Since Vatican II (1962-1965), the Roman Catholic Church has experienced internal theological controversies regarding how to interpret and implement many of the reforms adopted at that time. Now Pope Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, will have to address this as well as the many other challenges.
A minority within the Roman Catholic Church argue that Vatican II was a liberal takeover and that the Holy Spirit was not present. They argue that many of the reforms, such as no longer performing the Mass in Latin and no longer insisting on a Catholic establishment in Catholic dominated countries, are so foreign to the centuries-long practices prior to Vatican II that certainly the council erred.
However, for most Catholics Vatican II is still seen as a valid church council. Catholic theologians, as well as now-retired Benedict XVI,1 contend that it promoted reforms in continuity with previous church teachings. (Benedict had become wary of some Vatican II changes and did lead a move to a pre-Vatican II conservatism, but as a participant in the council he supported it.) In the area of religious freedom, Vatican Council II promulgated the Declaration on Religious Freedom (in Latin, Dignitatis Humanae, “Dignity of Humanity”) on December 7, 1965, after much heated and lengthy debate. The principal author, an American Jesuit named John Courtney Murray, attempted to harmonize Roman Catholic concepts of the juridical and political order of society with modern democratic political ideas of religious pluralism and religious freedom. In fairness, one must acknowledge that the final document does reflect the language of civil rights, limitations upon government, and “immunity from coercion” in the pursuit of truth. However, some have questioned other portions of the document that appear vague. Some have discredited claims by Murray, who attempted to synthesize philosophical concepts of the American founding era with Catholic natural law theory.2
Such differences of viewpoint within the Catholic Church regarding how to correctly interpret and apply the declaration underscore the vital importance of the conclave that chose Pope Francis I. It is helpful to analyze not only Francis’ religious liberty views, but also those of three cardinals who were candidates under consideration to become the next pope.
Pope Francis I on Religious Freedom
As the first Jesuit ever elected as pope, Francis I demonstrated diplomacy and respect for non-Catholics, as well as unbelievers, when he met with the press corps on Saturday, March 16, and offered a silent prayer: “‘Given that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence, to each one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God,’ Pope Francis said. ‘May God bless you.’”3
Of course, respecting the conscience of those who are not believers does not mean that the church is taking a passive stance toward secularism. The speech that garnered Cardinal Bergoglio acceptance as the next pope placed great emphasis upon the need for the church to evangelize.4 As Francis I, then, he seems to be following in the footsteps of his predecessor, who lauded the curial efforts to stem the loss of adherents through the establishment of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.5
On December 12, 2000, in “The New Evangelization: Building the Civilization of Love,”6 then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote that the New Evangelization includes both the humbleness of the grain of mustard seed, and the extensiveness of the mature, Christian tree, the Catholic Church. The method of the new evangelization depends upon the law of expropriation, or the law of “giving of one’s self,” as Christ gave up Himself for humanity, and the Holy Spirit gives of Himself to draw people unto the Father. Ratzinger went on to explain that the necessary elements include conversion, or rethinking our worldview to include God’s view of the human condition, and community with like believers. Another element, added Ratzinger, is to understand the kingdom of God as communion with God on a daily basis through prayer and the practice of the liturgy, which enable the practitioner to enter into the “mystery” of the gospel. Believers in communion with God transmit a living faith to the world. By entering into the “mystery” of the gospel, Ratzinger explained, a Christian rejects deism, and any view of Christ as a mere historical figure, because a Christian now experiences the sequela of Christ—being assimilated into the life of Jesus—through the Paschal mystery, that is, through the observance of the Lord’s Supper. At the end of this journey one attains unto eternal life.
Thus Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in outlining the new evangelization has laid out the path whereby Pope Francis I will find the solution for the dilemmas facing the church. The logic is that if all professed Catholics were to experience the new evangelization, not only they, but many others outside of the church, would begin to live new lives reflecting the principles of Christ as believed and taught by the Catholic Church. In short, Catholic religious freedom means the right of the church to aggressively implement the new evangelization. The long-range impact of such a transformation would be to directly influence public policy through religious liberty as understood by the church, and as reflected by the views of the following three cardinals who were candidates during the recent conclave.
Cardinal Odilo Scherer (Brazil)
Cardinal Odilo Scherer was appointed to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization by then-Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.7 As archbishop of Sao Paulo, and having nearly 6 million members in his diocese, he was considered among the contenders at the opening of the conclave. Being from South America was another favorable factor, since approximately 40 percent of the world’s Catholics are from there. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI referred to it as the “continent of hope,” although the church has suffered heavy attrition rates there in recent decades because of thousands of members, especially the younger generation, leaving the church for pentecostal and evangelical churches. From this perspective, one may expect the Catholic Church to present a public face of support for religious freedom and plurality, but may also see aggressive efforts to stem its losses to other Christian groups. In fact, one of the factors weighing against Cardinal Scherer was the high attrition rate in his country of Brazil, going from 84 percent Catholic to 68 percent from 1995 to 2010. This indicates the conclave’s desire for Pope Francis I to curb membership losses through specific efforts at implementing the new evangelization and winning back many of the church’s former members.
Cardinal Angelo Scola (Italy)
Cardinal Angelo Scola recognizes religious pluralism as a current reality, as well as the worldwide influence of democracy. He argues that the modern state cannot be “neutral” toward religion, because by default, this means the state allows the culture of secularism to dominate the public square. The result is a conflict between secular organizations and religious ones, as they vie for control of public space. Cardinal Scola posits the solution as what he terms “the nondenominational state,” meaning a plurality of religious groups that should have their proper place in the public square. Religious liberty is truly realized, he argues, when the state recognizes the liberty of religious groups to have their voice and to influence public policy for the good of the commonwealth.8
Cardinal Timothy Dolan (America)
On September 13, 2012, Cardinal Timothy Dolan spoke about religious freedom at the John Carroll Society lecture at the Newseum, in which he referred to religious liberty as the right to exercise a “faith-formed” conscience, and at times referred to a “properly formed” conscience. He argued that such religious liberty has always formed the foundation of American history and that American “Catholics do not ‘want privileges from the state,’ but simply want to be left alone in order to ‘practice their faith, and follow their properly formed consciences in the public square.’”9 Although various parts of Dolan’s account of American history are factually inaccurate, he does accurately define modern Roman Catholicism’s stance toward religious freedom. For the Roman Catholic Church, religious freedom means the right to practice their faith, even if this should mean obligating society to accept it. This is evident not only from Dolan’s statement cited previously (“[to] follow their properly formed consciences in the public square”), but also from the document, Dignitatis Humanae, itself. In article 6, paragraph 3, the church declares that “government is also to help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties, and also in order that society itself may profit by the moral qualities of justice and peace which have their origin in men’s faithfulness to God and to His holy will.”
In essence, from Dolan’s perspective, religious freedom exercised by the church means that the church does not take a direct role in influencing politics, but it does affect public policy by insisting that Catholic members have the right to exercise their faith convictions through dissemination of the church’s teachings, as well as through the electoral process. When Dolan speaks of the “faith-formed” conscience, or the “properly formed” conscience, he is referring to the individual whose conscientious convictions are based on the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.10
Catholicism and Religious Freedom
Without doubt, current viewpoints of leading Roman Catholic cardinals on the subject of religious liberty reveal a concept that highly favors the liberty of the church to fulfill its mission in society. While the Catholic Church seeks to follow Gaudium et Spes (Latin, “Joy and Hope,” or “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World”) by removing itself from direct involvement with politics, the church by no means has relinquished her influence over public policy. Although Dignitatis Humanae is only a declaration promulgated by Vatican II, it may best be understood as a corollary to Gaudium et Spes because of its emphasis on the rights of the church to accomplish its salvific mission, not through politics, but through the actions of enlightened citizens who have accepted the church’s teachings and who have sought to use legislative means to enact them in society. In a democratic, religiously plural society, the Catholic Church seeks to enlist to her aid citizens who can operate within an electoral system to implement church teachings through law.
Under Pope Francis I, one can expect to see the promotion of religious freedom defined as an active, governmental support, or at least favor, of religion in public policy. The current goal of modern Roman Catholicism is to eradicate, or at least contain, secularism through establishing a “nondenominational” state. In order to accomplish this, the church continues to seek alliances with other religious groups built upon a common social agenda that includes a pro-life platform and heterosexual marriage. While seeking allies among other Christian groups, the Catholic Church also seeks to maintain its own membership and in those countries where conditions allow, it will implement the new evangelization to curtail losses in membership.
In the American context, a Catholic-Evangelical alliance translates into a removal of the concept of church-state separation by the implementation of accommodation of religion in public policy. The past two decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence tends to reflect this shift, especially with regard to educational policy (vouchers). Additionally, the executive branch of government has followed this trend through the formation of the faith-based initiatives under President George W. Bush. The most recent demonstration of seeking to establish a “nondenominational” state is the effort of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), along with some other Christian groups, who have united in opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Rather than comply with governmental policies, they wish to receive governmental financial support and implement their moral norms for society.
In light of European history, a religious commonwealth (Roman Catholicism, and in some locales, magisterial Protestantism) naturally resulted in the persecution of all dissenters. In the modern context, with religious pluralism so predominantly manifest, one may be led to believe that religious diversity is a foolproof safeguard against religious tyranny. Such is true, unless religious groups no longer focus on their differences, and instead unite upon those points of doctrine that they hold in common, producing a “nondenominational state” (or, a re-Christianization of society). If such a condition should prevail in the future, the real question will be. How much liberta (liberty) will exist for dissenting non-Christians while the church exercises its libertas ecclesiastica (liberties of the church)?
1 Edwin Cook, Roman Catholic Hegemony and Religious Freedom: A Seventh-day Adventist Assessment of Dignitatis Humanae (Waco, Tex.: Liberty 21st Century, Inc., 2012), pp. 63-66, 75, 76.
2 Ibid., pp. 84-94.
3 Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, “The Promise of Pope Francis,” www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/ 03/19/promise-pope-francis/ (accessed Mar. 22, 2013).
4 Susan Berry, “The Speech That Led Jorge Bergoglio to the Papacy,” Breitbart, Mar. 27, 2013, www.breitbart.com/Big-Peace/2013/03/27/The-Speech-That-Led-Jorge-Bergoglio-To-The-Papacy (accessed Apr. 2, 2013).
5 Cook, pp. 28, 305.
6 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The New Evangelization: Building the Civilization of Love,” Dec. 12, 2000, www.ewtn.com/new_evangelization/Ratzinger.htm (accessed Apr. 3, 2013).
7 “The Men Who Could Be Pope: Cardinal Odilo Scherer,” goVocation, The Catholic Herald UK, Mar. 6, 2013, http://www.govocation.com/home/news-catholic-herald-uk/2159-the-men-who-could-be-pope-cardinal-odilo-scherer.html (accessed Apr. 3, 2013).
8 Carol Glatz, “Being ‘Neutral’ Toward Religion Hurts Religious Freedom, Says Cardinal,” Catholic News Service, Dec. 7, 2012, www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1205127.htm (accessed Mar. 11, 2013).
9 Michelle Bauman, “Cardinal Dolan Says Religious Freedom Means Leaving Faith Alone,” Catholic News Agency, Sept. 13, 2012, www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/cardinal-dolan-says-religious-freedom-means-leaving-faith-alone/ (accessed Mar. 21, 2013).
10 Cook, pp. 101-173, 292-294
Author: Edwin C. Cook
Edwin Cook has a doctorate in church-state studies from Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He writes from Waco.