Dignitatis Humanae and the Rediscovery of Religious Freedom

Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: An Interpretation of DH on the Right to Religious Liberty

David L. Schindler

“[T]he juridical idea of freedom, in abstracting the negative meaning of a right from its positive link with truth, so far . . . renders the right to religious freedom arbitrary; while the Declaration’s idea of freedom, in affirming freedom’s positive . . . obligation to seek the truth . . . demands a genuinely universal right to religious freedom.”

Catholics are generally aware that the background preparations for what was to become the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom emphasized that truth alone had rights, and that error was at best to be tolerated. Catholics are also generally aware that, after the early debates regarding religious freedom, the Council shifted its emphasis away from the formal question of truth to the rights of the human person. While the vast majority of Council bishops affirmed this shift, it harbored an ambiguity that became the source of intense debate during the further process of redaction. The new approach, with its framing of the question of rights mainly in terms of the dignity of the person—hence Dignitatis humanae (=DH), the title (“incipit”) of the final document—so far appeared to involve abstraction from considerations of truth: but in what sense? The Council bishops claimed, not that a person had a right to error as such, but rather that each person had, in relation to others in society and to the state, a civil right to exercise his religious freedom, even when he was wrong.

Over time, however, it became clear that the Council bishops did not agree regarding the foundations underpinning the right to religious freedom. Granted that this right is founded in the dignity of the human person, on what does the dignity of the human person itself finally rest, and how does one’s conception of these foundations affect the nature of the right? Can one assert a civil right to religious freedom without thereby at least implicitly invoking some claim about the nature of the person, and so far the question of truth? And if rights are not tied in some significant sense to a claim of truth, what assurance can we have that the state will adjudicate justly in the case of conflicting claims of rights, thus avoiding arbitrary repression of one group’s rights in favor of another’s?

I argue in this article that the prevalent readings of DH today, while rightly recognizing the Council’s shift of emphasis away from the notion of truth formally considered to the notion of the person, fail for the most part to take note of the profound ways in which the issue of truth emerges once more, precisely from within this new context centered in the person. In other words, there are in point of fact not one but two significant conceptual shifts that occurred during the course of the conciliar debate. The first occurred in connection with the third draft of the document (textus emendatus), when the discussion moved away from the earlier focus on whether error as such has rights to a focus rather on the person as the subject of rights. But a second shift also occurred, notable especially in the fifth draft (textus recognitus), regarding the concern voiced by some of the Council bishops that the necessary “connection that exists between the obligation to seek the truth and religious freedom itself has not yet [i.e., in draft three or four] been made clear.”  The significance of this second conceptual shift has been largely underestimated in most post-conciliar discussions, despite the fact that the concerns that lay behind the second shift are clearly reflected in the final text of the Declaration. In fact, the controversies regarding Dignitatis humanae and religious freedom that have beset the Church since the Council bear on just the issues raised in this second conceptual shift. It is the relationship between these two shifts of emphasis, which emerge especially with schemas 3 and 5, respectively, that I wish to focus upon in this article.


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