In its landmark declaration on religious freedom, “Dignitatis Humanae,” the Second Vatican Council teaches that the “right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in constitutional law … and thus is to become a civil right” (DH §2). Commentators both secular and religious noticed a marked change in the Council’s teaching from previous declarations, such as Gregory XVI’s encyclical “Mirari vos,” which condemns religious indifferentism.
The juxtaposition of both documents reveals itself as a false dichotomy, however. In declaring the civil right to religion as necessary, the Council never contradicted the teachings of previous pontificates, much less demeaned the unchangeable truth that the fullness of truth is found in the Catholic Church. The Council rightly taught that no state or political regime can circumvent the efforts of the Church by restricting the natural right and duty to worship God. Unfortunately, less favorable readings of the documents argue that the Church paved the way for the now-infamous campaign for “freedom from religion,” which purports an extreme separation between church and state.
The Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from mandating the observance of one particular religion for the citizenry. But it says nothing about governmental checks on religion. Religious freedom allows the human person to fulfill something inherent in his very being: the desire to give glory and honor to God. If a political regime seeks to stifle that, it harms the common good. As “Dignitatis Humanae” teaches, “[Jesus] acknowledged the power of government and its rights, when He commanded that tribute be given to Caesar: but He gave clear warning that the higher rights of God are to be kept inviolate” (DH 11).