A collection of personal reflections. Copyright © 2005-2011 K. Gurries

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rhonheimer On Religious Freedom

Sandro Magister has presented a recent contribution by Fr. Martin Rhonheimer to the debate on the question of continuity vs. rupture with respect to Vatican II and the doctrine on religious freedom in particular. The article makes the observation that the “hermeneutic of reform” involves the interplay of both continuity (in essential and immutable principles) and discontinuity (in accidentals that are historical and transitory in nature). The trick is to properly distinguish the one from the other. This is why Pope Benedict has observed that the fundamental continuity in immutable principles is a fact that is “easy to miss at a first glance.” For example, the condemned errors of relativism and indifferentism remain equally condemned today. Furthermore, religious license or the unlimited and unqualified concept of “religious freedom” and “freedom of conscience” also remain equally condemned. The concept of “due limits” to religious freedom applies yesterday, today and always – even if these are not univocally applied in every given circumstance or social context. Fr. Rhonheimer points out that the fundamental moral norms rooted in natural law have remained constant before and after Vatican II. In a certain sense, it may appear as if there was a kind of shift in the primacy of truth in contradistinction to the primacy of the person. The reality is that these are linked as one is never preserved at the expense of the other. If the continuity of immutable principles remains solid then where does the discontinuity come into play?

The discontinuity fundamentally lies in a differentiated prudential and juridical application in light of circumstances and in view of the common good. Of course, this is a familiar theme that I have previously explored here and here.  For example, the 19th century Popes were concerned with preserving the religious and Catholic character of states as had existed for centuries. Therefore, those propositions were condemned that would deny in principle the very right of existence of a confessional state. In fact, Dignitatis Hamanae reaffirms the essence of this principle: that special civil recognition can be given to one religious community in view of the circumstances or social context (Cf. DH, 6). It is important to recognize, however, that such a state of affairs has always presupposed the existence of a fundamental religious unity among the body politic (Cf. Ketteler). The prudential decisions of public policy are largely dependent upon a question of fact: to what extent does religious unity exist among the body politic? The same question of fact has been given a decisively different answer with Dignitatis Humanae. For centuries the Popes had presupposed a basic religious unity within “Catholic” states. This recognized “fact” supported a fundamental orientation with respect to the juridical application of immutable natural law principles. With Vatican II, however, the “fact” of globalization and religious pluralism became recognized as the predominant social characteristic. The formal recognition of this new social context supports a different fundamental orientation with respect to the juridical application of immutable natural law principles. Therefore, the “due limits” inherent in religious freedom must be prudentially applied in an analogical manner according to the requirements of a given social context (CCC #2109). What this means is that the “due limits” will be applied differently in the context of a confessional state than in the context of a pluralistic secular state that is lacking true religious unity among the body politic. The Catholic confessional state, for example, will not permit the spread of heresy insofar as it militates against public order and the common good in a social context that is constituted on the very basis of unity in faith. The secular state, on the other hand, constituted on the basis of affinities of nature, will not permit those religious practices that are in latent violation of the natural moral law.  Nevertheless, this shift highlighted another discontinuity with respect to the social doctrine on the duties of the (Catholic) state towards the Faith and the Church.  The traditional view often presupposed an "ideal" governmental form that considered the civil authority as "secular arm" to the spiritual authority.  This model considered the faithful and the citizen as equivalent terms and it implied the use of coercion by civil authorities in order to protect the Faith from the spread of heresy and to advance the interests of the Church.  Vatican II has effectively given a new application to the immutable principles in light of modern circumstances.  The civil authorities still have the same duties towards religious truth.  These duties, however, are now fulfilled by the Christian faithful (including political authorities) in an organic manner and without direct recourse to coercive measures.  The use of coercion remains legitimate, however, should a particular religious practice go beyond the "due-limits" established by law in view of the common good (CCC 2109).

In summary, we must affirm the continuity in immutable principles while also recognizing the discontinuities that are merely transient and resulting from accidents of history. For example, the social teachings of the Magisterium will often combine elements of both – and it will often become clear only with the passage time which elements are truly immutable (Cf. Donum Veritatis). In addition, we must strive never to over-simplify, distort or exaggerate magisterial teaching according to our own theories or preconceived notions. Of course, the teachings of Pope Pius IX in Quanta Cura and the Syllabus are not immune to similar distortions and exaggerations as was evident at the time (Cf. Dupanloup).

Doctrinal Note on The Participation of Catholics in Political Life 
"The teaching on freedom of conscience and on religious freedom does not therefore contradict the condemnation of indifferentism and religious relativism by Catholic doctrine;[30] on the contrary, it is fully in accord with it."

[30] Cf. Pius IX, Encyclical Letter Quanta cura: ASS 3 (1867), 162; Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Immortale Dei: ASS 18 (1885), 170–171; Pius XI, Encyclical Letter Quas primas: AAS 17 (1925), 604–605; Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2108; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Dominus Iesus, 22.