Catholic teaching on religious liberty has remained consistent over the centuries.
By Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap.
In his 1864 document Quanta Cura, Pius IX labeled “erroneous” the opinion that the “liberty of conscience and of worship is the proper right of every man.”1 But the Second Vatican Council declared in its 1965 document Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom) that “in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.”2 So, did Vatican II reverse or contradict the teaching of Pius IX on religious liberty?
Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, many heterodox theologians have claimed that Dignitatis Humanae “reversed” past papal teaching on religious liberty.3 In 1985, for example, the excommunicated Archbishop Lefebvre claimed that Quanta Cura “condemned” an “assertion” which was later found in the Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae.4 But other “progressive” theologians like Charles Curran and Richard McBrien also saw, and welcomed, an utter reversal of Catholic teaching.5 So, on this point both the excessively “conservative” and “liberal” meet, but what are the “centrally” orthodox to make of the Church’s current teaching on religious liberty?
The aim of this article is to demonstrate that there is no inconsistency between the doctrine of Pius IX and of the Second Vatican Council on religious liberty. The article will show that these teachings are consistent with each other: first in regard to a person’s freedom in religious matters in relation to the state; and second in regard to a person’s freedom in religious matters in relation to the Church. Let’s take a closer look at Quanta Cura and Dignitatis Humanae.
A closer look at the texts
In Quanta Cura Pius IX stated that it is “erroneous” to say that...