7.2.6 The human right to religious freedom

Back to 7.2.5

Unit 7 Contents


The article by George Weigel in which he spoke about the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’ was in fact focused on a document and an issue that I have not referred to until now.  The document is Dignitatis Humanae and the issue is religious freedom.

Dignitatis Humanae was issued at the very end of Vatican II in 1965 and affirmed that there is a human right to religious freedom – in basically the same sense as Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration had done in 1948.  But it had been the most hotly debated out of all 16 of the Vatican II documents.  The Catholic Church had an immense struggle to reach the conclusion that it could agree with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration.  The fact that it did is probably the single main thing which does justify describing as ‘revolutionary’ the shift on human rights which Pacem in Terris and Dignitatis Humanae together represented.

We need to give special attention to this issue in order to understand why it was so significant.  Let us first get a sense of what it means to say there is a ‘human right to religious freedom’.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration gives a clear definition of this freedom right:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. 

As this implies, religious freedom is an immunity – it insists that people must be immune from coercion in relation to “thought, conscience and religion”.  The most important point to notice about this Article is that this immunity includes both of the following:

–  immunity from attempts at coercive interference with a person’s   internal religious beliefs    

–  immunity from coercive interference with a group’s or an individual’s public religious practice.

It is the second of these things that proved immensely controversial in the debates at Vatican II.  We shall look at why in a moment.

Note that Article 18 does not define ‘religion’.  For the purposes of human rights law, however, a more precise definition is required.  In a major work on religious freedom, John Witte suggests that ‘religion’ be defined “functionally and institutionally”1. in terms of:

      • a creed
      • a cult
      • a code of conduct
      • a confessional community.

Each religion has a defined body of belief (a creed), a range of liturgical and devotional practices (a cult), a normative mode of behaviour (a code of conduct), and a group of people committed to each of the above (a confessional community).  Religious freedom, then, is the freedom to hold or practise all of these.

Witte also points out that for religious freedom to be meaningful, it must embrace both freedom for individuals and for communities, as the wording of Article 18 of the Declaration recognises.  Some religious beliefs seem to invite a purely solitary search for truth, but most religions involve, not only shared beliefs, but also engagement in corporate religious practices.  A right to religious freedom accorded only to individuals would leave religious or religiously-inspired communities, organizations and groups of all kinds dangerously exposed to intrusions of various kinds.  So for this right to be meaningful, it is necessary that such bodies can freely assemble, worship together and profess belief publicly, as well as order their internal affairs without interference (for example in relation to holding and use of property).

To sum up, we can define a human right to religious freedom that is enforceable in law as:

    • the legally established right to immunity from interference in both holding (and so changing) religious beliefs and in acting publicly, whether alone or with others, in accordance with religious beliefs.

Now everyone who affirms that this is indeed a human right recognizes that it is not without boundaries.  Certain limits to it are widely recognized in law. A very prominent case in Britain that makes this clear was that of the fatwa (a judgment on a point of Islamic law) issued in 1989 by the then leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, calling for the death of the British-Indian novelist, Salman Rushdie.  Most non-Muslims and many, if not most, Muslims considered that action seeking Rushdie’s death on the basis of the fatwa was beyond the limits of acceptable religious freedom.  Putting it simply, murder is not an acceptable exercise of religious freedom.

But I want to leave the question of the limits of religious freedom aside because, in the context of this unit, we need to focus on why religious freedom itself was so controversial at Vatican II.  So we turn to this.

Article 18 refers to all of the following: thought, belief, conscience and religion.  Although this might surprise some people, the Church has always, at least since the third century, recognized that people do have an internal freedom of thought and belief.  There has been clear and persistent recognition that belief cannot be forced.

Moreover this contributed to what became very clear teaching that, in relation to moral issues, everyone has a duty to abide by their conscience.  In this teaching, ‘conscience’ basically means ‘moral consciousness’ – that is, a person’s consciousness or knowledge of what is true about an issue, for instance whether warfare can be just or slavery can be acceptable.  There is clear recognition that a person’s conscience, in this sense, can be well informed or badly informed – depending on whether they really know enough about an issue to form a true judgment about it.  If someone’s conscience is badly informed, so that they make a wrong judgement about a moral question, they have an ‘erroneous’ conscience.  For example, there would now be near unanimity that many people in earlier historical periods had a badly formed, and therefore erroneous, conscience in relation to slavery.

Someone can have an erroneous conscience through no fault of their own.  This occurs when he or she has done everything within their power to overcome lack of knowledge and understanding (including by reading Scripture and studying the Church’s teaching, assuming they have access to these) but continues to have real convictions that are in error.  Of course, such a person won’t realize that he or she has an erroneous conscience, and the Church teaches that people in these circumstances remain duty-bound to abide by their conscience.  A helpful phrase is that the judgment of conscience that someone finds they’ve reached at a particular moment is their ‘last best judgment’.2

All of that was recognized well before the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’.  But – this is the crucial point – all that is a matter of what is internal or inward within a person.  What was seen as much more problematic (to say the least) was public practice of religion -most obviously, gathering with others to worship – in accordance with erroneous conscience.

The Catholic Church’s position basically was as follows.  There is freedom of thought, belief and conscience, and this must be recognized and respected, but what this does not mean is that people have a right to act outwardly in accordance with beliefs or judgments of conscience if these are, according to Church teaching, objectively wrong.

The dichotomy between the inner sanctum of each person’s beliefs and what should be permitted by way of action in public was sharp.  But acceptance of this dichotomy had a very long history in Christianity.  Explaining very briefly, it went all the way back to the fourth century.  After a terrible period of persecution of Christians in the first decade of that century, suddenly the Roman Emperor, Constantine, turned to Christianity, and in 313 the practice of Christian faith was legally permitted across the Empire.  Just 70 years later, in 380, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.  Over the next two decades, imperial power was used severely to suppress public practice of non-Christian religion and from then on this was, in effect, outlawed.  Why?  Worship of the old Roman gods was of course seen as idolatry.  Romans who hadn’t embraced Christianity could not be forced to do so – they had freedom of belief – but this didn’t mean, the Church thought, that idolatrous public worship should be allowed.

Here are the roots of what the Catholic Church taught on the issue of the public practice of religion throughout the many centuries that followed.

In a moment you’ll be asked to read a few pages on this topic from McCarthy’s book.  But it will be helpful to be aware first of the language the Catholic Church used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to Vatican II, to express its position on religious freedom.

It held that, ideally, we would have a society in which only the true God is worshipped, the God made known in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.  (Of course, most Christians in all denominations continue to have this aspiration – the God of the gospel longs to draw all people to himself.)  Ideally, also, God would be worshipped in the right way, meaning in accordance with Catholic teaching about worship and liturgy.  This position was referred to as the Church’s “thesis” about religious freedom.  This is how things should be.

But it also recognised, as a so-called “hypothesis”, i.e. a statement of a possible different position, that that ideal might not be feasible in a society which has a large proportion of adherents of another faith, e.g. Muslims or Hindus.  In this sort of society, it would be necessary to tolerate the public practice of Islamic or Hindu worship.  But this would only be for a pragmatic reason – namely, that to prohibit it would cause massive public disorder, and make things worse than if there is toleration.

In summary, then, the Church’s position before Vatican II was that, ideally, there would not be the public practice of non-Christian religion, but in reality this needed to be tolerated in some, indeed many, countries as a pragmatic concession.

But what this position clearly did not recognize is that there is a human right to religious freedom, such as Article 18 of the Universal Declaration defined it.  Indeed that “thesis-hypothesis” position amounted to the opposite.   It held that in principle there should not be religious freedom, and, to the extent that it is granted, this is only as a necessary concession for the time being.  This position was sometimes expressed in the phrase, ‘error has no rights’.

As you should now be able to see, the proposal that the Church should accept that there is a human right to religious freedom was bound to be seen as massively problematic by all those who were convinced of the old position.  It appeared to represent a real change in the Church’s teaching, and therefore a clear admission that the Church had been basically wrong on this issue for many centuries.

In the last sentence, I have deliberately said that it “appeared to represent” a change, because there is a continuing debate about whether Dignitatis Humanae really did mark a change or a development in Catholic teaching.  Does the new position simply contradict the old one, as ‘change’ implies?  Or is there, rather, a way of seeing Dignitatis Humanae as (we might say) manifesting a fuller understanding of the whole subject, which previously had been understood in such an incomplete way as to have led to a practice that we now regard as wrong?

We cannot possibly get into this debate here.  But we can’t understand the significance of Dignitatis Humanae or, therefore, the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’, unless we have some sense of why so much was at stake in the debate about it at Vatican II.

You are now asked to read a few pages by Richard Buck in McCarthy’s book, and then Dignitatis Humanae itself, in two parts.


Reading (4pp)

Richard Buck, ‘The Challenge of Religious Liberty’, pp. 157-161, in McCarthy, ed. The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching,

At May 2014, these pages are accessible at Google Books; the link above should take you to p. 157. If it doesn’t, try McCarthy, Heart of CST and search inside using (with double quotation marks) “challenge of religious”.


  • The endnotes are not accessible online.
  • The reading includes only pp. 157-161 as the rest of the chapter is not really relevant in this module – it gets into issues that can be studied in Module B.
  • You will notice that, in referring to God, Buck consistently writes the word as: G-d.  This is a standard practice among some Jews, reflecting great reverence for the divine name.  Perhaps Buck is a convert to Christianity from Judaism, or is of Jewish faith (although the content of the chapter makes this seems unlikely). Alternatively he might do that out of special respect for Judaism, and perhaps he sees such a practice as appropriate given what Vatican II taught about other faiths, both in Dignitatis Humanae and in another hugely important document, Nostra Aetate.


Buck outlines why the Catholic Church affirmed at Vatican II that there is a human right to religious freedom.  Although he doesn’t put it like this, we can sum up the position as follows. Dignitatis Humanae certainly doesn’t say that ‘error has rights’. Rather, it insists that people have rights, even when we are in error about religion, and specifically we have the right to practise religion in public “within due limits” (#2).

It insists too that we have a corresponding responsibility: “to seek the truth in matters religious in order that [we] may… form… right and true judgments of conscience” (#3).

Now read the first chapter of Dignitatis Humanae (there are only two). The argument in this chapter relies on human reasoning about human beings, without reference to Scripture.  What is especially striking is that, as the document’s very first words and (therefore) its title put across, it teaches that a proper understanding of human dignity itself is the basis for affirming the human right to religious freedom.


Reading (12pp)

Dignitatis Humanae, ##1-8 (introduction and chapter 1, ‘General Principle of Religious Freedom’)


The introduction (#1) and chapters 1 and 2 are not distinguished or given titles in the text at www.vatican.va.  They are in Walter M. Abbot, SJ, ed., The Documents of Vatican II (Geoffrey Chapman, 1967), 675-696.




Do you find that the document presents a proper balance between the right to religious freedom and the responsibility to seek religious truth?


Now read the second chapter, which argues for religious freedom on grounds of Scripture and God’s action for the world in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.


Reading (9pp)

Dignitatis Humanae, ##9-15 (chapter 2, ‘Religious Freedom in the Light of Revelation’)




Do the two chapters in Dignitatis Humanae strike you as basically two quite separate arguments, or is it clear that they are mutually supporting?


Next we shall bring together what we have covered in the last few screens in a summary of CST on rights and duties.

Acknowledgment  A few paragraphs on this page are revised from material in ‘Religious Freedom in a Plural Society’, Unit 5 of J. Chaplin and N. Townsend, Contemporary Christian Political Thought, a distance learning module in the Politics and Theology Programme formerly run by Sarum College (Salisbury: Sarum College, 2004).


End of 7.2.6


Copyright © Newman University.  If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you make use of material on this page in a course assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.

  1. J. Van der Vyver & J. Witte (eds), Religious Human Rights in Global Pespective (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1996), Vol. I, xxv 

  2. For a brief statement of Catholic teaching on conscience, see Catechism of the Catholic Church, ##1776-1802.  Within this ##1790-93 are on the possibility of an “erroneous conscience”.