The Declaration on Religious Freedom affirms the inalienable right of all people to religious freedom without interference from the government. The declaration is considered a landmark development in 20th-century Catholicism, but one question persists: Is the Vatican II doctrine a step forward for the Catholic church or a reversal of previous tradition? This issue has been fodder for debate among priests, scholars and bishops since the doctrine’s adoption in the mid-1960s. Some have called it a repudiation of Catholic tradition.
Others have said it is an adaptation of previous Catholic teaching. On March 21, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., weighed in on the subject during his annual Spring McGinley Lecture titled “Religious Freedom – A Developing Doctrine.” The lecture, an annual event that explores the relationship between religion and current social and political issues, marked Dulles’ first public speech since his elevation to Cardinal on Feb. 21.
Referring to the English Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Dulles said, “Christianity came into the world as a single idea, but time was necessary for believers to perceive its multiple aspects and spell out its meaning…For this reason, the doctrine of the faith undergoes a process of development through time.”
Dulles chronicled this development by exploring the practices of past popes. Gregory XVI and Pius IX, for example, condemned liberalism and religious freedom. Their teachings, some of which centered around concerns about liberal politics and the replacement of faith with reasoning, are often cited in arguments against the declaration. However, Dulles noted that the Vatican II declaration gives a place to God in human reasoning and that it does not call for a separation of church and state. It also calls for the state to recognize and promote the religious life of its citizens. It teaches that government must avoid interfering with religious activities as long as they do not violate the rights of others. Dulles explained that the teaching of the 19th-century popes was not wrong, but was guided by the political and social situation of the time.
The teaching continues to develop, he said. Pope John Paul II asked the world last year to forgive the use of violence in the cause of religion by some Catholics in the past. “The problem of religious freedom is still a burning issue in the world today,” he said. “We have seen a strong and welcome development of the doctrine of religious freedom. “This process of development must continue as the church faces the new problems and opportunities that arise in the successive generations,” he said.