Hermínio Rico's important new study of the 2nd Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) provides an overview of the reception of this document (especially in its use by John Paul II) as a basis for re-thinking its continued relevance and the unfinished project it poses for the Church today. Rico argues that since Vatican II there have been three distinct "moments," or periods in which different issues dominated the perception of the role of the Church in the world; these shifting contexts, he further argues, have been significant in determining which ideas from Dignitatis Humanae have predominated in the official understanding of the Church's advocacy of religious freedom. Written during the first moment's preoccupation with the relation of the Church to liberal democracies, Dignitatis Humanae was invoked by John Paul II during the second moment in resistance to resist atheistic totalitarianism, and is now being interpreted for a third moment in which the Church is confronting secularism and moral relativism. The burden of Rico's argument is to show that a more adequate reception of the insights of Dignitatis Humanae would be furthered through appreciation of the ways in which the differing concerns of these three moments have caused the Church, and especially John Paul II, to be somewhat selective in utilizing the teachings of this document.
After making a persuasive case for the existence of these three different interpretative moments, Rico provides a careful and clear discussion of the document itself in relation to three major interpretations offered in the "first moment" by John Courtney Murray, Philippe André-Vincent, and Pietro Pavan. In brief, Rico demonstrates that their differences in interpretation are grounded in the complexity of the document itself but are further influenced by the concerns of the interpreter, with the result that Murray emphasizes freedom from coercion, André-Vincent highlights freedom for the truth, and Pavan focuses on the dignity of the person.
Rico then provides an overview of Pope John Paul II's involvement with and use of the document, beginning with the conciliar interventions of Karol Wojtyla which emphasized the challenges the Church faced from totalitarian regimes. This concern became predominant during the first several years of his papacy, the "moment" of the Church preoccupied with opposition to atheistic totalitarianism. During this period, John Paul continued his earlier emphasis on the importance of the Church's commitment to human rights and to the freedom of the Church from interference by the state (rather than the concern for curtailing the secular power of the Church that was of concern in the first moment).
With the fall of communism, John Paul II has continued to reaffirm the role of the Church in upholding the dignity of the human person, the theme that predominates in his use of Dignitatis Humanae. However, this dignity is now to be defended against a secular relativism and consumerism run amok. John Paul II thus emphasizes that human dignity is rooted in our relation to God and that religious freedom must be oriented toward the truth; he pays considerably less attention to the rights of an erroneous conscience or to freedom from coercion by the Church. The Pope also continues to define the Church's role in contemporary society (at least in the so-called developed world) as primarily oppositional, a stance perhaps appropriate to communism but less helpful, Rico argues, in either the first or the third moments.
Although he analyzes the limits of this papacy's perspective on religious freedom, Rico is fair and even charitable in acknowledging the strengths of John Paul's insights. He affirms the validity of the Pope's concerns in the second and third moments, and shows that John Paul's position is consistent with the interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae proffered by André-Vincent and favored by French theologians. Nevertheless, Rico also warns of the dangers of this limited appropriation of the teachings of this document: the Church risks being dismissed by a secular world with good reason to be suspicious of a Church calling for dialogue while presuming that all truth is on its side. This suspicion is only increased when this Church is rather ambiguous about the extent of its willingness to respect the right to freedom from coercion of those in error, and when (as Rico further demonstrates) the Pope holds such a negative view of human capacities that he prefers a "top-down" approach to the enforcement of morality in both Church and state.
This is a carefully researched, well-argued, and insightful (if somewhat repetitive) book. I believe that Rico is right to insist that ours is an opportune time for re-investigating the documents of Vatican II and their relevance for the issues we face today. Rico's work here is especially helpful in illuminating the complexity of Dignitatis Humanae and in suggesting that a more balanced interpretation of this document would better meet the needs of our moment; the current U.S. champions of John Paul's papacy will find Rico's position challenging but not unsympathetic. This clear but complicated and nuanced study should be accessible to advanced undergraduates, and is highly recommended for anyone engaged in studying Dignitatis Humanae or seriously concerned with the role of the Church in the contemporary world.