Dignitatis humanae[a] (Of the Dignity of the Human Person) is the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom.[1] In the context of the council's stated intention "to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society", Dignitatis humanae spells out the church's support for the protection of religious liberty. It set the ground rules by which the church would relate to secular states.

The passage of this measure by a vote of 2,308 to 70 is considered by many to be one of the most significant events of the council.[2] This declaration was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965.

Dignitatis humanae became one of the key points of dispute between the Vatican and traditionalist Catholics such as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who argued that the council document was incompatible with previous authoritatively stated Catholic teaching.


Earlier Catholic view

Further information: Modernism in the Catholic Church and Error has no rights

Historically, the ideal of Catholic political organization was a tightly interwoven structure of the Catholic Church and secular rulers generally known as Christendom, with the Catholic Church having a favoured place in the political structure.[3] In 1520, Pope Leo X in the papal bull Exsurge Domine had censured the proposition "That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit" as one of a number of errors that were "either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds and against Catholic truth".[4][5][6][7]

Vatican II and religious freedom

Third session (1964)

The debate on a separate Declaration on Religious Liberty was held on September 23 – September 25, as promised by Pope Paul the year before. However, in October an attempt was made by the Curial party to return this declaration to review by a special commission, which contained many hostile members and was outside the jurisdiction of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.[8] Protest by bishops to Pope Paul resulted in the declaration staying under Unity with a different working commission which reviewed and amended it.[9]

Fourth session (1965)

This re-revised text was approved by the council on October 25, with only minor amendments allowed afterward (including some disliked by Murray). The final vote was taken and the declaration was promulgated at the end of council on December 7, 1965. The claim by some that this overwhelming majority was due to intense lobbying by the reformist wing of Council Fathers among those prelates who initially had reservations or even objections.[10]

Traditionalist Catholic reception

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre cited this document as one of the fundamental reasons for his difficulties with the Second Vatican Council. It remains a focus for attacks from Traditionalists in the 21st century.[11] The Vatican's position that the SSPX must acknowledge Dignitatis humanae and Nostra aetate as authoritative remained as of April 2017 a key point of difference between the two.[12]

The Society of St. Pius X criticized how Dignitatis humanae approached religious freedom with an argument from history:

The saints have never hesitated to break idols, destroy their temples, or legislate against pagan or heretical practices. The Church – without ever forcing anyone to believe or be baptized – has always recognized its right and duty to protect the faith of her children and to impede, whenever possible, the public exercise and propagation of false cults. To accept the teaching of Vatican II is to grant that, for two millennia, the popes, saints, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, bishops, and Catholic kings have constantly violated the natural rights of men without anyone in the Church noticing. Such a thesis is as absurd as it is impious.[13]

On the contradictions some see between Dignitatis humanae and Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors,[14] Brian Mullady has argued that:

the religious freedom condemned in the Syllabus of Errors refers to religious freedom looked at from the point of view of the action of the intellect, or freedom respecting the truth; whereas the freedom of religion guaranteed and encouraged by Dignitatis humanae refers to religious freedom looked at from the point of view of the action of the will in morals. In other words, those who see in these different expressions a change in teaching are committing the fallacy of univocity of terms in logic. The terms "freedom" refer to two very different acts of the soul.[15]

International Theological Commission, 2019

On 21 March 2019, Pope Francis approved the publication of a document produced by the International Theological Commission called "Religious freedom for the good of all: Theological approach to contemporary challenges". It attempts to update Dignitatis humanae in the light of the increasing diversity and secularization seen since the Council: "the cultural complexity of today's civil order".[16][17]

See also


  1. ^ The document is known by its incipit, the first words of the document in the original Latin text, as is customary for similar Catholic Church documents.


  1. ^ The full text of a translation into English is available from the Holy See's website Archived February 11, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ "Thus, during the final vote on the morning of December 7 (when the fathers had to choose between a simple approval or disapproval of the last draft), Lefebvre was one of the 70 — about 3 percent of the total — who voted against the schema." Marcel Lefebvre: Signatory to Dignitatis humanae, by Brian Harrison
  3. ^ Bokenkotter, Thomas J (2004). A Concise History of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday.
  4. ^ "Exsurge Domine". 15 June 1520.
  5. ^ Swinburne, Richard (1992). Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. Oxford University Press. p. 216. ISBN 9780191519529.
  6. ^ Beinert, Wolfgang (1992). Verbindliches Zeugnis (in German). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 9783451236259.
  7. ^ Hoose, Bernard (1994). Received Wisdom?: Reviewing the Role of Tradition in Christian Ethics. Geoffrey Chapman. p. 21. ISBN 9780225667394.
  8. ^ "It was suddenly announced that the document on Religious Liberty would be handed to a new commission for revision – a commission that included some of the most moss-backed of the moss-backed conservatives (to borrow a phrase from Archbishop Connolly!), including Archbishop Lefebvre, who later established the schismatic Society of St. Pius X." Vatican II, Part 4: The Third Session Archived September 4, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Corinna Laughlin, St. James Cathedral, Seattle
  9. ^ "Roman Catholics: Cum Magno Dolore". Time. October 23, 1964. The bishops' letter apparently proved effective. In interviews with Bea and Frings, Paul VI agreed that the Christian Unity office would bear the major responsibility for revising the two declarations, said also that the bishops themselves could decide whether a fourth session was necessary.
  10. ^ Der Rhein fliesst in den Tiber: eine Geschichte des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils, Wiltgen, Ralph M., Feldkirch. Lins. cop. 1988. p. 316
  11. ^ Egan, Philip A. (2009). Philosophy and Catholic Theology: A Primer. Liturgical Press. p. 56. ISBN 9780814656617.
  12. ^ "Pope Francis' Approval of SSPX Marriages Offers Hopeful Step to Unity". National Catholic Register. 17 April 2017.
  13. ^ "Religious liberty contradicts Tradition". District of the USA. December 3, 2012.
  14. ^ "What Are Catholics to Think of Vatican II?". Archived from the original on 7 March 2011. Retrieved 3 May 2011.
  15. ^ Brian Mullady (1994). "Religious Freedom: Homogeneous or Heterogeneous Development?". The Thomist. 58: 93–108. doi:10.1353/tho.1994.0044. S2CID 171194888. Archived from the original on 13 March 2017. Retrieved 3 May 2011.
  16. ^ Faggioli, Massimo (9 May 2019). "A Postscript to Dignitatis Humanae". Commonweal. Retrieved 10 May 2019.
  17. ^ "La Libertà Religiosa per il Bene di Tutti, Approcio Teologico alle Sfide Contemporanee" (in Italian). International Theological Commission, Subcommission on Religious Freedom. Retrieved 10 May 2019 – via Holy See. The official text is available only in Italian.

Further reading