Document 3



Dignitatis Humanae, 7 December, 1965


The right of the person and communities to social and liberty in religious matters

CHAPTER I: The general principle of religious freedom

CHAPTER II:  Religious freedom in the light of revelation

The right of the person and communities to social and liberty in religious matters

1. Contemporary man is becoming increasingly conscious of the dignity of the human person; more and more peo­ple are demanding that men should exercise fully their own judgment and a responsible freedom in their actions and should not be subject to the pressure of coercion but be in­spired by a sense of duty.  At the same time they are de­manding constitutional limitation of the powers of govern­ment to prevent excessive restriction of the rightful free­dom of individuals and associations.  This demand for free­dom in human society is concerned chiefly with man=s spir­itual values, and especially with what concerns the free practice of religion in society.  This Vatican Council pays careful attention to these spiritual aspirations and, with a view to declaring to what extent they are in accord with the truth and justice, searches the sacred tradition and teaching of the Church, from which it draws forth new things that are always in harmony with the old.

The sacred Council begins by professing that God him­self has made known to the human race how men by serv­ing him can be saved and reach happiness in Christ.  We be­lieve that this one true religion continues to exist in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus en­trusted the task of spreading it among all men when he said to the apostles: AGo therefore and make disciples of all na­tions baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you@ (Mt. 18:19-20).  All men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as come to know it.

The sacred Council likewise proclaims that these obligations bind man=s conscience.  Truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.  So while the religious freedom which men demand in fulfilling their obligation to worship God has to do with freedom from coercion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ.  Furthermore, in dealing with this question of liberty the Council intends to develop the teaching of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and on the constitutional order of society.


CHAPTER I:  The general principle of religious freedom

2. The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.  Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others.  The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.  This right of the human person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore bearing personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.  They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth.  But men cannot satisfy this obligation in a way that is in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy both psychological freedom and immunity from ex­ternal coercion.  Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective attitude of the indi­vidual but in his very nature.  For this reason the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it. The exercise of this right cannot be interfered with as long as the just requirements of public order are observed.

3. This becomes even clearer if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law itselfeternal, objective and universal by which God orders, directs and governs the whole world and the ways of the human com­munity according to a plan conceived in his wisdom and love.  God has enabled man to participated in this law of his so that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence many may be able to arrive at a deeper and deeper knowl­edge of unchangeable truth.  For this reason everybody has the duty and consequently the right to seek the truth in reli­gious matters, so that, through the use of appropriate means he may prudently form judgments of conscience which are sincere and true.

The search for truth, however, must be carried out in a manner that is appropriate to the dignity of the human per­son and his social nature, namely by free enquiry with the help of teaching, or instruction, communication and dia­logue.  It is by these means that men share with each other the truth they have discovered, or think they have discov­ered, in such a way that they help one another in the search for truth.  Moreover, it is by personal assent that men must adhere to the truth they have discovered.

It is through his conscience that man sees and recognizes the demands of the divine law.  He is bound to follow this conscience faithfully in all his activity so that he may come to God who is his last end.  Therefore he must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience.  Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience especially in religious matters.  The reason is because the practice religion of its very nature consists primarily of those voluntary and free internal acts by which a man directs himself to God.  Acts of this kind cannot be commanded or forbidden by any merely human authority.  But his own social nature requires that man give external expression to the internal acts of religion, that he communicate with others on religious matters and profess his religion in community.  Consequently to deny man the free exercise of religion in society, when the just requirements of public order are observed, is to do an injustice to the human person and­ the very order established by God for men.

Furthermore, the private and public acts of religion by which men direct themselves to their convictions transcend of their very nature the earthly and temporal order of things.  Therefore the civil authority, the purpose of which is the care of the common good in the temporal order, must recognize and look with favour on the religious life of the citizens.  But if it presumes to control or restrict religious activity it must be said to have exceeded the limits of its power.

4. The freedom or immunity from coercion in religious matters which is the right of individuals must also be accorded to men when they act in community.  Religious com­munities are a requirement of the nature of man and of religion itself.

Therefore, provided the just requirements of public order are not violated, these groups have a right to immunity so that they may organize themselves according to their own principles.  They must be allowed to honour the supreme Godhead with public worship help their members to practice their religion and strengthen them with religious instruction and promote institutions in which members may work together to organize their own lives according to their religious principles.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered by legislation or administrative action on the part of the civil authority in the selection, training, appointment and transfer of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities in other parts of the world, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of the property they need.

Religious communities have the further right not to be prevented from publicly teaching and bearing witness to their beliefs by the spoken or written word.  However, in spreading religious belief and in introducing religious prac­tices everybody must at all times avoid any action which seems to suggest coercion or dishonest or unworthy persua­sion especially when dealing with the uneducated or the poor.  Such a manner of acting must be considered an abuse of one=s own right and an infringement of the rights of oth­ers.

Also included in the right to religious freedom is the right of religious groups not to be prevented from freely demonstrating the special value of their teaching for the or­ganization of society and the inspiration of all human activ­ity.  Finally, rooted in the social nature of man and in the very nature of religion is the right of men, prompted by their own religious sense, freely to hold meetings or estab­lish educational, cultural, charitable and social organiza­tions.

5. Every family, in that it is a society with its own basic rights, has the right freely to organize its own religious life in the home under the control of the parents.  These have the right to decide in accordance with their own religious beliefs the form of religious upbringing which is to be given to their children.  The civil authority must therefore recog­nize the right of parents to choose with genuine freedom schools or other means of education.  Parents should not be subjected directly or indirectly to unjust burdens because of this freedom of choice.  Furthermore, the rights of parents are violated if their children are compelled to attend classes which are not in agreement with the religious beliefs of the parents or if there is but a single compulsory system of edu­cation from which all religious instruction is excluded.

6. The common good of society, consists in the sum total of those conditions of social life which enable men to achieve a fuller measure of perfection with greater ease.  It consists especially in safeguarding the rights and duties of the human person.  For this reason the protection of the right to religious freedom is the common responsibility of individual citizens, social groups, civil authorities, the Church and other religious communities.  Each of these has its own special responsibility in the matter according to particular duty to promote the common good.

The protection and promotion of the inviolable rigts of man is an essential duty of every civil authority.  The civil authority therefore must undertake to safeguard the religious freedom of all the citizens in an effective manner by just legislation and other appropriate means.  It must help to create conditions favourable to the fostering of religious life so that the citizens will be really in a position to exercise their religious rights and fulfil their religious duties and so that society itself may enjoy the benefits of justice and peace, which result from man=s faithfulness to God and his holy will.

If, because of the circumstances of a particular people special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional organization of a State, the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom must be recognized and respected as well.

Finally, the civil authority must see to it that the equality of the citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good of society, is never violated either openly or covertly for religious reasons and that there is no discrimination among citizens.

From this it follows that it is wrong for a public authori­ty to compel its citizens by force or fear or any other means to profess or repudiate any religion or to prevent anyone from joining or leaving a religious body.  There is even more serious transgression of God=s will and of the sa­cred rights of the individual person and the family of na­tions when force is applied to wipe out or repress religion either throughout the whole world or in a single region or in a particular community.

7. The right to freedom in matters of religion is exer­cised in human society.  For this reason its use is subject to certain regulatory norms.

In availing of any freedom men must respect the moral principle of personal and social responsibility; in exercising their rights individual men and  social groups are bound by the moral law to have regard for the rights of others, their own duties to others and the common good of all.  All men must be treated with justice and humanity.

Furthermore, since civil society has the right to protect itself against possible abuses committed in the name of reli­gious freedom the responsibility of providing such protection rests especially with the civil authority.  However, this must not be done in an arbitrary manner or by the unfair practice of favouritism but in accordance with legal princi­ples which are in conformity with the objective moral or­der.  These principles are necessary for the effective protec­tion of the rights of all citizens and for peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights.  They are also necessary for an ade­quate protection of that just public peace which is to be found where men live together in good order and true jus­tice.  They are required too for the necessary protection of public morality.  All these matters are basic to the common good and belong to what is called public order.  For the rest, the principle of the integrity of freedom in society should continue to be upheld.  According to this principle man=s freedom should be given the fullest possible recogni­tion and should not be curtailed except when and in so far as is necessary.

8. Modern man is subjected to a variety of pressures and runs the risk of being prevented from following his own free judgment.  On the other hand, there are many who, un­der the pretext of freedom, seem inclined to reject all sub­mission to authority and make light of the duty of obedi­ence.

For this reason this Vatican Council urges everyone, especially those responsible for educating others, to try to form men with a respect for the moral order who will obey lawful authority and be lovers of true freedommen, that is, who will form their own judgments in the light of truth, direct their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive for what is true and just in willing cooperation with others.

Religious liberty, therefore, should have this further purpose and aim of enabling men to act with greater responsi­bility in fulfilling their own obligations in society.


CHAPTER II:  Religious freedom in the light of revelation

9. The Declaration of this Vatican Council on man=s right to religious freedom is based on the dignity of the person, the demands of which have become more fully known to human reason through centuries of experience.  Furthermore, this doctrine of freedom is rooted in divine revelation, and for this reason Christians are bound to respect it all the more conscientiously.  Although revelation does not affirm in so many words the right to immunity from external coercion in religious matters, it nevertheless shows forth the dignity of  the human person in all its fullness.  It shows us Christ=s respect for the freedom with which man is to fulfill his duty of believing the word of God, and it teaches us the spirit which disciples of such a Master must acknowledge and follow in all things.  All this throws light on the general principles on which the teaching of this Declaration on Religious Freedom is based.  Above all, religious freedom in society is in complete harmony with the act of Christian faith.

10. One of the key truths in Catholic teaching, a truth that is contained in the word of God and constantly preached by the Fathers, is that man=s response to God faith ought to be free, and that therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will.  The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.  Man, redeemed by Christ the Saviour and called through Jesus Christ to be an adopted son of God, cannot give his adherence to God when he reveals himself unless, drawn by the Father he submits to God with a faith that is reasonable and free.  It is therefore fully in accordance with the nature of faith in religious matters every form of coercion by men should be excluded.  Consequently, the principle of religious liberty contributes in no small way to the development of a situa­tion in which men can without hindrance be invited to the Christian faith, embrace it of their own free will and give it practical expression in every sphere of their lives.

11. God calls men to serve him in spirit and in truth.  Consequently they are bound to him in conscience but not coerced.  God has regard for the dignity of the human per­son which he himself created; the human person is guided by his own judgment and to enjoy freedom.  This fact received its fullest manifestation in Christ Jesus in whom God revealed himself and his ways in a perfect man­ner.  For Christ, who is our master and Lord and at the same time is meek and humble of heart, acted patiently in attracting and inviting his disciples.  He supported and confirmed his preaching by miracles to arouse the faith of his hearers and give them assurance, but not to coerce them.  He did indeed denounce the unbelief of his listen­ers but he left vengeance to God until the day of judgment.  When he sent his apostles into the world he said to them: AHe who believes and is baptized will be saved; be who does not believe will be condemned@ (Mk 16:16).  He himself recognized that weeds had been sown through the wheat but ordered that both be allowed to grow until the harvest which will come at the end of the world.  He did not wish to be political Messiah who would dominate by force but preferred to call himself the Son Man who came to serve, and Ato give his life as for many@ (Mk 10:45).  He showed himself as the Servant of God who Awill not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick@ (Mt 12.20).  He recognized civil authority and its rights when he ordered tribute to be paid to Caesar, but he gave clear warning that the higher rights of God must be respected: ARender therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar=s, and to God, the things are God=s@ (Mt 22:21).  Finally, he brought his revelation to perfection when he accomplished on the cross the work of redemption by which he achieved salvation and true freedom for men.  For he bore witness to the truth but refused to use force to impose it on those who spoke out against it.  His kingdom does not make its claims by blows, but is established by bearing witness to and hearing the truth and grows by the love with which Christ, lifted up on the draws men to himself.

Taught by Christ=s word and example the apostle followed the same path.  From the very beginnings of the Church the disciples of Christ strove to convert men to confess Christ as Lord, not however by applying coercion or with the use of techniques unworthy of the Gospel but, above all, by the power of the word of God.  They steadfastly proclaimed to all men the plan of God the Saviour, Awho desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth@ (1 Tim 2:4).  At the same time, however, they showed respect for the weak even though they were in error, and in this way made it clear how Aeach of us shall give account of himself to God@ (Rm 14:12) and for that reason is bound to obey his conscience.  Like Christ, the apostles were constantly bent on bearing witness to the truth of God and they showed the greatest courage in speaking Athe word of God with boldness@ (Acts 4:31) before people and rulers.  With a firm faith they upheld the truth that the Gospel itself is indeed the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.  They therefore despised Aall worldly weapons@ and followed the example of Christ=s meekness and gentleness as they preached the word of God with full confidence in the divine power of that word to destroy those forces hostile to God and lead men to believe in and serve Christ.  Like their Master, the apostles too recognized legitimate civil authority: ALet ev­ery person be subject to the governing authorities... he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed (Rm 13:12).  At the same time they were not afraid to speak out against public authority when it opposed God=s holy will: AWe must obey God rather than men@ (Acts 5:29).  This is the path which innumerable martyrs and faithful have followed through the centuries all over the world.

12. The Church, therefore, faithful to the truth of the Gospel, is following in the path of Christ and the apostles when she recognizes the principle that religious liberty is in keeping with the dignity of man and divine revelation and gives it her support.  Throughout the ages she has preserved and handed on the doctrine which she has received from her Master and the apostles.  Although in the life of the people of God in its pilgrimage through the vicissitudes of human history there has at times appeared a form of behaviour which was hardly in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel and was even opposed to it, it has always remained the teaching of the Church that no one is to be coerced into be­lieving.

Thus the leaven of the Gospel has long been at work in the minds of men and has contributed greatly to a wider recognition by them in the course of time of their dignity as persons.  It has contributed too to the growth of the convic­tion that in religious matters the human person should be kept free from all manner of coercion in civil society.

13. Among those things which pertain to the good of the Church and indeed to the good of society here on earth, things which must everywhere and at all times be safeguarded and defended from all harm, the most outstanding surely is that the Church enjoy that freedom of action which her responsibility for the salvation of men requires.  This is a sacred liberty with which the only-begotten Son of God endowed the Church which he purchased with his blood.  Indeed it belongs so intimately to the Church that to attack it is to oppose the will of God.  The freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle governing relations between the Church and public authorities and the whole civil order.

As the spiritual authority appointed by Christ the Lord with the duty, imposed by divine command, of going into the whole world and preaching the Gospel to every creature, the Church claims freedom for herself in human society and before every public authority.  The Church also claims freedom for herself as a society of men with the right to live in civil society in accordance with the demands of the Christian faith.

When the principle of religious freedom is, not just proclaimed in words or incorporated in law, but is implemented sincerely in practice, only then does the Church enjoy in law and in fact those stable conditions which give her the independence necessary for fulfilling her divine mission.  Ecclesiastical authorities have been insistent in claiming this independence in society.  At the same time the Christian faithful, in common with the rest of men, have the civil right of freedom from interference in leading their lives according to their conscience.  A harmony exists therefore between the freedom of the Church and that religious freedom which must be recognized as the right of all men and all communities and must be sanctioned by constitutional law.

14. In order to satisfy the divine command: AMake disciples of all nations@ (Mt 28:19), the Catholic Church must spare no effort in striving Athat the word of the Lord may speed on and triumph@ (2 Th 3:1).

The Church therefore earnestly urges her children first of all that Asupplications, prayers, intercessions I and thanksgivings be made for all men.. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth@ (1 Tim 2:14).

However, in forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church.  For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth.  It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority the truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral Order which spring from human nature itself.  In addition, Christians should approach those who are outside wisely, Ain the holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech@ (2 Cor 6:6-7), and should strive, even to the shedding of their blood, to spread the light of life within civil society all confidences and apostolic courage.

The disciple has a grave obligation to Christ, his Master, to grow daily in his knowledge of the truth he has received from him, to be faithful in announcing it and vigorous in defending it without having recourse to methods which are contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.  At the same time the love of Christ urges him to treat with love, prudence and patience those who are in error or ignorance with regard to the faith.  He must take into account his duties towards Christ, the life-giving Word whom he must proclaim, the rights of the human person and the measure of grace which God has given to each man through Christ in calling him freely to accept and profess the faith.

15. It is certain therefore that men of the present day want to profess their religion freely in private and in public.  Indeed it is a fact that religious freedom has already been declared a civil right in most constitutions and has been given solemn recognition in international documents.

But there are forms of government under which, despite constitutional recognition of the freedom of religious worship, the public authorities themselves strive to deter the citizens from professing their religion and make life particularly difficult and dangerous for religious bodies.

This sacred Council gladly welcomes the first of these two facts as a happy sign of the times.  In sorrow however it denounces the second as something deplorable.  The Council exhorts Catholics and directs an appeal to all men to consider with great care how necessary religious liberty is, especially in the present condition of the human family.

It is clear that with the passage of time all nations coming into a closer unity, men of different cultures and religions are being bound together by closer links, and there is a growing awareness of individual responsibility.  Consequently, to establish and strengthen peaceful relations and harmony in the human race, religious freedom must be given effective constitutional protection everywhere and that highest of man=s rights and dutiesto lead a religious life with freedom in societymust be respected.

May God, the Father of all, grant that the human family by carefully observing the principle of religious liberty in society may be brought by the grace of Christ and the power of the holy Spirit to that Aglorious freedom of the children of God@ (Rm 8;21) which is sublime and everlasting.