David L. SCHINDLER and Nicholas J. HEALY Jr. Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015.  pp. 477. $45 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-7155-8. Reviewed by James DALLEN, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99258.


“Religious liberty” has become a shibboleth in recent controversies over insurance coverage for contraceptives, officials issuing same-sex marriage licenses, baking wedding cakes, and the like. That opposing groups can all appeal to religious liberty shows its continuing relevance!

Yet fifty years ago the topic was itself controversial among Catholics. Nineteenth-century popes (Gregory XVI, Pius IX) had condemned the concept of religious liberty as denying truth and encouraging indifferentism. Twentieth-century theologians who attempted to reopen the question were silenced (e.g., John Courtney Murray). Vatican Council II debates over the document that became Dignitatis humanae—promulgated 7 December 1965—were especially bitter as opponents claimed it abandoned the traditional magisterium and denied the primacy of truth. For all practical purposes the Declaration on Religious Freedom shifted the Church’s official stance from condemning religious freedom to promoting it. Development or reversal?

This book is a valuable resource for understanding the Declaration. There is a new translation, with the Latin on facing pages, and the five schemas (conciliar drafts), likewise in Latin and English. The key third and fifth schemas are reprinted on facing pages, with changes carefully marked. Healy is responsible for an insightful redaction history and Schindler provides an interpretation of the final document that is the largest section in the book.  Both authors are on the faculty of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, which helps explain their emphasis on Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II.

Their focus is text, not context: the final document, in its own objectivity and integrity, as the teaching of the Council. Someone looking for review of the twentieth-century debates and quarrels needs to look elsewhere. Healy’s redaction history, of course, notes the debates that took place, though it does not delve into them.

Schindler’s clear and closely argued interpretation of the final document takes issue with what he sees as the usual interpretation. That interpretation is John Courtney Murray’s view of religious freedom as a juridical concept, negative immunity, a civil right, because of the state’s incompetence in religious matters. In the Council this American legal pragmatism contrasted with the more scriptural and theological—“ontological”—European perspective which Schindler sees Karol Wojtyla representing.

Schindler argues that, though the third draft shifted from truth (freedom of conscience) to a juridical focus on the person and human rights, the final draft was more theological and returned to the traditional emphasis on truth by grounding the right to religious freedom in the obligation to seek truth. The development was therefore not simply acceptance of modern civil rights on religious freedom, a juridical perspective open to relativism and indifferentism, but a theological development of doctrine.

Schindler shows that the final text provides an ontological basis for human rights by returning to the traditional concept of truth. The new development is seeing the unity of truth and freedom and their intrinsic relationship; i.e., people ought to be free in matters of religion because they have the responsibility to seek the truth. Dignitatis Humanae thus represents a development of doctrine, not a break with tradition in accommodating to modern circumstances. It also avoids the relativism and indifferentism that Murray’s view leads to, as seen in secularized societies. While the principle of subjectivity has been uppermost in modern rights discussion, the Council roots subjective rights in the objective order.

Schindler makes his case and documents it thoroughly. However, I think differences he discusses also somewhat reflect different intended audiences, secular or religious, and the desire to reassure those who feared heresy. Murray abstracts from truth in terms of religious freedom as a civil right but not in relation to faith and conscience. Wojtyla/John Paul II upholds the truth of faith and its place in society but also, consequently,the freedom of individuals.

Developments from the third draft to the final text do clarify religious freedom as more than a juridical right and as theologically grounded in (the search for) objective truth. That change takes nothing away from freedom. Still, the shift does give more place to the responsibility of conforming conscience to Church teaching and of working for laws that enshrine truth, as John Paul II and Benedict stressed. Critics might say that they downplayed freedom, at least in the Church, and sometimes subordinated person to nature in discussions of natural law.

This book is important for anyone interested in the development of doctrine to include religious freedom or Catholic discussion today regarding religious freedom. Reading requires close attention and it is worth it.

As a final comment, I think the current controversies mentioned at the beginning of this review have more to do with conflict of rights in a pluralistic society than with religious freedom pure and simple.  Traditional principles regarding co-operatio in malo will make more of a contribution toward their resolution than simply focusing on religious freedom. The U.S. bishops’ policy and practice focuses on the religious freedom of those who agree with the bishops. Following that approach means that those who can declare the truth will continue to have an advantage over those who must discover it and the old thesis-hypothesis approach to religious freedom will return with a vengeance. To prevent that, the next development may need to involve religious freedom in the Church!