Rorate Caeli

An Authoritative and Binding Magisterial Document Cannot Overthrow the Teaching of a Previous Document of the Same or Higher Authority

Participants at the Dignitatis Humanae Colloquium in Norcia (Photo Source

At the blog of the Dialogos Institute, Prof. Alan Fimister gives an interesting account of a colloquium held last summer on Dignitatis Humanae in relation to previous magisterial teachings (about which we reported at the time). He notes that all participants held as a basic principle that no authoritative and binding document of the teaching office of the Church can overthrow the teaching of a previous document of the same or higher authority. There were, however, two approaches to showing how Dignitatis Humanae did not overthrow previous teaching on religious liberty. One was to argue that Dignitatis Humanae was of a lower grade of authority than the previous established teaching, and that its own teaching is therefore not binding and must rejected on the basis of the previous teaching. The other approach was to argue that Dignitatis Humanae, if interpreted properly does not in fact contradict previous magisterial teachings. Various ways of giving such a reading were proposed. Fimister himself seems to agree most with Thomas Pink’s proposal: “the Declaration refers only to the abstract competence of the state qua state and so does not touch upon the powers of the state as instrument of the Church.” But Fimister then somewhat modifies Pink’s thesis with the help of St. Augustine’s argument that a state is only really just (and therefore only really a state) when it worships the true God:

It is part of the essence of a true polity that it worship the one true God in the manner which He has appointed. Every state is thus obliged to discover the true religion and embrace it corporately. As it happens the true religion is Catholicism and part of the revelation upon which Catholicism is founded is the reservation of judgement in religious matters to the spiritual power. The state does indeed have of its own nature competence in religious maters but the only true polity without qualification is the City of God, the Catholic Church. It is through adherence to the Catholic Church that temporal polities receive their perfection as human societies. As Pink often emphasises, Leo XIII teaches that the proper relationship between Church and state is that of soul and body. It is the nature of the body to be united to the soul. Without the soul there is no human body. Thus it is part of the essence of the state to coerce in religious matters but in this order of providence it is also part of the essence of the state to exist within the Catholic Church; a civil power that is not united to the Church thus lacks de facto this right that belongs in the abstract to the state. As St Augustine says “there is no justice save in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ” and “kingdoms without justice are but criminal gangs”.