Dignitatis Humanae: “Rupture and Discontinuity” or “Reform”

Dignitatis Humanae: “Rupture and Discontinuity” or “Reform” April 29, 2011

Sandro Magister, religion columnist for L’Espresso in Italy, has been recounting a fascinating debate in Italy and Europe between Traditionalists and Pope Benedict (and his defenders) on the subject of Vatican II.    The argument is about whether the “errors” of the post-Vatican II period are a consequence of misinterpreting the council or are inherent in the documents of the council itself.  I use scare quotes on “errors” since the center of this debate seems shifted well to the right already, with no one represented (at least by Magister) as defending the substance of the post-conciliar period.

His most recent post is an article by a conservative theologian, Martin Rhonheimer.   (Links to previous posts on this subject can be found in the introduction and at the end of the article.)  He is a theologian and member of Opus Dei, best remembered for his recent arguments about aids prevention and condom use that attracted so much condemnation from the right.   In this article, Rhonheimer defends two fundamental propositions:

1)  The teaching of Dignitatis Humanae on religious freedom represent a fundamental discontinuity in Catholic teaching, as they mark a definite repudiation of Quanta Cura and the Syllabus of Errors.

2)  That this discontinuity marks not a rupture, but rather a reform of the tradition, hearkening back as it does to the gospels and apostolic tradition, and only brushes away non-infallible teachings that are the result of historical contingency.

The point of the article is to defend Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of reform”  (which Rhonheimer says is often misidentified as the “hermeneutic of continuity”) over and against the “hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity” which the pope believes is a false interpretation of the council.  For traditionalists, Dignitatis Humanae is prima facie evidence that Vatican II marked a rupture with the past, and therefore it (and all the work of the council) is doctrinally suspect.  Rhonheimer advances a sophisticated argument to show that while this document is a significant break with earlier practice, it was not a rupture, but maintained an essential continuity on the level of doctrine, while admitting change on the level of social teaching.

I find his defense of the first point very strong.  He summarizes it thus:

In the modern conception, after all, “freedom of conscience” meant above all freedom of worship, i.e., the right, in the contexts of public order and morality, of individuals and the various religious communities to live their faith and to profess it – publicly and communitarily – without impediment by the State. This is exactly what the first Christians asked during the age of persecutions. They did not demand that the State support religious truth, but asked only for the freedom to profess their faith without State interference. Vatican II now teaches that this is a fundamental civil right of the person – that is, a right of all people, regardless of their religious faith.

This right implies the abrogation of the earlier claim of the so-called “rights of truth” to political and legal guarantees, and the renunciation of State repression of religious error. However one views the question, the conclusion is unavoidable: precisely this teaching of the Second Vatican Council is what Pius IX condemned in his encyclical “Quanta cura.”

I am still contemplating his second argument (which is quite subtle) but on first reading I am not completely convinced by it.   More precisely, I think he is too quick to dismiss Aquinas and the post-Aquinas arguments about the duties of the state to preserve and defend the faith as historically contingent and therefore not irreformable.  I say this not because I believe or support these arguments but rather because they were widely held to be binding if not infallible.  (See the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Syllabus of Errors for a brief discussion.)  For example, he writes:

Vatican Council II freed the Church from a centuries-old historical burden, the origins of which do not date back to the apostolic Tradition and to the “depositum fidei,” but rather to concrete decisions of the post-Constantinian era of Christianity. These decisions ultimately crystallized in canonical traditions and in their respective theological interpretations, with which the Church tried to defend its freedom, the “libertas ecclesiae,” from the incessant attacks of the temporal powers: one might think in particular of the medieval doctrine of the two swords, which, at the time, sought to justify theologically and biblically the understanding of the pope’s “plenitudo potestatis.” Nonetheless, over the course of the centuries, these canonical traditions and their theological formulations have changed their function and tone. Afterward and in the tradition of the confessional modern sovereign states, these became a justification of the ideal Catholic state, in which “the throne and the altar” existed in close symbiosis, and Catholic statesman zealously upheld the cause of the “rights of the Church” instead of the civil right to religious freedom. This symbiosis and this unilateral vision that led to clericalism and to a clerical society did not fail to obscure the authentic face of the Church.

In defense of this position he draws a number of distinctions, such as between “natural law” and “civil rights” or between the “interpretation” and “application” of natural law.  These bear further reflection, but they have the flavor of someone attempting to have his doctrinal cake and eat it too. 

Perhaps I am not so much unconvinced by his argument as by the fact that he does not develop, or even acknowledge, what seems to me to be an inevitable consequence of this historical treatment:  a real need for the Church to exercise epistemological humility.  At any given moment, we need to recognize that our understanding of the truth is limited and historically contingent, and that some interpretations may well be wrong and out of step with the truth of Christ as revealed by the gospels.   We are still a pilgrim church, and at times we may only perceive the truth “as in glass darkly”.  It would seem to me that in other areas–slavery, the death penalty, usury, the just war tradition–a similar degree of circumspection and humility is needed.

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  • I think this argument is needless, and agree with what was said at Rorate Caeli today:

    “it clear that the notion of religious freedom as discussed in the Council was simply not a primarily theological proposition – it was a pragmatic solution for a practical consideration of the age (… hac nostra aetate…). Which is why it should not be incompatible with the specifically theological aspects of the matter as presented in earlier documents.”

    The teaching of Dignitatis Humanae does not renounce or condemn the “teaching” of the past documents, because this is a prudential/pastoral question about what is the best approach in a given age. The past “teachings” could represent the right approach in their own day, and DH in our own. Or DH might be the best approach in most ages. Or the past approach might be best today and DH might represent a huge error in pastoral judgment. These are the sorts of things Catholics are free to debate.

    The problem comes in when either side tries to make a doctrine or dogma of either the Syllabus, say, or of Dignitatis Humanae. As if the temporal power of the Church is somehow part of the deposit of faith (it’s not), or as if (on the other hand) “religious liberty” in the modern sense is some sort of newly-defined dogma that overrides the past decrees (some of which, at Councils, have thus been issues with EQUAL magisterial authority to DH; it is not more authoritative just because it came later in history.)

    This is a pastoral question, not primarily a theological/doctrinal question. There are some important theological points that both positions emphasize more or less (that error has no rights strictly so called in the case of the past, that conscience can by nature never be coerced in the case of Vatican II) but this is ultimately not a question of “Church teaching” in the sense people generally understand it.

    I think DH is pretty much right for today (though, I think, the Council had more in mind CATHOLIC religious freedom in places like the Middle East in China, even though the religious freedom of non-Catholics in Catholic areas came to be emphasized by the liberals), in fact anyone who dreams of asserting some sort of Christendom in the modern situation is living in cloudcuckooland; the hierarchy would seem absurd if they pretended that framework was still in place and it wasn’t. We do need to adapt ourselves to the present situation. But I’m also one who believes that it is incredibly arrogant to, say, judge the past regimes of burning heretics and such based on the modern values of our modern situation. Those regimes aren’t intrinsically wrong either, and I’m inclined to trust the people alive at the time at least as much as I trust our world today and trust that they made the right decision for the needs of their time.

  • Liam

    The burning of heretics, however, was not even universally embraced in those former times. There were parts of Europe where burnings of this sort were studiously avoided (think of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the largest Catholic polity of 16th century Europe), and even in places where burnings were common, it was not uncommon for the populace to endeavor to kill the condemned by a variety of means so as to prevent the full horrors of a burning). Assuming the past had a univocal embrace of those former means is anachronistic. One might indeed argue that such means were not sufficiently “received” by the faithful, and hence their repudiation today is indeed a recovery of the proper tradition.

  • Anne

    I think Rhonheimer is correct on both counts. If he appears to be having his doctrinal cake and eating too, the Church defending both DH and its medieval imposition of religion on the state would be that, and worse. There was IMHO always a disconnect between the Church’s earliest position denying the imposition of relgion (or baptism) on non-believers and arguments in favor of exactly such an impostion on the state level. The situation is reminiscent of arguments today inside Islam between those who believe the Quranic injunction against “coercion in religion” should be absolute and those who believe later Islamic practice abrogates any such concern and, in fact, requires the imposition of Islam wherever possible. Catholics have no problem criticizing Islam as “totalitarian” when advocates of the second position hold sway, yet how was our medieval position essentially different? No, Rhonheimer is on the right track. More power to him….so to speak.

  • Thomist student

    Look how Vatican II’s teaching in Dignitatis Humanae is the complete opposite of what the Catholic Church had always consistently taught before Vatican II. See, the comparison at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/46116957

    The Church’s teaching before Vatican II, in opposition to Dignitatis Humanae, was not merely Her teaching at one particular time, in one particular political circumstance.

  • Thaddeus Kozinski

    Rhonheimer is teaching heresy, plain and simple. That the state has a moral obligation towards the true religion is itself upheld by Dignitatis Humanae in the introduction. One simply can’t deny this doctrine and remain orthodox. It’s manifest in Immortale Dei that this obligation is not negotiable, in an objective sense, but only in a subjective sense, when a society at large does not subscribe to the Catholic Faith. Nevertheless, the perennial and unchangeable ideal is the Catholic confessional state. We must always strive towards this ideal. Religious pluralism in a society is a defect in that society. To deny this is to deny the doctrine of the social reign of Christ the King.

    • Ryan Klassen

      So how does one strive to create a Roman Catholic confessional state in a modern religiously plural state? Conversion? Coercion? Culling? And what would be the status of non-Roman Catholic citizens?

      I understand how confessional states worked in Europe when the faith of the ruler was the faith of the people. Not sure how that would work in a democratic society, so I assume a Roman Catholic confessional state would not be a democratic society – unless we were all willing to risk converting every 4 years. Or perhaps we could only allow Roman Catholics to vote and hold office, as Michael Voris suggests.

      I guess I’m not creative enough to see what a Roman Catholic confessional state would look like or what the steps would be to bring it about at this time and place in history. I would be interested to hear from others who can see more clearly than I.

      • A very good question. You are practical! It would have to be different in a place where historically and culturally the majority people had been Catholic. In the US we would either have to run some kind of compromise platform, or try to take as Catholics only as large a political territory as we could and exercise there as much authority as legal to make changes with an eye to communicating a full agenda when the territory and authority enlarged. What I mean is, say one were able to take political control of a county in Kansas. One might not be able to make abortion illegal, or contradict any homosexual legislation protected by the larger state body of governance. Nor could one change the way health care is delivered and paid for. But one could make abortion more difficult; one could make gay marriage more difficult; one could certainly make changes in the Sunday morning use of parks,l and porn for sale in the local bookstore, if by nothing more than enormous country taxes or use fees for the privilege to schedule a kids’ game on Sunday morning, or sell — I don’t know the names. And the larger platform could be communicated.

        There is no solution to our problems under a secular state, not now. I don’t see how we have any place to turn but the Faith as a political platform. We can’t afford to privatize health care, and we can’t trust this state with single-payer power. Liberalism is literally killing us. This would get as long as a book to start enumerating.

        Of course Catholic political parties have a rocky history. But we have no where to turn. We have no one to vote for. Catholics simply cannot support Free Market economics. nor Democratic party economics, either. Both are liberal to the core. Neither have any plan to multiply capitalists–broaden ownership, not re-distribute income (and they’re not doing the latter, anyway). There is a Catholic plan (start googling distributism) that could do it, over generations the way it has to be done.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    From the introduction to DH:

    “Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”

    This is a very thin reed on which to hang the demand for a confessional state. That individuals and communities (“societies”) have an obligation to the truth is very, very different from asserting that the “state”, with all of its coercive authority, must support the true faith.

    As practical matter, history shows that “Christendom” was a failure; as a doctrinal matter, I do not think it can be reconciled with the dignity of the human person.

  • Thaddeus Kozinski

    Who cares what you or I “think”–this is a matter of authoritative Papal teaching. Read Immortale Dei by Leo XIII for God’s sake. Or read my book, were I use dialectic (on Rawls and Maritain) and the thought of MacIntyre to make the case for the perennial and infallible Papal teaching. http://www.zenit.org/rssenglish-31584

    By the way, I think the way to go is small scale at first, of course. I am with MacIntyre on this. The point is what the ideal is, not whether we can imagine it. I don’t think the Apostles could imagine Christendom, which, I must say, was no failure, though a new Christendom would be quite different and, hopefully, even better, that is, more conducive to human flourishing and salvation, as well as protective of human dignity and morally legitimate religious freedom.

    • I think the way to go is small scale, too. Like one country at a time.

      I’m writing a sci fi novel at the moment in which the world-church/world-government plan blooms just as we achieve the first near earth orbit space colony on the last bitter dregs of human energy and economy at the middle of the twenty first century, and a group of Catholics have to go underground when the State Church of Christ Without Christ becomes mandatory, literally into the shell protecting the colony center from radiation–a new catacombs. The first interstellar bishop operates from there, and they’re doing okay until they have to rescue a mining satellite where the first harsh stage of the new slavery of workers (especially against women) has resulted in a rebellion. The Catholics save them and then they make a run for an asteroid safe and deep in the Oort Cloud (like Scotland and the borderlands were during the Reformation).

      Oh to have our own land again. Christendom again. That’s what they call the asteroid.

      Personally I think our peoples are so hungry and sad for the sweetness of it they could die.

      Sorry to wax poetic, but I think we need at least the dream of a Catholic state to stay alive.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Well, I have not had time to read your book, but I did read through Immortale Dei and I think Rhonheimer’s intepretation is a plausible one. We can agree to disagree about Christendom: my extensive reading of medieval history (I am finishing Mollat’s fascinating but depressing book on poverty) leaves me convinced that it was a failure.

    So a final question: how would you reconcile DH with previous teaching? Something big happened, and unless we want to declare V-II in error, or embrace a hermeneutic of discontinuity, some such explanation for the big changes brought by the council must be worked out.

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