Wednesday, November 15


Dignitatis Humane and the end of "Christendom"

Much has been made in our comments boxes of the shift in the Church's teaching about religious freedom with the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, which I consider a brilliant treatment of the subject. I think that when thinking about this topic, a few things need to be kept in mind. First of all, the relationship of the Church to the state is not a matter contained in the deposit of Faith, but rather a matter subject to prudential judgment on the part of those who are involved in both at any given time of history. Secondly, 19th and early 20th century Popes who discussed this topic were still coming to grips with the end of what can be called "Christendom" or "Integralism," the ideal of the merging of Church and State with the result being the notions that Catholicism ought properly to be the state religion and that "error has no rights."

"Religious Freedom" says Dignitatis Humanae, "has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore, it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ" (Par. 1). As a result of this, religious freedom guaranteed by the state respects the dignity of the human person and allows for a free choice and exercise of religion. Furthermore, it allows the Church freedom to function and to preach the Gospel without becoming tied up in the affairs of state, which were so often a scandal for her in the past.

Dignitatis Humanae, furthermore, does not adopt a neutralist understanding of Church and state, but rather one in which "Government is also to help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties" (par 6). Unlike, say, the United States or secular Europe, then, this document urges states to support the religious lives of their citizensd and their institutions such as schools. Imagine, for a second, if our own country were to adopt such a positive approach to religious schools (granting that at this point in time that might be less desirable than at the time Dignitatis Humanae was written). Indeed, perhaps such an approach in our country from the start would've yielded a healthier religious plurality rather than the de facto Protestant establishment followed by a decline into the muddle that we now face on these questions.

This great document, then, takes nothing properly away from God and the Church, but rather demands that freedom be allowed for the preaching of the Gospel, and that coercion by the state not interfere in matters of religion. This is fundamentally important, since so much of today's European secularism and lack of Church attendance stems from lingering bitterness over the abuses of integralist "Christendom". A state religion enforced by coercion often means one associated with the many abuses that come with any state or form of government, and a revolt against the government can often seem necessarily to demand a revolt against the religion, as occurred in the French Revolution and the revolutions of the 19th century.

Dignitatis Humanae therefore acknowledges that the era of Christendom is over and is indeed perhaps an exception rather than the rule for the Church's pilgrim journey towards her Bridegroom. Rather than demanding partnership with the state, the Church demands freedom to be a leaven for the nations and to preach the Gospel without State-induced compromise. Only in this way can the excesses of secularist Europe, and the abuses of "Christendom" that sadly helped bring it about, be avoided.

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