Here’s what Dignitatis Humanæ did: it confirmed that the state, on its own authority, has no right to limit religious practice or compel belief. However, the Council also reaffirmed that the Church herself does retain a coercive authority, especially over the baptized, and that in a Catholic polity, that authority may be exercised by the state on the Church’s behalf and on her sole authority. That is a far cry from the liberal notion of religious liberty as an absolute right, or that the Council somehow elevated the American Bill of Rights to the status of a fifth Gospel.
“Dignitatis humanæ has often been seen, both by celebrants and by detractors, as a text in which the Catholic Church finally absorbed and internalized the Enlightenment – as a marriage deed between Catholicism and liberalism,” writes Thomas Pink, who has done extensive work on the declaration, “And certainly the declaration's description of the human person in relation to the state is profoundly marked by the outlook of the Enlightenment. But it is a gross mistake to see the declaration as anything even approaching a marriage with modern liberalism.”
The writer Christopher Ferrara, author of Liberty, The God That Failed, has written that “Liberalism is in thought (or philosophy), rationalism; in politics, secularism; in economics, greed; and in religion, indifferentism." There is today a growing body of concerned Catholics who recognize that this simply isn’t good enough. These critics of liberalism – people like Patrick Deneen, John Médaille, Artur Rosman, Daniel Schwindt, and others – are not hide-bound rad-trads, eager to “kickstart the engine of the Inquisition” and roll back Vatican II. Those sorts of intemperate imprecations only reveal the angry illiberalism lurking at the core of liberal ideology. No, the critics of liberalism are ordinary, faithful Catholics who look around, ask, “What’s gone wrong?” and try to supply an answer. This, of course, is both the privilege and responsibility of Christians, who are called to “put everything to the test; retain what is good.”
The political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed that, “contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself – that is, for putting liberalism in question.” Thoughtful Catholics are taking up MacIntyre’s challenge, busting open the liberal echo chamber and putting the system in question. And it is high time.
Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.