Pope John Paul II and Religious Liberty

By Bradley, Gerard V. | Ave Maria Law Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Pope John Paul II and Religious Liberty


Bradley, Gerard V., Ave Maria Law Review


Pope John Paul II will deservedly be remembered as one of the previous century's great champions of freedom. He championed the cause of all peoples oppressed by their governments, especially those nations enslaved behind the Iron Curtain. (1) He championed the cause of human rights, most especially the right of each person to immunity against certain wrongs--torture, intentional killing, and exploitation of various sorts. (2) John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor is justly regarded as a profound meditation on the deepest relation between human freedom and objective moral truth. (3)

Pope John Paul II was no less committed to the cause of religious freedom. He was (as we shall explore below) a leader during the Second Vatican Council's development of its document on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. (4) He often spoke in favor of the individual freedom that the religious quest requires, and even presupposes. (5) But John Paul II did not really develop, along either philosophical or theological lines, the doctrines of Dignitatis Humanae concerning the civil right of religious liberty, the whole complex of problems regarding religion and the state. (6) He was, moreover, almost silent about the most difficult question of meaning and interpretation in Dignitatis Humanae: whether it is ever morally licit for the state to affirm that Catholicism is true?

This Article explores that question in light of Pope John Paul II's thought, Dignitatis Humanae, and arguments based on sound reason. In Part I of this Article, I will introduce, as a background to the discussion at hand, the thought of Pope John Paul II on religious liberty, as expressed both in Dignitatis Humanae and in his own works. In Part II, I will demonstrate that in the official conciliar and post-conciliar teaching, there is an ambiguity with respect to the permissibility of official state recognition of Catholicism. In Part III, I will refine the central question of this Article further, distinguishing my position from one that would hold recognition of the faith by a state to be obligatory. Finally, in Part IV, I will introduce four common arguments that seek to prove that state recognition of Catholicism is incompatible with the contemporary Magisterium or with the Faith itself. I will then rebut each of these four arguments in turn, so as to show that, at least under certain circumstances, state recognition of the true faith is permissible and appropriate.

I. BACKGROUND OF POPE JOHN PAUL II'S THOUGHT ON RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul II said: "The best preparation for the new millennium ... can only be expressed in a renewed commitment to apply, as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican II to the life of every individual and of the whole Church." (7) The Pope had already made the Second Vatican Council ("Council") his personal compass: "Vatican II has always been, and especially during these years of my Pontificate, the constant reference point of my every pastoral action, in the conscious commitment to implement its directives concretely and faithfully...." (8)

The core of Pope John Paul II's understanding of the Council is the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. (9) Before he became Pope, Bishop (and later, Archbishop) Karol Wojtyla attended all four of the Council's sessions. (10) He "participated vigorously" in the debate over the religious liberty document, making one oral and two written interventions. (11) Wojtyla believed, according to his sometimes collaborator and intellectual biographer Rocco Buttiglione, that the heart of the Council was the "acknowledgment of freedom of conscience as a natural and inalienable right of the human person." (12) Along with certain portions of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World--Gaudium et Spes--John Paul II considered Dignitatis Humanae to be an interpretive key to the entire Council. (13)

This "key," however, was a fragile one. …

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