If American readers view this as reasonable and consistent with principles we generally find in the United States, there is good reason. As Michael Davies described in his The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty, Fr. John Courtney Murray, an American Jesuit, played a vital role in modeling the Declaration on Religious Liberty after the United States Constitution:
‘Father Murray was determined to ensure that Church teaching was brought into line with the American Constitution. He wrote to Cardinal Spellman asking him to make a speech in defense of the American constitutional system and its version of religious freedom — which was based on the papally condemned principle of separation of Church and State.”
As Davies indicates, Fr. Murray’s position (which the Council adopted) ran counter to historical Church teaching. Indeed, Fr. Yves Congar famously admitted this as well: “It cannot be denied that the declaration on religious liberty does say materially something else than the Syllabus of 1864; it even says just about the opposite.”
The choice between the “common good” standard and the “public order” standard was ultimately a choice between the teachings and desires of Catholics and those of Protestants and other opponents of the Church.
The most theologically and philosophically interesting and controversial aspects of the debate on religious liberty involve conceptions of truth and error, the dignity of man, and the rights and duties of men in connection with the worship of God. Arguably, though, the most impactful issue in the Council’s debate over the Declaration on Religious Liberty focused on something comparatively mundane: whether States should impose limits on religious liberty based on preserving “the common good,” or, instead, based on preserving “public order.”
Michael Davies provided a simple and concise Catholic rationale for the “common good” standard:
“The common good of the citizens includes their spiritual as well as their temporal welfare and in Catholic States this includes the right to protection against false ideas which endanger souls. Everyone accepts that the State should restrict the circulation of dangerous drugs which destroy the body — how much more important it is to restrict the circulation of false teaching which can destroy the soul.”
In practice, the Church’s previous discussions of religious liberty applied directly to Catholic States only. Indirectly, however, the “common good” standard includes an underlying belief that Christ’s rights extend over all men and governments. As Pope Leo XIII wrote in Immortale Dei:
“For God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the world. Everything, without exception, must be subject to Him, and must serve Him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern holds it from one sole and single source, namely, God, the sovereign Ruler of all. ‘There is no power but from God.’”
Through this transition from the “common good” standard to the “public order” standard, the Church effectively taught the world that the rights of Christ the King no longer mattered as much as they once did.
Unfortunately, whereas the Church’s previous discussions of the limitations on religious liberty related primarily to Catholic States and the toleration to be shown to non-Catholic religions, the Council considered limitations on religious liberty as applied to all States, including those that were not Christian. In Religious Liberty Questioned, Archbishop Lefebvre remarked on the problem created by trying to distinguish between the two criteria for limiting religious liberty in all States:
“Since neither of these criteria proved to be adequate, it was undeniable that articulating the limitations on religious liberty in a single formula, accepted by all the States, was impossible. To try it, as Vatican II did anyway, was the equivalent of trying to square the circle. It was like hoping to reconcile the exigencies of truth with the exigencies of error.”
This concept of “public order” resembles that found in the French Revolution’s anti-Catholic Declaration of the Rights of Man.
In hindsight, it is reasonable to suspect that the drafters of the Declaration on Religious Liberty created this impossible situation deliberately, realizing that the imperfect solution would ultimately undermine traditional Catholic teaching. The proponents of the “public order” standard suggested that this more permissive standard was necessary to protect Catholics living in non-Catholic States because the “common good” in such States would require suppression of the Catholic Faith. But this verbal sleight of hand assumes that non-Catholic States inclined to oppress Catholics would somehow feel bound to defer to the guidance of a Catholic Council. Moreover, because the previous discussions on this topic applied directly only to Catholic States, the change at Vatican II would naturally be viewed as relating specifically to Catholic States — and indeed, that is what Fr. Congar suggested when he admitted that Dignitatis Humanae said the opposite of the Syllabus.
In addition, we can see that the pressure against the “common good” standard came from those wishing to undermine the rights of the Church. As Michael Davies explained, the drafters of Dignitatis Humanae appear to have taken their cue from those opposed to the Catholic Church:
“It has been explained that there were Protestant objections to the inclusion in Dignitatis Humanae of common good as the criterion for restricting the public exercise of religious liberty. It was feared that this could be used to justify the traditional concept of the Catholic State. This resulted in replacement within the schema of common good by public order.”
So the choice between the “common good” standard and the “public order” standard was ultimately a choice between the teachings and desires of Catholics and those of Protestants and other opponents of the Church.
As related by Michael Davies, Fr. Murray elaborated on the “public order” standard:
“The public powers are authorized to intervene and to inhibit forms of religious expression (in public rites, teaching, observance, or behavior), only when such forms of public expression seriously violate either the public peace or commonly accepted standards of public morality, or the rights of other citizens. . . . In what concerns religious freedom, the requirement is fourfold: that the violation of the public order be really serious; that legal or police intervention be really necessary; that regard be had for the privileged character of religious freedom, which is not simply to to be equated with other civil rights; that the rule of jurisprudence of the free society be strictly observed.”
Missing from all of this is not only mention of God or His Church, but even any hint that men might ultimately care about where they spend eternity. This should come as no surprise when we realize that this concept of “public order” resembles that found in the French Revolution’s anti-Catholic Declaration of the Rights of Man: “Article 10: No one must be troubled regarding his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not trouble public order as established by law.”
Michael Davies described the practical consequences of the choosing “public order” standard:
“Whatever Dignitatis Humanae might stipulate concerning the objective moral order, the criterion which would be adopted in virtually every Christian country, with the exception of Ireland, would be Father Murray’s criterion of ‘commonly accepted standards of public morality.’ In other words, the reality would be the adoption of moral standards acceptable to the majority of people, the French Revolutionary ideal. This has meant, in practice, that, since the Council, even in countries with a large majority of Catholic citizens, divorce, contraception, abortion, pornography, and unnatural vice have been legalized. When governments no longer legislate in accordance with the objective moral norms of the Catholic Church, Father Murray’s ‘commonly accepted standards of morality’ soon become commonly accepted standards of immorality.”
Since the time Davies wrote The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty in 1992, we have seen the world’s formerly Catholic countries, including Ireland, fall in precisely this way.
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If we wish to know whether the distinction really mattered during the Council, we need only consider that the so-called International Group of Fathers, led by Archbishop Lefebvre, offered to vote in favor of Dignitatis Humanae if the phrase “common good” replaced “public order”:
“Archbishop Lefebvre and the other leading opponents of Dignitatis Humanae offered to vote for the finalized text providing that the common good was reinserted as the criterion for limiting the public expression of religious liberty.”
With all of the problematic aspects of Dignitatis Humanae, this choice between the “common good” and “public order” was the one that the International Group of Fathers sought to change. Ultimately, the authors rejected this request, leading to the use of “public order” in the following passages of Dignitatis Humanae:
“Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.”
“Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.”
“Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honor the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.”
“These norms arise out of the need for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality. These matters constitute the basic component of the common welfare: they are what is meant by public order.”
Stepping back, it is worth recalling that this entire discussion historically revolved around the extent to which non-Catholic religions should be tolerated, or granted rights, in Catholic States. By adopting the “public order” standard, the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty granted more latitude to these non-Catholic religions within Catholic States. Through this transition from the “common good” standard to the “public order” standard, the Church effectively taught the world that the rights of Christ the King no longer mattered as much as they once did, and that salvation of souls was not worth the danger of political disagreements.
Dignitatis Humanae was in a real sense a direct attack on Our Lord Jesus Christ and His social kingship. It amounted to a rejection of the rights of Christ the King.
In theory, though, this should not have meant that Catholicism had to recede in any of these Catholic States, and yet it most certainly has. What happened?
To answer this we can look to other parts of Archbishop Lefebvre’s intervention on the Declaration of Religious Liberty. Here he indicates that using “public order” rather than the “common good” as a criterion for establishing laws will not simply mean that one group has more or less rights; instead, it can be used to fundamentally reshape society:
“It is in the name of this same conception, in the name of the dignity of the human person, that the Communists wish to force all men down to atheism and to justify their persecution of every religion. In the name of safeguarding public order, a number of countries are nationalizing the Church’s schools and institutions in order to create political unity.”
He saw the substantive significance of the choice of “public order” as the criterion for limiting religious liberty. Certainly the Communist regimes achieve a high degree of “public order” when they take away all liberty.
Archbishop Lefebvre continued his intervention by stating that, “Jesus Christ Himself was crucified in the name of public order and in the name of that same order, all the martyrs have suffered their tortures.”
With Christ uncrowned, not only in governments but also within the Church, the enemies of Our Lord reign with almost no opposition.
Here it seems that Archbishop Lefebvre hit upon the most devastating aspect of Dignitatis Humanae. It was in a real sense a direct attack on Our Lord Jesus Christ and His social kingship. The deliberate decision to reject the Church’s traditional conception of “common good” in favor of the “public order” standard need not have had much practical significance outside of the few Catholic States, but it amounted to a rejection of the rights of Christ the King.
And who did the Council Fathers choose over Christ? Archbishop Lefebvre answered this in his intervention:
“This conception of religious liberty is that of the Church’s enemies. This very year Yves Marsaudon, the Freemason, has published the book Ecumenism as Seen by a Traditional Freemason. In it the author expresses the hope of Freemasons that our Council will solemnly proclaim religious liberty. Similarly the Protestants at their meeting in Switzerland are expecting from us a vote in favor of the declaration, without any toning down of terms.”
What would we expect from such a rejection of Our Lord in favor of His enemies? Pope Pius XI’s Quas Primas tells us what happens when we reject Christ:
“If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ. What We said at the beginning of Our Pontificate concerning the decline of public authority, and the lack of respect for the same, is equally true at the present day. ‘With God and Jesus Christ,’ we said, ‘excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away, because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation.’”
We must, in the words of Hilaire Belloc, choose between Christ and chaos.
We have no “common good,” but our enemies are driving us, through choreographed chaos, to the horrifying “public order” they desire.
In his They Have Uncrowned Him, Archbishop Lefebvre lamented the Council’s choice of chaos over Christ:
“All those conciliar Fathers who gave their vote to Dignitatis Humanae and proclaimed religious liberty with Paul VI, did they realize that they had in fact uncrowned Our Lord Jesus Christ by tearing away the crown of His social royalty? Did they grasp that they had very concretely dethroned Our Lord Jesus Christ from the throne of His divinity? Did they understand that, making themselves the echo of apostate nations, they were making those abominable blasphemies rise up towards His throne: ‘We do not want him to rule over us’; ‘We have no king but Caesar’? But He, making light of the confused murmur that rose up from this assembly of senseless people, withdrew from them His Spirit.”
What did the Council Fathers expect would happen when they uncrowned Our Lord Jesus Christ? Did they think that the Freemasons and Protestants had advocated so vigorously for the “public order” standard so that their members might embrace the Catholic Faith? Did they think that the extermination of Catholic States and Catholic influence over all societies would make men and women live more decent and peaceful lives?
What do we see now in this time of profound need across the world? With Christ uncrowned, not only in governments but also within the Church, the enemies of Our Lord reign with almost no opposition. We have no “common good,” but our enemies are driving us, through choreographed chaos, to the horrifying “public order” they desire.
If we want to have any chance of stopping this forced march to a godless society ruled by those who see us as chattel, we must seek to restore all things in Christ.
If we want to have any chance of stopping this forced march to a godless society ruled by those who see us as chattel, we must seek to restore all things in Christ. As Pope Pius XI told us in Quas Primas, this begins with the enthronement of Jesus Christ in our own lives:
“He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”
The call for each of us to become saints, by allowing Christ to reign completely in our lives, is growing louder by the day. May the Blessed Virgin Mary help us to accept God’s graces to fight for the reign of Christ the King and save our souls. Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, pray for us!