November 10, 2015 // Local

‘She asks of you only liberty’: ‘Dignitatis Humanae’

Celebrating 50th anniversary of  ‘Dignitatis Humanae’

By Kristi Haas

NOTRE DAME — For Christians, religious freedom is the freedom to bring hope — and to do so without restriction.

Recognizing pressing legal challenges to religious liberty today, the Notre Dame Law Review focused its annual symposium on the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (“Dignitatis Humanae”). Entitled “Religious Liberty and the Free Society: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of ‘Dignitatis Humanae,’” the symposium formed part of the 2015-2016 Notre Dame Forum on “Faith, Freedom and the Modern World: 50 Years After Vatican II.”

University of Notre Dame President Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins welcomed participants to the event on Thursday, Nov. 5, saying that religious liberty remains a “timely” and “critical” issue in U.S. law and society.

The words of 50 years ago ring true today. In the opening address, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, cited Pope Paul VI’s message to world rulers in 1965: “What does the Church ask of you (leaders) today? … She asks of you only liberty, the liberty to believe and to preach her faith, the freedom to love her God and serve Him, the freedom to live and to bring to men her message of life.”

Just one day before the pope’s address, on Dec. 7, 1965, the council had released “Dignitatis Humanae.” The document, Bishop Flores said, expressed a “coalescing” of Catholic teaching that framed religious liberty in the light of faith. The document describes religious liberty not only as a restriction on government interference but as a consequence of the freedom needed for the act of faith. Though post-Renaissance histories have often depicted Church and state as competitors, a broader perspective shows that the modern state is, in a sense, born of the Church. The Gospel makes each person equal before the grace of Christ. Thus, the Catholic intellectual tradition has articulated the freedom and dignity of each individual, the basis of the modern state.

In addition to Bishop Flores, symposium speakers included John H. Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, and three academic panels moderated by Judge Richard Sullivan of the Southern District of New York. Experts from across the continent, law students and other audience members discussed papers on the historical, legal, and theological dimensions of religious liberty. Panelists described the evolution of the legal status of religious freedom throughout U.S. history and the ways in which it has taken center stage in culture and politics today.

The second day of the symposium began at 9 a.m., when Judge Sullivan moderated a panel on “Religious Freedom, the First Amendment, and U.S. Law.” Richard Garnett, one of the event organizers and professor at the Notre Dame Law School, joined three panelists from other law schools.

Next, professors Phillip Muñoz (University of Notre Dame), Brett Scharffs (Brigham Young), and Anna Su (University of Toronto) contributed to a panel discussion “Examining the History of ‘Dignitatis Humanae’ and Religious Freedom.”

Drawing on the original U.S. state charters, Muñoz argued that the nation’s founders understood religious liberty as a natural right, which the state can never restrict as such and which is only limited by the natural rights of others. By contrast, he continued, religious freedom today is conceived as another right to be balanced with the interests of the state; in contrast to the founders’ understanding, the government may restrict religious liberty in the case of a “compelling state interest.”

Scharffs and Su complemented this historical approach with presentations on the state of religious liberty globally and the importance of the history of American Catholicism to the development of “Dignitatis Humanae.”

The third and final panel, “Religion, Society, and the Modern World,” followed after a short discussion and lunch. It included panelists from St. John’s University and the University of San Diego.

Finally, John Garvey delivered the keynote address, observing a fundamental shift in the treatment of religious liberty. While earlier cases and controversies treated the issue in terms of “freedom from state interference,” focusing on reasons the state might be permitted to restrict religious activity, the debate today “centers on the very meaning of religion,” that is, what practices religious freedom is — or is not — supposed to protect. For example, cases surrounding the HHS mandate and the Hobby Lobby case address who counts as a religious actor.

The stakes are high in such controversies over whom and what activities the state may regulate. Indeed, Garvey observed, “Acts that don’t count as religious are entitled to no less regulation than trout fishing.” Furthermore, the culture surrounding this question is increasingly hostile, engaging faith with “anger, belittlement and criticism” and associating it with ignorance and immorality. Indeed, as a society, “if we don’t care about religion, we probably won’t care about religious freedom.”

The response? Amid an engaging discussion of current court cases, the role of Catholic universities, the influence of the private sector and media and the election, Garvey made clear his advice: “I’m serious when I say … that the most important response to this is to pray. I don’t think there’s any hope if we don’t keep the faith ourselves and preach the Gospel.”

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