The issue of religious freedom from a Catholic viewpoint has always been controversial, since Catholicism is not only seen as a religion, in the historical sense, but also a great force in the political structure in the past. Dignitatis Humanae came about when the Vatican Council II faced conflicts on what model of religious freedom was to be put before the Council. Traditionalists called for religious tolerance but claimed that an abstract right to religious liberty was relativistic or simply some aspects of religious liberty are dependent on different factors and cannot attain a definite standpoint.
The declaration was largely drawn from the first draft “Unity” by Cardinal Bea, the draft was part of the schema on ecumenism. These conflicts were encountered during the first session of the council. On the second session of the Council, conflict over a possible declaration on religious freedom continued. Materials used by various bishops were mainly from John Courtney Murray’s draft. The conflict moved from arguments over the content to whether it would be voted on before the Council ends. During the third session, Declaration on Religious Liberty was approved by Theological Commission.
There was an appeal that certain voting be held on the third session but the Pope decided that it be moved to the next session. The final vote was taken and promulgated on the fourth session. Many issues were raised before the voting but the Declaration’s statement of development was a key issue. There were attempts to delay the voting again, arguing that support for the current text was uncertain. The declaration was approved on October 25, 1965 with only minor amendments and was promulgated December 7 of the same year.
Religious freedom is vital to man’s life, it is not just for Catholics but for all. Dignitatis Humanae is a declaration which focuses on how religious can be attained in a secular world. It’s a declaration on how different sectors such as the government, the Church, and even individuals should interact, not just to achieve order but to elevate human dignity. In elevating human dignity, universal justice is not difficult to attain. The heart of Dignitatis Humanae is religious freedom based on human dignity through reason and divine revelation.
Human dignity here means man’s very value, his nature and right to reason and his free will. Human dignity entails, since men are impelled by nature and bound by moral obligations, the search for truth, religious truth in particular. Once truth is known, man is to adhere to it and order his life in accord to its demands. The declaration points out however, that men cannot do these obligations unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion and psychological freedom. Religious freedom as a right has its foundations not in the subjective or relativistic disposition but in man’s very nature.
The right to immunity does not only apply to those who adhere to the truth but even to those who do not live up to their obligation to seek for the truth, provided that just public order be observed. The declaration states that in all his activity, a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, and it follows that he is not to be forced to act against his conscience nor restrained from acting according to his conscience, especially when it comes to religious matters. The reason for this is that the exercise of religion consists in internal, voluntary, and free acts where man sets his life toward God.
Going to the social nature of man,
Parents are given the right to determine the kind of religious education their children are to receive. As for the government, it must recognize the right of parents to make a free choice of schools and of other means of education. The rights of parents are simply violated if their children are forced to attend instructions which are not in agreement with their religious beliefs. The government should also help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, to enable people to exercise their religious rights and duties, and also that the society may profit by the moral qualities of justice and peace.
The care of the right to religious freedom (devolves) upon the whole citizenry, upon social groups, upon government, and upon the Church and other religious communities. Lastly, the government’s role is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law is not violated. Clearly, a wrong is committed when government imposes upon its people, by force or fear or other means. The declaration further states that all the more is it a violation of the will of God and the sacred rights of the person and the family of nations when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy religion.
The right to religious freedom and its practice is subject to certain regulatory norms. In the use of all freedoms, the moral principle of both personal and social responsibility must be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect for the rights of others and for their own duties. In attaining religious freedom in the society, men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility. Dignitatis Humanae is one way of proving that Catholicism is not a religion of coercion but a religion of freedom and human dignity.
One of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be out of freedom or simply putting it, embracing the Christian faith is not be forced against man’s will. The means of attaining religious freedom or the very expression of it should be an imitation of how Christ taught by word and example. Christ converted men to faith not through coercion but by the power of evangelization. Christ, in His time also acknowledged the power of government and its rights. The Church is following the way of Christ in faithfulness to the truth of the Gospel.
Dignitatis Humanae should serve as a guide to the Catholic laity especially in its mission of evangelization, proclaiming the Gospel and the faith itself should not be imposed to non-Catholics or non-Christians. As the declaration states, ‘… where the principle of religious freedom is not only proclaimed in words or simply incorporated in law but also given sincere and practical application, there the Church succeeds in achieving a stable situation of right as well as of fact and the independence which is necessary for the fulfillment of her divine mission. ’