October 7, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: Declaration on Religious Liberty

John F. Fink(Eleventh in a series of columns)

The fourth and final session of the Second Vatican Council promulgated 11 documents. This column, though, will be about only one of them.

From the start of the council, the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” was seen as being the American document. But the document wasn’t voted on during either the second or third sessions.

For most of the existence of the United States, the idea of freedom of religion was seen differently in this country than it was in Europe. As far back as Bishop John England of Charleston, who spoke on religious liberty to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1826, Americans recognized that the Catholic Church could flourish when there was freedom of religion.

Cardinal James Gibbons and Archbishop John Ireland were particularly outspoken on the topic at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

The Church at the time commonly taught that civil governments had an obligation to recognize the Catholic Church.

Fifty years after the condemnation of Americanism, Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray began to argue that government’s obligation is to ensure freedom of all its citizens, especially religious freedom. This, obviously, was no more than what the First Amendment to our Constitution stated, but that amendment clearly was not expressed in Church teaching as it had developed to that point in history.

Murray’s articles in the American Ecclesiastical Review were sent to Rome. In 1952, Cardinal Alberto Ottaviani, head of the Congregation of the Holy Office, said that the Church’s teachings were as valid as ever. In 1954, Murray’s Jesuit superior ordered him to stop writing on the subject.

Murray obeyed this order until Pope John XXIII was elected in 1958. Then he published a book titled We Hold These Truths in which he presented his arguments for freedom of religion. Murray and his book made the cover of Time magazine.

When Vatican II began, Murray wrote to the U.S. bishops on the commission that was preparing the “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” and he was so persistent that Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York invited him to be a peritus (expert) at the council. He eventually became the major drafter of the declaration.

Before the fourth session, Blessed Paul VI took a personal interest in the document. After meeting with Father Murray, he told the council’s secretary to go ahead with the printing of the document for discussion and voting by the bishops. There remained a great deal of opposition, but it was finally promulgated by a vote of 2,308 to 70.

For Catholics in central and southern Indiana, it should be noted that Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter of St. Louis, previously archbishop of Indianapolis, was a noted advocate of the declaration during the council.

The declaration says: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in public or in private, alone or in association with others” (#2). †

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