Rorate Caeli

The Epoch-making Speech: Religious Liberty is not a theological proposition

As we have seen in the previous posts regarding the most important text of this pontificate so far (see here: 1, 2, 3, 4 and also this), its targeted audience were those Catholics who have conscientious objections to some aspects of the Council, caused predominantly by what the Pope called "hermeneutics of rupture", but caused even by the literality of the Conciliar documents themselves.

Probably no issue is as difficult to these Catholics as that of Religious Liberty, which, if taken too far, may be interpreted as a theological renunciation of the Universal Kingship of Our Lord and the historical claim of the Church as the One True Faith ( "Haec est fides catholica, quam nisi quisque fideliter firmiterque crediderit, salvus esse non poterit," as the Athanasian Creed proclaims)

Pope Benedict explains the apparent contradiction. It is true, he says, that no Catholic can rightfully claim "Religious Freedom" as a theological truth; in other words:

"...for example, with freedom of religion seen as expressing mankind's inability to find truth, relativism becomes the canon. From being a social and historical necessity it is incorrectly elevated to a metaphysical level that loses its true meaning. It therefore becomes unacceptable to those who believe that mankind can reach the truth of God and, based on truth's inner dignity, is related to such knowledge."

These are very strong words: if freedom of religion is elevated to a "metaphysical level", the consequences to the whole structure of Truth are severe and irreversible: "relativism becomes the canon": moral, doctrinal, social relativism become the "canon", that is, the moral, doctrinal, social standard.

But to elevate Religious Freedom to a metaphysical and theological level is to misconstrue Catholic doctrine. When it is said that the Council was "pastoral", or at least "overwhelmingly pastoral", the objective is the defense of the integrity of Catholic doctrine. Religious Freedom, thus, was

"...a necessity that human coexistence requires or even seeing it as an inherent consequence of the truth that such freedom cannot be imposed from the outside but must come from a conviction from within.

"By adopting a decree on religious freedom, the Second Vatican Council recognised and made its own an essential principle of the modern state."

It was a question of pragmatism, pragmatism born of pastoral concern, but with deep roots in Catholic history:

"[The Council] reconnected with the wider heritage of the Church.

"The Church itself is conscious that it is fully in sync with the teachings of Jesus (cf Mt, 22: 21), the Church of the early martyrs, and with all the martyrs.

"Although the early Church dutifully prayed for emperors and political leaders as a matter of fact (cf 1 Tm, 2: 2), it refused to worship them and thus rejected the state religion.

"In dying for their faith in the one God revealed in Jesus Christ, the martyrs of the early Church also died on behalf of freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one's own religion. No state can impose any religion; instead, religion must be freely chosen with the grace of God and in freedom of conscience."

It was a pastoral concern also related to the Missionary Nature of the Church, in an increasingly hostile secular environment:

"A missionary Church required to proclaim its message to all the nations must commit itself to freedom of religion. It must pass on the gift of truth that exists for all and at the same time reassure nations and governments that it does not want to destroy their identities and cultures. It must show that it brings an answer they intimately expect. This answer is not lost among the many cultures, but instead enhances unity among men and thus peace among nations.

"By defining in a new way the relationship between the faith of the Church and some essential elements of modern thinking, the Second Vatican Council revised and even corrected some past decisions. But in an apparent discontinuity it has instead preserved and reinforced its intimate nature and true identity.

"The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic both before and after the Council, throughout time."


And with this I end this series on the Papal Christmas Address to the Roman Curia, a truly epoch-making speech, an essential text for every contemporary Catholic.


  1. For a scholastic proof that that "religious liberty" is both a valid philosophical and theological proposition, and how it is distinguished from the modern liberal error of unbridled religious liberty, see my blog "The Scholasticum", beginning today.

  2. So freedom of religion is not a theological truth. However, it is required by human coexistence and an inherent consequence of the truth that such freedom cannot be imposed from the outside but must come from a conviction from within. Furthermore, despite the apparent discontinuity of the Church’s change of position it has in fact preserved and reinforced its intimate nature and true identity.

    So it would seem to follow that there are two sets of truths: one theological, and one relating to human coexistence and the the fact that freedom can never be enforced from outside. And therefore the Church must change its doctrine, although it hasn’t really changed its doctrine, because what it changed has to do with something other than theology.

    Ever read St. Pius X’s encyclical “Pascendi”? It shows you the same game being run by those St. Pius calls the Modernists. Religion and real life (beg pardon, earthly life) are two different things; but somehow, when all is said and done, the religious must give way to the natural. So too with Pope Benedict: the decision is supposedly not theological, but all the doctrine of the pre-conciliar popes, who clearly thought that that doctrine WAS theological, is down the memory hole.

    Yes, this is pragmatic -- in the sense that sacrificing to Caesar in order to avoid being thrown to the lions is pragmatic.

    The Pope is a Hegelian, and his understanding of Christianity is Hegelian; and as a result, it is not the faith of our fathers. He's playing Hegelian mind games, with himself and with us, trying to have it both ways. Until one recognizes that as at least a hypothesis, all efforts to understand him are exercises in objective misinterpretation, and subjective self-delusion.

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  5. Dignitatis Humanae makes it sound like a theological truth when it says that freedom from coercion in the public expression of one's religious beliefs is based on the dignity of the human person. That is not simply a temporary pastoral approach, because human nature does not change with the times. If we take this literally, it means that the Church has been wrong and, worse yet, seriously unjust, from the 4th to the mid-20th centuries when it taught that Catholic governments have a right and a duty to restrict and punish the violators of the Catholic Faith.

    As for the statement that the Truth cannot be forced on anyone, this is a red herring (no disrespect to the pope intended). The Church has never taught conversion by the sword, unlike Mohammedanism. It has always taught that people should not be disturbed from the private expression of their false religions, and even that parents should not be prevented from teaching their children their beliefs, even if those beliefs are erroneous.

    But it has always taught that false doctrines harm individuals and societies, so their public expression must be limited as much as possible, unless doing so would result in a greater evil than tolerating it. The Vatican II document on religious liberty contrarily teaches that the public expression of false religions should NOT be restricted, unless and only to the extent that it is necessary to preserve public order and objective morality (the latter reference being a positive contribution by Cardinal Woytyla). Thus the pre- and post-conciliar Magisterial teachings are moving in opposite directions, even if they are not in formal contradiction.

    Dignitatis Humanae essentially creates a false dichotomy between theological truth and moral truth, insisting that the former should not be protected under the law, but the latter can and should be. The pre-conciliar popes would not have approved of such a distinction, and "modern man" would see the protection of either one by civil society as a tyranny. Thus, the Council's attempt to innovate and stay faithful to tradition ends up failing on both counts.

    The Church has also always taught (until Vatican II) that nations, just like individuals have a duty to worship God in the way He wishes to be worshipped, that is, in the Catholic Faith. Therefore, states where a majority of the citizens are Catholic must embrace Cathloicism as the official religion of that state, and work in union with the Church for the greater good of its citizens.

    See Quas Primas, Diuturnum Illud, Libertas Praestantissimum, Notre Charge Apostolique, just to name a few.

    Pope Benedict XVI makes an important distinction between the metaphysical and practical realities of this question, but he is still missing the essential point. The pre-conciliar teaching dealt with both principles and their concrete application. The Pope maintains that Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X and Pius XI based what they wrote on valid principles, but that their concrete application, although understandable at the time, is no longer valid due to a changed historical situation. Essentially he's saying "that was then, this is now". But has liberalism really become that much kinder and gentler since the early 20th century? If so, how do we account for the huge number of martyrs that were its casualties? And just because the corruption of the modern world makes the Social Reign of Our Lord more difficult to realize, does that exempt us from affirming the principle and striving as best we can, with the help of God, toward that goal?

    Besides, as I said before, Vatican II does not teach that. It says religious liberty is a fundamental right of the human person living in civil society. The pope's efforts to rehabilitate the Council are valiant, but unconvincing. Let us pray for him daily.

  6. The Church itself is conscious that it is fully in sync with the teachings of Jesus (cf Mt, 22: 21)

  7. This is a great conversation going. I cannot for the life of me understand in toto what the Pope's point is. He does seem to be trying to explain things to traditionalist Catholics who have objections or reservations about these things. But if he is saying that DH contains merely practical, civil applications--OK. Then let us not treat it as doctrine or dogma. However, why did an ecumenical Council use its full authority to issue vague statements with no basis in theology or Truth. Is it a natural truth or supernatural. And if it corrected what more than one pope thought for several hundred years, then perhaps this understanding is wrong or incomplete too. My master's thesis was on attempting to show how they harmonize, but he seems to be saying "Christ is King" even over societies, but we simply cannot pronounce it that way any more in today's world. Any help here?

  8. Tracy Hummel,

    It is such a pleasure to read a catholic who thinks so closely with the Magisterium!


    if that is you Brian (and even if that is not you), by all means, get a blog, and blog the relevants parts of your thesis with notes, and it would make an invaluable resource for us all. (or if you don't want to, please if you can, send me a copy via email, via my website).


  9. Let me offer a reponse to Mr. Mershon’s request for help. It is not particularly long or intellectually sophisticated, and doesn’t have to be. Questions of the proper paradigm to apply to the facts are always fairly simple.

    Here’s the paradigm. The Pope is a Hegelian. There is contradiction between the Church and the world. The Pope seeks a Hegelian transcendence (Aufhebung) of this contradiction in which the parts of the contradiction are both somehow preserved and somehow now united in a higher and deeper and broader reality.

    As the Pope’s Christmas address to the Curia makes clear, he believes that the history of the Church is a history of the arising and overcoming of contradictions between the Church at that stage on the one hand, and something new on the other: between the Church and Greek philosophy, between the Church and medieval Aristotleanism, and most recently between the Church and secularism. Vatican II is the transcendence of this contradiction, or at least the start of this latest process of transcendence. But what can this mean but that the Church has reinvented itself some number of times before now, and will presumably continue to do so in the future?

    Now I have neither the right nor the capacity to judge the state of the Pope’s soul; but what he manifestly believes is inconsistent with the first 1,930 years of Church history. I know that this is not supposed to happen; but it has happened. It also happened with Pope John Paul II.

    To be sure, one can always find orthodox-sounding pronouncements in the writings of Cardinal and Pope Ratzinger; but then in the next clause or sentence or paragraph or page comes their opposite. What happens then is what separates the traditionalists from the conservatives. The traditionalists recognize the discontinuity between the Pope’s convictions and the preconciliar magisterium, and go on to deal with its wrenching implications. The conservatives, in one way or another, convince themselves that the orthodox-sounding pronouncements are all that count, and ignore or explain away the rest, or drive away the bearer of the bad news with cries of schism in lieu of thinking at all.

  10. Mr. McFarland, could you contact me at

    newcatholic AT gmail DOT com ?

    Thank you.

  11. The Church did NOT issue this document as a dogmatic teaching.

    It is PASTORAL--in other words, the Church's beliefs have not changed, but recognizing reality, suggests that burning Moslems at the stake is no longer a solution.

  12. Dad29,

    When did any Catholic burn any Moslem at the stake? I'd like to know.


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