The Way of Dignitatis Humanae

by modestinus

Correction: The quote below is from Dignitatis Humanae and not original to Archbishop Chaput.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, in his 2008 book Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, makes the following observation concerning the controversial Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae (DH):

Religious freedom [which is central to DH], in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore, [DH] leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and women and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.

This is a far more optimistic appraisal of DH than what one normally finds among traditional Catholics, perhaps because Chaput is not himself a traditionalist. Even so, his interpretation of DH, which arguably slides to the right of what one finds touted in the writings of neoconservative Catholics (neo-caths), seems to provide a middle path between those who hold religious liberty up as an absolute right and those who condemn it as a great evil. The tension that remains, however, is what, if anything, ought to be done in a hypothetical society which does recognize Catholicism as the true religion. Can it, by right, forbid external forms of public worship from false religions? DH says no while the traditional Catholic teaching—at least the one promoted and defended by traditional groups like the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX)—says yes. The SSPX puts so much stock in what they believe is the traditional teaching that they are willing to remain in a state of canonical irregularity rather than acknowledge what even a non-traditionalist like Chaput acknowledges, namely that DH does not undercut the Catholicism’s claim to be the true religion. The SSPX wants to go further; they want to fight tooth n’ nail for the acknowledgment that some society, which does not exist today and may not ever exist again, could rightfully punish a Protestant for handing out Jack Chick comics in front of the local supermarket. Given the remoteness of its relevancy to today’s world, one has to wonder if this particular fight is worth it, especially if DH can be interpreted in a manner which does not cut against the infinitely more important truth that Catholic Christianity, rather than Islam, Judaism, Protestantism, etc., is the only true religion deserving of both free and universal individual adherence and social recognition.

Some will argue that while that is all fine and good, DH, like most of the Vatican II documents, is simply too ambiguous and open-ended to serve as vehicle for reinforcing the true Catholic teaching. In fact, given the manner in which DH has been applied over the past 40 years, it seems clear to the SSPX and other traditional Catholics that that document carries more power to destroy than to uphold. Perhaps, though it is not entirely clear that DH alone is to blame. Even prior to the Second Vatican Council there were strong movements within the Church to make it more amicable toward liberal democracy and its attendant dogmas. Short of a Pope re-issuing the “Syllabus of Errors,” it is likely that vast swathes of the Catholic Church would have, on the local level at least, made peace with the principle of religious liberty even if they stopped short of holding it up as an absolute right. One of the biggest problems facing traditional Catholics in the 1960s was their apparent inability to convey their position in a manner which didn’t immediately hearken back to the not-so-distant days of clerical fascism, anti-Jewish violence, and the marriage of throne and altar in Europe. History was not on their side, and a failure of nuance turned into a failure to convince. Some object that this is just a caricature of the liberal opposition, but is it? Even today one can find significant segments of traditional Catholicism which conflate, say, the social reign of Christ the King with the political reign of an earthly king or who take the condemnation of religious liberty as a green light for the practice of forced conversions, pogroms, and harsh discriminatory tactics. Even if the philosophical substance of the traditional critique of religious liberty is solid, its practical interpretation by too many Catholics is downright frightening.

While hindsight is 20/20, it seems that the Catholic Church could have found a better way to approach religious liberty which could have left all camps relatively happy. There is no denying that religious liberty is a fixed concept of liberal ideology. There is nothing wrong with the Church acknowledging as much and, from there, instituting marching orders for how to negotiate this positive reality without conceding so much substantive ground that it appears to bless religious indifferentism. The real problem seems to be the Church’s decision to seemingly make religious liberty into a developed dogma, which strikes many traditionalists as impossible given the aforementioned “Syllabus of Errors” and other pre-Vatican II Papal statements on the matter. I write “seemingly” on purpose; Vatican II was, is, and ever shall be a “pastoral” rather than a “dogmatic” council. So, to a large extent, the traditionalists are correct that the old teaching has not been swept away at the substantive level. What they lament is that the old teaching lacks practical application in the world today—a result less of Vatican II and more of the revolutionary tides which swept the West starting in the late 18th C. (Of course, it’s possible that the traditionalist vision of the condemnation of religious liberty is not the correct one—or so some scholars, like Thomas Pink, have recently argued.)

Regardless, it seems to me that there is a great deal to be mined out of Chaput’s observation on the traditional Catholic teaching left untouched by DH. The question which remains is who, if anyone, is willing to run with it. It does appear, at times, that the SSPX is perfectly happy to remain in stasis while it quarrels over particulars rather than take what is still solid in the Council documents and run with it. Thankfully, there is a growing body of conservative-to-traditionalist Catholics (and a few moderate-to-liberal Catholics as well) who are willing to stand up for the rights of Christ and His Holy Church even in the face of militant secularism. What use is there attacking the Council nonstop while the world falls apart around you? If the Society and other likeminded traditionalist Catholics are serious about proclaiming Christ the King and having a voice in society, then they should demonstrate as much and stop using what they dislike about the Council as an excuse for inaction. (“Oh, we can’t have anything to do with the Novus Ordo Catholics…ever.”) That’s cowardice—plain and simple. It’s convenient and comfortable; I will give them that. But it’s cowardice lightly masked by ostensibly intractable principles.

Maybe that is soon to change, or maybe not. In 2011, at the Angelus Press Conference on the Kingship of Christ, the Society’s U.S. District Superior, Fr. Arnaud Rostand, spoke about the need for traditional Catholics to form civic groups and use whatever avenues are available to them to influence social and political life, even at the local level. Newspaper editorials, school boards, town hall meetings, etc. provide forums for faithful Catholics to take action in the light of firm Catholic teaching. At a broader level, however, there is a need for traditionalist Catholics to link arms with the wider Catholic community, particularly if there is going to be real resistance to the active assault on the Catholic Church which is being undertaken today in the United States. While traditionalists may not be thrilled by the fact that many Catholics choose to cloak themselves in the rhetoric of religious liberty, there is no denying that today it is the only rhetoric which counts. It will be necessary for the Catholic Church to asserts its right to be free of government interference far before there can ever come a time for the Church to insist that she, as the Mystical Body of Christ which is the infallible holder of moral and doctrinal truth, warrants social recognition.

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