Did You Know -- How Things Have Changed

Second in a Series

by John Houk

This is the second in a series on how the Catholic Church “reads the signs of the times”. Such engagement and adaptation of teaching and practice are sure signs that the church is alive and wise enough to recognize the need for change when the time is right. Here is a brief history of our teaching on religious freedom which is both an individual issue and a social issue. For individuals we have gone from “error has no rights” to “the human person has a right to religious freedom”. For society and governments we have gone from using the “secular arm” to compel and even punish people who have fallen into “heresy” to “religious freedom must be given effective constitutional protection (by governments) everywhere”. Here are some quotes:

Theodosian code, 438: (Roman imperial law when Christianity was the state religion) “There shall be no opportunity for any man to go out to the public and to argue about religion or to discuss it or to give any counsel... All heresies are forbidden by both divine and imperial law.”

Pope Innocent III, 1199: “The goods of heretics are to be confiscated, and their children are to be subjected to perpetual depravation for the sins of their parents.”

Pope Pius IX, 1864: Condemned -- “that erroneous opinion which is especially injurious to the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by our predecessor Gregory XVI insane raving, namely, that freedom of conscience and of worship is the proper right of each man, and that this should be proclaimed and asserted by every rightly constituted society.”

Pope Pius X, 1906: “That the state must be separated from the church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error... and obvious negation of the supernatural order.”

Pope John XXXIII, 1963: Everyone has the right “to worship God in accordance with the dictates of one’s own conscience and to profess one’s religion both in private and public.”

Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Liberty, 1965: “This Vatican synod declares that the human person has the right the religious freedom” and curiously “... it has always remained the teaching of the church that no one be coerced into believing.” (When we change something we don’t always like to admit it even when it was a wise thing to do. Watch for this issue to come up again.)

John Courtney Murray, and American Jesuit, is credited with providing an important voice in the shift in thinking on this issue to the effect that the church benefits from a government that protects religious freedom. We are so used to living with this freedom that it can be hard to grasp how long and difficult it was for us to come to an understanding that this is a better way.