis Humanae (DH), the fathers of the council set forth principles of religious freedom for what we may call “the modern era.” Taking note of the “spiritual aspirations” of contemporary man, particularly his yearning for freedom, the council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” called for protection of the right of each person to religious liberty within the constitutional order. The declaration found this “civil right” to be rooted in the personal dignity and social nature of the human being. Thus, subject (only) to the just demands of public order, all forms of “coercion” aimed at forcing a person to act contrary to his conscience in matters of religion were declared to be unjust.

It is commonly acknowledged that the thinking of John Courtney Murray, S.J., shaped the development of this teaching, and we will spend some time on that point below. However, it is also true that the council saw itself as “develop[ing] the teaching of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and on the constitutional order of society.” (DH 1) It is, however, on precisely this point—conformity to the teaching of prior popes—that Dignitatis Humanae is frequently challenged. Although a thorough analysis requires systematic treatment by historians and theologians, we would like to note a few points.

First, critics often allude to the teaching of one prior pope in particular to illustrate what they claim are discontinuities between the larger tradition and the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae—Pius X. Leaving aside the point that, from the perspective of Catholic faith, the teaching authority of an ecumenical council such as Vatican II is superior to the non-ex cathedra teaching of an individual pope—something that would resolve the matter if there were a contradiction—we might consider whether there is a contradiction between the teaching of Pius X and that of Dignitatis Humanae.

Perhaps the heart of Pius X’s teaching is contained in his encyclical letter, “On the Doctrine of the Modernists,” and the companion “Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists,” both issued in 1907. In these documents, he grapples with the problems posed by Catholics adhering tenaciously to heretical doctrines as if by right. As a result, he condemns the view that “[i]n proscribing errors, the Church cannot demand any internal assent from the faithful by which the judgments she issues are to be embraced.”1 In other words, according to Pius X, the Church may demand the internal assent of its members. Vatican II asserts that man “must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience” (DH 3).2 Is this a contradiction?

Wheat & Tares

While Pius X speaks to the church’s right, Dignitatis Humanae speaks of the individual’s right. These rights do not contradict each other. The Church presents the truth undiminished and may demand that its members adhere to its tenets. But individuals are to be free in the civil order to heed the Church—to join the Church and even to leave the Church—or not, even if they are mistaken in that choice. Dignitatis Humanae expressly “leave[s] intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ” (DH 1)3—precisely the moral duty that Pius X was at pains to assert4—but supplements that teaching with new (but not contradictory) teaching on how the individual is to find that truth.5

The teaching of Dignitatis Humanae that (subject to the demands of public order) neither the state nor anyone else may exercise coercion on the individual in matters of religion appears to be a development of the teaching of a successor of Pius X—Pius XII. According to John Courtney Murray’s account,6 in a discourse to Italian journalists in 1953, Pius XII approached the issue by referring to the parable of the tares (Matt. 13). Therein, Jesus tells the story of the master whose enemy sows weeds among his wheat. When his workers ask if they should remove the weeds, the master says, “Let them grow side by side until harvest time, and at harvest time I shall direct the reapers to collect the weeds first, bundle them up and burn them, but to bring the grain into my barn.”

Pius XII drew the lesson that to facilitate civil peace and the common good in the face of modern pluralism, “The duty of repressing religious and moral error cannot . . . be an ultimate norm of action. It must be subordinated to higher and more general norms which in some circumstances permit, and even perhaps make it appear the better course of action, that error should not be impeded to promote a greater good.”7

Pius’s insight is developed in the writings of Murray, particularly those gathered together as a book entitled We Hold These Truths. As Murray wrote, “The First Amendment [to the Constitution of the United States] is simply the legal enunciation of the papal statement.”8 In Murray’s view, American democracy provides precisely those “circumstances” to which the pope refers, circumstances in which there is neither duty nor right of the state to stamp out error. America, given its diversity of Protestant sects alone, was pluralistic in religion from the beginning, unlike European societies, which “decayed” into this condition from an original unity. In such circumstances, to achieve the civil peace and the common good, the only course was for the state to respect the religious beliefs of each citizen, secured by the provisions of the First Amendment that Murray famously described as “articles of peace,” not “articles of faith.”9

At Vatican II, Pius XII’s teaching (and, indirectly, Murray’s reflection) was developed further.10 Instead of limiting the right to religious freedom to “certain circumstances,” such as those obtaining in the United States, Dignitatis Humanae teaches that, in every circumstance, the “right of the human person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right” (DH 2). In so teaching, the council fathers rely, inter alia, upon the parable of the tares (DH 11). Further, they appeal, in part, to notions of the common good and a just civil peace to justify their teaching, as did Pius XII (and Murray).

Interior Disloyalty

The second point we would like to make is that in considering Dignitatis Humanae we must recall the situation then facing the Church. That situation contained both promise and contradiction.

The promise was the widespread acceptance, in both international and national law, of the principle of religious freedom.11 Given this “happy sign of the times,” the Second Vatican Council was not announcing the principle of religious freedom in the absence of an international consensus in its favor. The rights of the individual, even to join with others in community, was widely acknowledged. Nonetheless, this acknowledgement often ignored the necessary corollary, without which these “rights” lacked coherence. In examining this ignored corollary, we must first consider what Murray, echoing Romano Guardini, called “the interior disloyalty of modern times,” which requires a brief look at history.

In A.D. 494, in a letter to Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I, Pope Gelasius I asserted that “two there are . . . by which this world is ruled on title of original and sovereign right—the consecrated authority of the priesthood and the royal power.”12 Thus was announced the principle that would shape the West—“the freedom of the Church.” The freedom of the Church meant both the freedom of the Church as a corporate body to teach, to evangelize, to organize its life, and so forth, and the freedom of the individual to receive that teaching, to conform his life to the church’s dictates, and so on.

These principles had, in turn, important socio-political consequences. First, the Church limited the secular power of government. Second, “the church . . . mobiliz[ed] the moral consensus of the people and br[ought it] to bear upon the [secular governmental] power, thus . . . insur[ing] that the king, in the phrase of John of Salisbury, would ‘fight for justice and for the freedom of the people.’”13

This system of “dual” sovereignties—state and church—formed the basis of societal organization for centuries. However, once the balance between the two sovereigns was destroyed by the rise of national “absolute” monarchies, men found themselves trampled under the unchecked power of the monarch. In rebelling, they posited a new way to check the sovereign—free political institutions. These, not the separate corporate reality and power of the Church, would mediate between the state and society, and hold the former accountable to the latter. This, in effect, reduced the original “dualism” to a “monism,” “a oneness of society, law, and authority.”14

In the modern monist system, everything was staked on the proposition that the individual conscience was, and should be, the sole interpreter of the moral order—whatever moral imperatives the free individual conscience acknowledged would then be transmitted as binding norms on the secular governmental power through free political institutions.

An early manifestation of this idea was Jacobinism, or what Murray calls “sectarian Liberalism,” in France. Its “cardinal thesis” was the primacy of the political—“everything within the state; nothing above the state.” Thus, the Church was “under” the state and controlled by it. It was this system—not the tenets later prescribed in Dignitatis Humanae—that the Church fought when it denounced “separation of church and state” and “religious liberty.”

The modern idea came to a kind of logical conclusion in the Communist systems, where everything was (theoretically) subject to the “masses” under the direction of “the Party.” But it continues, in a subtler form, in a certain conception of secular liberalism as well. In this conception, liberal ideology will, in the name of “tolerance” and “neutrality,” exercise political hegemony; religion will be effectively “privatized”; and the Church will be rendered politically irrelevant.15

This attitude of rejection of the need for a moral teacher on the part of the well-taught student is what Guardini and Murray meant by “the interior disloyalty of modern times.” It is also the problem that, we believe, Dignitatis Humanae was chiefly designed to address.

Freedom of the Church

In effect, Vatican II acknowledged that modernism had recognized an important truth, but removed from context, it was merely a half-truth. Modernism rightly emphasized the dignity of individual conscience, for the entire Christian message likewise turns on this; but modernism was wrong to believe that the untutored conscience could direct the state to truth, to moral ends. And it was wrong to seek the “privatization” of religion and the marginalization of the Church, whose role, as bearer of truth, is to challenge and exhort individuals and communities to just and upright living.

Modernism was correct to recognize, and to organize political power around, the dignity of the individual, his reason and free will; but it failed to recognize that freedom could not be exercised responsibly by an ill-formed or unformed conscience. The primary aim of Dignitatis Humanae was, then, to defend, and indeed to restore, the principle of “the freedom of the Church,” as a corporate, visible body, with the right to evangelize, to speak to the consciences of citizens and rulers. The declaration teaches that:

[a]mong those things which pertain . . . to the good of society . . . the most outstanding surely is that the Church enjoy that freedom of action which her responsibility for the salvation of men requires. . . . The freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle governing relations between the Church . . . and the whole civil order. . . . When the principle of religious freedom . . . is implemented sincerely in practice, only then does the Church enjoy in law and in fact those stable conditions which give her the independence necessary for fulfilling her divine mission. . . . A harmony exists therefore between the freedom of the Church and that religious freedom which must be recognized as the right of all men and all communities and must be sanctioned by constitutional law. (DH 13)

If the freedom of the Church is recognized, the foolish monism of modernism will be replaced by a new version of the old dual sovereigns. Where once there was emperor and Church, now there will be “the constitutional democratic state” and the Church, with the Church, through its teaching and evangelization, mobilizing consciences to (among other things) guide and check the state. Restoring the freedom of the Church replaces modernism’s half-truth with full truth. It acknowledges the “corollary” to religious freedom (which modernism ignored) by restoring the balance between the individual conscience in search of truth and the wise teacher of truth.

Of course, one thing Dignitatis Humanae does not insist upon is that there be only one teacher, the Catholic Church. As noted above, it is clear that the teaching of Pius XII had been developed so as to permit other teachers, those with partial truths and even those who peddle untruths, to teach as well. The remaining question is whether this is wise and philosophically sound.

Limits of Freedom

Perhaps some light can be shed by considering the issue of pornography and how its treatment compares with Vatican II’s teachings about religious freedom. As with religion, human beings, if they are to flourish, must understand and integrate into their lives the truth about sexuality. Pornography, however, presents an untruth about sexuality, just as false religion (precisely to the extent of its falsehood) presents untruths about God and man.

Now, the production and dissemination of pornography is often prohibited by society, and the Church approves of this. A central reason (though not the only one) is that such material may influence the mind of the consumer in ways destructive of the common good (perhaps leading, for example, to spousal or child abuse). However, false religious teachings can also influence the mind of a consumer in ways destructive of the common good (leading, for example, to the Jonestown massacres in Guyana), yet Dignitatis Humanae seems to require that such teachings be legally tolerated. Is this inconsistent?

Before we can answer that question, we must refine our analysis. Not all sexually explicit material is “pornography.” Rather, so far as it is prohibited (and speaking of American law), such material is prohibited only when it is “obscene,” meaning it is without redeeming value and appeals to the prurient interest in sex. Otherwise, American society leaves it to individuals to decide whether to read or view non-obscene sexually explicit material (though the consumption of this material is subject to certain restrictions).16 In other words, our society leaves it to the conscience of the individual to decide.

This is parallel to the position in Dignitatis Humanae regarding abuses of religious liberty. The religious liberty it advocates is not a rogue elephant, free to wreak what destruction it will. Rather, “civil society has the right to protect itself against possible abuses committed in the name of religious freedom.” (DH 7) Thus, even religious freedom may be restricted where the failure to do so imperils the common good (“public order”).

For instance, if neo-Aztecs were to reintroduce the practice of human sacrifice, civil authorities could prohibit it (as obscenity is prohibited) without violating the principles of Dignitatis Humanae. Likewise, restrictions might be placed on the availability of certain types of false religion similar to those placed on pornography.17 In other words, the exercise of the police power—the power of public authorities to regulate in order to protect public health, safety, and morals, and to promote the general welfare—is consistent with the principles of the declaration.

Pluralism & Responsible Neutrality

But, we may ask: Where the common good is not placed in jeopardy, must people be left entirely free to choose from a bewildering potpourri of religious options? The answer given by Dignitatis Humanae is “yes.” Still, the declaration emphasizes the obligation of society to assist its members in the responsible exercise of their freedom. Above all, it—and “especially those responsible for educating others”—must be concerned with the proper formation of consciences (DH 8). Thus, if the state educates children, it must, while respecting the rights of parents, ensure that its education is at least compatible with the truth about man, including his creation by, and orientation to, God. The state may not, in the name of a neutrality among religions, teach agnosticism or atheism; rather, it should present a theocentric worldview to the students, or at least refrain from teaching incompatibly with such a worldview.

For this reason, it would be permissible for the Catholic Church (or another religious body) to be in charge of all education within a political entity (as the Church was, until recently, in Quebec) so long as it (1) respected the religious freedom of students and their families to dissent from Catholic (or other) teachings, and (2) maintained an atmosphere in which students felt free to search for God as their consciences dictated. (Under the principles of Dignitatis Humanae, minority religions must be respected, and psychological coercion is prohibited [DH 6&2]).

Again, this is parallel to what we demand of the state regarding education about sexuality: If state schools are to teach sex education, they must do so in ways that do not, in the guise of neutrality, present an anti-religious worldview or deny fundamental truths about human sexuality. Thus, Planned Parenthood, for example, should certainly not be placed in charge of sex education in the schools.

Fostering Religion

However, the Declaration goes further—it places demands on the state (and other civil authorities). Not only must the state protect religious freedom through legislation, “[i]t must help to create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life.” (DH 6) Here, we believe, is the heart of the declaration.

Dignitatis Humanae is, we believe, commonly misunderstood. While it clearly rejected the old assumption that the state was to endorse religious truth and stamp out religious falsehood, it did not, as is sometimes believed, endorse state neutrality and individual libertarianism.

There is a third model, which is the model of Dignitatis Humanae. Under this model, the state, recognizing the value of religion as an intrinsic aspect of human well-being and the importance of religion for the common good, actively works to promote religion and religious practice. It does this in part, and, perhaps above all, by respecting and protecting religious freedom, including the full and generous recognition of the freedom of the Church.

Moreover, it may foster and promote religion by providing for the accommodation of its free exercise. It may, for example, provide tax deductibility for contributions to religious institutions, tax relief for religious communities, aid to religious schools, and so forth. It could prepare “public service announcements” encouraging citizens to attend the church or synagogue of their choice. May the state proclaim a day of “Sabbath rest”? Yes, though the state in certain religiously pluralistic societies would not have available to it the luxury of selecting a day that is the common Sabbath of all faiths.

Of course, under Dignitatis Humanae, the state must avoid “the unfair practice of favoritism.” However, since the state is to promote religious practice, it would not be “unfair” if it chose the Sabbath day of the majority religion, particularly if it also provided legal recognition and protection of the right of other believers to observe their own Sabbath (and, perhaps, to work on the officially recognized Sabbath day as well).

Freedom & Truth

In short, we believe the philosophical underpinnings of Dignitatis Humanae are sound. It advocates an approach to religion quite similar to that which hard-earned experience has taught us to take with respect to other important aspects of human life, such as sexuality. It does not naively exalt human freedom, but it respects it, placing freedom in the service of truth. Further, it requires the state to take an active role in promoting the good of religion, thereby avoiding that “neutrality” which is such in name only.

The principles of Dignitatis Humanae recognize the validity of the modern insight concerning the importance of individual freedom in matters of religion.18 Internal assent cannot be compelled, and external religious acts without internal assent are worthless. Man must freely search for the truth. Vatican II insists, however, on respect for the freedom of the Church to confront man with that truth.

In the end, it is the judgment of Vatican II, and thus of the Catholic Church, that everything turns on the individual’s decision, on a conscience free to seek God.19 That is also the truth taught by our Master while he was on earth.20 This truth need not bring discouragement about the future of the Church. It may, in fact, be the mustard seed of a new era of evangelization.

In a valuable book, The Rise of Christianity, the eminent sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, tells us that Christianity did not triumph in the Roman Empire because it was established by Constantine. Rather, it had grown so widespread by the time Constantine came to power that it was prudent for him to embrace it. The curious thing is the mechanism by which it became widespread. It was not, as is commonly thought, by way of forced mass conversion.21 Rather, the sociological evidence shows that Christianity won the Roman Empire through the conversion of individual consciences, one person at a time.

In endorsing precisely this approach to evangelization, Dignitatis Humanae prepares the way for the Church, once again, to win a “pagan empire” to Christ, one conscience at a time.  


1. Syllabus, #7.

2. “It is through his conscience that man sees and recognizes the demands of the divine law. He is bound to follow this conscience faithfully in all his activity so that he may come to God, who is his last end. Therefore he must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience” (DH 3).

3. Against the objection of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and others that, in Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II abandoned traditional Catholic teaching on this point, Murray had the following to say:

It is worth noting that the Declaration does not base the right to the free exercise of religion on ‘freedom of conscience.’ Nowhere does this phrase occur. And the Declaration nowhere lends its authority to the theory for which the phrase frequently stands, namely, that I have the right to do what my conscience tells me to do, simply because my conscience tells me to do it. This is perilous theory. Its particular peril is subjectivism—the notion that, in the end, it is my conscience, not the objective truth, which determines what is right or wrong, true or false. (Walter M. Abbot, S.J. [ed.], The Documents of Vatican II [New York: America Press, 1966], note 5 at p. 679)

4. The declaration teaches both that “All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it” (DH 1); and that “in forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth” (DH 14).

5. “[E]verybody has the duty and consequently the right to seek the truth in religious matters so that, through the use of appropriate means, he may prudently form judgments of conscience which are sincere and true. The search for truth, however, must be carried out in a manner that is appropriate to the dignity of the human person and his social nature, namely, by free enquiry with the help of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue” (DH 3).

6. See We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Sheed and Ward, 1960) (hereinafter, We Hold These Truths), pp. 61–63.

7. Ibid., p. 62.

8. Ibid. Murray noted that Roger Williams, the man usually considered the leading champion of religious freedom in American history, learned the same lesson from the parable as did Pius XII.

9. “[I]n regarding the religion clauses . . . as articles of peace and in placing the case for them on the primary grounds of their social necessity, one is not taking low ground. . . . In the science of law and the art of jurisprudence the appeal to social peace is an appeal to high moral value. . . . This is the classic and Christian tradition.” We Hold These Truths, p. 60. For a critique of Murray’s position, see Gerard V. Bradley, “Beyond Murray’s Articles of Peace and Faith,” in Robert P. Hunt & Kenneth L. Grasso (eds.), John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1992), 181–204.

10. As John Paul II said in Tertio Millennio Adveniente: “The Second Vatican Council . . . drew much from the experiences and reflections of the immediate past, especially the intellectual legacy left by Pius XII” (no. 18). The teaching of Pius XII is cited, for example, as support for the key proposition that “in forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church” (DH 14).

11. “Indeed it is a fact that religious freedom has already been declared a civil right in most constitutions and has been given solemn recognition in international documents” (DH 15). For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, declared, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public and private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (Article 18).

12. For Murray’s discussion of “the freedom of the Church,” see We Hold These Truths, chapter 9.

13. We Hold These Truths, p. 205.

14. Ibid., p. 208.

15. See Gerard V. Bradley, “Dogmatomachy—The “Privatization” Theory of the Religion Clause Cases,” 30 St. Louis U Law J 275–330 (1986).

16. See Robert P. George, “Making Children Moral: Pornography, Parents, and the Public Interest,” 29 Arizona State Law Journal 569–580 (1997). Our personal view is that American constitutional law sweeps too widely in protecting much sexually explicit material that is truly pornographic (though not legally obscene) and damaging to the consumer and to society; i.e., such material could, and, we think, should, justly be prohibited or severely restricted for the sake of public morality.

17. For instance, if a particular brand of false religion encouraged children to commit suicide as a “quick ticket” to heaven, its advocacy in media available to children could legitimately be restricted in certain ways. Other brands of religion, however, that do not suffer such extensive and fundamental defects but still fall short of full truth may not legitimately be subject to such restrictions. As John Paul II reminded us, the Catholic Church recognizes “seeds of truth” in non-Christian religions, and “the Catholic Church does not reject anything in these religions that is holy and true.” The National Catholic Register, September 20, 1998, quoting from his weekly audience on September 9.

18. As John Paul II said during his greeting in the cathedral in Baltimore on October 8, 1995: “Religious tolerance is based on the conviction that God wishes to be adored by people who are free: a conviction which requires us to respect and honor the inner sanctuary of conscience in which each person meets God.”

19. “One of the key truths in Catholic teaching, a truth that is contained in the word of God and constantly preached by the Fathers, is that man’s response to God by faith ought to be free, and that therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act” (DH 10).

20. “For he bore witness to the truth but refused to use force to impose it on those who spoke out against it” (DH 11).

21. The forced mass conversion under a ruler who officially embraced Christianity for his people became the practice after Constantine in many parts of Europe. Stark believes this was bad for the faith: “You look at the spread of Christianity beyond the empire, and you see that it was almost entirely by treaty and by baptizing kings. I think one reason medieval church attendance was so bad in Scandinavia and Germany was because these people weren’t really Christians. If it hadn’t been for establishment, they might have been.” Interviewed in Our Sunday Visitor, April 19, 1998, pp. 10–11.

William L. Saunders is Human Rights Counsel for the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University (web.princeton.edu/sites/jmadison). His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and Conscience and Its Enemies (ISI Books). He has served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

William L. Saunders is Senior Vice President and Senior Counsel at Americans United for Life.

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