Page 6, 29th November 1963

29th November 1963
Page 6
Page 6, 29th November 1963 — CHARTER FOR LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE

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People: Roman Pontiffs, God, John


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Address by Bishop De Smedt of Bruges to the Vatican Council

VERY many Conciliar

Fathers have insistently demanded that this Sacred Synod should clearly explain and proclaim the right of man to religious liberty. Among the reasons given, four principal ones should be listed :

(1) Truth: The Church must teach and defend the right to religious liberty because there is question of the truth, the care of which was committed to her by Christ; (2) Defence: The Church cannot remain silent today when almost half of mankind is deprived of religious liberty by atheistic materialism of various kinds; (3) Peaceful Social Life: Today in all nations of the world, men, who adhere to different religions or who lack all religious belief, must live together in one and the same human society; in the light of truth, the Church should point the way towards living together peacefully; (4) Ecumenism: Many nonCatholics harbour an aversion against the Church or at least suspect her of a kind of Machiavellism because we seem to them to demand the free exercise of religion when Catholics are in a minority in any nation and at the same time refuse and deny the same religious liberty when Catholics are in the majority.

The term "Religious Liberty" has a definite meaning in our text. In the forthcoming discussion, great confusion might arise if any of the Fathers give to the expression a moaning that differs from the one intended by the text.

When religious liberty is defended, it is not asserted that it

is proper for man to consider the religious problem according to his own whim without any moral obligation and decide for himself according to his own will whether or not to embrace religion (religious indifferentism).

Nor is it affirmed that the human conscience is free in the sense that it is as it were outside of the law. absolved from any obligation toward God (laicism).

Nor is it said that falsehood is to be considered on an equal footing with truth, as though there svere no objective norm of truth (doctrinal relativism).

Nor is it admitted that man in any way has a quasi-right to maintain a peaceful complacency in the midst of uncertainty (dilettantistie pessimism).

Two questions

What therefore is meant in the text by "Religious Liberty"? Positively, religious liberty is the right of the human person to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of his conscience. Negatively. it is immunity from all external force in his personal relations with God, which the conscience of man vindicates to itself.

Religious liberty implies human autonomy. not from within certainly but from without. From within, man is not freed ofthe obligations toward the religious problem. From without. his liberty is offended when obedience to the dictates of his conscience in religious matters is impeded.

At this point. two questions must be asked: (I) can each man claim for himself religious liberty as a sacred right given to him by God? (2) Is there, and to what extent is there, a duty on the part of others to recognize the aforesaid religious liberty?

The first pastoral problem which must be examined now by this Sacred Synod is this: how must Catholics because of their faith conduct themselves toward men who do not belong to the Catholic faith? We propose the following answer for your deliberations:

No coercion

(1) All Catholics are invited by Christ to strive by prayer, penance, witness and evangelizing in the Holy Spirit to bring our nonCatholic brothers to the blessing of the evangelical light and of the life of the Church. The sacred. absolute rights of God as well as the evangelical and natural truths must always and everywhere be honored and observed by them.

(2) They must abstain from all direct and indirect coercion. Although God wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, the disciples of Christ may not infringe upon the religious liberty of the individual person. On the contrary. they must respect and esteem the right and duty of non-Catholics to follow the dictate of their own conscience even when, after sincere and sufficient study. it errs in good faith.

What is the reason of faith why non-Catholics can be forced by no one to admit the Catholic doctrine against their conscience? This reason is found in the very nature of the act of faith. For this act. on God's part. is a supernatural gift which the Holy Spirit most freely gives to whom and when he wills; and, on man's part, it is and must be an assent which man freely gives to God.

(3) All Catholics are bound, by the command of the Lord. to love and to help their non-Catholic brothers with a sincere and active charity.

At this point, the schema takes a step forward and asserts that each and every man, who follows his conscience in religious matters. has a natural right to true and authentic religious liberty.

In the second part. it is proposed that the Sacred Synod solemnly demand religious liberty for the whole human family, for all religious groups. for each human person whether his conscience be sincere (rectam) and true or sincere and false concerning faith, provided only that he sincerely follow the dictate or conscience.

Therefore, a general principle is laid down: no human person can be the object of coercion or intolerance.

What is the reason why observance of religious liberty is demanded of all? The human person endowed with conscious and free activity. since he can fulfil the will of God only as the divine law is perceived through the dictate of conscience. can obtain his ultimate end only by prudently forming the judgment of conscience and by faithfully carrying out its dictate.

From the nature of things, in forming this judgment, whereby man tries freely to conform to the absolute demands of God's rights, neither any other man nor any human institution can take the place of the free judgment of man's conscience. Therefore, the man who sincerely obeys his own conscience intends to obey God himself. although at times confusedly and unknowingly, and is to he considered worthy of esteem.

When religious liberty is violated. then the very freedom of the human person is violated in its principal matter, in a fundamental demand. in man's ordination to the supreme and ultimate end. The greatest injury is to prevent a man from worshipping God and from obeying God according to ' the dictate of his own conscience.


The schema takes still another step forward and enters upon a most difficult question. Religious liberty would be fruitless and empty if men were not able to carry out the dictate of their conscience in external acts whether in private life, in social life, or in public life, or if human persons were prevented from forming religious groups whose members could worship the Supreme Deity by common and social acts and lead a religious life.

Here. however. there arises a most difficult problem. For, if a human person carries out the dictate of his conscience by external acts. there is danger of violating the rights and duties of another or of others. Since man is a social being and since in the human family men arc subject to error and to sin', the conflict of rights and the conflict of duties cannot always be avoided.

Limits From this it is evident that the right and duty to manifest externally the dictate of conscience is not unlimited, but can he and at times must be tempered and regulated for the common good.

This ordering of the common good must be done juridically in human society and belongs to public authority (potestati publicae). "One of the fundamental duties of civil authorities, therefore," we read in Pacem in Terris, "is to co-ordinate social relations in such fashion that the exercise of one man's rights does not threaten others in the exercise of their own rights nor hinder them in the fulfillment of their duties. Finally, the rights of all should he effectively safeguarded and, if they have been violated, completely restored."

How is public authority to carry out this duty'? In establishing order for the common good. public authority can never act contrary to the order of justice established by God. As St. Thomas says: "Human law is truly law to the extent that it is in accordance with right reason; and therefore it is evident that it is derived from the eternal law. In so far as it departs from reason, it is a so-called 'wicked law' and therefore is not truly a law but a kind of violence".

Recent Roman Pontiffs again and again have bewailed the fact that not a few governments have gone too far in this matter, ignoring and sideline religious liberty.

On the question of religious liberty, the principal document is Pacem in tennis, in which Pope John XXIII especially developed these two points of doctrine: Continuity

1. By the law of nature, the human person has the right to the free exercise of religion in society according to the dictates of a sincere conscience, whether the conscience be true, or the captive either of error or of inadequate knowledge of truth and of sacred things.

2. To this right corresponds the duty incumbent upon other men and the public authority to recognise and respect that right in such a way that the human person in society is kept immune from all coercion of any kind.

Moreover, this doctrine must be understood as the contemporary terminus of a process of evolution both in the doctrine on the dignity of the human person and in the Church's pastoral solicitude for man's freedom. This doctriAal evolution took place according to a two-fold law: (I) Law of continuity: The Church's doctrine and solicitude are always self-consistent, always remain the same. This perennial doctrine can be expressed in the words of Pope John: "The dignity of the human person demands this, that in his actions man should enjoy his own counsel and freedom" (ibid. p. 265).

This doctrine has its deepest roots in the Sacred Scriptures which teach that man was made to the image of God. From this doctrine stems the continual pastoral solicitude of the Church for man's true freedom.

(2) Law of progress: The ecclesiastical magisterium adapts, explains. and defends genuine doctrine according to the demands of errors which are spread and according to the needs which arise from the development of man and of society. By this progress, the mind of the Church is led to search more deeply into doctrine and to understand it more clearly.

In this way. there has arisen in two areas a distinction which no one has explained more clearly than Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem In Terris: (I) A clearer distinction between false philosophical teachings and the endeavours and institutions which these ideologies give rise to or nourish.


While on the one hand the ideologies are always to be condemned, on the other hand the economi c, social and civil institutions which have arisen therefrom can contain something that is good and worthy of approval. (2) A clearer distinction between erfors and the person who errs in good faith. While on the one hand errors must always he rejected, on the other hand the man in error "does not cease to he endowed with human nature, nor does he ever lose his dignity as a person. due consideration of which must always be maintained" (ibid. pp. 299-300).

In this way the door is opened to a correct understanding of many pontifical documents which in the nineteenth century treated of religious liberty in such words that this liberty appeared as something that had to be condemned. 41 The clearest example is found in the encyclical Quanta Cura of Pius IX, in which we read: "From this completely false concept of social rule (naturalism), they do not hesitate to foster that erroneous opinion which is especially injurious to the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by our predecessor Gregory XVI deli ramentum, namely that the freedom of conscience and of cults is the proper right of each man. and this should he proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society."

As is evident, this freedom of conscience is condemned because of the ideology of the rationalists who founded their conclusions upon the principle that the individual conscience is under no law. and, therefore, is subject to no divinely given norms. Freedom of worship is condemned also when it is based upon religious indifferentism.


Finally, there is condemned that separation of the Church from the State which is based upon the rationalistic principle of the juridical omnicompetence of the State, according to which the Church is to be incorporated into the monistic organism of the State and is to be subjected to its supreme authority.

To understand these condemnations correctly. we must see in them the constant doctrine and solicitude of the Church concerning the true dignity of the human person and his true liberty (law of continuity). For the ultimate basis of human dignity lies in the fact that man is a creature of God. He is not God himself. but an image of God.

From this absolute dependence of man upon God there flows every right and duty of man to claim for himself and for others true religious liberty. For man is subjectively bound to worship God according to the sincere dictate of his own conscience (juxta reclaim Susie conscientiae normam) because objectively he is absolutely dependent upon God.

In order, therefore. that his absolute dependence upon God might not be infringed in any way. man must not be impeded in any way by others or even by public authority from freely practising his religion.

Therefore in opposing the philosophical and political tenets of laicism, the Church was fighting Continued on page 7, col. 3

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