Bishop Athanasius Schneider on Religious Liberty

Catholic News Service recently posted the following video in which Bishop Athanasius Schneider discusses Dignitatis Humanae of Vatican II and the topic of religious liberty.

I have a great deal of respect for His Excellency and applaud his efforts with regard to the reception of Holy Communion, but he is off the mark with respect to religious liberty.

First, he speaks of the traditional approach to church-state relations by pointing to the 19th century as an exemplar of that model. He describes this as a time during which the papal magisterium on this subject confined itself to “Catholic countries like France or Italy” and attempts on the part of non-believers to make them “not Catholic, and therefore the popes wanted to reject this form of religious liberty.”

This simply is not correct. Yes, the popes of that time wanted to stand up against those who sought to eliminate the Catholic State, but their teaching was not so narrowly focused; rather, it was intended for every nation and every people.

Thus the empire of our Redeemer embraces all men. To use the words of Our immortal predecessor, Pope Leo XIII: “His empire includes not only Catholic nations, not only baptized persons who, though of right belonging to the Church, have been led astray by error, or have been cut off from her by schism, but also all those who are outside the Christian faith; so that truly the whole of mankind is subject to the power of Jesus Christ.” (Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas 18)

Secondly, Bishop Schneider goes on to address “religious liberty in the 2oth century” with a similarly narrow focus; one that is also inaccurate.

He speaks of the approach taken at Vatican II as being directly aimed at atheistic regimes such as “the former Soviet Union” wherein “all society was not Catholic… and religion itself was prohibited.”

Dignitatis Humanae, Bishop Schneider maintains, can be understood as addressing the question, “How can I argue with a government who is atheistic… I have to argue with them on the level of reason only… on the natural level.”

He goes on to say that one cannot simply demand that such nations embrace Catholicism, since it is the one true faith, because “they will not understand this.”

“So I have to argue,” he continues, “‘Give us religion because this is the demand of human dignity.’ And so what we have in common with the atheist is at least to save the human dignity.”

This, according to the Bishop Schneider, is how we should understand the “intention of the Council” and of Dignitatis Humanae.

There are a number of major problems with this kind of thinking.

Number one: We do not have saving human dignity in common with the atheist.  An atheist, by definition, is an enemy of human dignity, even if only by ignorance.

That said, it is utterly untrue (and frankly, un-Catholic) to suggest that human dignity is upheld, expressed or developed through the practice of just any religion. The “demand” of human dignity in this regard is better understood as the first demand of justice; to worship God in truth as He Himself has established. There is only one way.

Secondly, all one needs to do is read Dignitatis Humanae to discover that it is clearly directed at all of the nations of the world; it is far more than just a program for evangelizing communist / atheistic nations. Vatican II also produced Ad Gentes – On the Missionary Activity of the Church, wherein such a discussion would have more appropriately been addressed if that were the intent.

Furthermore, the intention of John Courtney Murray, the architect of Dignitatis Humanae, was very much tied to the realities of life in the Untied States and the plight of Catholics in her political system.

In any case, the results are in. The Church no longer behaves as if the Catholic State is even desirable, and it is inaccurate to pin the blame solely on a simple misunderstanding of the intention of Dignitatis Humanae.