The Fight for Religious Freedom: John Courtney Murray’s role in ‘Dignitatis Humanae’

Debate on the issue of religious freedom during the Second Vatican Council’s third session had been tumultuous. As the final session opened on September 14, 1965, two opposing and irreconcilable “sides” were lined up against one another. The traditionalist side, led by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, was a powerful minority who argued the state was obligated, through its officials, to worship God according to the Catholic religion. Reformers, following the thought of John Courtney Murray, S.J., argued the church could and should support religious freedom in secular states. Both sides saw the question as a matter of speaking the truth about God and the church and morality; for these men, the stakes could not be higher. All knew that the matter would be decided definitively in the weeks ahead. Indeed, they had been preparing intensely for the debate almost from the moment the previous year’s session had closed.

Battle Stations

On Jan. 9, 1965, the John Courtney Murray, S.J., published an article in America. “This Matter of Religious Freedom,” that received much comment and was soon translated and published in Italian and German periodicals. A few months later, L’Osservatore Romano published an article by the prominent French theologian Charles Boyer, S.J., of the Gregorian University, that defended the classical approach that Murray questioned.

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The new religious freedom text, which the bishops had received in June, had been closely scrutinized by supporters and opponents alike. Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis, Mo., had written a letter to the entire American episcopate calling for support of the schema. Meanwhile the Coetus Internationalis Patrum, a bishops’ interest group that opposed the draft, had invited the world’s bishops to provide their mailing addresses in Rome during the next session in order to receive advice on how to vote. And Cardinal Giuseppe Siri had written directly to the pope complaining that, if promulgated, the new document would “especially benefit religious indifferentism.”

The Canadian bishops, who had paid special attention to Father Murray’s work, prepared a sequence of interventions in favor of the schema. And less than two weeks before the session’s opening, the Yugoslavian bishops published a joint pastoral letter declaring their support for religious freedom.

During this same period, Murray carried on a respectful correspondence with the Cardinal Michael Browne of Ireland, a leader of the opposition to the document. Murray explained the text and defended its importance. But knowing how unlikely it would be to win the cardinal’s agreement, he added:

There is an old folk-ballad among us about a boy who was treed by a bear.... The refrain runs thus: “O Lord, if you can’t help me, for heaven’s sake don’t help the bear.” It comes to mind as an expression of my hope in this matter: if your Eminence does not find it possible, in conscience, to come out in favor of the schema, I hope that you will not find it necessary, in conscience, to come out against it!

As he had the previous fall, Murray worked with the American bishops to prepare a set of coordinated interventions for session four covering all the important points.

Bishops’ Voices, Murray’s Thoughts

On Sept. 15, debate on the new text began. Bishop Émile Joseph de Smedt of Belgium presented an introductory report, again prepared with extensive consultation with Murray. The first council father to speak was Cardinal Francis Spellman, who offered strong support through an intervention that Murray had prepared. Cardinals Cushing and Ritter followed with their support. Over the next several hours, American bishop after American bishop offered interventions that clearly reflected Murray’s thinking. One bishop commented, “The voices are the voices of the United States bishops; but the thoughts are the thoughts of John Courtney Murray!”

The day included several opposition voices. The influential Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini repeated the classical approach that the state was obligated, through its officials, to worship God according to the Catholic religion. He noted the great benefits that Catholicism brings to society, offering chastity as his first example of such benefits. Cardinal Siri warned of religious indifferentism and suggested again that the religious freedom schema contradicted the teaching of several popes.

On the second day, Cardinal Lorenz Jaeger spoke in the name of 150 bishops in favor of the draft. He offered impressive responses to many of the opponents’ criticisms.

The third day included several noteworthy interventions. Cardinal Franjo Seper (a future head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) offered his strong support. Cardinal John Heenan criticized the thesis-hypothesis approach, noting that it was absurd to speak of truth or error having rights, since only persons have rights. He said the traditional approach was inconsistent: The church cannot appeal to “the rights of truth” when Catholics are in the majority and use this to suppress the freedom of non-Catholics, but when Catholics are in the minority, demand freedom for Catholics.

The Cardinal Modrego y Casaus of Spain said the schema “certainly contradicts...the explicit teaching of the Roman pontiffs up to and including John XXIII.” Another Spaniard, Velasco, said it “perverts the doctrine taught for centuries by the magisterium of the church.” Cardinal Ottaviani maintained that the teachings of the schema were “for the most part contrary to common teaching” and called for a revision that would bring it “in accord with the earlier teaching of the Catholic Church.”

Speaking on behalf of “all of the observers of the council,” Bishop Charles Maloney, auxiliary bishop of Louisville, offered strong support for the schema. He noted wryly that the council fathers who were wrong about this issue had “a right to speak because of their dignity as persons, not because of the truth or falsity of their statements.”

By the end of Friday the direction the debate was taking was still unclear. It was by no means certain that the schema would be accepted. Msgr. Albert Prignon, who was present as a theological expert, later wrote in his journal of this day, “Chance meetings with bishops and theologians in St. Peter’s showed that minds were wavering. Several bishops said openly that they did not know what they ought to think and how they should cast their votes.” Some thought that if a vote had been called, many hundreds would vote against it, and one rumor suggested that 1,000 were ready to reject it. Pope Paul VI, who had made no secret of the fact that he wanted the declaration, told Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens that he had been very impressed with the arguments of the opposition leaders.

Bogged Down

Monday, Sept. 20, the fourth day of debate, included a remarkable series of interventions in favor of the document. Cardinal Josef Beran took his place before the fathers. During the 1940s, he had been imprisoned by the Nazis in the concentration camps atTheresienstadt and Dachau. After four years of freedom, during which he had been named archbishop of Prague, Beran was imprisoned in 1949 by the Communist regime and remained so until 1963. Since his release, he had been forbidden by his government from exercising his ministry. As he stood on the floor of the council, he had just moved to Rome, in exchange for concessions from his government for more freedom for the church, and had been named a cardinal by Paul VI.

Standing for the first time before his brother bishops, who knew well the suffering he had endured for his fidelity, Beran reminded them of the burning of the Czech priest Jan Hus in the 15th century and the forced conversions of Czech Protestants in the 17th century. These events, he said, “left a certain wound hiding in the hearts of the people” and damaged the church’s credibility. He called on the church to repent and said that “the principle of religious freedom and freedom of conscience must be set forth clearly and without any restriction flowing from opportunistic considerations.”

Following Cardinal Beran, Cardinal Joseph Cardijn stood before the bishops. He was the founder of the Young Christian Workers, a movement that then had nearly 2,000,000 members in almost 70 countries. Pope Paul VI had named him a cardinal in the recent consistory alongside Cardinal Beran. Cardinal Cardijn, too, spoke in favor of the schema.

As if that were not enough, the next speaker was Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, archbishop of Warsaw, who also had suffered imprisonment under the Communists. He too supported the schema.

Despite these dramatic statements, there still was a great deal of disarray on the issue. Several interventions were highly negative. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre bitterly condemned the schema, saying that the principle of religious freedom “is not one conceived...by the church.” The sharp conflict even generated some apathy among some council fathers. Many Protestant observers began to sense that the schema might not succeed. The historian Gilles Routhier has written, “The debate seemed to have bogged down, and no one could find a way ending it.” The next morning’s headline in The New York Herald Tribune read, “Vatican Council Near Crisis Over Religious Liberty Issue.”

On Tuesday morning, Pope Paul VI (just a month away from his historic visit to the headquarters of the United Nations) summoned the council leadership to his apartment to say he thought it was time for a preliminary vote.

As the morning’s interventions began, Cardinal Enrico Dante, whose face was familiar because of his longtime role as papal master of ceremonies, suggested that the schema sounded like echoes of the French Revolution. Cardinal Charles Journet, a noted theologian trusted by the more traditional fathers, spoke in favor of the schema; this went a long way toward reassuring some who felt uneasy.

At 10:30 a.m., after four interventions, Cardinal Gregory Peter Agagianian took to the podium and asked the fathers to indicate by a standing vote whether they thought it was time to close discussion. Nearly all the fathers stood. Bishop de Smedt offered a summary and closing remarks, and then the fathers were asked to vote on whether the current text should be taken as the basis for a definitive declaration after further amendments, to be subsequently approved by the council. The voting resulted in 1,997 in favor, 224 against and 1 invalid. When the tally was announced, the bishops responded with applause in the hall. The next morning’s London Times called the vote “a great event in the history of Catholicism and in the history of freedom.”

Sept. 22 brought a few more interventions, as was permitted by council rules. One was from Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, who spoke in favor of the document in the name of the bishops of Poland, saying that religious freedom was in harmony with both human reason and divine revelation. The Italian theological expert Msgr. Pietro Pavan later wrote: “Thus ended a debate that was perhaps the most violent ever to have taken place in the aula. It had been rich in dramatic moments.”

Champagne, Friends, Smiles

The Secretariat for Christian Unity’s subcommission received another 201 written interventions after the debate and set to work on final revisions. On Sept. 30, Paul VI told Bishop de Smedt, “This is a major document. It establishes the attitude of the church for several centuries. The world is waiting for it.”

For a while, John Courtney Murray, S.J., played a central role in the revision work. His fellow expert Yves Congar, O.P., described him as “very much overloaded with responsibility for various matters.” But on Oct. 5, he was rushed to the hospital with a collapsed lung. When Father Congar visited him two days later, Father Murray, with oxygen tubes in each nostril, tried to provide feedback on the current text. Father Congar—who had had his disagreements with Father Murray—found the ideas important enough that he immediately passed them on to secretariat officials. Congar wrote that evening:

Thus Fr. Murray was ill, and seriously so, at the moment when a text was being finalized which had been, to a great extent, his work. He himself told me that he is taking this mystically, in the sense of the cross, and that he is perhaps more useful to the text in bed and powerless, than up and active.

In Father Murray’s absence, the revisions to the document brought a shift in tone, adding emphasis to revelation and theology, including a preface on revelation written by Father Congar. Father Murray’s more constitutional and legal approach, however, was not eliminated. Also added to assuage fears of indifferentism was a more explicit acknowledgement that the Catholic Church is the true church founded by Christ. (When this was made public, The New York Herald Tribune headline read, “Council Revision Makes It a Duty of All to Be Catholic.”) The text was accepted by the subcommittee on Oct. 9 and distributed to the council fathers on Oct. 22. The Coetus immediately sent around papers intended to demonstrate that the document contradicted the Bible and church teaching.

Bishop de Smedt introduced the text to the council fathers on Oct. 25. Two days of voting on its various parts followed. The secretariat then received more than 4,000 petitions for amendments and met again on Nov. 8 and 9, with Father Murray again present (though Father Congar wrote in his journal: “He spoke in a voice that seemed like that of a ghost, and as though it came from the other side of the veil”). The team made final revisions, mostly insignificant, and the final text was distributed on Nov. 17, with voting scheduled for two days later.

On Nov. 18, Murray was invited to concelebrate mass with Pope Paul VI in St. Peter’s, along with several others representing the theological experts. This was remarkable, considering that exactly a decade earlier Murray had been forbidden, under Vatican pressure, to write or publish his work. A friend later wrote, “In private, the event was celebrated with champagne, friends, smiles—and toasts that were really prayers for the future of a beloved Church in a kind of turmoil that its servant could only wish to prove holy.”

On Nov. 19, the council fathers voted first on various parts of the document—each vote strongly in favor—and finally on the whole text. The latter vote was 1,954 in favor, 249 against and 13 invalid.

On Dec. 7, 1965, in the final public session, the formal vote on the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (“Dignitatis Humanae”) was 2,308 in favor, 70 against and 8 invalid. On that day, Pope Paul VI formally proclaimed it (along with the “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests,” the “Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity” and the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”) as a document of the council. The Second Vatican Council’s closing ceremonies took place the following day.

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Freeport Sulphur
2 years ago
Before considering the proper relationship of religion to politics, we must consider its relationship to morality. Religious beliefs refer to both creedal and moral realities, the former about reality's first and last things or ultimate realities, the latter regarding this, that and the other thing or our proximate realities.  Beliefs about ultimate reality are grounded in either a fideism or rationalist, plausibilistic metaphysics. These don't jump high epistemic hurdles even though they are justifiably actionable, existentially. Beliefs about proximate realities are empirical and probabilistic. This includes moral realities, which are grounded in our common sense and common sensibilities. While creedal beliefs often entail a 'theory of truth,' that's quite distinct from a 'theory of knowledge,' which sets forth how we access that truth, including moral stances. Creedal beliefs rely on putative special revelation. Moral truths are transparent to human reason, even without the benefit of special divine revelation. Because moral truths are transparent to reason, grounded in empirical, practical, rational and probabilistic realities, they are understandably more universally compelling and should be. Creedal beliefs, not so much.  While both creedal and moral truths come under the aegis of religion, our free exercise & nonestablishment rights regarding creedal beliefs have seldom been abridged to advance the common good but have more often been restricted regarding moral beliefs. The 1st Amendment thus implicitly recognizes that the epistemic disparity between creedal and moral foundations translates into varying degrees of normative impetus. The speculative takeaway is that it's not the Western secular liberal regime that curtails religious liberties but, more universally, good epistemology. The practical takeaway is that theocratic urges must be actively resisted everywhere, regardless of creed, whether a given society is pluralistic or not, because 'nonestablishment' is a basic human right. A timely practical takeaway is that neither form of Political Islam, distinguished by the modus operandi of soft power, ballot Islamism, or of hard power, bullet Islamism, is philosophically defensible.
Charles Erlinger
2 years ago
A theological riff from the wine trails of Italy?
Nicholas Clifford
2 years ago
Perhaps a fanciulla Soave, visiting from nearby Verona.
Nicholas Clifford
2 years ago
A very interesting piece on Murray and his role in Vatican II. But in many ways the article is more interesting for what it does’nt say than what it does. For instance, can there really be any doubt that those who opposed Murray’s views (Lefebvre, Ottaviani, Siri, etc. etc.) were in fact quite correct in saying that those views ran completely counter to the Church’s historical teaching on the evils of religious freedom and freedom of conscience? Check Gregory XVI’s Mirari vos or Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, for example, if you want to refresh your memory. Were these two Papal documents (and others like them) magisterial teachings? If not, why not? Did Gregory and Pius believe they were subject to change? If so, how? How should the faithful Catholic interpret such events? If I were to say in 1910, for example, that religious liberty was a splendid idea, would that make me a heretic, or at least first cousin of a heretic? If no, why not? If I were to say, sixty years later in 1970, that religious liberty is a terrible idea, would that make me a heretic? If no, why not? In other words, would I be wrong if I were a premature believer in the values of religious liberty in 1910, but thoroughly orthodox in those same beliefs in 1970? Why? Simply because the Church had changed its mind and caught up with me at last? If so, what do such questions say of the place of the magisterium, the role of the magisterium, and so forth? Obviously I don’t expect a short article to answer such questions, but I think it at least should raise them. Particularly since American bishops, in their June Fortnight of Religious Liberty, are apt to sound as if Catholicism invented the whole idea of such liberty. Not only should we read history, but should reflect on it. As George Orwell pointed out many years ago, totalitarian regimes understand that in order to control the present, it is necessary to control the past. In its official history, today’s China (whether you consider it totalitarian or not), is a splendid example. Should we take it as our model? There’s an old Soviet Empire joke from eastern Europe: Can a good Marxist predict the future? Of course, that's easy. What’s really difficult is to predict is the past.
William Rydberg
2 years ago
In my opinion, this article reads like some kind of fantastical Epic. Interesting to read, but conveniently short on facts about the historical background. Accordingly, I limit my comments to Cardinal Ottavani and the role of the Canadian Bishops (who almost sound like the "Eagles" in Lord of the Rings)... Firstly, in my opinion, its almost de rigeur among some to treat Cardinal Ottaviani as though he was unaware of what had been going on for the previous century or more. That he seemingly knew nothing of what was going on, lets take Canada for example: The cradle of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada is the Province of Quebec where most of the Catholics did reside.. In the Canadian Bishops conferences, and in Rome, especially in the 60's Quebec called the shots on Catholicism in Canada. Church attendance was dropping at a precipitous rate, and has never recovered... At the time of the Vatican II, the Church in Quebec was under siege. One should read about the origins of Quebec's Quiet Revolution, the Church was to say it nicely, on the bleeding edge of extinction and the Bishops and Cardinals knew it. To this day for example, the Dominican Order headquartered in Quebec still follows the Rule put in place by the Cardinal Archbishop of Montreal not to wear their Dominican Clothing in public. This was because the Bishops feared in part, for the well-being of members of Religious Mens Orders especially. So in my opinion, a Cardinal Ottaviani would have had reason to skeptical of Canadian recommendations, given the situation and associated internal and exogenous political pressures...

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