There is sufficient reason to suggest that a cause and effect relationship exists between the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, and the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed by Pope Francis and Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi, on February 4, 2019. On his return flight to Rome from the United Arab Emirates, Pope Francis himself told journalists: “There is one thing … I would like to say. I openly reaffirm this: from the Catholic point of view the Document does not move one millimeter away from the Second Vatican Council. It is even cited, several times. The Document was crafted in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.”
Dignitatis Humanae reaffirms the Church’s traditional doctrine, stating: “We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church,” and it reasserts the “moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (n.1). Unfortunately, just a few sentences later, the Council undermines this truth by setting forth a theory never before taught by the constant Magisterium of the Church, i.e., that man has the right founded in his own nature, “not to be prevented from acting in religious matters according to his own conscience, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits” (ut in re religiosa neque impediatur, quominus iuxta suam conscientiam agat privatim et publice, vel solus vel aliis consociatus, intra debitos limites, n. 2). According to this statement, man would have the right, based on nature itself (and therefore positively willed by God) not to be prevented from choosing, practicing and spreading, also collectively, the worship of an idol, and even the worship of Satan, since there are religions that worship Satan, for instance, the “church of Satan.” Indeed, in some countries, the “church of Satan” is recognized with the same legal value as all other religions.
The only condition that Dignitatis Humanae places on religious freedom is that “just public order” be observed (n. 2). And so a religion called “the church of Satan” is able to worship the Father of Lies, so long as they observe “public order” within due limits. Hence the freedom not to be prevented in choosing, practicing and spreading the worship of Satan, individually or collectively, would be a right that has its foundation in human nature, and is therefore positively willed by God.
The dangerous ambiguity of this statement is concealed by the fact that it is part of a single sentence, whose first part obviously corresponds to the traditional and constant doctrine of the Church. This first part says: “in religious matters, no one should be forced to act against his conscience” (ut in re religiosa neque aliquis cogatur ad agendum contra suam conscientiam, n.2), i.e., no one should be forced against his will to believe in God and accept a religion, even the only true one religion, which is the Christian religion.
Truth and error are being asserted in one and the same sentence — in the same breath, so to speak. The existence and exercise of free will and, consequently, the freedom from external coercion, are founded in human nature itself, and are therefore willed by God. The faculty to choose between good and evil, truth and error, between the only one and true religion and other religions, is founded in human nature. However, one cannot conclude from the existence of the faculty to choose between good and evil, between truth and error, that there follows the natural right to choose, execute and spread error, i.e. a false religion.
Immunity from external coercion in accepting the only one true Faith is a natural right. It is also a natural right not to be forced to carry out evil (sin) or error (false religion). However, it does not follow from this that God wills positively (natural right), that man should not be prevented from choosing, carrying out and spreading evil (sin) or error (false religion). One has to keep in mind this fundamental distinction between the faculty to choose and do evil, and the right to choose and do evil. God tolerates evil and error and false religions; He even tolerates the worship of the so-called “church of Satan.” However, God’s tolerance or allowance (His permissive will) of evil and error does not constitute in man a natural right to choose, practice and spread them, i.e. it does not constitute God’s positive will. Christian Apologists in the first centuries told the pagan civil authorities that, if Christians would worship a false religion, the State could forbid such a religion. The key point in the first-century Christian apologies was this: to prove the truth of the Christian religion and the falsehood of pagan religions. Tertullian said that all pagan , i.e. non-Christian religions, are “worshipping a lie, and they commit the crime of real irreligion against the truth” (Apologeticum, 24). How can immunity from coercion in choosing and committing a crime against the truth be a right based on man’s nature itself and, therefore, positively willed by God? St. Melito of Sardis, a holy bishop and apologist from the second century, said: “The greatest of all errors is this: when a man is ignorant of God, and in God’s stead worships that which is not God” (Eus. h.e. 4, 26)
There are two distinct realities. It is one thing to force someone against his conscience to accept a religion and carry out religious acts. It is another to proclaim a natural right, positively willed by God, to choose, practice and spread error and false religions, as in the case, for instance, of choosing, practicing and spreading the religion of the “church of Satan.”
For anyone who is intellectually honest, and is not seeking to square the circle, it is clear that the assertion made in Dignitatis Humanae, according to which every man has the right based on his own nature (and therefore positively willed by God) to practice and spread a religion according to his own conscience, does not differ substantially from the statement in the Abu Dhabi Declaration, which says: “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives.”
How can this fact be explained, given that the aforementioned problematic statement in Dignitatis Humanae was made by an Ecumenical Council? The first basic thing to consider is the fact that both Popes of the Council — John XXIII and Paul VI — and Vatican II itself, clearly stated that, unlike all previous Councils, it had neither the aim nor the intention to propose its own doctrine in a definitive and infallible way. Thus, in his address at the solemn opening of the Council, Pope John XXIII said: “The main purpose of this Council is not, therefore, the discussion of one or another theme of the fundamental doctrine of the Church.” He added that the character of the Council’s magisterium would be “predominantly pastoral” (October 11, 1962). For his part, Pope Paul VI said in his address at the last public session of the Council, that that Vatican II “made its program” from “the pastoral character” (7 December 1965). Furthermore, in a note made by the Council’s Secretary-General, on November 16, 1964, one reads: “Taking conciliar custom into consideration and also the pastoral purpose of the present Council, the sacred Council defines as binding on the Church only those things in matters of faith and morals which it shall openly declare to be binding.”
There have been statements made by other Ecumenical Councils that have become obsolete and been forgotten or have even been corrected by the later Magisterium.
Let us consider a few of the obsolete and erroneous statements made by previous Ecumenical Councils, so as not to be scandalized by the fact that a non-infallible affirmation in a conciliar Declaration (not even a Constitution or Decree) like Dignitatis Humanae, can be corrected by the Magisterium in the future.
The IV Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (870) harshly condemned Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople, in Canon 4, declaring that he was a “dangerous wolf in Christ’s flock and that he filled the entire world with a thousand riots and agitations, and that he was never a bishop, and all the churches and altars, consecrated by him, should be re-consecrated.” Yet the Byzantine Orthodox Church venerates this same Photios as “Saint Photios the Great and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople,” and it celebrates his liturgical feast on February 6. With a future union of the Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church and the Holy See, Canon 4 of the IV Council of Constantinople would most certainly be abolished.
The III Ecumenical Lateran Council (1179) stipulated in Canon 26 that neither Jews, nor Muslims, could employ Christians as workers in their homes. It also said that Christians who dared to live in the homes of Jews and Muslims should be excommunicated. Can the Catholic Church today still maintain such an affirmation made by an Ecumenical Council?
The IV Lateran Council (1215) titled an entire Constitution (Constitution 4), “On the pride of the Greeks against the Latins” (De superbia Graecorum contra Latinos). Such an affirmation is surely offensive to our separated brethren.
The same Council titled another Constitution (Constitution 26) “The Jews must be distinguished from the Christians by their clothing.” And Constitution 27 states that Jews should not hold public offices.
The Ecumenical Council of Constance (1415), in its 13th session, excommunicates those priests who administer Holy Communion under both species.
Let us consider another example. The Ecumenical Council of Florence (1439) stated that the matter (materia) of priestly ordination was the delivery of the chalice, and completely omitted any mention of the laying on of hands by the bishop. It stated: “The sixth is the sacrament of the Order. The matter of this sacrament is what confers the Order. Thus, the presbyterate is conferred with the delivery of the chalice with wine and the paten with bread” (Bull of the union with the Armenians Exultate Deo, 22 November 1439).
In 1947, Pope Pius XII corrected this error by reasserting the perennial Catholic doctrine, which also corresponded to the liturgical practice of the universal Church, in both East and West. He proposes a definitive teaching, using the following expressions: “After invoking the divine light, We by Our Apostolic Authority and from certain knowledge declare” and “In order to remove all controversy and preclude any doubts of conscience”. This is the decisive statement: “We do by Our Apostolic Authority declare, and if there was ever a lawful disposition to the contrary, We now decree that at least in the future the traditio instrumentorum is not necessary for the validity of the Sacred Orders of the Diaconate, the Priesthood, and the Episcopacy” (Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis, 30 November 1947).
One may rightly hope and believe that a future Pope or Ecumenical Council will correct the erroneous statement made in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration, Dignitatis Humanae. This error has precipitated a series of disastrous practices and doctrines, such as the interreligious prayer meeting in Assisi in 1986, and the Abu Dhabi Document in 2019. Such practices and doctrines have greatly contributed to the theoretical and practical relativization of the divinely revealed truth that the religion born of faith in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God and only Savior of mankind, is the only religion positively willed by God.
In accord with the perennial Magisterium, Pope Paul VI taught that the “Christian religion effectively establishes with God an authentic and living relationship which the other religions do not succeed in doing, even though they have, as it were, their arms stretched out towards heaven” (Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, 53).
Any statement must be avoided that, even remotely, might weaken or obfuscate the divinely revealed truth that the religion born of faith in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God and only Savior of mankind, is the only religion positively willed by God. Dignitatis Humanae’s assertion that man has a natural right (positively willed by God) not to be impeded in choosing, exercising and spreading, even publicly, any form of religion according to his conscience, and the Abu Dhabi Document’s assertion that God wills the diversity of religions, in the same way as He wills positively the diversity of sex (based on man’s nature itself), will surely one day be corrected by the Papal Magisterium of the Cathedra of St. Peter — the cathedra veritatis. Indeed, the Catholic Church is and will always remain in time (semper), in space (ubique) and in perennial consent (ab omnibus) the “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
May 31, 2020, Feast of Pentecost