January 2012 Print

SiSiNoNo: Dignitatis Humanae and the Hermeneutic of Reform

by Abbé Jean-Michel Gleize

The Swiss review Nova et Vetera published in its October-December 2010 issue a study by Fr. Martin Rhonheimer on “The Hermeneutic of Reform and Religious Freedom.”1

Fr. Rhonheimer’s Thesis

A Return to the Actual Thinking of Benedict XVI

To a hermeneutic of discontinuity, Benedict XVI does not oppose a hermeneutic of continuity. Rather, he speaks of a “hermeneutic of reform” by which he means “an ensemble of continuity and discontinuity at various levels.” Consequently, the real key to a reading of the Council “in the light of Tradition” consists in distinguishing continuity and discontinuity, discerning the different levels at which each is situated. Taking the example of religious freedom: Benedict XVI shows where continuity of Church teaching is to be found, beyond the perceived discontinuity. Continuity exists because the Decree Dignitatis Humanae on Religious Freedom merely reconnects with the Church’s deepest patrimony.

Let’s see how Fr. Rhonheimer justifies Benedict XVI’s thinking. His demonstration is elaborated in two points. Firstly, Dignitatis Humanae is the adequate expression of revealed truth (Sec. 1.2). Secondly, beyond an apparent break with the teaching of Pius IX, there is continuity between what Vatican II teaches on religious freedom and the dogmatic patrimony of the Church (1.3).


The Example of Religious Freedom

According to Fr. Rhonheimer, the Church’s teaching on the subject of religious freedom is summed up in a principle: the rejection of a State religion and the necessary separation of the Church from all forms of political power. This principle is the basis of the social doctrine of the Church, and it is to be found in the Gospel. On the other hand, the doctrine of the social kingship of Christ, in which the State is the auxiliary of the Church and protects the public exercise of the true religion by limiting freedom of expression is completely absent from Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition. The idea of a Catholic State which would serve as the secular arm of the Church is not rooted in the deposit of faith, but corresponds rather to the concrete decisions of the post-Constantinian era of Christianity. These decisions eventually became fixed in canonical traditions and in their corresponding theological interpretations, thanks to which the Church has tried to defend its freedom against the incessant attacks of temporal powers. Subsequently and in the tradition of modern sovereign confessional States, they served to justify the typical idea of the Catholic State in which throne and altar existed in close symbiosis and in which representatives of the Catholic State zealously defended the rights of the Church. This symbiosis and unilateral vision culminating in clericalism did not fail to darken the face of the Church.

Victims of this theologico-canonical inheritance, Gregory XVI and Pius IX, like Pius VI beforehand (who had condemned the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in his 1791 Brief), identified the principle of religious freedom as a negation of the true religion. In effect, religious liberty consists in acknowledging the fundamental right of every individual not to be prevented by the State from publicly proclaiming the religion he in conscience holds, even a false religion. In the minds of these popes, such a right was the equivalent of placing all the religions on an equal footing (by according them the same civil rights). It amounted to a public denial of the true religion by the State’s profession of indifferentism in practice. For them, the abandonment of the principle according to which the State of a Catholic country must favor Catholic truth and deny the right to public exercise of every other religious confession, or at most tolerate it within certain reasonable limits, amounted to an admission ipso facto that there is not one true religion nor one true Church, but that all the religions are equal. That is why Mirari Vos and Quanta Cura condemned the principle of religious freedom as necessarily being the expression of religious indifferentism and of naturalism in practice. But the presuppositions of this condemnation imply a conception of the State which, far from reposing on the principles of Catholic faith and morals, flows rather from ecclesiastical traditions and practices originating in the Middle Ages, as do its theological justifications. Undoubtedly, one must acknowledge and salute the greatness of these popes who, starting from the theological positions of their times–of which they were unable to discern the historical character–thought they were acting in a spirit of heroic fidelity to their faith. In reality, the exclusive truth of the Christian religion and the uniqueness [unicity] of the Church of Jesus Christ as the way of eternal salvation remain compatible with a situation in which the State does not intervene to prevent the citizens from publicly professing other religions than Catholicism. One need only become aware of this in order to get past the condemnations of the last two centuries and to reconsider the issue of the relations between the Church and political authorities. This is what Vatican II accomplished by getting back to the Church’s earliest patrimony prior to the theologico-canonical inheritance of the post-Constantinian era.

The fundamental principle rediscovered by Dignitatis Humanae is twofold: on the one hand, individuals and society have the duty of offering to God the genuine worship of the true religion.2 On the other hand, no political authority may intervene to prevent individuals from acting according to their conscience in matters religious.3 These two axioms combine in a single principle: in order to fulfill their duty to God, individuals must be able to act, individually and socially, without constraint by any external authority. As Fr. Rhonheimer rightly observes at the conclusion of his study, this social doctrine was confirmed in the “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2002: “Living and acting in conformity with one’s own conscience on questions of politics is not slavish acceptance of positions alien to politics or some kind of confessionalism, but rather the way in which Christians offer their concrete contribution so that, through political life, society will become more just and more consistent with the dignity of the human person” (§6). Evangelization consists in the penetration of the structures of society by the Christian spirit, thereby favoring the manifestation of the kingdom of Christ. The spreading of the Gospel does not begin by a public profession of the true religion, but by the annunciation of the Church which takes place within the hearts of individuals, such that by the apostolic action of ordinary Catholics the Gospel spreads throughout human society and into all its institutions and the intercourse of daily life.


Continuity of the Magisterium

According to Rhonheimer’s study, Dignitatis Humanae did not depart from the teaching of the Magisterium. Undoubtedly, a discontinuity has been observed between the teaching of Pius IX and Vatican II, but it is only apparent. It is situated at the level of the concrete application of positive ecclesiastical law, not at the level of the principles of divine law. The infallible and irreformable teaching of the Church authoritatively indicates the natural moral law without any consideration of the consequences that may result from it in particular historical circumstances. That the Church may sometimes speak about this application is inevitable and may prove useful. But these statements cannot be taken as infallible and definitive interpretations of the natural law. They are rather changeable decisions: at the time they are taken, they may be compulsory for the Catholic faithful and require their obedience; but they may be recused by other subsequent magisterial decisions. [Pope Benedict XVI’s] 22 December 2005 Speech made a similar distinction between the principles which express the durable aspect and the concrete forms that depend upon historical circumstances. From Pius IX to Vatican II, there is continuity on the level of principles since the Church has not ceased to affirm, with the ontological dignity of the human person, the principle of the natural law, which justifies the right to profess one’s religion freely and without constraint. But there is no necessary link between this principle and the idea of the State held by Pius IX. It does not pertain to the truths logically or historically related to this dogma, and which it would be necessary to uphold in order to conserve and correctly interpret the deposit of faith. It pertains rather to the concrete applications of the natural law and can legitimately be changed. In effect, the right to profess the true religion freely and without constraint no longer requires the State’s intervention to prevent the public exercise of false religions. The discontinuity therefore is situated at the level of interpretation. Pius IX identified indifferentism with a specific form of socio-political organization in which the State does not recognize a duty to repress by legal penalties violators of Catholic law except insofar as public order requires. Vatican II condemns the indifferentism of all times, independently of all contingent forms of socio-political organization, which have nothing to do, whether positively or negatively, with the Gospel. The first Christians, moreover, rejected the very principle of a State religion. Dignitatis Humanae therefore freed the Church from secular historical ballast, the origins of which do not go back to the apostolic tradition and the deposit of faith, but rather to concrete decisions of the post-Constantinian era of Christianity.

Critical Analysis

Father Rhonheimer’s analysis relies upon a slightly updated variant of the historical method. This leads straight to a blatant contradiction. The premise of this analysis is unacceptable of itself, and thus Dignitatis Humanae contradicts the principles of positive and natural divine law.


Resurgent Historicism

The chief argument advanced by Fr. Rhonheimer is not new. It is the historicism of the new theology in vogue prior to the last council.

A Faulty Method

The argument rests entirely on the erroneous modernist method by which the statements of the magisterium, the Fathers of the Church, and of theologians are interpreted as if they were purely historical documents to be judged by the light of human reason. Its proponents deploy an erudition buttressed with copious quotations and footnotes, but this erudition is empty because it stays on the surface of the letter without reaching a profound understanding of these witnesses of Tradition.

Cardinal Billot made a decisive refutation of this flawed method.4 Its partisans approach Tradition as a mere historical fact, as a work of men who have transmitted their ideas to us. Therefore the interpretation of these ideas must rely solely upon the natural light of human reason and on simple scientific erudition. “They leave aside completely,” said Billot, “the criteria of a superior order which would, however, be necessary in order to judge legitimately the meaning intended by the Fathers of the Church in numerous passages which are obscure and which, absolutely speaking, leave the door open to a variety of interpretations. These critical theologians, victims of an itching that impels them to subject everything to their own judgment, will always select their texts among these difficult passages, taking those that may offer a heterodox meaning. This is how they manage to prove the conclusion they want: the sentiment that the primitive Church was different from the one that prevailed subsequently.” But for that, they postulate that Tradition is a human work. If such is the case, it may well be admitted that the great doctors of the fourth and fifth centuries were deluding themselves when they asserted so positively that in all their teachings they held true to the “sentiment” of the ancients. But the postulate is false because Tradition exceeds merely human capacities. “The conclusion that is established as conjectural or probable in the eyes of historical-critical analysis,” Billot says, “no longer is such if it is contrasted with a truth the evidence for which has been solidly established by another method. That conclusion is then a heresy or simply an error, and it is no longer legitimate to defend it if it contradicts the truths the faith teaches us or that theology demonstrates. Under the pretext of getting away from higher rules, one may propose to study the texts of Sacred Scripture or Tradition by availing oneself of the freedom and independence that are acceptable in profane subjects. But then not only will one not avoid heresy, one will become guilty of falsification.”

A similar falsification lies at the heart of Fr. Rhonheimer’s purported demonstration. His thesis postulates that “the idea of a Catholic State which would serve as the secular arm of the Church is not rooted in the deposit of faith, but rather corresponds to concrete decisions of the post-Constantinian era of Christianity.” The only way to uphold this postulate is to adopt the historicist viewpoint denounced by Cardinal Billot and to falsify from one end to the other the plain meaning of authoritatively taught Tradition.


The Foundation of the New Theology

This faulty method is inscribed in the argumentation of Fr. Congar, which resembles in every point that of Fr. Rhonheimer. For Congar,5 the genuine doctrine of the Gospel, rediscovered thanks to Vatican II, is that of religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) and of the strictly lay State (Gaudium et Spes). According to Congar, before A.D. 314, no explicit doctrine on this point is to be found in papal teachings, and there was separation of Church and State in conformity with the letter of the Gospel. After 314 and during the Middle Ages, the popes set about elaborating a teaching under the force of circumstances. That would be the theory of direct power which found its perfect elaboration with St. Gregory VII and Boniface VIII. Then starting in the modern age, with Protestantism in the 16th century and the Freemasonic Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, it would take the form of the theory of the indirect power, which was explained by the Popes of the 19th and of the first half of the 20th century. The term of this evolution would have been reached at Vatican II with Dignitatis Humanae.

These historicist presuppositions found their full expression in Jacque Maritain’s profane “new Christendom,”6 taken up by Charles Journet.7 While during the first period of his study of this question, Jacques Maritain followed rather faithfully the teaching of the Church’s supreme teaching authority and traditional theology,8 he eventually separated completely the temporal (natural) domain from the spiritual (supernatural) domain under the pretext of reuniting them in a symbiosis more profound than had hitherto existed. According to him, these two domains ought to be united in a new Christendom, but this union results from the pure juxtaposition (and no longer from the subordination) of two autonomous and parallel finalities, the temporal common good of the State and the spiritual common good of the Church. The mission of the Church in relation to the State is to foster the natural temporal values in their own order, for these values define the context of which a person stands in need to order his own spiritual welfare.9 The new Christendom of the new Church will have to be more pure, but also more hidden, like the leaven in the dough. “This can only happen by means of the cross; I do not say the cross as an external insignia and symbol placed on the crown of Christian kings or pinned on honorable lapels; I mean the cross of the heart, the taking up of the redemptive sufferings inseparable from existence.”10 Maritain’s idea surfaces in the conclusion of Fr. Rhonheimer citing the Doctrinal Note of 2002: the kingship of Christ does not begin with the public profession of the true religion, but with the annunciation of the Church in the hearts of men. Today Maritain’s system has triumphed. The Pope and the Bishops address the world in order to speak to it of ethics11 or ecology.12


A Flagrant Inconsistency

It is true that until 314 the persecuted Church preached submission to the pagan civil power in the name of the order established by God. This preaching expresses a respect for the natural order and can be summed up in the distinction of the two powers, that of civil society and that of the religious authorities. But distinction does not mean separation, and the Fathers took care to specify that even in this order, the civil authority has duties towards the true religion. The prince must, by his laws, defend the Church. This became even truer after 314, when the emperors recognized the Catholic religion as a State religion. The Fathers and the popes were to preach this state of affairs as proceeding from principles.

Boniface VIII innovated nothing when, in the Bull Unam Sanctam of 1302,13 he expounded the classic expression of the doctrine: “It is necessary…that temporal authority be subject to spiritual power…” There is a link between the temporal sword and the spiritual sword. The link is not a simple link of co-ordination, but of subordination. The two powers are distinct and independent each in its own order from the standpoint of their formal definition. But in practice one must be exercised in dependence on the other.14 Boniface VIII reaffirms the constant and unanimous teaching of Tradition;15 this doctrine constitutes the constant teaching of the Church’s supreme teaching authority, and as such benefits from the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

Centuries later, the teaching of Leo XIII and of St. Pius X does not constitute a novelty; these popes simply gave the clarifications called for in reacting to the errors of their times, which continue to be the errors of our time. St. Pius X made the definitive synthesis of these teachings in two documents that summarize the complete thinking of the Church facing the laïcisation or secularization of modern societies in the Encyclical Letter Vehementer Nos of 1906, and in the Letter to the French Episcopate on the Sillon in 1910, which condemned the separation of Church and State. The same doctrine as taught in the Middle Ages is reiterated, but it is expressed in a situation of the mounting apostasy of nation states. This led the popes of the modern age to distinguish between the theoretical teaching of dogma (which remains substantially the same) and prudence (which may counsel toleration of a state of affairs more or less directly opposed to doctrinal principles). For their part, Gregory XVI and Pius IX condemned the principle of religious freedom in that it implies the indifferentism of the public authorities in matters religious.16

Fr. Rhonheimer’s historicist postulate leads to the denial of the properly authoritative and infallible character of an immemorial Tradition. To attach Dignitatis Humanae to the deepest patrimony of the Church, it would be necessary to place in contradiction with the deposit of faith all the teaching of the supreme teaching authority [magisterium] from the fourth century till 1965. This consequence would seriously challenge the indefectibility of the Church, which is principally the indefectibility and constancy of one and the same doctrine, an unacceptable consequence that of itself reveals its flawed premise.


A False Presupposition

But beyond the faulty method used, the starting point itself remains unacceptable. Contrary to what Fr. Rhonheimer’s exegesis claims, the exclusive truth of the Christian religion and the unicity of the Church of Jesus Christ as the way of eternal salvation are not compatible with a situation in which the State does not intervene to prevent the citizens from publicly professing other religions than Catholicism. Firstly, because Pius IX affirms this incompatibility in Quanta Cura when he condemns the contrary proposition, in which it is maintained that “the best condition of society is the one in which there is no acknowledgment by the government of the duty of restraining, by established penalties, offenders of the Catholic religion, except insofar as the public peace demands.”17 Secondly, because to acknowledge the compatibility amounts to questioning the constitution of human nature, which is that of a political animal. Man cannot attain his end independently of life in a society, and society cannot function without the exercise of an authority responsible for ordering individuals to their end. But the exclusive truth of the Christian religion and the unicity of the Church of Jesus Christ as the way of eternal salvation are not abstract theories to which individuals may give their adherence as objects of thought regarding the internal forum of their conscience. These are practical truths which express the rule to which all men must conform their actions in order to reach their last end. The public authorities have a duty to apply this rule, which they would be unable to do unless they prevent the citizens from publicly professing other religions than Catholicism. Everything holds together: since man is a political animal, if he lives in a society in which the public authorities refuse to prevent the social propagation of error, he will eventually no longer distinguish between error and truth, which is the essence (and the nominal definition) of indifferentism. It is indifferentism pure and simple, the indifferentism of every time and place independent of every contingent form of socio-political organization.

Such was the reasoning of St. Thomas Aquinas in the De Regno. His argumentation is irreproachable. The only way to deny his conclusion is to deny the social nature of man. Man endowed in fact not only with nature but also with grace possesses a unique end–not natural, but supernatural–and all the goods of nature must be subordinated to the movement of grace such that a man does not seek health or riches or knowledge or the practice of virtue except insofar as it is required, as St. Ignatius of Loyola says, to save his soul. “For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Mt. 16:26). The last end is the formal motive and the rule for all intermediary ends. Now, the end of society and that of the State should be judged exactly the same way as that of the individual. That is why the last end to which the government of a head of state should be ordered is the salvation of souls, and it is according to this end that he ought to regulate the search for all the intermediary goods, as well as the achievement of the temporal common welfare. A head of state who governed without being concerned whether the citizens, practising the true religion or a false one, were on the road to heaven or hell, would be like the captain of the Titanic who was totally preoccupied with the passengers’ enjoying the voyage without being concerned to learn whether the ship was going to reach port or hit an iceberg.


Total Discontinuity

If the presupposition is false and condemned by Pius IX as contrary to divine law, the discontinuity is real and not merely apparent, for it is not situated at the level of the changeable decisions of positive ecclesiastical law. Pius IX affirms a conception of the State which must flow necessarily from the principles of divine law. These principles are to be found, on the one hand, in natural law, which informs us of the social nature of man and, on the other hand, in revealed divine law, which informs us of the supernatural destiny of man. Man lives in society in order to fulfill his true dignity by acting toward the attainment of his supernatural end. Accordingly, the society in which he lives, and therefore the political order which helps him live, ought to be concerned with helping him to attain this end. If this consequence is refused, it is because the principles from which it flows are rejected. It is just such a refusal that is inscribed in Father Rhonheimer’s analysis. The refusal in principle of a religion of the State postulates a different conception of the dignity of man, a dignity no longer based on behavior (operative dignity), but on existence (ontological dignity), according to which a man’s fundamental worth resides in the mere fact of his uncoerced action.

The crux of the matter lies there: To ask whether from Pius IX to Vatican II there is continuity is to ask whether, from Pius IX to Vatican II, the Church has always affirmed together with the ontological dignity of the human person a principle of natural law that would justify the right to not be prevented from freely propagating one’s [false] religion. Fr. Rhonheimer responds affirmatively and concludes logically that the religious liberty based on this principle of natural law constitutes a natural right as well as a positive civil right.18

In order to address this question, certain distinctions must be kept in mind. The Church has always recognized the spiritual nature of man, endowed with intellect and free-will, which is the foundation of his ontological dignity, and has taught that it is not lawful to violate this nature by compelling the acceptance of truth or good through positive coercion. But the Church has always said that the intellect and the free-will of man are made for their object, and that a man loses his moral dignity when he turns away from what is true and good. It is thus necessary and legitimate to prevent the public expression of error and of evil in order to preserve man’s moral dignity. This is all the more so because moral dignity is dignity fully attained, whereas ontological dignity is but an inchoate dignity that calls for moral dignity as its complement and indispensable achievement. The two are inseparable. A human being’s dignity cannot be restricted merely to his having a rational nature irrespective of his conduct. For if rational nature already gives a human person his ontological dignity, it is his good behavior in conformity with the divine law that gives him his full moral dignity. A person is worthy in the full meaning of the term because he or she possesses and exercises virtue, which is a principle of operation in conformity with the rule of reason, and indeed of revelation. If this aspect of dignity were denied and dignity was restricted to the standpoint of being only, abstracting from action, then it could be maintained that the fallen angels are as worthy as the good angels or that sinners are as worthy as saints. Now such a conclusion is patently false. Leo XIII teaches this clearly: “If the mind assents to false opinions, and the will chooses and follows after what is wrong, neither can attain its native fullness, but both must fall from their native dignity into an abyss of corruption.”19 Personal dignity thus depends upon an individual’s behavior and not only his existence. “Whatever, therefore,” the pope adds, “is opposed to virtue and truth, may not rightly be brought temptingly before the eye of man, much less sanctioned by the favour and protection of the law.”20

The principle introduced by Vatican II, which is supposed to justify freedom from constraint in the public exercise of religion, is an absolutely false principle, and the Church had never taught it previously. The divergence between Pius IX and Dignitatis Humanae is radical; it is situated on the level of principles and not on their prudential application. More precisely, Pius IX drew the necessary inference from a necessary principle: if the dignity of man consists in professing the true religion, the duty of the State is to preserve this dignity by preventing the public profession of false religions. Vatican II drew the necessary consequences from a diametrically opposite, and thus false, principle: if the dignity of man is first and foremost in his being endowed with free-will and a right to unrestrained action, then the State must not prevent the public exercise of false religions.

The principles reiterated by Pius VI, Gregory XVI, and Pius IX are necessary. The consequences that flow necessarily from them cannot change. To say, as did Benedict XVI, that the principles only express “the lasting aspect” is insufficient because that does not signify that these principles express necessary truths. That which lasts (even eternally) is not therefore necessary;21 and that which lasts can always not last. Whatever may be the specific forms of social life natural to man, it remains necessary that life in society should preserve him as much as possible from the obstacles which could prevent his attaining his supernatural end.22 Even if one does not reject out of hand the hypothesis that the organization of society in the modern era has changed, and granting (with a great deal of good-will) that the traditional structure of the State has become less and less distinct in the context of international society and globalization, it remains no less true that individuals do not live in isolation, but assemble in groups and must always strive to attain the unique supernatural end willed by God. Therefore, even if the political organizations familiar to Pius IX and St. Pius X are no longer those of our own era, the social kingship of Christ must still prevail, today as yesterday. This kingship is not just a contingent fact inscribed in history. It is necessary, and it is obligatory for all the societies of the earth, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The Pascal liturgy expresses this: Ipsius sunt tempora. Ipsi gloria et imperium per universa aeternitatis saecula. The Popes before Vatican II taught this royalty and condemned religious freedom in a context different from our own, but basing it upon necessary principles which still hold true in our circumstances. And that is why the hermeneutic of reform as it is given in the example of the interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae, far from representing the convergence of “the dynamic and fidelity,” implicitly repudiates the previous magisterial teaching.23


Because the Church is a divine institution, at every period of its history it must exercise its authority to teach. The task of its supreme teaching authority is to propound, to explain, and to clarify the invariable meaning of the deposit of faith. Therefore the Catholic Church in principle could never be defined as “the Church of seven or of the first twenty Ecumenical Councils.” On the other hand, it is indubitable that the authority of this living magisterium must be exercised in every period of history to transmit wihout alteration the deposit of faith definitively revealed, and from this point of view, the Catholic Church may be defined as “the Church of all time,” in the sense that Catholic doctrine remains substantially immutable in its meaning through every conceptual and verbal elaboration by means of which the magisterium expresses with increasing precision the same truth.

More precisely, as Pius XII taught in Humani Generis,24 the magisterium works “in order to state the truths of the faith ever more accurately,” and not for a clarification of its own teachings. The magisterium interprets and clarifies divinely revealed truths, but it does not need to interpret its own teaching. It is Sacred Scripture that needs to be interpreted because quite often the expressions that occur there are in a metaphorical language that can be understood in various ways. 25 On the other hand, the Church’s interpretation that clarifies the meaning of Scripture (or of the liturgy or of the writings of the Fathers of the Church)26 is always clear itself and does not require an “interpretation of the interpretation,” lest the series of interpretations approach infinity and culminate in absurdity. As a general rule, the task of the present-day teaching authority [magisterium] is limited to interpreting points of doctrine which the previous magisterium has not yet clarified. For example, the teachings of the first Council of Nicea are quite clear concerning the doctrine of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The second Council of Nicea did not clarify the first Council; it simply took up a different point of the doctrine not addressed by the first, concering the Third Divine Person. Magisterial teachings progress by succession, in that they are elaborated humano modo, by examining and clarifying different points of doctrine one after the other, in a distinct manner. For the human intellect cannot explicitly know in act different objects at one and the same time. The only comprehensive or global knowledge possible for man is implicit knowledge; explicit knowledge can only be partial and successive. Thus the activity of the magisterium progressively clarifies and interprets the deposit of Revelation, but each of its clarifications is definitive and does not call for any new interpretation.

The post-conciliar magisterium seeks to give a good interpretation to Vatican II by eliminating the bad.27 This is indeed proof that, far from clarifying doctrine, this Council at the very least obscured it, and thus its properly magisterial character may be suspected. That is why it is futile to take Vatican II as a criterion, since the clear teachings of the antecedent magisterium cannot be undertood and explained by relying upon equivocal teaching.28

The example of religious freedom perfectly illustrates this point. The social doctrine of the Church was clearly and definitively expounded in its principles by the pontifical magisterium, from Gregory XVI to Pius XII: all of these popes condemned the civil right not to be prevented from publicly professing an objectively false religion, specifying that their condemnation bore upon the right as such, whether limited or not. Dignitatis Humanae affirms this right within “due limits,” which are those of public order, a purely profane and natural criterion. [For further discussion, see below, n. 23.] As long as it rests upon such foundations, the Vatican Council II cannot represent a legitimate starting point for any hermeneutic. More exactly, going beyond the particular example of religious freedom, the presupposition of Benedict XVI’s 22 December 2005 Speech necessarily leads to the adoption of an interpretive approach of the historicist type. This supposes that historical contingency substantially affects all thought, and that doctrinal truths contain nothing necessary, if not some “lasting aspects.” But such historicism has always been condemned by the popes.29

More generally, Catholics of good will must certainly recognize fully in the pope and bishops of today, like those of yesterday, the authentic titulars of the Church’s teaching office [pouvoir de magistère]. In this sense, no one will go and deny that Vatican II was a legitimately convoked General Council. But Pope Paul VI clearly said that this Council declined to exercise its infallibility,30 and today, the Society of St. Pius X is no longer the only one to be pointing out that the Council’s teachings are at the very least equivocal and litigious to the extent that they represent a striking departure from Tradition, which is never equivocal. It is easy to declare, as Fr. Rhonheimer does, that in spite of everything, the teaching of Vatican II on religious freedom “manifests even more clearly the identity of the Church of Jesus Christ.” But the accuracy of such a statement should be ascertainable by this sign, that it provides a good answer to every objection, far from all “complicated, argumentative evasion.”31 Fr. Rhonheimer’s essay is very complicated. He ultimately leaves the reader unsatisfied. It is true that to avoid this, it would have been necessary to run the risk of a decisive confrontation by subjecting his argumentation to the inexorable light of the principle of non-contradiction.

Translated from “Dignitatis Humanae au risque de la discontinuité,” Courrier de Rome, June 2011, pp. 1-5.


1 The article appears on pp. 346-63. It is a French translation of an original German essay published initially in Die Tagespost of September 26, 2009. The review Nova et Vetera, founded by Cardinal Charles Journet, is currently directed by Cardinal Georges Cottier, O.P., former Vatican house theologian during the pontificate of John Paul II. Serving on its editorial board is Fr. Charles Morerod, O.P., currently rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas at Rome.

2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2105.

3 Dignitatis Humanae, §2.

4 Cardinal Louis Billot, Tradition et modernisme (Courrier de Rome, 2007), pp. 109-112 (second part of Ch. 3 in the treatise De l’immuable tradition contre la nouvelle hérésie de l’évolutionisme).

5 Catholicisme, s.v. “Église et État.”

6 First in Religion et Culture (1930) and Du régime temporel et de la liberté (1933); then in Les droits de l’homme et la loi naturelle (1942) and Christianisme et démocratie (1943).

7 In L’Église du Verbe Incarné (1955), Vol. 1, Ch. 6.

8 Principally in Primauté du spirituel (1927). See also Annex 3 in Œuvres complètes (Ed. Saint-Paul, 1984), III, 910-13.

9 “Christianity must inform, or rather transpenetrate the world, not in as much as this is its principal purpose (it constitutes, rather, an indispensable secondary goal), and not so that the world may immediately become the kingdom of God, but so that the refraction of the world of grace may be felt there more and more, and so that man may better live there his temporal life.” Jacques Maritain, Humanisme intégral in Œuvres complètes, VI, 420.

10 Maritain, ibid., 377.

11 “The multilateral diplomacy of the Holy See, for the most part, strives to reaffirm the great fundamental principles of international life, since the Church’s specific contribution consists in helping ‘to form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly’ (Deus Caritas Est, 28). On the other hand, ‘the direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful’ – and in the context of international life this includes Christian diplomats and members of Non-governmental Organizations – who ‘are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity’ and ‘to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility’ (ibid., 29).” Benedict XVI, Address to Representatives of the Holy See to International Organizations and to Participants in the Forum of Catholic-inspired Non-governmental Organizations, December 1, 2007. [Text online at vatican.va.]

12 “Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow. It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.” Benedict XVI, Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2008.

13 DS 873.

14 Rev. Dominique Palmieri, De Romano Pontifice, Thesis 21, p. 475. This author remarks that one may liken this to the subordination of philosophy to theology.

15 Fr. Palmieri is right when he emphasizes: “Pope Boniface did not introduce a new law, but contented himself with declaring authoritatively the already ancient divine law; that is why the very Christian king had to acknowledge the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome after the publication of the Bull Unam Sanctam no more nor less than he did before” (ibid., p. 473).

16 This point was explained in detail in the columns of this newspaper in the article entitled “État de Necessité,” Courrier de Rome, July-August 2008.

17 Denzinger 1689.

18 Rhonheimer, “L’herméneutique de la réforme et la liberté de religion,” Nova et Vetera, p. 354.

19 Immortale Dei [English version: quoted in Michael Davies, The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty (Neumann Press, 1992), p. 233.]

20 Ibid., [p. 234].

21 The famous question of the world’s eternal duration is there as evidence. In the eyes of St. Thomas (ST, I, Q. 46, Art. 1), it is possible to maintain without contradiction that the universe is created (hence contingent and not necessary) and that it is “lasting,” having always existed and having never to cease existing. St. Thomas’s brilliant idea was to distinguish between duration and necessity, and thus to escape from the too narrow confines of Aristotelian philosophy, for whom the eternity of the universe excludes the idea of its contingence and hence of its creation.

22 “The true liberty of human society does not consist in every man doing what he pleases, for this would simply end in turmoil and confusion, and bring on the overthrow of the State; but rather in this, that through the injunctions of the civil law all may more easily conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law.” [Libertas, §10.]

23 In passing, let us simply note that Fr. Rhonheimer passes over in silence an essential point of the doctrine of Vatican II. Dignitatis Humanae mentions the limits of the right to religious freedom at least three times. In §2: “…in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others within due limits.” In §3: “Injury, therefore, is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society when the just requirements of public order do not so require.” In §7, where it is stated that government’s action “is to be controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order.” This may give the impression that there is not a contradiction between Quanta Cura and the Vatican II decree. This would be the case if the religious freedom condemned by Pius IX and claimed as a civil right in Dignitatis Humanae were the same, but this does not seem to be the case. It may appear that Pius IX condemns an unlimited freedom whereas Vatican II claims a limited freedom; however, the freedom is indeed the same, unlimited in both cases, that is to say without restriction on the level of religion itself. The limits of which Vatican II speaks do not concern the freedom of religion as such, because the limits pertain to the public order of profane society; they do not aim at restricting the specifically religious domain of freedom. The properly religious domain of the right recognized by Dignitatis Humanae is without intrinsic limits because the right belongs to all religions, true or false. At the most there may be extrinsic limits when the circumstances in which religious freedom is to be exercised are taken into account, circumstances pertaining to the profane order, which is indeed an objective order, but one that is purely natural.

24 Pius XII carefully distinguishes between the teaching of the magisterium and the deposit of faith: “[T]he teaching office of the Church…has been instituted by Christ, Our Lord, to preserve and interpret divine revelation” (§17)…. “This sacred Office of Teacher in matters of faith and morals must be the proximate and universal criterion of truth for all theologians, since to it has been entrusted by Christ Our Lord the whole deposit of faith– Sacred Scripture and divine Tradition–to be preserved, guarded and interpreted” (§18)…. “For, together with the sources of positive theology God has given to His Church a living Teaching Authority to elucidate and explain what is contained in the deposit of faith only obscurely and implicitly. This deposit of faith our Divine Redeemer has given for authentic interpretation not to each of the faithful, not even to theologians, but only to the Teaching Authority of the Church.”

25 According to St. Vincent of Lerins’s classic expression of the problem: “But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason–because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.” Commonitorium, §5.

26 The Fathers explained Scripture more precisely, but it is not always an easy matter to determine their unanimity.

27 Benedict XVI said this in the Speech to the Curia of December 22, 2005: “Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarreled with each other.”

28 “The council’s lack of precision is admitted even by those theologians most faithful to the Roman See, who attempt to acquit the council of blame in the matter. But it is obvious that the need to defend the univocal meaning of the council is itself an indication of its equivocal character.” Romano Amerio, Iota Unum (Sarto House, 1996), p. 102, n. 8.

29 For example, by St. Pius X with the condemned proposition No. 22 of the Decree Lamentabili of 1907: “The dogmas the Church holds out as revealed are not truths which have fallen from heaven. They are an interpretation of religious facts which the human mind has acquired by laborious effort.” (DS 3422).

30 In Paul VI’s sermon during the last general session of the Council, he said, “the teaching authority of the Church, even though not wishing to issue extraordinary dogmatic pronouncements, has made thoroughly known its authoritative teaching…” (English version: www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/speeches/1965/documents/hf_p-vi_spe_19651207_epilogo-concilio_en.html.) In Paul VI’s general audience of 12 January 1966, he explained that the Council “avoided any extraordinary statements of dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility” (Michael Davies, Pope Paul’s Council, p. 218). Fr. Joseph Crehan, S.J., points out that the Council accepted the fact that it had “put forth its teaching without infallible definitions,” by concluding the decree on the Church “with the words decernimus ac statuimus [We decree and establish] and not with the word definimus.” The same formula is used for the 16 documents promulgated by the Council (A Catholic Dictionary of Theology [London, 1971], III, 227).

31 Rhonheimer, op. cit., p. 360.