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.