"Dignitatis Humanae," the dignity of man in the encounter between Truth and conscience
by Amina Makhlouf
The Declaration on Religious Freedom, which was approved in the last phase of Vatican II, is one of the most discussed documents and certainly the most innovative of the Council. The State must give the person the freedom to choose what to believe.

Rome (AsiaNews) - In the preface to the two volumes on his "opera omnia" soon to be published in Germany, Benedict XVI recalls the "splendid day" October 11, 1962, returning to talk about the expectations generated by the Second Vatican Council in a Church suffering from the confrontation with modernity.

Looking back at the fifty years since the opening of the event, the Pope takes stock, and brings us a qualified opinion one of the most discussed and certainly most innovative documents approved by the council. This is what is called a "minor document" Dignitatis Humanae", the Declaration on Religious Freedom approved by the Council Fathers, not without tears and tensions, December 7, 1965, at the last working session.

From the outset it was recognized as being of great consequence: Paul VI himself termed it "one of the greatest documents of the Council," and decades later, his successor, Benedict XVI, considers it together with Nostra Aetate, a litmus test for the encounter with the great themes of modernity. Its innovative force arose from the way in which, for the first time, it directly addressed one of the problems with which the Church measured itself down the centuries; the relationship between Truth and freedom. The reflections matured during the Council hall is still are the most advanced achieved by the Council Fathers.

The doctrine on religious freedom defines not only the presence of many Christians in the world, but it is also one of the cornerstones of the Ratzinger's teaching, who on this principle has not only set the tone for dialogue with other faiths, but also with non-believers. The modernity of the conciliar document is tested by what is happening in many parts of the world, where the freedom to practice one's faith is in daily discussion. Not only that, with increasing frequency, the degree of democracy and civilization of a country is measured by this essential "non-negotiable" principle. From Iraq to Pakistan, from China to the island of Cuba, an appeal is made for a law that finds its ultimate foundation in Christian humanism.

Returning to events during the three years of Council work on Dignitatis Humanae Benedict XVI's synthetic reconstruction suffices: "The doctrine of tolerance, as it was elaborated in detail by Pope Pius XII, no longer seemed adequate before the evolution of philosophical thought and the self-understanding of the modern state. It regarded the freedom to choose and practice religion, as well as the freedom to change it, as fundamental rights to freedom. From his innermost reasons, such a conception could not remain alien to the Christian faith, which had entered the world with the claim that the State could not decide the truth nor impose any kind of worship. " The Pope's reference to the situation of Christianity in the Roman Empire is not random, it keeps track of the thread of continuity that links the seasons of the Church and at the same time lays claim to the originality of the Christian position in introducing the principle of freedom of religion. In short it introduces to modernity an interpretation of the right to freedom that is not in contradiction with the public expression of faith.

Without doubt the magisterium of the 19th century suggested that the dignity of conscience was a dangerous form of relativism, a concession to error with which it could not come to terms. The overcoming of this position within the Council hall did not occur without a lot of hard work but led to a somewhat "revolutionary" document.  According to Sandro Magister "Dignitatis Humanae showed how the church is able to reflect on controversial issues, take courageous, even ground breaking positions, simply by returning to that which is her original nature. In this case, while the hinge was substantially a right that was attributed to the Truth in the centuries preceding the Council, to the extent that those who rejected it fell into error and were considered outside the common alphabet of civil life (confessional state) in the document on religious liberty in prime importance is given to the concrete person, free to choose, even in error. And it is this freedom that the Church asks the state to guarantee (modern state). "

 In the reconstruction offered by the debate by the historian Alberto Melloni the genesis of the document is owed to two different visions and ecclesial experiences, embodied by the U.S. Jesuit Murray, who by referring to the example of the U.S. constitution claimed the right of every person to seek the truth; and that of the Eastern bishops who experienced persecution or repression first hand under materialistic ideologies. It is no coincidence that one of the decisive actions in influencing the mood of the assembly on the concept of human, civil and religious freedom, was the archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, a champion of human rights and human dignity in the more than 22 years of his papacy. The alliance between these two components allowed the decision to be reaffirmed that "human dignity is preserved in the encounter between the Truth of God and the conscience of mankind, between the divine call and human freedom."

Religious freedom is recognized as a dynamic element of society, the Church continues to support the need to seek and adhere to Truth, but insists - says Card. George Cottier, a living witness of the Council - that "this is an issue of conscience and of God, and that the state in no way can claim expertise on the sacred interiority of the person."

The "legal-political" solution of the problem led to the approval of the document, even if at the last minute, launching the Church at the avant-garde of modernity on a complex topic. Some unresolved issues remained such as the possible temptation of relativism and religious indifferentism in proclaiming the freedom of belief. It is no coincidence that the schismatic bishop Marcel Lefebvre, champion of Catholic traditionalism, expressed his vote against the Dignitatis Humanae declaration. But today the life and faith of millions of Christians and believers in the world is guaranteed by the prophetic vision of those who voted in favor.