The Catholic Human Rights Revolution

Published July 10, 1996

Crisis Magazine

dignitatis humanae – the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom – is frequently described as an expression of Christian personalism, because of its teaching that every human being has an inalienable right to immunity from state coercion in matters of religious conviction. As the declaration puts it, “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed Word of God and by reason itself.”


Thus religious freedom, according to the Council Fathers, is not to be understood in subjectivist or voluntarist terms, but rather as a right arising from the “very nature” of the human person.

But dignitatis humanae also has what could be termed a “public meaning”: for the doctrine of religious freedom discloses important truths about the structure and operation of a rightly ordered political community. The state that honors the principle of religious freedom is by definition a limited state, which acknowledges its inherent incompetence in certain crucial spheres of life.

By reason of its “public meaning,” then, the Declaration on Religious Freedom is a defense of social pluralism as well as a defense of the rights of the person. This second dimension of the doctrine of religious freedom (which is, of course, rooted in the doctrine’s personalist dimension) has affected contemporary history in a dramatic way, giving dignitatis humanae a public edge that might not have been fully anticipated in 1965.

The pontificate of John Paul II has deepened and extended both the “interior” and “public” meanings of the Declaration on Religious Freedom. By his constant references to the declaration and his persistent stress on religious freedom as the first of human rights, the Holy Father has secured the position of dignitatis humanae in the tradition of the Church, against the claims of those who continue to regard the declaration as a fatal concession to secular modernity, liberal individualism, and/or religious indifferentism.

Moreover, religious freedom has become the centerpiece of the Holy Father’s defense of the universality of basic human rights, which the pope regards as essential to the very possibility of a genuine global dialogue about the human future. dignitatis humanae is also central to the Holy Father’s evolving social magisterium on the matter of democracy, which has been developed in a triptych of encyclicals that includes Centesimus Annus (1991), Veritatis Splendor (1993), and Evangelium Vitae (1995).

Why has dignitatis humanae loomed so large in the Holy Father’s thought? Surely the answer touches on the fact that the declaration reflects key concepts in the pope’s anthropology. If man’s nature is religious, the state must acknowledge that fact. By not acknowledging it, the state, in effect, redefines man as less than what he is. In a century in which false humanisms have wreaked havoc on humanity, the Christian humanism of John Paul II is a powerful antidote to the fear that seems to dominate the human encounter with “difference.” The pope’s humanism also provides a sure foundation for a mature hope that humanity remains capable, under grace, of building a civilization worthy of those made in the image and likeness of God.

The Thirty Years Since the Council

In the mid-1980s, I found myself in conversation with Sir Michael Howard, the distinguished English historian. In the course of our discussion, Sir Michael remarked that, in his view, there had been two great revolutions in the twentieth century. The first had taken place when Lenin’s Bolsheviks expropriated the Russian Revolution and began the world’s first experiment in totalitarianism. The second revolution was taking place even as we spoke: the transformation, as Sir Michael put it, of the Catholic Church from the last bastion of the ancien rÈgime to the world’s foremost institutional defender of basic human rights. A lot of history, the former Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford suggested, would be determined in the encounter between these two twentieth-century revolutions.

Serious historians are usually the first to decline the prognosticator’s mantle. But in this case, Sir Michael Howard had correctly identified one of the chief dynamics of the 1980s and early 1990s. As I have argued in The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, the revolution of 1989 in East Central Europe took place because a revolution of conscience had transformed the moral-cultural condition of the countries of the old Warsaw Pact, especially key segments of the population in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

That revolution of conscience was, in turn, deeply influenced by the Catholic Church, and particularly by Pope John Paul II. Indeed, if we wish to pick a single date to mark the beginning of the end of European communism, we might well consider June 2, 1979. When the Holy Father, preaching to a million Poles in Warsaw’s Victory Square, invoked the great themes of dignitatis humanae by urging that Christ not be peremptorily “kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography,” a great process of social and cultural transformation began. The public effects of that process would be visible the following year, when Solidarity was born at the Gdansk shipyard and set in motion the political dynamics that would, almost nine years later, result in the first free election in East Central Europe in more than forty years. The defense of religious freedom was thus instrumental in creating what Czech human rights activists would later call “the power of the powerless”: the distinctive form of nonviolent resistance that brought down the communist enterprise in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the German Democratic Republic.

Why was the assertion of a basic human right to religious freedom so publicly potent? Why was the definition of that right by dignitatis humanae the crucial breakthrough to the Catholic human rights revolution that has transformed the politics, not only of East Central Europe, but of Chile, the Philippines, and other strikingly disparate venues? And why did that human rights revolution characteristically seek the establishment of democratic governments in place of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes?

The answer may lie in a further reflection on the “public meaning” of the right of religious freedom. As John Courtney Murray has argued, dignitatis humanae, along with Gaudium et Spes, marked a decisive turning point in Catholic political theory. In these two documents, Murray argued, the Church embraced the idea of the “juridical state,” or what we in the Anglo-American tradition would call “constitutionalism.” No longer would the state be understood to have plenipotentiary powers across the full range of social, economic, cultural, and political life. Rather, in these two conciliar documents, the Church endorsed the notion that the rightly ordered state had strictly limited and legally defined powers, having primarily to do with the protection of its citizens’ basic rights and the maintenance of the public order necessary for civil society’s pursuit of the common good.

This was not to suggest that liberal democracy as it had evolved in the West since 1776 was the only form of government compatible with “Catholic constitutionalism.” But empirical reality suggested that it was precisely in democracies that the Church’s freedom and the civil rights of citizens-understood-to-be-persons were best secured. Thus the Council’s definition of the right of religious freedom gave birth to a Catholic human rights revolution, which in turn was the principal dynamic driving the Church’s support for what Samuel Huntington has called the “third wave” of democratization. And the results are on display in the recent history of East Asia, Latin American, and East Central Europe.

Built around the core right of religious freedom, the Catholic human rights revolution also has had an impact on developed democracies. At the very least, it has had an impact on the developed democracy with which I am most familiar, namely, the United States of America.

In one of those ironies that so often mark moments of great historical change, it may well be that the crisis of communism at the end of the twentieth century is followed in the beginning of the twenty-first century by the crisis of democracy. The crisis of communism was, at bottom, an anthropological crisis: The communist project finally failed, not simply because communist economies could not compete in a post-industrial world, but because communism was built on a foundation of falsehoods about the human person, human community, human history, and human destiny.

Similarly, the crisis of democracy also will be anthropological in character. The institutions of democracy – elections, legislatures, and courts, the entire edifice we summarize under the rubric “the rule of law” – are not self-sustaining. Democracy is not a machine that will run of itself; a people lacking self-command cannot be a self-governing people. Rather, the institutions of democracy are dependent for their proper functioning on the virtues of a people, and those virtues are primarily nurtured and sustained, not by the state or by “politics” narrowly construed, but by civil society. The specter of the failed Weimar Republic reminds us that even the most elegantly constructed democratic superstructure cannot endure unless it is supported and sustained by an infrastructure of virtues and moral commitments.

In the American context, the crisis of democracy engages the debate between those who imagine the American democratic experiment as a republic of procedures, and those who think of American democracy as a substantive moral enterprise. The “proceduralists,” if we may call them that, typically think of freedom in purely instrumental terms. In their construction of public reality, religious conviction is but a “lifestyle choice” to be treated by law and public policy like any other expression of human volition. This position yields a concept of religious freedom as a pragmatic bargain, a useful tool for the management of plurality and difference.

The “substantivists,” on the other hand, argue that there is a teleological structure built into human freedom: Freedom is ordered to the truth and finds its fulfillment in goodness. On this latter understanding, religious freedom is a public moral accomplishment. The state that acknowledges and protects the inalienable right of religious freedom is a state that has acknowledged a fundamental truth about the human person. That acknowledgment, as we have seen, requires the state to adopt a “self-limiting ordinance,” a set of limits to the reach of its power.

Religious Freedom

But religious freedom is more than a barrier against the tendency of the modern state to extend its reach into virtually every corner of human life. Rather, religious freedom, protected in law and nurtured in civil society, gives rise to a robust public moral conversation about the oughts of a people’s common life. And in that conversation, which can at times be quite sharp, the citizens of a democracy grapple with the truth about freedom, which is that our freedom is given to us to enable our free pursuit of the truth and our free adherence to the truth.

As the Holy Father remarked at the United Nations in the fall of 1995, human beings have yet to learn how to cope with our fear of “the other,” our fear of “difference.” “Plurality” is another way to describe “difference.” And thus the question becomes: How can plurality, which is a sociological fact, be transformed into pluralism, the achievement of an ordered public conversation built around the question, “How ought we to live together?” Pluralism is a cultural accomplishment, in which, as John Courtney Murray once put it, “creeds [are] at war intelligibly.”

Democracy understood as a matter of procedures cannot “solve” the problem of plurality by transforming it into pluralism. Rather, the procedural republic will, sooner or later, “solve” the problem of plurality by imposing a monism, in the form of an “established” secularism or a state-sanctioned political (or ethnic, or national) ideology. Such a “solution” would, however, mark the end of democracy, for the imposition of a state-sanctioned ideology would require the state to assert full control over the “mediating” institutions of civil society; the old-fashioned word for this is totalitarianism. Less dramatically but no less ominously, the imposition of an “established” secularism in the United States would mean banishing from public life the source of those moral understandings that justify commitment to democratic persuasion and rejection of violent coercion in public affairs.

Thus, dignitatis humanae and the Catholic human rights revolution to which it gave birth have done more than remind the world of some important truths about the structure of public life and the limits of governmental power. Even more importantly, the Catholic human rights revolution has revitalized the idea of pluralism, giving it a richer moral and cultural content. By reminding us that freedom cannot be severed from the truth about the human person without doing grave damage to both individuals and to society, dignitatis humanae has challenged a world increasingly committed to the institutions of democracy to reclaim the classic understanding of democracy as a form of government built on a foundation of certain moral claims about the human person.

Democratic Consolidation

Those people we used to call dissidents in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes often said that what they wanted to achieve was a “normal” society. In the new democracies, it is understandable that the processes of economic and political reconstruction have dominated public life in the first stages of building a “normal” society. But the very core of democracy – in the morally serious, as distinguished from Jacobin, sense of the term is constituted by the claims that society exists prior to the state, and that the state exists to serve society, not vice versa. Absent these convictions we are left with the self-contradictory behaviors of so-called “people’s democracies.” Thus, in the new democracies, serious attention must be paid to what we might call the “multiple sovereignties” at play in the life of a “normal” democratic society.

Here we touch directly on the tangled knot of questions about the role(s) of religion in public life. Because each new democracy has its own distinctive history and culture, there is no one template for properly ordering the relationship between religious institutions and the state, or between religiously grounded moral conviction and public life. But reflection on both the Church’s doctrine and the experience of established democracies suggests certain “brackets” or “boundaries” for the ongoing debate about these issues.

The commitment of the Church to the “method of persuasion” (as defined, for example, in dignitatis humanae 1 and Redemptoris Missio 39) discloses one such “bracket”: The Church will not use the coercive power of the state to advance its evangelical mission. This boundary implies a certain separation between the institution of the Church and the institutions of the state. But the anthropology of dignitatis humanae and sound democratic theory tell us that, whatever else this “separation” may mean, the “separation of church and state” cannot mean the separation of religion from public life, or the proscription of religiously grounded moral argument from public life. Any political community that did construe the notion of separation in these terms would be involved in a profoundly undemocratic discrimination against citizens on the basis of religious belief.

dignitatis humanae itself suggests another bracket for the debate about democratic “normality”: because the state is simply incompetent in theological matters, the state’s basic function vis-ý-vis religious institutions and convictions is to protect the religious freedom of all its citizens. Thus what in American terms would be styled the “disestablishment” of religion is ordered, not to a “neutrality,” which inevitably devolves into state-sponsored and sanctioned secularism, but to the free exercise of religious conviction. The state declines the mantle of the sacred, not only because such a vesture ill-fits the state, but also in order to facilitate the public circumstances in which the free exercise of religion can flourish.

In both new democracies and old, the argument is frequently heard that publicly assertive religion necessarily results in social divisiveness, even violent conflict. History tells us that this concern is not without foundation. But division and conflict need not result from a robust engagement of religious conviction with public life if four other boundaries are observed:

1. The political process must be open to citizens of all religious persuasions such that, for purposes of access to the public square, the state neither offers rewards nor exacts penalties based on religious conviction or the lack thereof.

2. The Church must acknowledge the limits of its competence in political and economic life, and must maintain a principled nonpartisan stance vis-ý-vis electoral politics.

3. When they enter the public square, as is their democratic right, religious leaders and religious believers must make genuinely public moral arguments that can be engaged by fellow citizens, rather than sectarian or authoritarian claims.

4. Religious institutions must not be penalized in terms of access to public funds when they undertake public activities (such as education, health care, and social service) that serve genuinely public purposes.

Democratic public life within these boundaries will not always be placid; democratic “normality” means an ongoing dialogue about the oughts of a people’s common life, and that dialogue will not infrequently take the form of a serious argument. But if these boundaries are observed by both Church and state in the new democracies (as well as the old), that argument can yield a measure of wisdom in self-governance and can serve to build a community marked by what Jacques Maritain once called “civic friendship.”

The Universality of Human Rights

It is another historical irony that the “third wave” of democratization, which seemed to vindicate the notion of the universality of human rights amid the world’s cultural diversity, has been accompanied, at least in its latter stages, by a new assault on the notion of universality from East Asian autocrats, the world’s remaining communists, certain Islamic activists, and western deconstructionists and multiculturalists. On the surface, the new argument is that the universality of rights, as defined, for example, in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was an act of western imperialism, imposed on other societies whose cultural traditions require a radically different understanding of the relationship of the individual to the community and the state. At a deeper level, the new attack on universality is an attack on the very idea of a common human nature.

No serious observer doubts that the new assault on the universality of human rights is driven in part by the desire of certain authoritarian or totalitarian regimes to legitimize their continuing hold on power. But prescinding from such exercises in hypocrisy, we still have to meet the argument that the dramatic diversity of the world’s cultures poses a sharp challenge to the idea of universal human rights. John Paul II took up this challenge at the United Nations:

If we make the effort to look at matters objectively, we can see that, transcending all the differences which distinguish individuals and peoples, there is a fundamental commonality. For different cultures are but different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. And it is precisely here that we find one source of the respect which is due to every culture and every nation: Every culture is an effort to ponder the mystery of the world and in particular of the human person; it is a way of giving expression to the transcendent dimension of human life. The heart of every culture is its approach to the greatest of all mysteries: the mystery of God.

The Holy Father then went on to argue that this profound human dynamic, observable in all cultures, discloses, upon careful reflection, the foundation of a universal structure of human rights rooted in a universal human nature:

Our respect for the culture of others is therefore rooted in our respect for each community’s attempt to answer the question of human life. And here we see how important it is to safeguard the fundamental right of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, as the cornerstones of the structure of human rights and the foundation of every truly free society. No one is permitted to suppress those rights by using coercive power to impose an answer to the mystery of man.

We may be reasonably sure that this teaching will not lose its salience in the years ahead, not least as the cultures of the West interact more frequently with the cultures of the East.

Answering Dostoevsky

By ratifying a genuine development of doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church, dignitatis humanae altered the character of the Church’s encounter with the world. When the Church defends the fundamental human right of religious freedom, she is speaking, not in defense of her own “interests,” but on behalf of the integrity of humanity, of which the Church is the servant. In this sense, the Church’s defense of religious freedom since dignitatis humanae has been different than the medieval defense of the libertas ecclesiae against the threat of royal or imperial absolutism.

At the end of the second millennium, dignitatis humanae is Catholicism’s most compelling response to the enduring temptation of the Church, which was defined with great literary power by Fyodor Dostoevsky in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.” The great temptation of the Church is to substitute its authority for human freedom. dignitatis humanae committed the Church to resist that temptation as a matter of doctrinal principle. Thus, on the threshold of the third millennium, dignitatis humanae freed the Church to be at one and the same time a more vigorous and a more “disinterested” actor in the world.

But that seems entirely appropriate for a Church whose Master came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today