The Catholic Church and freedom of conscience. The story of Dignitatis Humanae

Paul Keane

This article tells the story of the Vatican II document Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, and explores its repercussions. Paul Keane is Vice Rector of St Mary?s College, Oscott, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

Consider Switzerland. In 2009, the Swiss held a referendum which proposed that no new planning permission should be given for the building of minarets. The Swiss Catholic Bishops? Conference opposed the motion and supported the right of Muslims to build minarets as part of freely practising their faith. The bishops were guided by the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae ? the Second Vatican Council?s Declaration on Religious Liberty ? which was promulgated only on the very last day of the Council and after much vocal opposition. Its core teaching is that ?the human person has a right to religious freedom,? which it defines as immunity ?from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others? (art. 2)

Some Catholic voices, however, spoke up for the ban. Archbishop Marcel Lef?bvre, a Father of the Council, became so appalled by Dignitatis Humanae ? among other developments ? and what it suggested to him regarding the state of the orthodoxy of the Church that in 1988, without permission from the Holy See, he ordained four priests as bishops to continue the work of his group, the Society of St Pius X.

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