Vatican II’s “Religious Liberty” Revisited

Today, threats to religious liberty in the United States are very much in the news. The most striking example is the Supreme Court’s recent decision in June 2020 that the LGBT community must be granted civil rights status in employment matters. What are Catholic business owners to do if they don’t want to support or encourage this lifestyle in their work environment, but want to look for employees whose values are in harmony with their own? For them, “religious liberty” goes beyond a concept to a very practical question.

There are many other practical ways a Catholic may have to stand up for the Faith in secular society. That’s why every Catholic should know the teachings of the Church on “religious liberty.” The problem is, there is great confusion about what those teachings are.

Many Catholics have come to believe that in the 1960s the Second Vatican Council changed traditional papal teachings on religious liberty to allow for more personal freedom in deciding moral questions. Many, if not most, progressives and liberals applaud the Council for making more freedom possible, and they believe Catholics may join secular society in accepting contraception, abortion, and variations of man-woman marriage, including same-sex marriage and sexual relationships outside of marriage.

Interestingly enough, many Catholics at the other end of the spectrum (arch-conservatives) also believe the Second Vatican Council allowed these freedoms. But from their point of view that is why they condemn the Council for undermining unchangeable Church teachings.

What’s the truth? Did Vatican II really allow Catholics to make their own personal decisions on moral matters? Or must Catholics continue to form their consciences in light of the established teachings of the Church?

These questions are more urgent than ever, which is why I have revisited an article which I wrote many years ago on this subject, and have updated it for the present moment.

In his 1864 document Quanta Cura, Pius IX labeled “erroneous” the opinion that the “liberty of conscience and of worship is the proper right of every man.”1 But this seems to contradict what the Second Vatican Council declared in its 1965 document Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom) that “in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.”2 So, did Vatican II reverse or contradict the teaching of Pius IX on religious liberty?

According to many heterodox theologians, the answer is yes. Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, many heterodox theologians have claimed that Dignitatis Humanae “reversed” past papal teaching on religious liberty.3 In 1985, for example, the arch conservative Archbishop Lefebvre, who was excommunicated, claimed that Pope Pius IX’s Quanta Cura “condemned” an “assertion” which was later found in the Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae.4 At the other end of the spectrum are “progressive” theologians, like Charles Curran and Richard McBrien who also saw, and welcomed, an utter reversal of Catholic teaching.5 So, on this point both the excessively “conservative” and “liberal” meet, but what are the “centrally” orthodox to make of the Church’s current teaching on religious liberty?

The aim of this article is to demonstrate that there is no inconsistency between the doctrine of Pius IX and of the Second Vatican Council on religious liberty. The article will show that these teachings are consistent with each other: first in regard to a person’s freedom in religious matters in relation to the state; and second in regard to a person’s freedom in religious matters in relation to the Church. Let’s take a closer look at Quanta Cura and Dignitatis Humanae.

A Closer Look at the Texts

In Quanta Cura Pius IX stated that it is “erroneous” to say that

liberty of conscience and of worship is the proper right of every man, and should be proclaimed and asserted by law in every correctly established society; that the right to all manner of liberty rests in the citizens, not to be restrained by either ecclesiastical or civil authority; and that by their right they can manifest openly and publicly and declare their own concepts, whatever they be, by voice, by print, or in any other way.6

But does the Pope’s statement contradict what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council declared in Dignitatis Humanae? The Fathers stated:

that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. . . . This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed. Thus it is to become a civil right.7

The Council certainly revised the teaching of Pius IX on religious liberty, but did it reverse his doctrine? In order to answer this question correctly, one must understand that an official Church teaching is what the Church intended by the teaching at the time of the teaching, rather than what one can read into the formulation of the teaching later on.8 Keeping this in mind, let us examine the historical context of both Quanta Cura and Dignitatis Humanae to understand the “manifest mind and will” of the Church when she pronounced these teachings.9

Quanta Cura and Freedom of the Individual in Relation to the State

Pius IX issued his encyclical Quanta Cura on December 8, 1864, less than one hundred years after the beginning of the age of Enlightenment and the persecution of the Church during the French Revolution.10 An “alliance” or “‘happy concord . . . so salutary to sacred and civil affairs’” existed at this time between the Church and the state in places where the majority of the citizens were Catholic.11 The Church recognized the right of the state to rule civilly and the state recognized the Church’s right to rule spiritually. It was understood that the Church and state would govern according to principles flowing from the divine and natural law.12 The religious freedom of Catholics depended on this Church-state alliance.13 So, when Pius IX issued Quanta Cura, he was speaking against the principles of the Enlightenment and its aftermath of persecution against the Church, aimed at destroying the alliance between the Church and the state.14

Pius IX had the rights and freedom of the individual citizen in mind, and feared an attempt to establish a so-called social order apart from the divine and natural law, based upon “civil law alone,” under the banner of “communism.”15 He knew that the goal of those proposing this so-called new freedom of conscience was that “religion” be “removed from civil society” and that “the teaching and authority of divine revelation” be “repudiated.”16 He knew that these people were trying “to disturb not only the ecclesiastical but also the public welfare, and to overturn the just order of society, and to destroy all rights, divine and human.”17 Moreover, Pius IX understood that at that time the Church had to maintain her “alliance” with the state to defeat the onslaught of communism and defend the divine and natural law. So, Pius IX’s teaching on “liberty of conscience and of worship,” that not “every man” should have “the right to all manner of liberty . . . not to be restrained by either ecclesiastical or civil authority” had an obvious meaning: those who intend to violate the divine and natural law by attacking the Church and civil society should not be able to do so under the guise of religious liberty.

Quanta Cura and Freedom of the Individual in Relation to the Church

Pius IX was only following Catholic tradition when he judged “erroneous” the claim that the Catholic citizen should have “all manner of liberty . . . not to be restrained by . . . ecclesiastical . . . authority,” which implied that a Catholic could dissent from the Pope and separate from the Church. Boniface VIII had already explicitly condemned this in his 1302 bull Unam Sanctam. This bull was a response to Philip IV’s threat to separate from the Church “by refusing to permit his bishops to attend the Pope’s council in Rome” and by attempting to establish a separate French kingdom apart from the Holy Roman Empire.18 Addressing the universal Church, Boniface VIII stated: “Outside this Church there is no salvation and no remission of sins . . . [and] . . . it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every creature [i.e., even Philip IV] to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”19 So, when Pius IX refused to recognize the right of Catholics to dissent from the Pope and separate from the Church, he was stressing a continuity with Boniface VIII’s teaching in the bull Unam Sanctam.

Some traditionalists, like the late Fr. Leonard Feeney, and some progressives, like Charles E. Curran and Bede Griffiths, have understood Boniface VIII’s teaching in Unam Sanctam to mean that only Catholics could be saved. While Feeney believed this to be true Church teaching, Curran and Griffiths believed this to be an example of a past papal teaching that was in error.20 But Boniface VIII did not “manifestly” judge all unbelievers. He only “manifestly” condemned the action of one who would knowingly and deliberately reject papal authority and separate from the Church. Boniface VIII’s doctrine is consistent with Scripture and tradition, which teach that invincible “ignorance” or “blindness” excuse a person from mortal sin and damnation (cf. Jn 9:41).21 Only those who knowingly reject the teachings of Christ are condemned to hell (cf. Mt 10:14; Lk 10:16).

The Intention of the Second Vatican Council

The intention of the Church during Vatican II can be grasped from Pope John XXIII’s opening speech at the Council. The Pope said that, while the Council would faithfully adhere to “all the teachings of the Church in its entirety and preciseness,” it would “step forward to a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine.”22 But in order to do this, the Church would have to study and express this doctrine through “the methods of research and through literary forms of modern thought.”23 John XXIII stated:

The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominately pastoral in character.24

Thus, the Council put the Church’s teachings into modern terms so that people today could understand them. The formulations of some doctrines were adjusted, but not their substance or meaning.

A further clarification of the Second Vatican Council’s intention to issue their teachings through a “magisterium which is predominately pastoral in character” can be obtained from a statement by Pope Paul VI shortly after the close of Vatican II. Paul VI stated:

In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided any extraordinary statement of dogmas that would be endowed with the note of infallibility, but it still provided its teaching with the authority of the supreme ordinary magisterium. This ordinary magisterium, which is so obviously official, has to be accepted with docility and sincerity by all the faithful, in accordance with the mind of the Council on the nature and aims of the individual documents.25

To understand the “mind of the Council on the nature and aims of the individual documents,” it is important to remember John XXIII’s statement that the teachings would be “predominately pastoral” (i.e., not “entirely pastoral”). Two out of the sixteen Council documents, Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), have the word “Dogmatic” in their very titles because they are “Dogmatic” by nature.26 The formulations of doctrine in these documents do not essentially depend upon the changing historical situation and, therefore, they remain the same from age to age. But the Council’s document, Dignitatis Humanae, is not a “dogmatic” document, but is rather a “pastoral” document, and therefore dependent upon the changing historical situation. The formulations of the teachings in this document, therefore, can be changed from time to time to retain their original “substance” and meaning.

Similarly, we must understand the intention of the Second Vatican Council when they drew up Dignitatis Humanae. The Council stated: “Over and above all this, in taking up the matter of religious freedom this sacred Synod intends to develop the doctrine of recent Popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and on the constitutional order of society.”27 However, in no way did the Council intend to apply the principles of religious freedom in a person’s relation to the state, as set forth in the Dignitatis Humanae, to a person’s relationship to the Church. This is why the Council states clearly at the beginning of Dignitatis Humanae,

Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore, it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.28

It cannot be emphasized too much that the principles governing religious liberty in relation to the Church are set down in Lumen Gentium, not in Dignitatis Humanae.29 This point is absolutely crucial for understanding the Council’s teaching on religious liberty and the misunderstanding of this teaching since the close of Vatican II.

Vatican II and Freedom of the Individual in Relation to the State

So, we come to the crux of the matter, which is that the Church no longer exists in the same kind of world as she did during the time of Pius IX’s Quanta Cura. An “alliance” or “happy concord” between the Church and the state no longer existed in many former Catholic nations. In fact, because society did not heed the warning of Pius IX, the civil governments of these former Catholic nations were now comprised of communists who persecuted the Church. Catholics were not free to practice their faith in these newly secularized nations. It’s clear that between 1864 when Pius was writing and the 1960s when the Council was deliberating, the relationship between Church and state has been clearly reversed. What were once Catholic nations are now secular.

With this reality in mind, the Council, therefore, taught that “all men” must be given religious liberty as a civil right but “within due limits.” So, what are these limits? The Council teaches, “The highest norm of human life is the divine law.”30 The Council states: “The Synod further declares that 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.”31 The Council continues: “Nor is the exercise of this right to be impeded, provided that the just requirements of public order are observed.32

While Pius IX taught that it is “erroneous” to say that “every man” should have “all manner of liberty . . . not to be restrained by either ecclesiastical or civil authority,” Vatican II taught that “all men” should have this religious liberty but “within due limits.” While Pius IX restricted religious liberty with the words “erroneous” and “not to be restrained by either ecclesiastical or civil authority,” Vatican II restricted the same religious liberty by the words, “within due limits.”

In other words, Pius IX’s teaching is a negative statement about unrestrained religious liberty and Vatican II’s teaching is a positive statement about restrained religious liberty. This is a “development of doctrine.” Church teaching developed from denying unrestrained religious liberty to every man to granting (restrained) religious liberty “within due limits.” Most importantly, this is not a subtraction or reversal of doctrine. It is rather a growth in teaching by way of organic addition, an explication or further unfolding of what God had already revealed.

Thus, the Second Vatican Council issued Dignitatis Humanae so that all people would be free to seek truth and practice their religion under these new secular states. However, contrary to what others have suggested, the Council did not teach in Dignitatis Humanae that all religions are equal or deserve absolutely the same rights and privileges.33 The Council says at the beginning of Dignitatis Humanae, “We believe that this one true religion subsists in the catholic and apostolic Church to which the Lord Jesus Christ committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men.”34 Furthermore, the Council stated, “On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.”35 While the divine law permits people to convert from their religion to the Catholic faith, it does not permit a Catholic to leave his faith for another religion. The primary purpose of Dignitatis Humanae, therefore, was to defend the human person against those “merely human powers” (e.g., the state) who would “prohibit” the “free” search for “truth” and the exercise of religion in society, but especially the “free” search for the truth and exercise of the Catholic faith.36

As such, the state must protect the free exercise of religions, especially Catholicism, because God directs man’s life through religious acts based on the formation of man’s conscience to the divine law. So, while the state should not “presume to direct or prohibit acts that are religious,” it should “show it [religion] favor,” especially the Catholic religion, in order “to make provision for the common welfare.”37

In no way does this contradict Pius IX’s teaching on religious liberty.

Vatican II and Freedom of the Individual in Relation to the Church

The Second Vatican Council gave itself two tasks. It intended to discuss freedom of the individual in relation to the state in Dignitatis Humanae, and to discuss freedom of the individual in relation to the Church in Lumen Gentium. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council separated these two tasks. They did not intend to apply the principles of religious liberty in relation to the state, as set forth in the Dignitatis Humanae, to a person’s relationship to the Church. Recall that the Council said right at the beginning of Dignitatis Humanae that their discussion of “religious freedom” had to do with “immunity from coercion in civil society” and that it was leaving “untouched” the “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies” to the “true religion” and “one Church of Christ.”38

Thus, the Second Vatican Council left untouched the traditional Church teaching of Pius IX in Quanta Cura, which recognized a “salutary force which the Catholic Church . . . must freely exercise . . . toward individual men, . . . nations, people, and their highest leader.”39 Nor did the Council reverse Pius IX’s teaching in the Syllabus of Errors that “the Church” has “the power of using force.”40 But one must remember that, while the Church has “the power of using force” which she can freely exercise, she does not always have to use it. It is often better for the Church to appeal to the heart and freedom by exercising God’s mercy rather than to use force and fear. In this way, Vatican II exercised “the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”41

When one reads Lumen Gentium, one can see that, a century after Pius IX, the Catholic Church still taught the same teaching on religious liberty in relation to the Church as found in Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam and Pius IX’s Quanta Cura. Like Boniface VIII and Pius IX, the Second Vatican Council also taught that a Catholic could neither leave the Church nor dissent from the Pope in matters of faith or morals. The Council taught: “the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. . . . Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ would refuse to enter her or to remain in her, could not be saved.”42 And, the Council taught that Catholics must assent to all faith and moral teachings of the pope when it s

In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching, and adhere to it with a religious assent of soul. This religious submission of will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme Magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.43

So, did Vatican II reverse Pius IX’s teachings on religious liberty as found in Quanta Cura? Absolutely not! Did the Council develop this teaching? Certainly!

St. Vincent Lerins (d. c. 445) summed it up well when he said: “Is there to be no development of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly, there is to be development and on the largest scale. Who can be so grudging to men, so full of hate for God, as to try to prevent it?”44

“But,” he stated further, “it must truly be development of the faith, not alteration of the faith. Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another.”45 Dogmas are seeds that grow and sprout new fruit but remain essentially the same; they do not, and cannot, change, but they can develop and widen to meet new challenges.

In this way, the First Vatican Council quoted St. Vincent’s understanding that dogma must be explicated: “let the understanding, the knowledge, and wisdom of individuals as of all, of one man as of the whole Church, grow and progress strongly with the passage of the ages and the centuries; but let it be solely in its own genus, namely in the same dogma, with the same sense and the same understanding.”46

In conclusion, we must call the change in the Church’s teaching on religious liberty between Pius IX and Vatican II a “development of doctrine” and not a “reversal” of doctrine. There is “no inconsistency” in the Church’s teachings on religious liberty, especially between Quanta Cura and Dignitatis Humanae.

  1. Enchiridion Symbolorum (hereafter, Denzinger) §1690, 30th edition; The Sources of Catholic Dogma, translated by Roy J. Deferrari (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1957), 430.
  2. Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedon), The Documents of Vatican II, edited by Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New York: Guild Press, 1966), 675, 678–79. Henceforth all citations of Vatican II will be from this source unless otherwise indicated.
  3. John T. Noonan, Jr., “Development in Moral Doctrine,” Theological Studies 54 (1993), 667–68; J. Robert Dionne, The Papacy and the Church (New York: Philosophical Library, 1987), 30–31, 125-194; Richard A. McCormick, S.J., The Critical Calling (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1989), 33, 35; Richard A. McCormick, S.J., and Richard P. McBrien, “L’Affaire Curran II,” America (September 15, 1990), 129–30.
  4. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Religious Liberty Questioned (Kansas City, Mo: Angelus Press, 2002), 4, 24–31, 125–30; for more, see, John L. Allen, The Word From Rome (Vol. 5, No. 1), September 2, 2005, “Benedict and the Lefebvrites; Speaking with Fr. Franz Schmidberger and the Vatican,” 1 of 9. National Catholic Reporter.
  5. J. Robert Dionne, op. cit., 45–146, 193, 347–48, 352–53; Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism (Study Edition) (Minneapolis, MN: Winston Press, Inc., 1981), 677–78, 1020; Charles E. Curran, Catholic Moral Theology in Dialogue (Notre Dame: Fides Pub., 1972), 73.
  6. Denzinger, §1690.
  7. Dignitatis Humanae, §675, 678–79. My emphasis.
  8. Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) §12 & Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) §25, as in The Documents of Vatican II, 120 and 148 accordingly.
  9. Lumen Gentium §25 (Documents, 48).
  10. E. Hegel, “Enlightenment,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 5 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967), 437; A. Latreille, “French Revolution,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6, 193; Denzinger §1688–94.
  11. Denzinger, §1688.
  12. Denzinger, §1688–95.
  13. Denzinger, §1688, 1696, 1699.
  14. Denzinger, §1688.
  15. Denzinger, §1694.
  16. Denzinger, §1691.
  17. Denzinger, §1695.
  18. B. Tierney, “Boniface VIII, Pope,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, 672; Matthew Habiger, OSB, “Is the Magisterium a reliable moral guide?” Homiletic & Pastoral Review (December 1987), 32 and 46.
  19. Denzinger, §468 and 469, as in The Church Teaches, §153 and 154, edited by Jesuit Fathers of St. Mary’s College (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1973), 73 and 75 (my parentheses); cf. E. J. Smyth, “Unam sanctam,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 14, 382.
  20. Charles E. Curran, “Authority and Dissent in the Church,” Origins, CNS documentary service (November 6, 1986), vol. 16, no. 21, 376; Bede Griffith, Letters to the Editor, Tablet (September 20, 1986), vol. 240, 983; S.M. Clare, “Leonard Feeney,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, No. 17, Supplement: Change in the Church (Palatine, IL: Jack Heraty & Associates, 1981), 229.
  21. Denzinger, §1292.
  22. Pope John XIII, “Pope John’s Opening Speech to the Council,” found in The Documents of Vatican II, 715.
  23. Pope John XIII, 715.
  24. Pope John XIII, 715; my emphasis.
  25. Paul VI, “After the Council: New Tasks,” The Pope Speaks, vol. 11 (Winter, 1966), 154.
  26. Lumen Gentium, §14; Dei Verbum, §11.
  27. Dignitatis Humanae, §1.
  28. Dignitatis Humanae, §1; my emphasis.
  29. Lumen Gentium, §14.
  30. Dignitatis Humanae, §3.
  31. Dignitatis Humanae, §2; my emphasis.
  32. Dignitatis Humanae, §2.
  33. Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, 677–78; M. Carter, “Religious Freedom,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 17, Supplement: Change in the Church (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1979), 569–70.
  34. Dignitatis Humanae, §1.
  35. Dignitatis Humanae, §1.
  36. Dignitatis Humanae, §3.
  37. Dignitatis Humanae, §3.
  38. Dignitatis Humanae, §2.
  39. Denzinger, §1688.
  40. Denzinger, §1724.
  41. Pope John XIII, “Pope John’s Opening Speech to the Council,” October 11, 1962 found in The Documents of Vatican II, 716.
  42. Lumen Gentium, §14; my emphasis.
  43. Lumen Gentium, §25; my emphasis.
  44. St. Vincent Lerins, “The Development of Doctrine,” §23: PL 50, 667-668, found in The Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. IV (New York: Catholic Book Pub. Co., 1975), 363.
  45. St. Vincent Lerins, “Development of Doctrine,” 363.
  46. Denzinger, §1800.
Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFMCap About Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFMCap

Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFMCap, was ordained in Aug. 26, 1972. He is currently in the process of developing the Julia Greeley shelter for homeless, unaccompanied women in metro Denver. He is spiritual director and chaplain for Mother Teresa of Calcutta's Missionaries of Charity in Denver, as well as being one of the spiritual directors for the Missionaries of Charity in the western United States. He was director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, from 1999 to 2010; a chaplain for Missionaries of Charity at their now-closed AIDS hospice, Seton House, and at Gift of Mary homeless shelter for women in Denver from 1989 to 2008; and in 1997, he was sent by Mother Teresa to instruct Missionaries of Charity in Madagascar and South Africa on the subject of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist . His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Faith, Soul Magazine, Pastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made two series for Mother Angelica's EWTN: "Crucial Questions," "Catholic Answers," and "What Did Vatican II Really Teach?"


  1. Avatar Bruce J Barron says:


  2. Avatar Attalus says:

    If we fail to properly understand the correct role of conscience in the beginning, it leads to a lot of errors and mistakes down the road. Fr. Scanlon’s explanation about the aim and intention of the two Vatican II documents Dignitatis Humanae and Lumen Gentium is most insightful. It makes a lot of sense and it serves to clarify what the Church teaches about conscience with regard to the state and to the Church respectively. This insightful article by Fr. Scanlon should be carefully read by every seminarian, priest, and bishop.