The next topic that caused so much stress for the minority of hard-line bishops was the question of religious liberty. It is very hard for us in America to understand why there was such fierce opposition to this idea (and the Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae, that enshrined it) – after all, we’ve been living in a nation that in its 1st amendment has proclaimed this as a constitutional guarantee. And these days, when some are frightened that this right is being eroded, we are more than ever focused on its rightness. So what was the problem?
The problem was the “Catholic Thesis,” which the minority of bishops believed was infallible Church teaching. This idea (greatly simplified) stated that in countries or under rulers where Catholicism was in the minority, it was the obligation of those governments to protect the rights of the Catholic Church. And in countries where Catholicism was in the majority, it was the obligation of those governments to give special privilege and pride of place to the Catholic Church, and to deny rights to those who were non-Catholics. The logic behind this position was the declaration “Error has no rights.” The same view that opposed ecumenical dialogue (that is, with “heretics and schismatics” who have no rights) opposed the idea of religious liberty, with the added impetus that to accept this idea would be to change “constant Church teaching” – that is, the “Catholic Thesis.” Further, there was the hatred of “democracy” that was seen to be the antithesis pf papal authority – especially after the unification of Italy in 1870 and Pope Pius IX’s regarding himself as “the prisoner of the Vatican.” Because of this, popes actually tried to forbid Italian Catholic from voting in elections…
But the Council did in fact embrace this principle, and for two basic reasons – 1) it was another of the visions of Pope (St) John XXIII, and 2) it was the lived experience of the American Catholic church that this notion was good and proper. And there were bishops (like Cardinal Spellman of New York) who were influential and who spoke loudly in favor of this. He was guided in his thinking by a peritus (theological expert), Jesuit John Courtney Murray. In the 1940s and 1950s he’d been silenced by the Vatican for his writing on the proper relationship between Church and State, but during the Council he (along with several other prominent theologians) was rehabilitated. There was another factor involved in the affirming of religious liberty by the Council: the voices from behind the Iron Curtain (with a certain Archbishop Karol Wojtyla among them) who wanted such a declaration to affirm their rights against an atheistic regime. These combined influences carried the day.
Was this a “change” of Church teaching? Several questions are involved in this. First, was this actually official Church teaching, or was it simply a practical arrangement that had a place at one time? Second, when cultural changes occur and modify the social context, must we assume that earlier responses are still adequate? Third, can we make a distinction (as Pope St John XXIII insisted) between the content of the Faith and its expression? Finally, does all change mean alteration, or can it mean expansion and clarification and deepening?
For the minority, the issue of any alteration at all of what they were convinced was authoritative teaching involved an abandonment of the Catholic Faith. For the majority, it seemed that new circumstances required new kinds of response. This is especially true today, when the new responses opened up by the Holy Father for marriage cases are, so to speak, procedural; after all, Jesus never said anything about a “Court of 2nd Instance” in the process of annulment, basically subjecting a person to what we Americans call “double jeopardy.” Pope Francis cleared the way for couples in broken marriages by eliminating this step and instituting what is called the “brief process.” Those who dislike the Holy Father will disagree with me, but I think he is doing for the Church what Peter Maurin (co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day) once wrote: “Society should be structured so that it is easy for people to be good.”