Religious Freedom Facing New Challenges: 55 years after ‘Dignitatis Humanae’

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Felix Körner, SJ

 Felix Körner, SJ / Church Thought / 21 December 2020


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The recognition of religious freedom by the Second Vatican Council is generally understood as a turning point.[1] That said, the Council’s 1965 Declaration Dignitatis Humanae (DH) left many questions open. Was it only a matter of the Church distancing itself from the assertion that Christianity did not arrive at its truth until it was established as a State Church? What is the significance of a Catholic declaration on religious freedom for other religions? And to whom should religious freedom be granted: to individuals who follow their own consciences, or to religions as communities operating in the public sphere?

In 2019 the International Theological Commission presented a study on this topic: Religious Freedom for the Good of All. Theological approaches and contemporary challenges.[2] In this article I present an analysis of the document.

First of all, let us recall that the documents of the International Theological Commission have a distinctive character: they are written by a group of authors. Since these texts are of increasing breadth, it should be remembered that they should be seen as the result of agreements, just like the Council decrees. In the composition of such a work, theological cultures, intra-ecclesial currents and readings of the signs of different times must find a way to converge in a common formulation. In its fundamental concerns and approach, its structural forms and expressions, there will be significant internal tensions that would be absent in a document that was the work of a single person.

The authors – who since 2004 also include women – are well known. This means not only that their names are public, but also that they have been called into the Commission because of their specialist wisdom. Their expertise within the field of theology, is extensive. Therefore, what these documents represent is not the episcopal magisterium, but the academic magisterium; hence, no other authority decides on which issues they should reflect. Rather, the authors show from the very choice of topics what they believe has not been sufficiently taken into account and expressed by the Magisterium.

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