Religious Liberty

The declaration Dignitatis humanae on religious liberty explicitly contradicts the teaching of previous Tradition on two points:

  • First, inasmuch as it affirms the very principle of a right, even a limited one, to religious liberty.
  • Second, inasmuch as it identifies the dignity of the human person as the foundation for this principle.

Religious liberty in traditional Church teaching

Religious liberty was condemned by Pope Gregory XVI (1830-1846) in the encyclical Mirari vos (August 15, 1832), then by Pius IX (1846-1878) in the encyclical Quanta cura (December 8, 1864). This error can be spelled out in two points.

First point:

the best plan for public society and civil progress absolutely requires that human society be established and governed with no regard to religion, as if it did not exist, or at least without making distinction between the true and the false religions”

and consequently

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.”

Second point:

liberty of conscience and of worship is the proper right of every man, and should be proclaimed and asserted by law in every correctly established society; that the right to all manner of liberty rests in the citizens, not to be restrained by either ecclesiastical or civil authority; and that by this right they can manifest openly and publicly and declare their own concepts, whatever they be, by voice, by print, or in any other way.”

Religious indifferentism

This twofold condemnation applies to two different expressions of one and the same error, the error of the religious indifferentism of public authorities.

  • 1st expression: the civil authorities must not intervene to repress the external manifestations of false religions within the framework of social life, which are necessarily violations of Catholic law.
  • 2st expression: individuals have the right not to be prevented by the authorities from performing in the external forum of social life the external acts of their religion, whether it is true or false.

This error, once condemned, is today at the basis of all modern democracies. In an address given to the United Nations,[1] Pope Benedict XVI sees in this de facto situation the logical culmination of the reforms undertaken by the Second Vatican Council. The false principle condemned by Gregory XVI and Pius IX has become the charter of the new social doctrine of the conciliar Church.

Religious liberty in the declaration Dignitatis humanae

The essential passage is in section 2:

 This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.”

This passage is equivalent to the following three propositions:

  1. Religious liberty is a right belonging to the human person”;
  2. This right must be recognized and safeguarded by law in every society”;
  3. This right essentially means that all human beings must be immune from all coercion, both by individuals and by social groups and by any human authority whatsoever, so that in religious matters no one is forced to act against his conscience or prevented from acting, within just limits, according to his conscience, in private as well as in public, alone or together with others.”

The meaning of the text

The passage does not teach (at least not in this section 2) the liberty of individual consciences in religious matters, in the sense of the religious indifferentism of individuals, in other words, in the sense that each man would have the right to choose whatever religion he liked (whether it was objectively true or false), without taking into account any objective moral rule.[2] The passage teaches the liberty of individual external actions in religious matters, in the sense in which each man has the right not to be prevented by the civil authorities from performing, in the external forum of social life, the religious acts that he in conscience feels obliged to carry out, provided that these acts do not disturb public order; this is tantamount to declaring the religious indifferentism of civil authorities.

Indeed, the right so defined implies that the civil authorities must not intervene, in the external forum of social life, either in favor of the true religion or to the detriment of the false religions, except when public order is endangered, in other words, accidentally. Religious indifferentism in general corresponds to two distinct errors:

  • there is the religious indifferentism of individuals,
  • and there is the religious indifferentism of the public authorities.

This section 2 of Dignitatis humanae teaches the second error, without teaching the first, though. But the teachings prior to Vatican II condemn the second error just as much as the first, because there is a cause-and-effect connection between the second error and the first: since man is a political animal, if he lives in a society where the public authorities profess indifferentism, he himself will end up professing indifferentism. This is why this passage of Dignitatis humanae is correctly condemned as such by the earlier Magisterium, since it teaches the second error, which is the very denial of the social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The question of due limits

This indifferentism of the civil authorities is described when section 2 of Dignitatis humanae points out which external acts men can or cannot perform, as a result of this freedom from constraint. The passage then speaks about “due limits”. But this does not aim to restrict the specifically religious scope of the liberty in question. The exercise of a right can indeed involve extrinsic limits, when the actual exercise of a right, specifically defined by a property (here the “religious” domain) extends beyond that domain by virtue of other connected properties. There will be mixed matters, in which some limits will restrain the exercise of a right, not because of the specific matter of that right, but because of another matter that in fact coincides with the specific matter of that right.

For example, a religious procession on a public street belongs as such to the religious domain, but it pertains also to the domain of regulated traffic. The two facts coincide, yet remain distinct. If the procession is limited because certain regulations are imposed on the route that is followed, the limit in question is extrinsic to the religious domain. On the other hand, practicing a true or a false religion is an action intrinsic to the religious domain, and if this action is limited (for example if only the expression of the true religion is authorized), the limit in question is intrinsic to the religious domain.

As such, the specifically religious domain of the right recognized by Dignitatis humanae has no intrinsic limits, because it applies to all religions, whether true or false. At most there will be extrinsic limits, if one takes into consideration the circumstances in which the right in favor of (true or false) religion will be exercised. This reference to “due limits” must therefore be understood not in terms of the objective order of the true religion, but in terms of the objective order of civil society, which means that the practice of a religion (whether true or false) must respect the good order of temporal tranquility. This is why this proviso mitigates absolutely none of the utter perversity of the false principle of religious liberty. Even if it does impose on the practice of religion the limits required by good order and social peace, the State remains absolutely indifferent to the truth or the falsity of the religion. Moreover this interpretation of section 2 of Dignitatis humanae is confirmed by parallel passages in the document: the end of section 3, sections 7, 10 and 12.

The principle of religious liberty implies the negation of the necessary union between Church and State. The State must no longer intervene to prevent the public profession of false religions. This separation of Church and State is explained therefore in consideration of the false principle of the autonomy of the temporal order declared by the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes in section 36, which says that “created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men.” This principle was explicated by Pope Benedict XVI in his address to an association of Italian Catholic lawyers on December 9, 2006.[3] The phrase expresses “the effective autonomy of earthly realities, not indeed from the moral order but from the ecclesiastical sphere”.

The principle enunciated by Vatican II and corroborated by Benedict XVI authorizes at most the interventions or true or false religions (and not just of the Church) in the temporal domain to promote the natural moral order, and only by way of counsel or voluntary witness. Until now, the Magisterium always taught that Church and State, though distinct, were united; but now we have gone to separation and pluralism.

The question of human dignity, the foundation of the right to religious liberty

The liberty taught by Vatican II claims to be based on the dignity of human nature, inasmuch as the latter is endowed with a freedom that persists even after sin [i.e., after the Fall]. The natural law, so the reasoning goes, requires that man should be able to exercise that liberty in order to seek, embrace and propagate religious truth and that [in so doing] he should not be subjected at all to the political authority. Dignitatis humanae is said to have spelled out this natural right, which is part of revelation, and the principle of religious liberty would then be a novelty, something distinct from the principle of tolerance that had been taught previously. And this novelty is supposedly in continuity with Magisterial teachings.

We object to this reasoning by making a distinction. No doubt the Magisterium of the Church has always recognized the spiritual nature of man, who is endowed with intellect and free will, which is basically an ontological dignity, and has taught that one cannot go against this nature by exerting positive constraint so as to impose (by violence) the truth or what is good. But the Magisterium has always said also that man’s intellect and free will are made for their object, and the man loses his moral dignity when he turns away from what is true and good. This moral dignity is complete and perfected dignity, whereas the ontological dignity is only a beginning of dignity, which calls for moral dignity as its complement and its indispensable perfection. Leo XIII clearly teaches that if the intellect adheres to false ideas, and if the will chooses evil and becomes attached to it, neither faculty attains its perfection; both fall from their innate dignity and are corrupted.[4] Now in order to attain this perfection, which it does not possess from the start, in the natural order as well as in the supernatural order, the human person, being of a political nature, must be subject to laws, those of the State and those of the Church.

Certainly, the human person is not totally subjected to the State, in the sense that he is directly subject to it only in the external public forum, not in the internal forum, nor in the external private forum. But it still remains necessary and legitimate for the authorities to intervene in order to prevent the public expression of error and evil, so as to preserve man’s complete dignity, for that is required by man’s very nature. Leo XIII also argues that it is not permissible to publicize what is contrary to virtue and truth, much less to place such license under the protection of laws.[5] This is why a right to religious liberty cannot be founded on the dignity of a human person that is restricted to the fact that he is a rational being, independently of his actions.

For further reading:


  • Lettre a quelques eveques sur la situation de la sainte Eglise et Memoire sur certaines erreurs actuelles (Societe St. Thomas d’Aquin, 1983).
  • Louis Billot, Tractatus de ecclesia Christi (Rome: Gregorian University, 1927); French translation of Latin original: Traite de l’Eglise du Christ, tome 2: Des rapports entre l’Eglise et l’Etat, L’Eglise—III: L’Eglise et l’Etat (Courrier de Rome, 2011).
  • Fr. Thierry Gaudray, “Y a-t-il un droit naturel a la liberte religieuse?”, in: Institut Universitaire St. Pie X, Vatican II, les points de rupture, Actes du Colloque des 10 et 11 novembre 2012, Vu de haut 20 (2014): pp. 63-73.
  • Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, “A propos de St. Vincent de Lerins”, Courrier de Rome 308/498 (February 2008).
  • Idem, “L’etat de necessite”, Courrier de Rome 313/503 (July-August 2008).
  • Idem, “La royaute sociale de Notre Seigneur Jesus Christ dans la predication de Benoit XVI”, in: L’Eglise d’aujourd’hui, continuite ou rupture? Actes du VIIIe Congres theologique de SiSiNoNo (Paris, les 2, 3 et 4 janvier 2009) (Courrier de Rome, 2010), p. 119-197.
  • Idem, “Dignitatis humanae au risque de la discontinuite”, Courrier de Rome 345/535 (June 2011).
  • Idem, “A propos d’un article recent”, Courrier de Rome 358/548 (September 2012).
  • Idem, “De l’Orient a l’Occident”, Courrier de Rome 361/551 (December 2012).
  • Idem, “De quelques distinctions”, Courrier de Rome 366/556 (June 2013).
  • Idem, “Pour un magistere de la conscience?”, Courrier de Rome 371/561 (December 2013).
  • Idem, “Dignitatis humanae est contraire a la Tradition”, Courrier de Rome 374/564 (March 2014).
  • Idem, “Une impossible continuite”, Courrier de Rome 380/570 (October 2014).
  • Fr. Patrick de La Rocque, “La liberte religieuse, les enjeux d’un debat doctrinal”, in: Institut Universitaire St. Pie X, Vatican II, les points de rupture, Actes du Colloque des 10 et 11 novembre 2012, Vu de haut 20 (2014): pp. 187-197.
  • Arnaud de Lassus, La liberte religieuse, trente ans apres Vatican II (1965-1995), (Action Familiale et Scolaire, no date).
  • Archbishop Lefebvre, Religious Liberty Questioned (Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 2002).
  • Fr. Bernard Lucien, Gregoire XVI, Pie IX et Vatican II: Etudes sur la liberte religieuse dans la doctrine catholique (Editions Forts dans la foi, 1990).
  • Michel Martin, “Le concile Vatican II et la liberte religieuse” in: De Rome et d’ailleurs, special issue (January 1986).
  • Fr. Nicolas Portail, “Les Peres de l’Eglise, champions de la liberte religieuse?”, in: Institut Universitaire St. Pie X, Vatican II, les points de rupture, Actes du Colloque des 10 et 11 novembre 2012, Vu de haut 20 (2014): pp. 1159-185.
  • 1. Benedict XVI, Address to Members of the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization, April 18, 2008,
  • 2. This religious indifferentism of individuals is condemned in proposition 15 of the Syllabus of Pope Pius IX (DZ 2915).
  • 3. Address to the participants in the 56th National Study Congress organized by the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists,
  • 4. See Leo XIII, encyclical Immortale Dei, paragraph 6;
  • 5. See Leo XIII, encyclical Immortale Dei, paragraph 6;