Book Review: Religious Freedom: A Debate—By Arnold T. Guminski and Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S.
The debate between two subtle minds turns around the moot question of the compatibility between religious liberty as taught by Dignitatis Humanae of Vatican II and the pre-conciliar teaching, particularly Quanta Cura and Mirari Vos. What is at stake is only one aspect of the question, that is, for any citizen, the right of immunity from civil coercion regarding the public exercise of his religion as such. This is what we usually understand by religious liberty for every sect. The Middle Ages had one faith across the board. Protestantism broke the unity with the principle of religion by region, cuius regio eius religio. Benedict XVI defines rightly the present religious liberty as liberty of conscience, cuius conscientia eius religio.1
Fr. Brian Harrison, who has been writing on this question for over 30 years, has thrown the glove to an avowed atheist who, paradoxically, defends pretty well and pretty much the SSPX position. (We take exception against Guminski’s contention that the pre-conciliar doctrine was never proposed definitively, that is, infallibly. We deem that the doctrine has been taught infallibly, though without having been dogmatically defined.) It is something of a mystery to see a traditional priest coming to the rescue of the very religious liberty which has, for instance, led to the heresy of many millions of Latin Americans, bereft of all ecclesiastical and civil protection.
The disputatio certainly is the echo of the doctrinal discussions between Roman theologians and the SSPX. The interest of the latter, when they are made public, will certainly be their clarity and brevity. One cannot say the same of the long debate at hand. Yet at least the book is raising the right questions, even if much of the topic has been utterly covered in the first inning by Guminski.
Father Harrison, because he is conservative, is concerned by the issue of consistency between pre-conciliar doctrine and that of Dignitatis Humanae. The thrust of his whole argument is to defend the credibility of Vatican II, but this is a poor modus arguendi because a side issue becomes the main focus of his defense. He is forced to twist the meaning of the text to salvage the council. To do so, he had to chip away on both ends the wall of contradiction dividing Quanta Cura and Dignitatis Humanae. For this, he needs to give a very unecumenical version of the “rights of citizens” and of the “public order.” He surprisingly concludes that Quanta Cura gives non-Catholic sects some religious freedom, whereas Dignitatis Humanae limits religious freedom. Needless to say, this satisfies neither side: the traditionalists condemn him for dethroning Christ the King, and the conciliarists for destroying ecumenism.
A Synthesis of Father Harrison on Religious Freedom
According to the first version of Father Harrison, Dignitatis Humanae (DH) propounds the doctrine that:
- Man has in principle a right to religious freedom (immunity from civil prohibition regarding peaceful non-Catholic propaganda in predominantly Catholic countries, called religious freedom from now on). (A)
- This is a right founded on human nature. (B)
- This constitutes a reversal of mere policy from previous practice, not a doctrinal change. (C)
- The “traditional Catholic doctrine” concerning the “moral duty of men and societies towards the true religion and the one Church or Christ” remains “intact.” (D)
This right to religious freedom is protected by two safeguards:
- The rights of all citizens somehow includes the right (in some sense) of a Catholic, even though freely willing to be (or assuming the risk of being) so exposed, to be protected against temptations against his faith presented by non-Catholic propaganda. (E)
- The public order encompasses the divine positive law and discriminates between the True Church and sects. (F)
According to the second version of Harrison,
- The ‘right’ of DH is not a natural right, but is “an acquired right granted by the Church.” (G)
- DH sounds more liberal than it really is. The central doctrine of DH is that man’s religious freedom is essentially limited (DH, Art. 2), whereas freedom is incidental. (H)
Our objections to Father Harrison’s concept of Religious Freedom (based on the first round of Mr. Guminski)
Proposition (A). Man has in principle a right to religious freedom (immunity from civil prohibition regarding peaceful non-Catholic propaganda in predominantly Catholic countries).
- Father Harrison insists that what was condemned was the following proposition: “All [and each] peaceful non-Catholic propaganda has a right to immunity from civil prohibition.” But this is not identical to “some peaceful non-Catholic propaganda has the natural right to be immune from civil prohibition” (Vatican II position). He argues: “The passage from a permissive to a mandatory toleration is a harmonious bringing to the surface of something which good Catholics had traditionally observed in practice.”2
- Here, he misconstrues pre-conciliar papal doctrine as giving in principle some religious freedom when in fact it denied to any non-Catholic religion any natural right whatsoever to religious freedom.
(B) This is a right founded on human nature (DH 2.2).
- If this is true, this means that the pre-conciliar policy was objectively unjust. In other words, the Catholic Church, for over a thousand years of Christendom, has ignored and trampled upon a natural right of the person. Father Harrison himself recognizes that this could imply doubts as to the Church’s infallibility.
(C) This constitutes a reversal of mere policy from previous practice, not a doctrinal change.
- It seems singularly unusual that the “authentic interpretation” of DH by the Holy See after the Council was manifested without a change of doctrine.
- But a change of policy does involve a change of doctrine according to the text of Art. 7.3: “defined and declared.” The Council “in treating of this religious freedom intends to develop the teaching of more recent popes [recentiorum summorum pontificum doctrinam] on the inviolable rights of the human person” (DH 1.3). Hence, DH declared a doctrine concerning religious liberty (2.1).
- The changes imposed by Vatican II over the Spanish constitution are given as amendment based on the immutable divine law.
(D) The “traditional Catholic doctrine” concerning the “moral duty of men and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ” remains “intact.” (DH 1)
- DH 1 has nothing to do with the question of the coercive power as to religious matters. The preamble itself negatives this by, among other things, referring to the “people’s demand for religious liberty in carrying out their duty to worship God concerns freedom from compulsion in civil society.”
- If other paragraphs de facto contradict the traditional doctrine, this expression is a dead letter.
(E) The “rights of all citizens” to religious freedom somehow includes the right (in some sense) of a Catholic, even though freely willing to be (or assuming the risk of being) so exposed, to be protected against temptations against his faith presented by non-Catholic propaganda.
- It is true that this right of religious liberty must be exercised “within due limits.” However, it is nonsense to say there is a corresponding legal right—within the meaning of the term “rights of all citizens” in DH 7.3—of a Catholic not to be exposed to such public teaching by a non-Catholic religious community.
- The same paragraph of DH proceeds to add a proviso about the duty to abstain from improper proselytizing, a qualification which is pointless unless some proselytizing for some non-Catholic religion is deemed within the scope of legitimate public teaching.
- DH 6.5 declares “that it is wrong for a civil power to use force or fear or other means…to prevent anyone from entering or leaving a religious body.” But the protection of believers from temptations against faith presented by propaganda can be done only if a civil power uses such “force or fear…”
- Father Harrison himself saw the flaw of DH essentially banning religious freedom: “Even if it does not contradict the letter of the Declaration, it contradicts very definitely the primary intention of many Council Fathers and periti, especially those coming from mainly Protestant countries, for whom the chief purpose of a conciliar statement on religious liberty was to counteract, for example, the discrimination against Protestantism in countries like Spain…”3
(F) The public order encompasses the divine positive law and discriminates between the True Church and sects.
- This view of Father Harrison is the traditional position which Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani presented for consideration at Vatican II. The schema (which was rejected) proposed that: “Thus then, in the same way that the civil Authority judges that it has the right to protect public morality, likewise, in order to protect the citizens against the seductions of error, in order to keep the [Catholic] City in the unity of faith, which is the supreme good and the source of manifold, even temporal, benefits, the civil authority can, by itself, regulate and moderate the public manifestations of other cults and defend its citizens against the spreading of false doctrines which, in the judgment of the Church, put their eternal salvation at risk.”4
- The doctrine of DH on religious liberty is not just a disguised codification of Cardinal Ottaviani’s schema. “Public order” as used in DH 7 must narrowly be construed in order to conform to the clearly manifested legislative intent to exclude the above-described traditional components of the common-good coercive power.
- DH nowhere authorizes repression of any violations of the Catholic religion, as such. DH vindicates religious liberty as a natural right, to be universally recognized in all political communities as a fundamental civil right. The principle of religious liberty, a natural right to be universally protected by civil authority, applies to any political community, whatever its official position respecting religion.
- If Father Harrison’s interpretation is right, how does he explain the doctrine behind modern-day rampant ecumenism?
(G) The ‘right’ of DH is not a natural right, but is an acquired right granted by the Church.”
- This is a gratuitous affirmation, contradicted by the authentic teaching. DH 2.2 says that this right “is firmly based on the dignity of the human person as this is known from the revealed word of God and from reason itself.…The right to religious freedom is based on human nature itself, not on any merely personal attitude of mind.”
- In Veritatis Splendor, No. 56, Pope John Paul II has explained: “The great concern of our contemporaries for historicity and for culture has led some to call into question the immutability of the natural law itself, and thus the existence of ‘objective norms of morality’ valid for all people of the present and future, as for those of the past.”
(H) DH sounds more liberal than it really is. The central doctrine of DH is that man’s religious freedom is essentially limited (DH 2), whereas freedom is incidental.
According to Father Harrison, in the “fine print” and official commentary, which was not even published in Latin by the Vatican Press until thirteen years after the Council, it is revealed that this language is not to be understood in a way which would contradict the doctrine of the previous one and a half millennia, which in fact allowed for many more such governmental restrictions. Father Harrison disarmingly acknowledges that “if that strikes you as all rather confusing and less than straightforward, then I am inclined to agree with you.”5 But would it really be a good thing for the world to believe that the Council Fathers were guilty of such a subterfuge?
- If the essential doctrine of DH is to limit religious freedom, this means that DH is essentially vacuous. It reminds one of those sham legal constitutional provisions in totalitarian states which (in substance) affirm the right of the people to be free, as to a particular matter, but only within the limits of law.
- There is something very wrong about an approach which ultimately leads Father Harrison to conclude that there is no natural right to be free to publicly manifest or propagate any non-Catholic religion in predominantly Catholic countries; and that the doctrine of DH is consistent with this position.
We make ours the conclusion of Guminski, who reproaches Father Harrison for using the wrong methodology. It is essential to employ the correct method for the study of Dignitatis Humanae in order to endeavor to determine its manifestly intended meaning as disclosed by its text and legislative history, rather than to construct what appears to be a theory especially contrived in order to “save appearances.”
1 December 22, 2005, No. 17.
2 Brian W. Harrison, O.S., Religious Liberty and Contraception (Melbourne: John XXIII Fellowship Co-Op. Ltd, 1988), p. 126.
3 Ibid., p. 86.
4 Michael Davies, The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty (Long Prairie: Neumann Press, 1992), note 7 supra, p. 300.
5 Fr. Harrison’s remarks, National Wanderer Forum, September 24-26, 1993: “Roma…est.”