If 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).
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.
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”
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”
Yet, as Pope Benedict XVI taught,
“Religious freedom does not mean religious indifferentism, nor does it imply that all religions are equal”
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.