Another step forward that exposes true “reformist”, non “revolutionary” innovations, according to the opposition often used also by Joseph Ratzinger regarding his own attitude toward the historical authenticity of the Catholic Church, and therefore also of the Council.
In previous articles we have seen the recovery of the centrality of the Word of God, the Scripture, in the life of the community of faith, and dissemination of the Bible in modern languages open to all People of God.
Along the same line – second innovation – the strong assertion for the need for ecumenism, with a search for that unity lost over the centuries – nine, almost ten for Orthodox Churches, and almost 5 for Evangelicals – and then we switched to a clearly new relationship with Judaism, religion and culture, with requests for forgiveness for the religious anti-Semitism overly cultivated over the centuries and the true source, however indirect, of tragic realities such as the Shoah.
Here the importance of n. 4 of “Nostra Aetate”, with recommendations to overcome the hostility of the past and the condemnation of different attitudes, with the disapproval of “hatred, persecutions, and all displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” .
Another great and undeniable innovation of Vatican II – the fourth in this list, consists in the theme of what we now call “religious freedom”, or that we are used to place under what we call “freedom of conscience”.
This is the theme addressed in the council document indicated by the title“Dignitatis Humanae”, which was approved on the eve of the conclusion of the Council on December 7, 1965, after lively discussions and many disputes, especially by the stubbornly conservative traditionalists who saw some steps as failures to meet the affirmation of the truth of faith and salvation of the Gospel.
In ”Dignitatis Humanae” therefore, powerful words resound under N°.7: “all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power … no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs … no one can be forced to embrace the faith against his will … all are bound to seek the truth, but it does not impose itself by force of its own truth, which spreads into the hearts gently and with power”.
And this talk about religious freedom in the Council has had consequences also in the precise delineation of missionary activity. On this point, it is sufficient to read N° 13 of the “Ad Gentes“: “Wherever God opens a door of speech for proclaiming the mystery of Christ, there is announced to all men with confidence and constancy the living God, and He Whom He has sent for the salvation of all, Jesus Christ, in order that non – Christians, when the Holy Spirit opens their heart, may believe and be freely converted to the Lord, that they may cleave sincerely to Him Who, being the “way, the truth, and the life”, fulfils all their spiritual expectations, and even infinitely surpasses them.
This is the confirmation for all believers of the announcement of the faith, but then the text continues with undeniable clarity and tells how this should happen, referring to the “Dignitatis Humanae” and “Lumen Gentium” and specifying how the announcement must be embodied to be authentically Christian and ecclesial: “The Church strictly forbids forcing or enticing people by worrisome wiles to embrace the faith, and just as strongly insists on the right that no one be distracted from faith itself with unjust vexations.
According to an ancient custom in the Church, the reasons for conversion should be examined, and if necessary, purified”.
A burning issue for centuries, and for centuries also much neglected by many, in the overall story “holy people”, even “saints” canonized certainly not for that reason … It should be remembered, though taking into account the fact that culture at that time led to these consequences, which Gregory XVI, in the first half of 1800 called “deliramentum” (madness), the thesis that supported respect for freedom of conscience and religion … But it should be noted that this, which may appear as a “new” practice compared to an ecclesiastical practice that has lasted for centuries is not a denial of past faith, far from it, since its roots spring from words of faith such as the Gospels and Paul, as well as great theologians like St. Thomas, as early as the thirteenth century , and John Henry Newman in the nineteenth century have emphasized the primacy of good conscience, therefore “good faith”. On the other hand, the announcement of ”accounting for the hope that is in us” was already explicit in the words of St. Peter, which calmly pointed the way: “This however must be done with courtesy and respect, with a clear conscience” (IPt. 3, 15).
It is a fact that for centuries these ideas were not obvious. Indeed, a long series of events had contradicted them. Latest consequence, for now: this is the context in which the strong words of St. Paul on freedom of conscience should also read: “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14, 23).
What does Paul mean by the word. “Faith”?
If you think that this “faith” should be always explicitly Christian faith, knowledge and recognition of the divinity of Christ and the reality of the Church as such, it would follow that every act of virtue by a non-Christian would actually be a sin, and we know that over the centuries this idea was the theoretical foundation for spreading and imposing the faith using violence and political and colonial power.
The Council clearly indicates another way, which is important for its immediate consequences.
This is the subsequent novelty of these reflections: the Vatican’s attitude towards other religions, and ultimately even the consciences of men can be without any religion …