Pope Paul VI characterized the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom — Dignitatis Humanae — as one of the greatest documents of Vatican II. It is also perhaps the most intensely debated document of the Council. Both the drafting of the Declaration on Religious Freedom and its reception have been marked by deep disagreements about what this teaching means for the Church.
In their book, Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom*, David Schindler and Nicholas Healy promote a deeper understanding of this important document. Recalling the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae on its 50th anniversary, this book provides a new translation, redaction history, and interpretation of the document, while clarifying the Church’s distinct contribution to the understanding of political order in modern democracies.​


by David L. Schindler and Nicholas Healy


Between November of 1963 and December of 1965, six distinct drafts of a text on religious freedom were presented to the Council fathers. The book makes available in Latin and English each of these six drafts (together with the interventions of Bishop Karol Wojtyla), to allow for a better understanding of the document’s continuity with and development of Catholic doctrine. Broadly speaking, there were two important debates: the first concerned the very legitimacy of the right to religious freedom (associated, for example, with the name of Archbishop Lefebvre); the second occurred among those who supported the right to religious freedom, but differed regarding the foundations and nature of the right. The latter differences were expressed in two opposing approaches, termed “juridical” (represented by the Americans and John Courtney Murray), on the one hand, and “ontological” (represented by the French, Polish, and Karol Wojtyla), on the other. These approaches differed significantly on three main points, each of which concerned at root the question of the pertinence of truth to the exercise of freedom in the political order. We will outline here the distinct principles of each of the approaches, while highlighting the significance for the present cultural situation of the principles affirmed in the final document.

(A) The juridical approach (which mostly guided the third draft of the document) (i) The nature of the right to religious freedom consists in immunity from coercion and is thus “negative.” Freedom is understood for all legal-constitutional purposes as a structurally neutral or indifferent act of choice. (ii) The foundations for this “negative” right lie in the human act’s exigence for exercising initiative. Relation to the transcendent order of truth (God) remains important for private individuals and institutions but is juridically irrelevant, not a matter of principled concern for the state. (iii) The criterion for any political limitation of the expression of freedom lies in the notion of “public order.” The legal adjudication of perceived violations of rights is understood in terms of a justice or fairness conceived formally in terms of the balancing of conflicting interests, rather than in any objective (natural) ethical good.

(B) The ontological approach (which mostly guided the final draft): (i) The “negative” right to immunity from coercion flows from the (positive) relation to truth implied by the human being’s natural desire—and moral exigence—for truth, ultimately about God. This relation/obligation to truth (God) gives an original positive direction and form to the negative sense of a right understood in terms of immunity. (ii) The foundations for the right to religious freedom lie in this natural desire and obligation to search for the truth and God. (The crucial point here regarding foundations was formulated in an intervention by Bishop Ancel of France during discussion of the third draft of the document. The intervention so impressed Pope Paul VI that he instructed that Ancel be included in the commission tasked with revising this draft.) (iii) The criterion for adjudicating the proper limits of the exercise of freedom lies in the concept of “public order,” which is affirmed while being tied to a “substantive” (natural) common good (i.e., a  just or ethical public order). The Declaration thus retains the ancient idea of the purpose of the polity, while it now emphasizes freedom as a distinct good intrinsic to the administration of political power (legal justice).

In sum, the approach to religious freedom adopted by the Church in Dignitatis Humanae, rests on the mutual implication and thus indissolubility of truth and freedom. (1) Truth implies the interior activity of the human subject (interiorization by the mind), and so far the subject’s freedom. A “truth” forced on a human being fails—insofar as it is forced—to meet the criteria for a proper definition of truth as an interior conformity of the mind with what is (Aquinas). (2) Freedom at root is never simply indifferent to but on the contrary naturally (implicitly) knows and loves the truth about God (Augustine, Aquinas).

In light of the above, we see that the Church in her affirmation of the right to religious freedom in DH did not merely come abreast of what had already been realized in liberal societies. On the contrary, the Church affirmed human rights while interiorly re-forming their foundations and meaning in light of the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition. The Church recognized rights as immunities from coercion (negative) even as she rooted this immunity in—saw it as an implication of—man’s (positive) natural love of truth, ultimately the truth of God. In the face of developments in modern democratic societies, the Church renewed by deepening her traditional understanding of the mutual implication of truth and freedom, insisting that the appropriation of either demands the appropriation simultaneously of both. Truth itself demands the interiorizing participation of the human subject/mind, even as the interiorizing activity of the human subject contains a natural love of truth and God to which is tied the moral obligation to realize the truth. The Declaration, in a word, renewed the Church’s understanding of the human being and freedom, in a way that recognized while transforming developments in the modern liberal political order.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of DH’s distinct contribution regarding the right to freedom. Consider, for example, the burgeoning of rights’ claims to include abortion, euthanasia, same-sex unions, and the like. Proper adjudication of such claims cannot be made on the basis solely of formal fairness between competing exercises of freedom of choice; rather, it demands coming to terms with an adequate understanding of the human being. The Church’s task in this light is indicated in DH, rightly interpreted: to work for a universal right to religious freedom, in the broader and deeper context of proposing a substantive vision of the human being—of his true nature and dignity (which flows from the mutual implication of freedom and truth in relation to God).


Dignitatis Humanae, far from making the truth-question moot, invites us to recover its universal pertinence. The point is that this question now comes with a deepened awareness that truth itself intrinsically requires freedom for its own realization as true. The Declaration is not an invitation to neutralize the truth question, but to retrieve it in terms of a method that recognizes that “truth can impose itself on the mind of man” finally only in keeping with its own nature as truth (DH, 1)–as communicated by God in creation and finally as revealed by God in Jesus Christ.

*By David L. Schindler and Nicholas J. Healy (Humanum Imprint, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015)


David L. Schindler is the Dean Emeritus at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. He is the editor-in-chief of the North American edition of Communio: International Catholic Review, a federation of journals founded in 1972 by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Henri de Lubac, and other European theologians. He serves as editor of the series “Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought” with Eerdmans Publishing Company. Professor Schindler has published over seventy-five articles (translated into nine languages) in the areas of metaphysics, philosophical issues in biology and biotechnology, and the relation of theology/philosophy and culture. He is the author of Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation (T&T Clark and Eerdmans, 1996); and also of Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God (Eerdmans, 2011). His most recent edited collections are Love Alone is Credible: Hans Urs Von Balthasar as Interpreter of the Catholic Tradition (Eerdmans, 2008); and (with Doug Bandow) Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny (ISI, 2003). Other edited collections include Beyond Mechanism: The Universe in Recent Physics and Catholic Thought (1986); Act and Agent: Philosophical Foundations of Moral Education, with Jesse Mann and Frederick Ellrod (1986); Catholicism and Secularism in America (1990); and Hans Urs Von Balthasar: His Life and Work (1991). Professor Schindler was appointed by Pope John Paul II as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Laity from 2002 to 2007.

Nicholas J. Healy is an associate professor of philosophy and culture at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. Since 2002 he has served as an editor of the North American edition of Communio: International Catholic Review. His book The Eschatology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: Being as Communion was published by Oxford University Press. Recent articles have addressed the doctrine of providence, the question of “Christian philosophy,” and the theological anthropology of Thomas Aquinas and Henri de Lubac. Currently he is working on the theology of the Eucharist and Christian states of life.

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