Did Vatican II abandon traditional teaching on Religious Liberty?

rosary-957276_1920If there’s one document from Vatican II that some Catholics still find highly controversial it’s the Declaration on Religious Freedom.

It is often been alleged that it taught doctrines that were condemned by previous popes (Pastoral Letter by Bishop Mark A. Pivarunas, CMRI).

Papal Teaching

But the Declaration on Religious Freedom states

“it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”

Whatever else the Declaration intended, it made it clear that it did not change the teaching of past popes.

Promoting Indifferentism?GregorioXVI

One alleged change is that the Declaration promoted indifferentism, which was defined by Pope Gregory XVI
as the belief

“that by any profession of faith whatsoever, the eternal salvation of the soul can be attained”

(Mirari Vos, Encyclical of Pope Gregory XVI)


As Pope Leo XIII pointed out such an idea can be dangerous as it puts

“the various forms of divine worship on the same footing as the true religion”

(Immortale Dei, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII)

Caritas in Veritate cover


Yet, as Pope Benedict XVI taught,

“Religious freedom does not mean religious indifferentism, nor does it imply that all religions are equal”

(Caritas in Veritate, Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI)

Indeed the Declaration on Religious Freedom never says all beliefs are equally valid – on the contrary it explicitly states that the “one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church”.

Still being attacked

But while repeating the belief handed down to us from Apostolic times – that the Catholic Church was established by Jesus, the incarnate son of God – the Declaration did argue that all religious groups in a modern civil society should be free from coercion by the state or other groups.

Time and time again grave injustices are committed when Christians or other faith groups are denied religious liberty. For example, in March 2015 Chinese police seized Fathers Shaoyun Quan and Jianyou Cao just after they had celebrated Sunday Mass for an “underground” Catholic church. The priests have not been heard of since.

Targeted by extremists

And it is not just states that target Christians. Groups and individuals that hold extremist beliefs can also set their sights on believers. In April 2015, 13-year-old Nuaman died after being beaten and set alight in Pakistan.  Two boys dowsed him with Kerosene after he confessed to being a Christian. Nuaman suffered burns to 55% of his body.

Nuaman should have been free from being assaulted because of his faith. That is why, whether or not we agree with a religious group’s beliefs, the group and its members should be free from oppression, coercion and persecution.

Fifty years on

As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration on Religious Freedom on 7th December, we should pause to remember that Christians still face severe restrictions – and even violence – because of their faith around the globe. The Declaration’s message that everyone should be free to practise their faith is an urgent, almost prophetic, message that the world desperately needs to hear.

John Newton works at Aid to the Church in Need. With the CTS, he has published Religious Freedom Today


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One comment on “Did Vatican II abandon traditional teaching on Religious Liberty?

  1. Glenn M Visconti

    June 16, 2018 at 5:18 pm Reply

    I think the problem is the word subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church. The correct way to go would have been to say is the one true religion is the Catholic and Apostolic Church. There is a difference between religious freedom and religious tolerance. Prior to Vatican II I think the Catholic Church espoused the latter.

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