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Bishop analyzes religious liberty in Vatican II declaration

| Friday, November 6, 2015

Bishop Daniel E. Flores of the diocese of Brownsville, Texas, delivered the opening address of the Notre Dame Law Review Symposium. This year’s Symposium is titled “Religious Liberty and the Free Society: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of ‘Dignitatis Humanae’” and is part of the 2015-16 Notre Dame Forum.

Flores focused on the intellectual issues at the core of “Dignitatis Humanae,” the Declaration on Religious Liberty issued by the Second Vatican Council.

“Within the tradition of the Church, ‘Dignitatis Humanae’ represents a magisterial judgment about religious freedom,” he said. “Just as importantly it represents a magisterial judgment on the proper way to frame the issue of religious freedom. This should not be surprising since this is what councils do.”

The bishops who wrote the document framed the issue of religious liberty within the theological tradition, articulating the freedom required for the act of faith, Flores said. The conciliar judgment about the frame and context of the teachings suggests that related topics, such as the dignity of the human person, human freedom and human intellectuality are best understood from the point of view of revelation.

“Simply put, the human person, as a rational and choosing being, is best perceived from the vantage point of the highest acts available to us in this life; namely, the dynamic of truth apprehended and freely chosen in faith,” he said. “That this human dynamic happens with the aid of grace does not obscure the fact that it is essentially human in character. On the contrary, it renders it more intelligible.”

John Courtney Murray, an American theologian who played a large role in drafting “Dignitatis Humanae,” favors the first paragraph of the document as the principal lens for its interpretation, Flores said, whereas other theologians prefer to employ the second paragraph of the document as an interpretive lens.

“‘Dignitatis Humanae’ number two, with its emphasis on human dignity as rooted in our being, endowed with free will and therefore privileged with personal responsibility, states the matter in terms of a positive good within the person with juridical consequences,” he said. ” … This a properly theological perspective, citing the revealed word of God.”

This theological belief is further articulated later in the document, where the teaching on religious freedom is discussed in the light of revelation, Flores said. Drafting the text represented a “dance” between two different kinds of Thomism.

“Murray’s Thomism, a political philosophy, and the theological Thomism of Wojtyla and others, ultimately the council Fathers relativized,” he sad. ” … By relativized, I mean the Council made it be seen in relation to the higher theological signs.”

“Dignitatis Humanae” proposes teaching rooted within revelation, clear and at the same time mystery-laden, he said.

“Clear, because the prerogatives and operations of reason are discernible to all and open to inspection,” he said. “But mystery-laden because the light of the Trinity and its reflections on the human soul are only partially known in this life.”

Flores said to hold the teaching of “Dignitatis Humanae” as primarily theological does not necessarily suggest the doctrine is altogether out of reach of non-theological discourses such as political philosophy or constitutional theory, which was Murray’s fear.

“It does mean though, that when we engage in the current discussion about religious freedom with any contemporary society of religious pluralism and governmental indifference to religious doctrine we have to be both reasonable and aware of how our political philosophy receives its direction from properly theological sources,” he said.

The bishop cited philosopher Larry Siedentop’s “Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism,” saying it offered an engaging interpretation of Christian life and thought and it’s impact on Western society.

“Christianity’s appearance in the ancient world hastened and gave decisive feature to the cultural demise of the household as the principle vehicle of religious expression and thus social identity,” he said. “Secondly, Christianity — in the Gospels, in St. Paul and as transmitted to the Middle Ages through the figure of St. Augustine — set in motion the decisive development of the metaphysics of the will.”

Social identity was defined by roles assigned by relation to the governance and survival of the family hearth, Flores said.

“This was very strict. There was no individual identity apart from this relation to the family hearth,” he said. “Christianity, with particular emphasis on Pauline preaching, offered a lived anthropology that overcame in many ways the sacral stratification that enforced the natural inequality. The Christian insistence on the individual encounter with the grace of Christ implied the ascendancy of individuals as fundamentally equal before God.”

An accurate historical narrative recognizes the decisive fact that the issues of equality and freedom became disengaged at some point from the theological context which bore them, Flores said.

“It is important to note that ‘Dignitatis Humanae’ repositions for the Church the discussion about Church, society and freedom within a properly theological frame,” he said. “It remains to be seen if it is possible for us to influence the wider social fabric by means of such a recovery of our best life. ‘Dignitatis Humanae’ would insist we are better off looking at the issue from the perspective of the best lights: namely the Gospel narratives, St. Paul, St. Augustine, and of course, St. Thomas.”


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About Catherine Owers

Senior News Writer Catherine Owers is a senior from New Orleans, Louisiana. She is studying English and Theology.

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