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Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Does Dignitatis Humanae Mean Anything?

Written by  John Andra
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Does Dignitatis Humanae Mean Anything?

The documents of the Second Vatican Council are sometimes characterized as ambiguous. This suggests, of course, that the documents have more than one plausible meaning. There is a worse possibility, however. At least when it comes to Dignitatis humanae, a Council document might have no meaning at all.

The idea is shocking, but solely as a matter of logic, it is not impossible. Consider, for example, a document which says both "A" and "not A." The document is ambiguous only if the passages are read in isolation:  the document might mean "A," and it might mean "not A."

 

But what would justify such a reading? If the document constitutes a whole, then its meaning should be taken from the whole. Considering that "A" and "not A" are both asserted, there is no basis to read one as though the other did not exist. Following the logic typically used by thinking humans, the two would cancel out.

Importantly, this result could not be attributed to the reader. The author chose to place contradictory assertions in the document. The author thus chose to make the document gibberish and not merely ambiguous. No one could reasonably expect the reader to rescue the situation.

The protection God affords to the hierarchy does not include an affirmative guarantee that bishops will always say what they should, when they should, and how they should.

And, just as importantly, the author's failure would be entirely rhetorical. The substantive truth of the document could never be reached. A text which means nothing is neither true nor false; ex contradictione nihil—from a contradiction nothing follows. 

OK, so logic aside, there remains an important question regarding the Divine protection afforded ecumenical councils. Would God permit such a rhetorical failure in a council document? Subjecting himself in advance to the decision of the Church, this writer believes it is possible

The protection God affords to the hierarchy does not include an affirmative guarantee that bishops will always say what they should, when they should, and how they should. In his treatise, The Church of God, Body of Christ and Temple of the Spirit, Fr. Louis Bouyer explained that even a solemn definition of an ecumenical council is not infallible "in the sense that it exhausts all that can be said on the point, nor even that it gives the best possible formulation of it, but in the sense that it cannot contradict the truth of Christ." Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1982, p. 361. Without diminishing the positive revelation contained in the deposit of faith, Fr. Bouyer frames infallibility in a negative fashion, as more a protection from error than a perpetual guarantee of effective teaching:

"In the function of the magisterium, it is not only the final indefectibility of the Church that constitutes the limit of what the personal infidelity of ministers could inflict on her. The positive inspiration which was granted the apostles (as it was the prophets) at the beginning of the Church, to preserve and illustrate the  revelation of the Savior himself and then to fix its expression in the Scripture of the New Testament, is preserved from being obscured throughout successive ages by 'negative infallibility,' that is, certitude that never, no matter how deficient she may be, can any later definition of this truth, communicated once and for all, deform her or obscure her. Yet here again—and even in the original revelation and inspiration—communication of the divine gift, the truth that saves us, is entirely through the human intelligence and capacities of expression that are never dissociated from their human condition and its inevitable limitations." pp. 535-536.

It is time to see if passages of Dignitatis humanae show actual contradiction.

If Fr. Bouyer could make these assertions about solemn definitions of ecumenical councils, they apply a fortiori to the Second Vatican Council, which was more rhetorical in inspiration than dogmatic. As Pope John XXIII said in his opening address to the council fathers:  "The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously." "The salient point of this Council is not," the pope stated, "a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all. For this a Council was not necessary." Instead, His Holiness emphasized, the Council should take:

"a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character."

Pope Paul VI said nearly the same thing in his closing address to the council fathers:

"But one thing must be noted here, namely, that the teaching authority of the Church, even though not wishing to issue extraordinary dogmatic pronouncements, has made thoroughly known its authoritative teaching on a number of questions which today weigh upon man's conscience and activity, descending, so to speak, into a dialogue with him, but ever preserving its own authority and force; it has spoken with the accommodating friendly voice of pastoral charity; its desire has been to be heard and understood by everyone; it has not merely concentrated on intellectual understanding but has also sought to express itself in simple, up-to-date, conversational style, derived from actual experience and a cordial approach which make it more vital, attractive and persuasive; it has spoken to modern man as he is."

The Council was thus in part an ambitious rhetorical project. It seems admissible to believe the council fathers could have stumbled in this very human effort. Not only was their effort novel, any familiarity with Council history shows they were working under pressure from internal factions, the media, unaddressed problems back home, and The Need To Get Something Done. After the Council's preparatory schemata were discarded, the assembly functioned as a large and somewhat contentious committee meeting. Considered together with the popes' deemphasis on traditional theological formulae, it could be understood if the press of compromise produced contradictions in the final language. 

Just like that, the human duty towards religious truth loses its objective and binding character.

With that being said, it is time to see if passages of Dignitatis humanae show actual contradiction:

"First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you" (Matt. 28: 19-20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it."

This passage (with the exception of the word "subsists") restates traditional Catholic doctrine regarding the objective and binding nature of truth, "especially in what concerns God and His Church," i.e., religious truth. But the Council immediately adds:

"This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power."

Just like that, the human duty towards religious truth loses its objective and binding character. After saying, "God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him," the council fathers say the "truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth," operating on "the mind at once quietly and with power." (Emphasis added.) The duty is first said to flow from God, and it is then said to flow only from the persuasive influence of truth on the human mind.

The positions are contradictory. If humans are put under an obligation by God, they are put under an obligation by something other than their subjective perceptions. Nothing follows from such incoherence.

The evident problem is that immunity from coercion in civil society was not the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.

Next, the council fathers state:  "Religious freedom . . . which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society." This is clear enough. The council fathers then state:  "Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ."

The evident problem is that immunity from coercion in civil society was not the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ. The council fathers did not expand on the traditional doctrine in these sentences, but a few sentences later they inserted footnote no. 2, which cites Pope John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in terris, Pope Pius XII's 1942 Christmas radio message, Pope Pius XI's encyclical Mit brennender sorge, and Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Libertas praestantissimum (now simply titled Libertas on the Vatican website).

A thorough examination of the cited passages exceeds the scope of this article. It suffices to note that the passages all either quote or support the cited passage from last document mentioned, Libertas praestantissimum, which provides a good summary of the traditional doctrine:

"Another liberty is widely advocated, namely, liberty of conscience. If by this is meant that everyone may, as he chooses, worship God or not, it is sufficiently refuted by the arguments already adduced. But it may also be taken to mean that every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands. This, indeed, is true liberty, a liberty worthy of the sons of God, which nobly maintains the dignity of man and is stronger than all violence or wrong - a liberty which the Church has always desired and held most dear. 

Although as a matter of logic, nothing follows from a contradiction—ex contradictione nihil—as a matter of utility, anything follows from a contradiction—ex contradictione quodlibet.

Pope Leo XIII is very clear—liberty in Catholic thought is liberty to follow the truth, not a liberty to "worship God or not." In addition, because the pope specified that he had addressed the spurious view elsewhere in his encyclical, those parts may be read together with the cited passage. Any selection is unfortunate, because the theological analysis is so carefully developed. The following summary paragraphs will nevertheless suffice: 

"But to judge aright, we must acknowledge that, the more a State is driven to tolerate evil, the further is it from perfection; and that the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare, requires. Wherefore, if such tolerance would be injurious to the public welfare, and entail greater evils on the State, it would not be lawful; for in such case the motive of good is wanting. And although in the extraordinary condition of these times the Church usually acquiesces in certain modern liberties, not because she prefers them in themselves, but because she judges it expedient to permit them, she would in happier times exercise her own liberty; and, by persuasion, exhortation, and entreaty would endeavor, as she is bound, to fulfill the duty assigned to her by God of providing for the eternal salvation of mankind. One thing, however, remains always true—that the liberty which is claimed for all to do all things is not, as We have often said, of itself desirable, inasmuch as it is contrary to reason that error and truth should have equal rights. [Internal footnotes omitted.]

And now to reduce for clearness' sake to its principal heads all that has been set forth with its immediate conclusions, the summing up in this briefly: that man, by a necessity of his nature, is wholly subject to the most faithful and ever-enduring power of God; and that, as a consequence, any liberty, except that which consists in submission to God and in subjection to His will, is unintelligible. To deny the existence of this authority in God, or to refuse to submit to it, means to act, not as a free man, but as one who treasonably abuses his liberty; and in such a disposition of mind the chief and deadly vice of liberalism essentially consists."  

Ironically, the reliance by defenders of Dignitatis humanae on a distinction between a right to immunity from coercion and a right simpliciter tends to support the existence of contradictions in the document.

As already indicated, Pope Leo XIII's statement, "it is contrary to reason that error and truth should have equal rights," is inconsistent with the Council's reference to "immunity from coercion in civil society." Thus Michael Davies, after comparing the traditional doctrine with what he took to be the teaching of Dignitatis humanae, stated:

"It is now possible to see clearly the apparent contradiction between the traditional papal teaching and the teaching of Dignitatis humanae, even though I shall not claim that a contradiction exists. All that I wish to do is to state that I do not see how the traditional teaching and that of Dignitatis humanae can be reconciled, which is a fact, and to ask the Magisterium to clarify the matter." The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty, The Newmann Press, Long Prairie, Minnesota, 1992, p. 227.

This writer differs from Mr. Davies only in the latter's willingness to identify a specific "teaching of Dignitatis humanae." Mr. Davies' caution notwithstanding, there is no question of due deference to the magisterium based on an apparent change in church teaching. There was no change in church teaching because there is no "teaching of Dignitatis humanae." The document says it is leaving the traditional doctrine untouched, and then it not only touches it, it contradicts it. This yields nothing, not an apparent discontinuity with the traditional teaching.

If it is objected that the distinction just drawn only moves the question from the theological realm to the rhetorical realm—true. Whether the contradiction exists is of course material. But if the contradiction is internal to the document, there is no question of theological meaning. The problem is entirely rhetorical, which is not the fault of the reader but of the author, as established earlier.

A coherent document would not require such obscurities in its defense.

The author of such a document, moreover, gives the reader an unfortunate discretion. Although as a matter of logic, nothing follows from a contradiction—ex contradictione nihil—as a matter of utility, anything follows from a contradiction—ex contradictione quodlibet. The reader need only select a passage from a contradictory text and impose the desired meaning upon it.

The bishops of Quebec deployed Dignitatis humanae in this fashion when they quoted the document to justify their acquiescence to government shutdowns of the sacraments and to subsequent vaccine requirements for their reception. Hence a Council document which supposedly extends religious liberty to all simultaneously restricts the liberty of the Church herself. This is only possible because the document means nothing, and thus may be used to mean anything.

Again, the council fathers write:  "This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom." They then immediately add:  "This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits."

The second sentence is not well translated from the Latin, though it is the version on the Vatican website. That aside, the sentences contain the germ of a distinction sometimes made by those who defend the consistency of Dignitatis humanae with traditional doctrine. As one defender put it, the document asserts "a natural right to immunity from human coercion in propagating" a given religion, and not "a natural right to propagate" that religion. Harrison, Brian W. O.S., "What does Dignitatis Humanae Mean? A Reply to Arnold Guminski," Faith & Reason, Vol. XXX, Nos. 3-4, Autumn & Winter 2005, p. 243, n. 3 (also stating that traditionalist critics of Dignitatis humanae "frequently . . . fail to appreciate the important difference."). Such defenders maintain the first-mentioned right is consistent with the traditional doctrine, although they concede the second is not.  

The right to life, the right to a family, the right to self-defense—rights like these establish the terms on which a public order is just. 

At the outset, the sheer complexity of Fr. Harrison's analysis illustrates the rhetorical problems with Dignitatis humanae. In addition to the document's contradictions, its most important terms—coercion, religion, religious, conscience, right, immunity—are not defined. This imprecision provides some cover for the document's defenders. They can look at it this way and that, straining to show it has a defensible meaning.

More substantively, a right to immunity from coercion against propagating a religion equals a right to propagate that religion. In the legal order, for example, a person's right to immunity from coercion against a certain act necessarily establishes that person's right to act. In the natural order (which Fr. Harrison mentioned in the above quote and is addressed next), the result is the same. If human nature establishes a right to immunity from coercion, acting in a way otherwise subject to that coercion must also conform with human nature. Denying this would mean that human nature protects an act which is contrary to human nature, an obvious incoherence.

Ironically, the reliance by defenders of Dignitatis humanae on a distinction between a right to immunity from coercion and a right simpliciter tends to support the existence of contradictions in the document. A meaningless distinction, being the mirror image of an inherent contradiction, obscures the latter. A coherent document would not require such obscurities in its defense.

One more example must suffice. Later in the document, the council fathers state: 

"[T]he 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."

By all appearances, the council fathers teach that the "right to this immunity" is a natural right—it has its "foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature."

By all appearances, the council fathers teach that the "right to this immunity" is a natural right—it has its "foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature." They then go on to say, "the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed." (Emphasis added.) The council fathers therefore maintain a person may 1) violate the just public order 2) by exercising a natural right.

These are contradictory notions. The just public order is based on natural rights. The right to life, the right to a family, the right to self-defense—rights like these establish the terms on which a public order is just. 

True, one can violate the just public order by abusing a natural right, say by harvesting organs from a prisoner to extend another life, by using in vitro fertilization to start a family, or by killing an entire group when only one posed a threat. But the council fathers did not identify abuse of rights as the culprit, they specified "exercise of this right" as the potential threat to the just public order. Since natural rights are the basis for a just public order, one cannot consistently say they pose a threat to that order.

Admittedly, one could employ yet more ingenuity here, perhaps drawing further distinctions between a right to immunity from coercion and a right simpliciter. But at some point a reader has had enough. This writer reached that point years ago, for what it is worth.

He first expended significant effort trying to understand Dignitatis humanae. Multiple readings of the document in English translations, the Latin original, and other languages. Primary materials, Council histories, monographs on the document, scholarly debates in the journals and online—all these were examined.

True, one can violate the just public order by abusing a natural right, say by harvesting organs from a prisoner to extend another life, by using in vitro fertilization to start a family, or by killing an entire group when only one posed a threat. But the council fathers did not identify abuse of rights as the culprit.

He also examined the traditional teaching of the Church. The words of our Lord in the Gospels and of the Apostles in the epistles. Church fathers such as Justin, Ambrose, and Augustine. The medieval heritage from the scholastics, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, and the canonists. The synthesizers of that heritage:  Vitoria, Suárez, Bellarmine. The popes, of course:  Gelasius I writing to Emperor Anastasius, the Register of Gregory VII, Unam sanctam, Mirari vos, Quanta cura, Immortale Dei, Libertas praestantissimum, Quas primas, Mit brennender sorge, Ci riesce. Despite the variety of literary forms and historical circumstances, the traditional teaching was clear, consistent, and persuasive.

All of that shattered into incomprehensible bits, however, on contact with Dignitatis humanae. The document of the Second Vatican Council, supposedly "spoken to modern man as he is," still presents no meaning to this writer's mind. To paraphrase Mr. Davies, that is a fact, and nothing remains but to join the request of the great traditionalist writer for the magisterium to clarify the matter. 

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Last modified on Tuesday, February 22, 2022