The Washington-based Religious Freedom Institute, in cooperation with the Baylor University Institute for the Studies of Religion and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, recently held a consultation between Christian and Muslim scholars in Rome, “Promoting Religious Freedom in the Middle East.” NRO contributor George Weigel delivered the following remarks to the consultation on the evening of December 14. The title of his lecture was “The Catholic Journey to Religious Freedom: Dignitatis Humanae – Fundamental Change or Development?”
The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, often cited by its Latin title, Dignitatis Humanae (DH), is rightly regarded as a watershed, a crucial moment, in the Catholic Church’s centuries-long engagement with political modernity. But what kind of engagement was it? Did DH mark a rupture in the Catholic tradition’s thinking about the relationship between religious and political authority in society and in the state? Or was DH a genuine, which is to say organic, development of Catholic church-state theory?
According to one telling of the tale, prominent among both Catholic progressives and Catholic traditionalists, DH marked the end of a long war of attrition between Catholicism and political modernity, in which the Church — having unsuccessfully fought a series of rearguard actions followed by several tactical retreats — finally admitted that it had been wrong about the political regimes that had emerged from the American and French Revolutions. And in doing so, that story-line continues, Catholicism surrendered to the claims of the Enlightenment about the proper organization of society, which include a radical separation of religious conviction and religious authority from public life.
I’m sure you’ve all heard that telling of the story before. What I am proposing tonight is that that is not simply an incomplete picture; from both a historical and a theological point of view, it is a false picture. And it’s a false picture that impedes a truth-based interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Muslims in the 21st century.
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