The official website for the Fortnight for Freedom (FFF), established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has a number of resources available for the faithful, including a series of reflections on Dignitatis Humanae (DH). Each daily reflection takes a different section—or part of a section—from DH and expounds upon it. Curiously missing from this series is any reflection on the opening statement of DH that “it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and of societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” This is not a throwaway passage, as Fr. John Hunwicke explained some months ago:
The Conciliar Acta make clear the enormous importance of this sentence for the process of achieving Conciliar consensus. On November 19 1965 as many as 249 Fathers had voted non placet on the draft before them. At the final vote, on December 6, the number sank to 70 as the result of pressure put on many of the Fathers. Those who reluctantly changed their vote felt enabled to do so in good conscience because of the addition of this sentence as the result of a personal intervention by Pope Paul VI. It will be remembered that Conciliar decrees are expected to have the authority of a ‘moral unanimity’. Dignitatis humanae, considered without the sentence added by the Pope, would be a document that lacked that necessary consensus. There is therefore a sense in which it is the most important statement within this whole Declaration, its clavis aperiendi cetera. It is therefore reasonable to insist that whatever else the document may go on to say, must be understood fully in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of that earlier teaching of the Magisterium. And that, until this coherence has been clearly demonstrated, there is a provisionality about the rest of the document.
Given the many decades and many thousands of pages dedicated to demonstrating the coherence between the pre- and post-conciliar magisterium on religious liberty, perhaps it’s not too terribly surprising that the USCCB would shy away from inviting a broad spectrum of faithful, some more historically and theologically astute than others, from working through the, umm, “tension” created by, for instance, Syllabus Errorum #15’s condemnation of the proposition that “[e]very man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true” with the spirit, to say nothing of the letter, of DH.
While there is perhaps nothing that can be done about the matter this year, perhaps in 2015 the USCCB will bypass a document as bewildering and contentious as DH in favor of my earlier suggestion of using the Syllabus Errorum instead. And while it’s unfortunate that such reflection couldn’t come on the 150th anniversary of Blessed Pope Pius IX’s gift to the Church and the modern world, the Syllabus isn’t going anywhere. Every year, nay, every day the Syllabus can and should provide sure guidance for the Catholic Church when it rubs up against the Zeitgeist.
None of this is to say that faithful Catholics shouldn’t be cognizant of the Syllabus’s shortcomings. Holy, steadfast, and forthright though he was, Pius IX was no seer. He couldn’t condemn Modernism before its advent, nor the errors associated with neo-Modernism and other novel theological and intellectual trends that became all the rage in the 20th Century. As usual, God did not leave the Barque of St. Peter rudderless. For once we have nourished ourselves on the teachings of the Syllabus and its accompanying encyclical, Quanta Cura, we may repair to St. Pius X’s Pascendi and Pius XII’s Humani Generis to help take us safely through the troubled waters of late modernity.
Remember: No Catholic is obligated to follow the USCCB’s advice on how to participate in the FFF. The daily reflections on its website are but a suggestion, and a problematic one at that. Better, I think, that we should stick to the aforementioned passage of DH and, through our prayers and meditations, look to the wellsprings of the Church’s modern social magisterium for a fuller appreciation of what freedom truly is and, more importantly, what it is for.