Ages of Faith and the Faith of Ages

When the papal document "The Declaration on Religious Liberty," was issued in 1965, many Catholics expected it to say that the state should use its authority to inculcate the Catholic religion. Instead, Pope Paul VI emphasized human dignity.
by James Hitchcock | Source:
Along with changes in the liturgy, perhaps no act of the Second Vatican Council has been held in more suspicion than the decree Dignitatis Humanae, commonly called The Declaration on Religious Liberty. Some traditionalist Catholics have found in it a repudiation of previous Catholic teaching, and it has been reported that it was this, rather than the vernacular liturgy, which most troubled the late schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefébvre.

One historical reality which needs to be remembered in approaching Dignitatis Humanae is that Pius IX, in issuing the Syllabus of Errors and Quanta Cura, was reacting to the bogus promises of Continental Liberalism, which had raised the banner of religious liberty at the time of the French Revolution, then had consistently worked to undermine the Church in every way possible, according to the Continental Enlightenment conviction that true liberty required the elimination of religion as a social force.

Pius IX probably did not have in mind the pattern of religious liberty as it had developed in England and the United States, where actual freedom of worship (including the right to engage in education) did exist. The day may possibly come when liberal intolerance, now still somewhat marginal in American culture, will triumph. But it has not arrived yet.

Critics of Dignitatis Humanae read it as merely a concession to the modern secular state, the Church in effect surrendering to notions of tolerance which are at heart skeptical and relativistic. But the decree, besides emphasizing human dignity as the fundamental basis of freedom, also notes that the Church itself benefits from a regime of freedom, and it is this reality which critics overlook.

They usually do so because they are affected by a familiar kind of idealization of the "ages of faith," an idealization in which the justified claim that earlier centuries honored and promoted religion in ways modernity does not is confused with the unjustified inference that people in past ages must therefore always have lived their faith appropriately.

Thus union of Church and state has an appealing ring for such people, who see it as the state´s humble acknowledgment of religion´s superiority and the willingness to use the state´s authority to inculcate true religion. They are much less likely to notice that historically such unions have required sometimes desperate struggles by the Church to maintain its independence.

Thus the Emperor Constantine meddled in the profound doctrinal questions swirling the Church´s understanding of the Trinity, to the point of sometimes pressuring the bishops to favor the Arian side. The Emperor Henry IV, along with other medieval rulers, claimed the right to invest bishops with their spiritual as well as their temporal offices. Thomas Becket was struck down in his cathedral at the behest of a king, Henry II, who had successfully lobbied the pope for Becket´s appointment as archbishop and was enraged to find him resistant to royal control. Henry VIII, at a crucial moment in history, persuaded the pope to appoint a royal chaplain, Thomas Cranmer, to the position Becket once held. The Council of Trent was delayed for decades because the leading Catholic monarchs of Europe could not agree about the conditions of its meeting, and for almost half a century the "most Catholic" king of France refused to allow its decrees to be promulgated there. In the next century a number of French sees stood vacant for years because Louis XIV, who flirted with the potentially schismatic doctrines of Gallicanism, wanted tame bishops whom the pope would not confirm in office. As Father Marvin O´Connell has brought to public attention, the Prince of Monaco, almost a century ago, tried hard to get the Modernist heretic Alfred Loisy named a bishop.

During the Constitutional Convention, some of the delegates attended solemn Vespers in a Philadelphia Catholic church, and John Adams recorded his Puritan reactions,"gorgeous ceremony designed to play on the ignorance of the people. How could Luther ever have broken the spell?"

There were many countries in the world at the time where government officials were believing Catholics and deeply respectful of the faith, and where freedom of worship was by no means secure. But when the Holy See inquired of the new American government its views on the establishment of the hierarchy in this country, the papal diplomats were astonished to be told that the American government had no views on that subject, a response never before encountered. A few decades later Alexis DeToqueville could judge that it was this very absence of official support for the churches which accounted for their remarkable vitality in the new country.

In the first years of the twentieth century the Archbishop of Krakow arose in the papal conclave to announce that the Emperor Franz Joseph, in keeping with an old tradition, was vetoing the cardinals´ choice as pope.(Possibly the emperor unwittingly acted as an agent of the Holy Spirit, as the conclave went on to elect St. Pius X.) But it is not the least satisfying of the age´s many ironies that at century´s end a later archbishop of Krakow is the world´s most eloquent champion of genuine human freedom.

James Hitchcock is professor of history at Saint Louis University and a regular columnist for Catholic Dossier.

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