Libertas Humanae

by John Pacheco

The very essence of God is love. We know this because God is a Trinity of three persons who give and share this love. But true love can only be realized where there is a total and free reciprocation of this love. To be truly free, this love must be fully consensual, with no inhibitions or obstacles being present in the relationship. It therefore demands a free and complete abandonment by one person to the other person.

In the Catholic faith, we understand this practically through the sacrament of marriage. As we all know, one of the essential conditions of a valid marriage is the free and unimpeded consent of both parties to the marital bond. No party to a marriage wants his beloved to be coerced or immorally influenced into the bond. To do so would be to destroy the complete and total union of what marriage is supposed to be: a free and whole sacrifice to the other person of body, soul, and mind.

Since the sacrament of marriage is a reflection of how God Himself relates to us, He expects nothing less from His creation if it wishes to commune with Him. Hence, like us, God insists that His Bride (the members of the Church) be free to enter the spiritual marriage covenant with Him.

In order for this fullest expression of love to be authentically manifested, both persons in the relationship must therefore be free and un-coerced to choose the beloved. Marriages are initiated when one lover proposes to another: Will you accept me to be your spouse? Yet, the joy and fulfillment resulting from consent draws all of its significance and power from the lover’s entirely free and unencumbered decision. Anything less will simply not do.

The Garden of Eden is a perfect example of God giving Adam and Eve the total and complete freedom to either choose him or to reject him. This is why in creating our first parents God told them:

"You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." (Genesis 2:16-17)

In other words, while they were free to eat from any tree, there were still mortal consequences of eating of the tree of knowledge. In this passage, we see that freedom in itself is a positive good willed by the Creator . In fact, we see this freedom emphasized in the very next chapter:

“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:8-9)

Of course, God knew where Adam and Eve physically were in the garden of Eden. By asking such a question, Scripture is trying to teach us the gift of freedom which is intrinsic to us as persons. God plays “dumb” in order to emphasize the sovereignty we have over our own wills. Hence, without a genuine human freedom to act and profess one’s belief, the whole foundation of the Christian faith is undercut. Our faith presupposes man is both free and culpable for all of his actions. In the case of our first parents, we see that God respected their choice in rejecting His commandment. He did not inhibit their sin or coerce them into remaining in His love. He let them act freely.

In acknowledging man’s freedom to act, the question of religious freedom is of paramount importance since it has a direct bearing on how Catholics are to approach and evangelize the world. Since our vocation as Catholics is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, we are called to invite non-Catholics into our familial communion with God as symbolized by the divine marriage between Christ and His Church. And because our relationship to God is characterized as a marriage between God and His people, we are to respect the freedom that God’s potential spouse has been granted – either to reject Him or to accept Him.

In the decades following the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitas Humanae), there has been much controversy on how to reconcile Dignitas Humanae with previous Church teachings on the objective necessity of non-Catholics to convert to the Catholic faith. In particular, criticism has been raised that the Declaration is too “man-focused”. The Declaration, its critics say, neither adequately addresses the objective necessity of converting to the Catholic Faith, nor satisfactorily condemns the idea that “any religion is as good as another”. Furthermore, it leaves the impression, these critics maintain, that the Church is promoting, at least implicitly, objective theological and even moral error through its promotion of civil freedom of religion.

Yet, contrary to these claims, the Declaration explicitly answers the first two charges at the very beginning of the document:

So while the religious freedom which men demand in fulfilling their obligation to worship god has to do with freedom from coercion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ. (DH, 1) [emphasis mine]

In this one sentence, the Declaration not only rejects the idea of religious relativism by affirming the objective necessity to convert to the Catholic faith, but it also touches on the very reason why the Declaration was issued; namely, to assert that man has a right to religious freedom, and that the actual meaning of this phrase “has to do with freedom from coercion in civil society”.

The Declaration implicitly affirms many biblical and Catholic principles. First, it reflects God’s dealings with our first parents. God gave Adam and Eve the same freedom that the Church is seeking in civil society. It affirms the truth about the Catholic faith, and binds all persons to seeking after the truth since there is a moral compulsion to do so. Yet, the Declaration also affirms that there is no absolute compulsion to embrace that truth (DH,11). We can understand this distinction more fully when we remember Our Lord discussion with the rich young man:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"… "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:17-23)

In this scene, Our Lord affirms that salvation must always remain a free and un-coerced offer to a person. In seeking to protect this important principle, the Church has wisely recognized that each person must be in a position where his choice is not unduly influenced by civil means. Practically speaking, this means that everyone is free to worship according to their consciences without the threat of veiled persecution and discrimination. Since the Church wishes to preserve Our Lord’s offer of salvation, She must work against those forces which seek to pervert the offer into an imposition. For the Church’s witness to the Gospel to be fully received and embraced, there can be no bastardization of the Gospel by having the State enforce policies which cause resentment and alienation among non-Catholics. For then, the Church’s mission in challenging modern man becomes even more difficult. Moreover, the Church can appeal to its Declaration when She dialogues with repressive regimes and ideologies which seek to undermine or even exterminate the Catholic Faith. In upholding man’s right to religious freedom, the Church’s enemies cannot justify their religious repression under the pretense of ‘combating error’. In short, our enemies cannot appeal to a means which the Church Herself rejects, namely, taking civil action to repress religious error.

Second, the Catholic view of justification sees human merit, responsibility, and culpability as indispensable elements of God’s plan. Without genuine freedom, these ideas lose any relevance or significance in Catholic teaching. In opposing such freedom, the Church would become an obstacle to God’s intention for the human person. Man has been created with complete autonomy in either accepting or rejecting the fullness of truth found in the Catholic Faith. And precisely because this autonomy is divinely granted to every person and intrinsic to his very being, it cannot be suppressed in any forum – either private or public. Therefore, any human law which seeks to detract from man’s inherent dignity through political, social, or religious means is really an attack on the Creator’s design for man.

When these obstacles are removed, however, there might be a temptation by some to believe that man’s freedom exonerates him from moral culpability. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth (no pun intended)! Indeed, the removal of these obstacles places a grave weight of moral (not absolute) compulsion on all persons in society. For then, there can be no excuses or pretenses for seeing the Church as “repressive” or “despotic” in suppressing religious freedom. With the promulgation of the Declaration on Religious Liberty, the Church has obliterated these lies and pretenses so that man is both free and responsible to consider the offer of salvation.

No longer can the Church’s enemies count on a perceived fear and domination accompanying the Catholic Faith’s propagation. The Church has pulled the rug out from beneath them, and given us a formidable evangelizaton weapon in confronting an anti-religious, bigoted western culture. Instead of seeing the Declaration as a capitulation to liberalism, our opponents should consider that this document could well serve as an effective defensive armor against an increasingly hostile culture. In the past, the Declaration was used against communist and other dictatorial political structures when they tried to suppress the Catholic Faith. But now in the western democracies, an increasingly visible anti-Catholic sentiment is confronting us. It is only a matter of time before ‘freedom of religion’ is challenged by those who trumpet ‘hate crimes’ as the next bastion of civil rights. When the supreme courts of our democracies consider applying ‘hate crime’ laws against professing Catholics because they speak out against homosexuality, where will the Church turn to protect the rights of professing Catholics? It will turn to this Declaration.

Third, the Declaration’s opponents say that the Church is implicitly approving other religious professions by allowing their followers the civil right to publicly profess their faith. Yet, the fallacy in this reasoning rests in a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of freedom. Freedom is a good because it acknowledges the dignity of God since man chooses Him before all else and without compulsion. By man’s complete and un-coerced choice for God, God is glorified by an immortal being (man) who has chosen God completely for His own sake. It stands to reason, therefore, that if man is to choose God, he must be able to explore the truth about God unencumbered. He may begin with a very false understanding of God and fully experience the shortfall that inevitably comes with the error. If he is vigilant in his search, he will one day find the true God in the true Church. But the point here is that he must be allowed to make that journey freely and publicly. To thwart his journey would cause his human nature to rebel against his suppressor and stunt his inquiry, or even turn him off a serious inquiry into the Faith if the members of that Faith are acting dishonorably.

While the Declaration is called “Human Dignity”, its ontological foundation does not rest on human dignity per se. Rather, it rests on the dignity and glory owing to the Creator. Because man is created with an immortal soul, his ultimate destiny and purpose is directed to God. His whole dignity and worth, therefore, is predicated on the value which His Creator places on him. Being created in His likeness, man retains the dignity and honour which comes with this, not the least of which is sovereignty over his will and actions. This is why God permits the most horrendous crimes which mankind inflicts on itself. He respects our choice because he respects His creation. Thus, man’s moral right to be free is directly proportional to the glory which God receives from the choice that man makes.

The Church cannot allow a civil right if it does not have a moral right as its foundation. For without a moral right, there can be no licit civil right. A moral right to exercise his opinion in religious matters is the same thing as saying man has the freedom to choose. This exercise is a good in the sight of God because it allows God to accept man’s choice of Him above all else. It is in this open and free relationship that glory is given to God. Such a choice, therefore, is properly termed a “right” since it is an inherent part of man’s dignity. While it is true that any particular choice in religious matters may not be a right, nevertheless such a choice is to be tolerated in order to uphold man’s freedom.

The fundamental underlying basis for religious freedom rests on the dignity God affords to man. Before any appreciation can be given to submitting to the truth, there must be a mechanism – a mechanism which respects his intrinsic dignity - to allow man to arrive at that truth. In one fundamental respect, the moral right to religious freedom comes before the obligation to submit to the truth once it is found. To suppress religious expression – even erroneous religious expression – does not and indeed cannot be seen as an authentic call to submit to the truth in freedom.

John Pacheco
The Catholic Legate
June 24, 2004


This article originally appeared in Catholic Exchange.