The elements expounded in section 1 clarify in large measure the problem presented in section 2. For this reason our project here will be more brief and content with completing certain aspects what have already been mentioned.
The doctrine on religious liberty, contained in DH, absolutely does not include a relativist conception about truth, nor a negation of the fact that the Catholic religion is the unique true religion. The dubia on this subject were formulated so as to propose certain affirmations about DH, in particular, on sections 3, 4 and 6:
For the exercise of religion, from its very character, consists first of all in internal, voluntary and free acts, by which man orders himself directly to God; acts of this sort cannot be commanded nor prohibited by merely human power. (n. 3/c)
Furthermore, it pertains to religious liberty that religious communities should not be forbidden from freely showing the singular virtue [efficacy - French] of their own doctrine with regard to ordering society and enlivening the whole of human activity. (n. 4/e)
Therefore, as long as the just exigencies of public order are not violated, immunity is rightfully owed to these community that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, that they may honor in public worship the supreme deity [numen – Latin, Divinité – French] (n. 4/b)
It essentially pertains to the office of any civil power to guard and promote these inviolable rights of man. The civil power ought, therefore, through just laws and other apt means effectively take up the guardianship of the religious liberty of all citizens, and furnish favorable conditions for fostering religious life, so that citizens may be able to truly exercise the rights and duties of religion, and society itself may enjoy the goods of justice and peace which come from the fidelity of men toward God and His holy will. (n. 6/b)
The suspicion of relativist undercurrent in these texts is formulated by considering that D, 3 seems to affirm that “man directly orders himself to God” through “the exercise of his religion,”, whatever his religion may be. In other words, DH affirms that through any religion, man is able to order himself validly to God. This suspicion is strengthened by the paragraphs cited from n. 4 of DH, because it recognizes that every religion has a “singular efficacy” for “organizing society and enlivening every human activity,” and the same capacity of every religious group to render a public worship validly to God (“to honor in public worship the supreme Divinity). Further, the paragraph cited from n. 6 of DH underlines an identical value of all religions as expressions of “the fidelity of men to God and His holy will.”
In reality, this interpretation does not agreed with the true signification of these texts of DH. Indeed, DH, 3 refers to internal acts of man in relation with God, without considering the objective truth or falsity of his religion. Again, in DH, 1, it is clearly affirmed that the one true religion is the Catholic Religion:
Consequently this Sacred Synod professes first that God Himself has made known to mankind the way by which, in serving Him, men can come to salvation and blessedness in Christ [may obtain salvation and come to beatitude – French] . We believe that this one true religion exists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church.(n. 1/b)
We cannot, then, understand the text of DH 3 in an indifferent sense. According to the words of Paul VI:
The Council, in no way, founds this right (to religious liberty) on a fact that all religions, and every doctrine, even erroneous, have a more or less equal value in this area; but rather it is based on the dignity of the human person, which requires that he not be subjected to external constraints which tend to oppress his conscience in his search for the true religion and in his adherence to it. 1
Besides, one cannot deny that there may be contained in non-catholic religions elements which aid those who profess, in good faith, to put themselves in relation with God. In particular, in those non-catholic, Christian churches and communities, the Second Vatican Council discerned the presence of the vestiges of the Church, sometimes very rich, and manifested in their current members.2 The Council sees, likewise, in non-Christian religions a root of that Truth, which enlightens all men.3 Such respect and consideration signify that the Church shares the merciful patience of God (cf. DH, 4/d), according to the word of the Gospel: “Do not forbid him!... He who is not against you is for you” (Mark 9, 39-40 [trans. note: actually 38-39]), and they do not undermine the urgent mission of raising every man to Christ,4 in Whom is found the fullness of truth and liberty (cf. John 8: 31-32).
On the other hand, the text cited from DH, 4 is an affirmation of principle and does not imply any judgment on the efficacy of this or that religious doctrine for organizing society. To the degree that non-Catholic religions contain certain true partial elements, they can, in those aspects, aid in the organization of society and human activity. With regard to what they contain that is false, those religions cannot aid in an adequate organization of society and, to the degree that their errors are contrary to good social order, they can and, in certain occasions, ought to be banned by the public authority (cf. DH, 7).
In this context, it is fitting to recall the clarifications brought by the Relation of the emended text:
By affirming religious liberty to be a true right of man, it is in no way affirmed that all religions have equal positive authority, received from God, to exist and propagate themselves. Far be it, for it would savor of the worst religious indifference. Nor is it affirmed that the public power is permitted to give all religions positive authority, so that they may equally enjoy a right in society. Far be it also, for it would savor of the worst totalitarian state, which properly was secularism.5
To correctly interpret the text of DH, it is indispensable to have in mind the fact that DH refers to a civil right of liberty from coercion, and expressly excludes that this right is founded on a nonexistent equality of the value or the truth of all religions (indifferentism): cf. DH, 1. Apart from the texts previously cited, one must also consider another clarification brought by the Relation on the emended text:
The right can be taken in a two-fold sense. In the first sense right can be call a moral faculty of doing something, namely a faculty by which someone has intrinsically positive authority (empowerment, Ermächtigun, autorizzazione) for action. In the Declaration right is not presented in this sense, lest questions should arise that are not pertinent here, e.g., the speculative question of the rights of an erroneous conscience, which is treated outside the juridical status of the question about religious liberty, as it is treated in the Declaration. In another sense a right is called a moral faculty of demanding [ falcultas exigendi. ] lest someone be bound to act or impeded so that they cannot act. Certainly, in which sense right signifies an immunity in acting and excludes coercion whether in being bound or impeded. Hence right is taken in this other sense in the Declaration.6
For under the regime of religious liberty there is simply acknowledge by public right, that no one be bound to act against his conscience or impeded from acting according to his conscience. Whatever else may be said about the different rights of truth and error, this is not the place for that.7
1 Paul VI, Discorso, 12-20-1976: “Insegnamenti di Paolo VI,” 14 (1976) pp. 1088-1089
2 cf. Conc. Vatican II, Decr. Unitatis redintegratio, nn. 3, 14, 15, 20, 22, 23.
3 Conc. Vatican II, Del. Nostra aetate, n. 2.
4 cf. Paul VI, Ex. Ap. Evangelii nuntiandi, 12-8-1975, n. 80.
5 Acta Synodalia..., cit., vol. III, pars VIII, p. 462.
6 Acta Synodalia..., cit., vol. III, pars VIII, pp. 461-462
7 Acta Synodalia..., cit., vol. III, pars VIII, p. 464.