Development of Catholic Doctrine on Religious Liberty

By Joseph E. Capizzi

The issue of “doctrinal development,” or “development of doctrine” in Catholic theology has always raised difficult questions, not least because the issue often arises in the context of some contested substantive issue, but also because of contested claims about doctrinal development itself. For example, with respect to religious liberty, the Catholic Church long held that political leaders have a duty to promote the Catholic faith in the governance of their nation.  Some teaching documents of the Church even seem to outright condemn the idea of religious liberty and freedom of conscience (See, for example, the 1864 encyclical letter of Pope Bl. Pius IX, Quanta cura).  But at the Second Vatican Council, the Church explicitly affirms these ideas.  Questions about issues such as capital punishment, usury, or in our case, religious liberty, are joined to other questions about the fact and nature of doctrinal development. Taken together, claims about doctrinal development are doubly tricky and must be handled with care and precision.  

The Nature of Doctrinal Development  

The fact of doctrinal development should be settled, however, having been addressed in a short paragraph in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum, 1965), which itself must be understood as a confirmation of John Henry Newman’s thesis concerning doctrinal development. Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was, he said, “a hypothesis to account for a difficulty,” that difficulty being the inability of uninspired minds immediately to grasp the most profound teachings of inspired minds. Understanding of great truths could only happen over time. Human minds employing limited human means are simply incapable of grasping at once the fullness of revelation. Instead, there would be and has been a “growth in understanding” of Christian doctrine witnessed to and confirmed by the faithful and the magisterium of the Church. The apostles handed on their teachings to the faithful, who over time and by witness of their faith, taught apostolic teaching under the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  Thus, Dei verbum no. 8: 

For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her. 

Dei verbum speaks thus of progress, a forward movement in understanding the divine truth given to the Church. That process is open-ended and time-bound and thus subject to the vicissitudes of life in society. Even as the growth “progresses,” there will be alongside it false and malignant growth: growth that corrupts, growth that misleads. Newman’s hypothesis thus advanced seven “notes” or indicators by which to distinguish growth from decay or genuine development from violence against the truth of revelation. “Development in doctrine” is the name given by the Church to growth faithful to the apostolic deposit of faith.  

A particular challenge raised by development of doctrine is the concern that any change in Church teaching undermines Church teaching authority and calls into question the capacity of Christians in the past to have lived faithfully by their adherence to doctrine now judged inadequate. Abrupt changes in Church teaching disrupt current confidence in the surety of the Church’s positions. Concern will arise, and has arisen, that development suggests Church teaching is as susceptible as any other moral system to the concerns and conceits of the age. Often the connection is made explicit, and doctrinal development accompanies efforts to change Church moral teaching better to conform to contemporary social dispositions. These genuine concerns are not, however, reasons to deny the truth affirmed in Dei verbum: growth in understanding can be and often is accompanied by the deepest, surest understanding of the truths of the faith. Apostolic witness and the guidance of the Holy Spirit reassure us that the Church always remains faithful even as understanding unfolds in time, especially as regards the dogmas of the faith.  

Religious Liberty and Development of Social Doctrine 

In the Essay, Newman also suggested a distinction had to be drawn between the development of dogmas and developments in doctrine pertaining to life in community. Issues of doctrine, especially moral doctrine applied to the political sphere, are particularly prone to changes in expression resulting from their social contexts. Religious freedom, which is deeply connected to life in political society, is one such doctrine whose development must be carefully described and precisely articulated to avoid confusion and doubt about the surety of the Church’s teaching.  

Dignitatis humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s “declaration on human freedom,” follows Dei verbum’s affirmation of development. The declaration states its intention to “develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society” backstopped by prior dogmatic claims that God has made himself known to humankind, that knowledge of the truth subsists in the Catholic Church, and that all people are obligated to seek and embrace the truth when found (Dignitatis humanae, no. 1).  These dogmatic backstops - themselves unchanging - form the bases from which the Church begins to think about the issue of religious freedom: there is truth, that truth frees humankind from enslavement to sin, and all men and women, as individuals and in community, are bound to seek it. Grounded thus in faith, religious freedom escapes the insufficiency  of grounding the right to religious freedom  merely in the steadfastness of one’s conscience. In addition, by signaling the intention to “develop the doctrine,” DH confirms the possibility of a measured, controlled development and describes the limits of its scope in terms of the rights of the human person in the context of the constitutional order of society.  

From that basis, the document “declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom,” a right the document specifies as a freedom from coercion that inheres in the human being and is rooted in the particular dignity possessed by all men and women (DH no. 2). Humans are the kinds of beings for which the pursuit of truth is bound up with their flourishing as individuals and in community. In other words, the right to religious freedom is a consequence of the nature of the human being, “not the subjective disposition of the person.” Religious freedom does not depend on the individual’s state of mind regarding faith, nor does it depend upon deeply held convictions of religious or “religious-like” kind, nor even on the activities of the communities of which he or she is a part. The pursuit of truth, a desire built into human nature, must occur in accordance with that nature as expressed in our dignity as free and rational beings. Persons and social groups can and will only flourish when allowed the space and the resources to pursue the truth free from governmental intrusion. Therefore, DH continues, the “freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself” (DH no. 4). Freedom – a characteristic of the nature of the human being – is the great good from which derives the right to religious freedom as individuals and members of faith communities.  

But clearly the documents of the Church have not always expressed themselves in the language of individual and communal rights to religious liberty. Likewise, the Church’s magisterium has often associated such rights claims with “indifferentism” about religious belief and with political claims favoring the separation of religious life (“the Church”) from public life (“the State”). For instance, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Libertas (1888) rejects the “modern” notion of liberty of worship, according to which the State would “treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges.” Pope Leo rejects this conception of liberty and proclaims the truth of State obligation towards religion, and in particular, the profession of one religion, the true Catholic faith (Libertas, no. 19). Any separation of Church and State along liberal lines was viewed as repugnant to the understanding of the right relationship between the ecclesial and political orders.  To that point in the late nineteenth century, and even to the mid-twentieth, Pope Leo’s claims were uncontroversially consistent with the expressed understanding in the Church of the right of religious liberty and the obligations of public authority towards religious belief and worship. 

Aware of all this, DH’s opening line signals the dependence of the development of doctrine on changes in society and its understanding of the human person. DH speaks of the “sense of the dignity of the human person [that] has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man.” It speaks as well of constitutional limits on the “the powers of government.” In the interim between the nineteenth and early twentieth century papal suspicions of liberalisms and the embrace of rights in the mid-twentieth century, the Church witnessed and even bore the brunt of multiple social and political experiences that would shape thinking on the right of religious liberty. The Church bears deep scars from programs of secularization and anti-clericalism carried by political ideologies ranging from the liberalism of the French Revolution to various forms of State authoritarianism ranging from Communism to fascism. She witnessed the political apparatus of the State employed brutally and with great lethal efficiency against religious and ethnic minorities throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. In addition, she underwent the first-hand experience of her own displacement as a juridically favored church in many places. These DH takes as fundamental features of contemporary society necessary for apt reflection on the right to religious liberty and its potential development.  

In some clear ways, then, Dignitatis humanae appears to depart significantly from prior Church teaching, especially the teaching of Popes Gregory XVI and Pius IX in the nineteenth century and Pope Leo XIII in the early twentieth. But DH is conscious of these departures and speaks of the “vicissitudes of history” impacting the Church’s expression of doctrine in time (DH no. 12). Social doctrine is disposed to undergo these changes in expression, since this body of teaching must guide the faithful in changing circumstances. Once suspicious of the language of rights, by the late twentieth century the Church had become their most vocal and powerful global advocate. All the popes of the recent era have spoken in favor of the right of religious freedom. Almost always they emphasize those aspects of DH allowing for the embrace of the right in civil contexts bracketed by the Church’s particular emphasis on the personal and social obligations towards faith stemming from human nature. Thus, Pope Francis in 2015 stated,  

Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Because religion itself, the religious dimension, is not a subculture; it is part of the culture of every people and every nation.1 

If one accepts the ideas that doctrines develop in time in a manner consistent with the limited capacity of human minds to embrace and comprehend the truths of the faith, and that the doctrine of religious liberty has developed in conjunction with social and political changes, then its ongoing development will be no surprise, either. Much has changed since the promulgation of DH in 1965. Where prior doctrine on religious liberty was articulated in response to anti-clerical liberal ideologies and then the rise of European fascisms, today, the Church’s defense of the right of religious liberty contends with an atomizing liberalism suggesting the faith has no public or social significance in a pluralistic world. Against this, modern popes have urged, in the words of Pope Francis, that “[a] healthy pluralism…does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 255). 

The key to proper organization of society, and a stable principle necessary to respect for religious freedom is, according to DH, the freedom of the Church (libertas ecclesiae). As the Church continues its pilgrimage in the secular age, her responsibility remains the proclamation of the saving Gospel. That proclamation, to which its avid defense of the right to religious liberty accords, presumes the freedom of the Church as necessary and good for the world. Dignitatis humanae, the Church’s brilliant defense of the growing desire among people to express their faith in public and in private, thus concludes by stressing that “Among the things that concern the good of the Church and indeed the welfare of society here on earth-things therefore that are always and everywhere to be kept secure and defended against all injury-this certainly is preeminent, namely, that the Church should enjoy that full measure of freedom which her care for the salvation of men requires. This is a sacred freedom, because the only-begotten Son endowed with it the Church which He purchased with His blood. Indeed it is so much the property of the Church that to act against it is to act against the will of God. The freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle in what concerns the relations between the Church and governments and the whole civil order” (DH, no. 13). 

Joseph E. Capizzi is a professor of moral theology and ethics and the executive director of the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.