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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 January 2016

Russell Hittinger*
William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and Research Professor of Law, University of Tulsa


It is said that John Henry Newman was the “father of the Second Vatican Council” because of his work on doctrinal development and the claims of human conscience. Of the sixteen documents produced by the council, Dignitatis Humanae (“Declaration on Religious Liberty”) was recognized from the outset as a development of doctrine. Importantly, it was the second shortest of all the council's documents. Yet, for the past fifty years there has been lively debate about whether the development is consistent with previous church teachings and whether it is coherent on its own terms. This essay does not attempt to resolve all of the disputed issues regarding either consistency or coherence of the doctrine. Rather, I show, first, how and why Dignitatis Humanae was written in such a manner as to be surprisingly silent about its own place in the history of human rights as well as church teachings about church-state relations. Second, I attempt to interpret the silences in order to better situate ongoing debate about Dignitatis Humanae.

Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 2016 

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1 John XXIII, Pacem in Terris [Encyclical on establishing universal peace in truth, justice, charity, and liberty] (April 11, 1963), §14. Every magisterial and conciliar document quoted or referenced can be found in both the original language and the English translation at the website under Resource Library, Supreme Pontiffs, or Roman Curia. Unless otherwise noted, citations reference the online documents.

2 For the preparation of the document and internal discussions of the drafters, see Alberto Melloni, Pacem in terris: Storia dell'ultima enciclica di Papa Giovanni (Rome: GLF Editori Laterza, 2010).

3 “That is our American heritage, our most cherished freedom. It is the first freedom because if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile. If citizens are not free in their own consciences, how can they be free in relation to others, or to the state?” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2012). “[Religious freedom] is indeed the first of human rights, not only because it was historically the first to be recognized but also because it touches the constitutive dimension of man, his relation with his Creator.” Pope Benedict XVI, “Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps” (Vatican City, January 10, 2011).

4 The schemata of 1962 were redrawn after the first session of the Second Vatican Council. For an important firsthand report based upon contemporaneous notes of the discussions leading to the new schemata, see Yves Congar, My Journal of the Council, trans. Mary John Ronayne and Mary Cecily Boulding (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier Books, 2012), 223–27.

5 For the history of the document see Monsignor Pietro Pavan's work. Pavan, who taught at the Lateran University, headed the pope's team of writers for Pacem in Terris. Later, he wrote a very useful account of the origin and evolution of the document Dignitatis Humanae. Pietro Pavan, “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler, trans. Hilda Graef (New York: Herder and Herder, 1989), 4:49–86.

6 Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae [Declaration on religious freedom] (December 7, 1965).

7 Ian Ker, Newman on Vatican II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1. Note, however, that the online concordance detects no mention of Newman in any of the sixteen conciliar documents. Vatican Ecumenical Council II: Documents, I IntraText CT ed. (Eulogos, 2007),

8 John XXIII, “Gaudet Mater [Address on the occasion of the solemn opening of the Most Holy Council]” (Vatican City, October 11, 1962).

9 Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world] (December 7, 1965).

10 Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, §§ 9, 12.

11 Ibid., §1.

12 Ibid., §15.

13 The relator of the commission, Bishop de Smedt, commented that the relation of Dignitatis Humanae to past popes is “a matter for future theological and historical studies to bring to light more fully.” “Congregatio Generalis CLXIV, 19 Nov. 1965,” Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani Secundi (Vatican City: Typis polyglottis Vaticanis, 6 vols. 1970–1978), vol. 4, part 8, 719.

14 Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, §§ 2–8.

15 Ibid., §§ 9–15.

16 Again, according to the Relator: “the special object of our Declaration is to clarify the second part of the doctrine of recent Supreme Pontiffs [enucleatio secundae partis doctrinae recentiorum Summorum Pontificum].” “Congregatio Generalis,” vol. 4, part 8, 719 (emphasis added). Clearly, the commission understood that the documentary parts are different from the historical parts.

17 John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis [Encyclical at the beginning of his papal ministry] (March 4, 1979), §§ 12, 17.

18 During the council, the Polish ecclesiastics would meet in the apartment of Monsignor Malinski to exchange ideas about the goals of the council. On one occasion, Archbishop Wojtyla was invited to chat with friends. Asked for his opinion about the document on religious liberty, he said,

It is the end of the Constantine era, which was characterized by a strict accord between the Altar and the Throne, between the Church and the State, illustrated in its highest point by the birth of the Holy Roman Empire in the 9th century. We face a grave problem: to elaborate new forms for relations between the Church and the State, [especially] the right of the Church to religious liberty.

Mieczyslaw Malinski, Mon Ami Karol Wojtyla [My friend Karol Wojtyla] (Paris: Centurion, 1980), 190–91. Wojtyla saw that the church becomes the champion of religious liberty first by preserving its own liberty and then by affirming the liberty of others.

19 Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 231.

20 Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors (December 8, 1864). The Syllabus was attached to Pius IX's encyclical Quanta Cura [Encyclical on condemning current errors] (December 8, 1864). The core of the church-state discussion consists of §§ 19–55 of the Syllabus. Online versions of Quanta Cura and the Syllabus are available in English through the EWTN document library: https://

21 Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors, §§ 19, 20.

22 Ibid., §§ 56–64.

23 See ibid., §§ 1–18, and especially §§ 77–79, which reiterate the traditional position that in Catholic countries the church should hold a privileged position in the public law. Dignitatis Humanae does not absolutely abjure special recognitions, such as provided by concordats or constitutional preambles. Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, § 6. But such recognitions must abide both principles of liberty: the principium fundamentale in Dignitatis Humanae § 13, which is to say no quid pro quo that compromises the integrity of the apostolic constitution, and the natural or human right sketched in Dignitatis Humanae part one.

24 First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus [First dogmatic constitution on the Church of Christ] (July 18, 1870), chapter 3, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman P. Tanner (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 2:813–15.

25 Ibid., chapter 3.

26 Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, § 13. At Vatican Council II, the principium fundamentale is repeated in a document on the episcopal authority of the bishops, Christus Dominus: “In discharging their apostolic office, which concerns the salvation of souls, bishops per se enjoy full and perfect freedom and independence from any civil authority. Hence, the exercise of their ecclesiastical office may not be hindered, directly or indirectly, nor may they be forbidden to communicate freely with the Apostolic See, or ecclesiastical authorities, or their subjects.” Second Vatican Council, Christus Dominus [Decree concerning the pastoral office of bishops in the Church] (October 28, 1965), § 19.

27 Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, § 13.

28 In a paper prepared for the Vatican, I map more than a dozen different church-state arrangements onto Dignitatis Humanae. F. Russell Hittinger, “Political Pluralism and Religious Liberty: The Teaching of Dignitatis Humanae,” in Universal Rights in a World of Dignity: The Case of Religious Freedom, Acta 17, eds. Mary Ann Glendon and Hans F. Zacher (Vatican City: Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 2012), 39–55, 677–80,

29 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217A, U.N. GAOR, 3d Sess., 1st plen. mtg., U.N. Doc A/810 (Dec. 12, 1948), § 18.

30 For a useful study of the consistency and coherence of the moral-juridical vector, along with an updated bibliography of disputants, see Barrett H. Turner, “Dignitatis Humanae and the Development of Moral Doctrine: Assessing Change in Catholic Social Teaching on Religious Liberty” (PhD. Diss., Catholic University of America, 2015).

31 Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum [Encyclical on capital and labor] (May 15, 1891).

32 For more detailed account of the evolution of Catholic Social Doctrine, see my article, “The Coherence of the Four Basic Principles of Catholic Social Doctrine: An Interpretation,” in Pursuing the Common Good, Acta 14, ed. Margaret S. Archer and Pierpaolo Donati (Vatican City: Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 2008), 75–123, Regarding the scissors like argument for corporate liberties in general, see my chapter, “Toward an Adequate Anthropology: Social Aspects of Imago Dei in Catholic Theology,” in Imago Dei: Human Dignity in Ecumenical Perspective, ed. Thomas Albert Howard (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 39–78.

33 Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, §7. See John C. Murray, “The Declaration on Religious Freedom,” in Bridging the Sacred and the Secular: Selected Writings of John Courtney Murray, S.J., ed. J. Leon Hooper (Washington, DC: George Washington University Press, 1994). Murray's essay is also available online at the Woodstock Murray archives,

34 Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, §§ 50–52.

35 John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, § 14.

36 Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, § 2 (citation omitted).

37 Lactantius, Divine Institutes, book 4, chapter 28.

38 Ibid., book 5, chapter 19.

39 It does make an appearance in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), §§ 2084–135.

40 Thomas Aquinas gives two accounts of religion in the Summa Theologiae. In the first part of part II, questions 80–81, he treats it as a natural rather than a theological virtue. In the first part of part II, questions 98–103, he covers it quite differently, here in terms of the historical succession of laws, from the natural law, human positive law, and Mosaic law. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, part I-II, questions 80–81, part I-II, questions 98–103. It is a complicated topic because while Aquinas recognizes a natural duty to give due to God he does not hold that there is any such thing as a natural religion.

41 Epictetus, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, The Harvard Classics: 1909–14, ed. Charles Eliot, trans. Hastings Crossley (New York: Collier & Sons, 1909), vol. 2, part 2, § 1.

42 Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, question 94, article 2.

43 Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, § 3.

44 Bradley, Gerard V., “Pope John Paul II and Religious Liberty,” Ave Maria Law Review 6, no. 1 (2007): 3359Google Scholar. Not only is this is a very lucid article on Dignitatis Humanae, but it alerted me to the importance of Ratzinger's work in Dominus Iesus.

45 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus [Declaration on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church]. (August 6, 2000), § 7, quoting John Paul II, Fides et Ratio [Encyclical on the relationship between faith and reason] (September 14, 1998), § 13. In Fides et Ratio, John Paul observes that “All men and women, as I have noted, are in some sense philosophers and have their own philosophical conceptions with which they direct their lives. In one way or other, they shape a comprehensive vision and an answer to the question of life's meaning; and in the light of this they interpret their own life's course and regulate their behaviour.” John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, § 30. And, what is relevant to Dignitatis Humanae part one, that they do so both by a personal quest and within communal traditions: “On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person's capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.” John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, § 32. Together, and applied to Dignitatis Humanae (1) the natural inclination to know the truth about God is a kind of natural philosophical act, but not necessarily a scientific one; (2) its formation is ordinarily in the context of communication with others.

46 Pius XII, Mystici Corporis [Encyclical on the mystical body of Christ] (June 29, 1943); Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] (November 21, 1964).

47 Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, §§ 4–6.

48 Paul VI, “Address of Pope Paul the VI during the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council,” (Vatican City, December 7, 1965).