The German Pope recognized that there were two different notions of freedom of religion, and only the “American” one was compatible with Catholicism.
by Massimo Introvigne.
In the previous article of this series, we saw how Benedict XVI never argued that there was a perfect continuity in the Catholic teachings on religious liberty proposed before and after the Second Vatican Council. There was, he said, a discontinuity and a “reform” but at the same time there was also a continuity, which guaranteed that the reform was not a “rupture.”
In the same speech of December 22, 2005, Benedict XVI presented the difference between a “French” and an “American” model of religious liberty, arguing that the Catholic Church had accepted the latter and rejected the former. The American model is compatible with the Catholic theology of truth. The French model is not.
The French Enlightenment and the French Revolution considered religious freedom as a philosophical doctrine, implying that all religions are equal and religious truth is merely subjective. This notion of religious freedom was rightly condemned by Pius IX, Pope Benedict said, and even today the Church cannot accept it. “If religious freedom, the Pope explained, were to be considered an expression of the human inability to discover the truth and thus become a canonization of relativism, then this social and historical necessity is raised inappropriately to the metaphysical level and thus stripped of its true meaning. Consequently, it cannot be accepted by those who believe that the human person is capable of knowing the truth about God and, on the basis of the inner dignity of the truth, is bound to this knowledge.”
However, Benedict continued, the meaning of religious liberty derived from the French Revolution is not the only possible meaning. “The American Revolution, the Pope argued, was offering a model of a modern State that differed from the theoretical model with radical tendencies that had emerged during the second phase of the French Revolution.” Thus, the Second Vatican Council accepted the American model and proclaimed the right to religious liberty not at a “metaphysical level,” but “as a need that derives from human coexistence” within the context of the modern secular State.
Again, Benedict XVI did not claim that there is a perfect continuity between Pius IX and “Dignitatis Humanae.” Obviously, there is not. But he did argue that the discontinuity concerned the application of the principles, “the practical forms that depend on the historical situation and are therefore subject to change.” On the other hand, he claimed there was continuity at the level of “the principles that express the permanent aspect.” For Benedict, this “combination of continuity and discontinuity” was precisely a clear example of a “reform in the continuity,” as opposed to a rupture.
In the Magna Charta of his social teaching, the 2009 encyclical “Caritas in veritate,” Benedict did mention religious freedom as one of the fundamental human rights, and warned once again that “religious freedom does not mean religious indifferentism, nor does it imply that all religions are equal.”
In 2010, Benedict XVI issued his Message for the 2011 World Day of Peace, entirely devoted to religious liberty. Interpreting “Dignitatis Humanae,” the Pope reaffirmed the notion of religious liberty as immunity from the coercion of the modern State. But it went one step further, by insisting that religious liberty “should be understood, then, not merely as immunity from coercion, but even more fundamentally as an ability to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth.”
From a philosophical point of view, an analysis of what the human person is in her essence comes “before” legal solutions. The person is ordained to truth and blessed with freedom for truth. Of course, free will allows for the use of freedom against truth. But in this case freedom erodes its very own foundation. A freedom which is used in order to deny the existence of truth, the Message says, “becomes self-negating and does not guarantee full respect for others. A will which believes itself radically incapable of seeking truth and goodness has no objective reasons or motives for acting save those imposed by its fleeting and contingent interests; it does not have an ‘identity’ to safeguard and build up through truly free and conscious decisions. As a result, it cannot demand respect from other ‘wills,’ which are themselves detached from their own deepest being and thus capable of imposing other ‘reasons’ or, for that matter, no ‘reason’ at all. The illusion that moral relativism provides the key for peaceful coexistence is actually the origin of divisions and the denial of the dignity of human beings.”
On April 29, 2011, Benedict XVI sent a message to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which was holding a conference on religious freedom. He repeated that “Dignitatis Humanae” also offers an “anthropological foundation to religious freedom” in addition to legal elements, but also emphasized that “of course, every state has a sovereign right to promulgate its own legislation and will express different attitudes to religion in law.”
There is in this message an echo of the theological opinion sent to Archbishop Lefebvre by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 1987 we mentioned in the first article of this series, which stated that “DH [Dignitatis Humanae] does not imply a condemnation of the conduct followed in past centuries by some Christian princes, whose historical evaluation is quite complicated.” Obviously these “Christian princes” of old did not grant to their subject religious liberty in the sense of “Dignitatis Humanae.”
The latter is a document focusing on the contemporary secular States. According to Benedict XVI, it recognizes that there have been in the course of history quite different forms of state, and is not aimed at passing judgment on any of these forms, provided that the basic principle that “no one should be forced to act in a manner contrary to his or her own beliefs” was respected. Of course, in several historical cases that principle was not respected, sometimes with the blessing of the Catholic Church. John Paul II had already apologized for this disrespect.