I finished reading this morning The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty by Michael Davies (Neumann Press, 1992). The book takes a hard look at Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty, promulgated 7 December 1965. This is a highly controverted document because it "appears" to contradict previous clear papal teaching. I say "appears", because the Declaration Dignitatis humanae is the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium, and as such, even though not infallible [see below], requires that we give it every benefit of doubt. It must be remembered however that the various encyclicals of popes Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII, which Dignitatis humanae seems to contradict, are also authoritative teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium to which we owe our loyal assent. This is a dilemma indeed.
Not having read much before on the subject of the proper relationship between Church and State, I found the author's résumé of papal teaching on the subject to be quite interesting, and especially instructive for an American. The wording is largely that of one Father Brian Harrison, but the author cites plenty of actual papal texts to support the veracity of this short summary.
1. The civitas [State] has a duty to honour God, and to recognize as uniquely true the religion entrusted by Christ to the Catholic Church. In a predominantly Catholic society this will be achieved by the union of Church and State in which false religions will not be granted the same rights as the true religion.
2. Civil authority, therefore, has the duty also to protect the true religion and the Catholic Church by restricting (to the extent that the common good requires) the free propagation of doctrinal error – both that which opposes reason or the natural law and that which opposes revealed truth. (It then pertains to ecclesiastical and civil law, mutable according to circumstances, to propose norms governing how much restriction the common good does in fact require in particular cases.)
3. In a well-constituted society, the common good will always require some degree of restriction over and above that which is necessary merely for the maintenance of public peace.
4. Civil authority can and should tolerate the diffusion of error to the extent that the common good requires, but may never give positive approval or authorization to that error, since nobody has an objective right to believe or propagate what is false, or to do what is wrong.
5. Nobody may ever be forced into embracing the Catholic faith, since the act of faith must be free.
The Authority of Vatican II
I mentioned above that the documents of Vatican II are not infallible. This was also an eye-opener for me, as I had never before encountered these words of Pope Paul VI himself spoken as a General Audience on 12 January 1966:
"In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided any extraordinary statements of dogma endowed with the note of infallibility, but it still provided its teaching with the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium which must be accepted with docility according to the mind of the Council concerning the nature and aims of each document."
It must be stressed, as Pope Paul does here, that non-infallible teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium cannot just be ignored – it is authoritative and normally commands our inward assent, but neither can the logical possibility of error be ruled out. Davies, careful as I want to be, never claims that there certainly is a contradiction, and thus a false teaching either in the previous papal teaching (which may well be infallible) or in Dignitatis humanae. He merely states that he cannot see how it is possible to reconcile them. Indeed, the propositions he finds at the core of the issue are in clear formal contradiction – they are logically impossible to reconcile.
The only way to avoid the conclusion that the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium (exercised either by Vatican II or by many of the previous popes) on this point is false is to hold that one of the following propositions is not an accurate reflection of the respective Magisterium's teaching.
The "Apparent" Contradiction
A non-Catholic possesses a natural right not to be prevented from the public expression of error, limited only by the just requirements of public order (the teaching of Dignitatis humanae; see especially article 2).
A non-Catholic does not possess a natural right not to be prevented from the public expression of error, limited only by the just requirements of public order (the teaching of the pre-Vatican II popes; see especially Quanta cura and the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX, Immortale Dei and Libertas humana of Pope Leo XIII, Vehementer nos of Pope St. Pius X, Quas primas of Pope Pius XI, and Ci riesce of Pope Pius XIII).