A Dialogue on Vatican II and The Declaration on Religious Liberty

Last Tuesday (10/18) I was invited to participate, as a Protestant evangelical, in a special symposium called “Living Vatican II in the Twenty-First Century.” This event was an interdisciplinary, ecumenical and interfaith conversation based on a celebration of the Council’s 50th anniversary. The entire event took place between September 18-21 and was sponsored by the Lewis University Center for Ministry and Spirituality.The panel I shared on was led by Dr. Jeffrey Gros, one of the leading Catholic ecumenists in North America. Jeff has a lifetime of ecumenical work, including writing and collaboration with a number of evangelical institutions and leaders. He is a veritable “who’s who” in the intersection of these two ecclesial worlds, an intersection that has drawn me into deeper conversation and relationships with Catholic scholars and leaders over the last decade. Jeff and I have known each other since we met at an ecumenical event at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham (AL). We really became good friends about a year ago when Jeff moved to Chicago to serve at Lewis University. Jeff Gros is the Catholic Studies Scholar in Residence. His task is to foster creative, interdisciplinary research on ecumenism and on the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition, particularly in the context of the 325-year Lasallian educational tradition.

The other participant in the panel discussion was Dr. Mark Schultz, professor of history at Lewis University. Mark grew up a cradle Catholic in Athens (GA). I found it easy to relate to Mark given his outgoing nature, winsome smile and our deep, common Southern roots, mine being in the majority religious culture and while his are in the minority culture since he grew up a Roman Catholic in a pre-dominantly Baptist context.

At the end of the third session of Vatican Council II, in the early 1960s, there was an uproar about Pope Paul VI’s promise to put religious liberty on the agenda for the opening of session four in November of 1964. The minority protested that the proposed document on religious freedom had been revised so much that when they saw a new version of the finished text much further debate ensued. The document I refer is titled: Dignitatis Humanae, which means in English the “Declaration on Religious Freedom.” It begins with this magisterial statement:

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society. This Vatican Council takes careful note of these desires in the minds of men. It proposes to declare them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice. To this end, it searches into the sacred tradition and doctrine of the Church-the treasury out of which the Church continually brings forth new things that are in harmony with the things that are old.

Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman (1889–1967), the sixth archbishop of New York, serving from 1939 to 1967, began the proceedings that November with an emphatic endorsement of the declaration by saying, “The schema is very pleasing and timely.” Spellman argued that Council must approve this declaration so that the world would know beyond reasonable doubt that the Catholic Church was in favor of religious liberty. But Spellman also understood the ecumenical importance of this declaration when he said that this decree would, “give great impetus to ecumenism.” He believed that a failure to approve it would raise serious doubts about the Vatican Council’s sincerity.

Boston’s Cardinal Cushing (1895–1970) was even stronger in his support. Cushing, who became archbishop of Boston in 1944 and served to his death in 1970, had been made a cardinal in 1958. He used his influence at the Council to verbally sweep aside all objections by saying, “Religious liberty was solidly based on Catholic teaching” not on the subjective order of truth. he said that passing this declaration was a pastoral necessity of first importance.

Why did these leaders from America argue in this manner? This was one part of what I attempted to respond to in my evangelical response on the panel. I suggested that one powerful reason was the rise of dictatorial governments. This great 20th century fact underscored the importance of political and religious freedom. Cardinal Cushing said that with St. Paul and Pope Paul VI the church must proclaim the “gospel of freedom.” Cardinal Cushing concluded, “I am not afraid of the gospel of freedom. There are dangers everywhere but one of the greatest is the denial of liberty. We must preach the gospel and approval of this Declaration would be a beginning.” Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis (1892–1967), made a cardinal in 1961 during the era of Vatican II, also spoke very strongly in favor of passage. I am particularly impressed, reading these proceedings almost fifty years later, that Ritter urged approval because “our Protestant brothers have suffered in certain Catholic countries owing to [our Catholic] disregard for the principles stated in this Declaration.” Others joined Ritter in adding that Catholic persecution of Protestants was “regrettably true” and the church must now speak out openly against it.

We must be honest with the facts of history. Since the sixteenth century, persecution had lingered with powerful impact in pre-dominantly Catholic countries. This was continued right into the mid-twentieth century. The older history of burning heretics was real, though now past, but present challenges presented by Catholicism’s impact upon states and laws continued various forms of persecution right into the modern era. One Cardinal who rose during the week of debate quoted John Henry Newman, saying poignantly, “First I would give a toast to conscience–only then would I toast the pope.”

The bishops insisted that all religious intolerance and hatred must be banished. Not surprisingly a debate to limit the statement ensued as some felt the council was over-reacting. I will tell more about this debate, and the eventual outcome of the debate and the passage of the declaration, tomorrow.

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