It was in dealing with Archbishop Lefebvre’s refusal of the Second Vatican Council that Cardinal Ratzinger started reflecting in depth on the foundation of religious liberty.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 4.
I shook hands with four Popes but the only one I had serious conversations with was Benedict XVI (1927–2022), starting when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. One of the topics we discussed was religious liberty, and how this concept can be affirmed on theological and philosophical grounds that would exclude relativism, i.e. the theory that all religions are equally true—or equally false—and the question of truth is irrelevant.
For believers, this is a serious problem. We all want religious liberty, and today most religionists recognize that either it is granted to everybody or in the end nobody will enjoy it. However, some argue that the only possible philosophical foundation of religious liberty is that no religion is “truer” than others. This foundation would perhaps lead to a legal protection of freedom of religion but may ultimately destroy the claims of the very religions it should theoretically protect.
This century-old question was important for Benedict XVI, and I believe that remembering his crucial, although not uncontroversial, contribution is a fit way to honor his memory.
One of the conflicts involving the contemporary Catholic Church that for decades generated a considerable interest in the media is the one with the followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905–1991) and others who challenge the authority of the Second Vatican Council. Lefebvre was excommunicated in 1988, and died without reconciling himself with the Church. Four bishops he consecrated without Rome’s authorization were also excommunicated.
Pope Benedict XVI lifted the latter excommunications in 2009, and started talks aimed at bringing Lefebvre’s organization, the Society of St. Pius X, back to the Roman fold. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but the dialogue he had already started when, before becoming Pope, he was in charge of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, offered Ratzinger the opportunity to further reflect on the foundations of religious liberty.
Although many media reports gave the impression that at the heart of the controversy was Lefebvre’s and his followers’ defense of the pre-Vatican II Mass against the liturgical reform of Pope Paul VI (1897–1978), Benedict XVI warned that this was not the case. In fact, when he liberalized the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, this did not solve the problems with most followers of Lefebvre. A general judgment on the documents of the Second Vatican Council was a deeper subject of contention than liturgy. And the controversy mostly focused on religious liberty.
Pre-Vatican-II Catholic teaching traditionally taught that only true religion, i.e. Catholicism, had a genuine right to be protected by the States. Other religions may be tolerated for the sake of the common good, but there was, strictly speaking, no “right to error” in matter religious. Religious tolerance might be appropriate and even necessary, but it was different from full-fledged religious liberty. This doctrine, although with different nuances, was particularly developed against modern liberalism by Popes Pius IX (1792–1878) and Leo XIII (1810–1903).
The Second Vatican Council in its declaration “Dignitatis Humanae” (December 7, 1965) proclaimed that religious liberty is a fundamental right for everybody, based on the very dignity of each human being. The declaration was adopted by the Council after a very long discussion. It cautioned in its very first paragraph that its content “has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men [sic] and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”
This caveat notwithstanding, traditionalist opposition to the Second Vatican Council focused on the apparent contradiction between “Dignitatis Humanae” and earlier encyclicals that had condemned the modern notion of religious liberty such as Pius IX’s “Quanta cura” (1864) and its companion “Syllabus of Errors,” and Leo XIII’s “Libertas” (1888). Traditionalists did acknowledge that Pope Pius XII (1876–1958) was somewhat more tolerant of religious minorities in Catholic countries. But he always talked of religious tolerance rather than of religious liberty.
The debate may seem somewhat strange to non-Catholics. They may argue that the problem has one simple solution. The Catholic Church before Vatican II was either wrong or speaking from the perspective of a bygone theology, which modernity unavoidably changed. Happily, Vatican II took note of these changes and accepted the same liberal doctrine of religious liberty that Pius IX and Leo XIII had condemned. Indeed, this has been the position of some liberal Catholic historians with respect to both religious liberty and other teachings of the Second Vatican Council. The Council, they argue, has represented a discontinuity and a rupture in the teachings of the Church—but a happy one, a new beginning.
Paradoxically, their position is quite similar, as far as the historical reconstruction is concerned, to Lefebvre’s. The French Archbishop also argued that several documents of the Council represented a rupture with the past. For him, however, such rupture was not happy but catastrophic. And “Dignitatis Humanae” represented the most catastrophic rupture of them all with the older Catholic teachings.
While several non-Catholic historians of the Council do share this reconstruction, post-Vatican II Popes have never endorsed it. In fact, for the Catholic Church admitting that a solemn teaching such as the Council’s declaration on religious liberty directly contradicts an equally solemn teaching by previous Popes would create intractable problems about how the Church conceives itself.
The problem is not infallibility, since very few teachings of the Catholic Church are clearly defined as infallible, and whether these include the matter of religious liberty is both disputed and unclear. But outside the narrow realm of infallibility does not lie, for loyal Catholics, an alleged area of “fallibility,” including teachings one would be free to accept or reject. The Church claims that even the so called ordinary or authentic Magisterium, although not infallible, forms a coherent corpus throughout the centuries and should be loyally accepted by every good Catholic.
This is why the Popes have tried to reconcile older and more recent teachings on religious liberty, claiming that the apparent discontinuity hides a deeper continuity, and does not involve a rupture. Although both Paul VI and John Paul II (1920–2005) did speak on these topics, here I would confine myself to teachings associated with Joseph Ratzinger, first in his tenure as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (1981–2005) and later as Pope Benedict XVI (2005–2013).
In 1987, one year before his excommunication, Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith tried to persuade Lefebvre that there was no rupture about religious liberty between pre-Vatican II Magisterium and “Dignitatis Humanae.” The letter to the French Archbishop “Liberté religieuse. Réponse aux ‘dubia’ présentés par S.E. Mgr. Lefebvre,” dated March 9, 1987, enclosed a lengthy theological opinion which, although technically not part of the Catholic Magisterium, is quite important for our topic.
The opinion insisted on two points. The first was that the religious liberty proclaimed by “Dignitatis Humanae” is not a positive right but an immunity from the coercion of the modern secular State. The second was that this peculiar form of State is the immediate reference of the document of the Second Vatican Council, while oldest Catholic statements had in mind a different kind of government.
The opinion also recalled the lively discussion that led to the decision by the Council to use the world “liberty” rather than “tolerance.” One reason of the choice was that the notion of “religious tolerance” was slowly becoming less important than “freedom of religion or belief” in international treaties and conventions.
Another reason was that “tolerance,” when dealing with States that today tend to expand their sphere of authority, would have been a weaker claim than liberty, and might have implied that religious freedom is something that the State may or may not concede according to its changing priorities. The opinion concluded that, once an admittedly difficult process of interpretation is completed, one discovers that “the teaching of Vatican II is perfectly compatible with the teaching of Leo XIII.”
This did not persuade Lefebvre. Both as cardinal and as Pope, Benedict XVI will continue his reflection on this issue in subsequent years.