Friday, January 8, 2016
50 Years After Dignitatis Humanae: An Insider’s Reflection on Religious Freedom Today
By Emily Huezo
Father Jack Nuelle, M.S., a Missionary of La Salette and Executive Director of the United States Catholic Missions Association, was a young seminarian studying in Rome during the Second Vatican Council and serving as a translator for the Council fathers. His proximity to the Council gave Fr. Nuelle a unique insider experience that he shared in an interview.
When asked if he would give his perspective on where we are now with respect to religious freedom and Dignitatis Humanae, Fr. Nuelle explained that unlike previous councils, there was not a crisis of faith or dogma that the Church had to define. Rather, the Council gave the Church a chance to look at things somewhat differently. “In time, the Church grows in understanding of herself and her teachings.”
Fr. Nuelle described the difficulties the Council fathers faced in writing Dignitatis Humanae. There was fear that freedom would be taken to mean license, and there was uncertainty about what the document would mean for the relationship between church and state, particularly for European nations. Fifty years later, as the dust is beginning to settle, there is a deeper understanding of what Dignitatis Humanae means by “freedom” – it is not license, but responsibility.
As a Missionary of La Salette, Fr. Nuelle spent 30 years in Madagascar teaching the native people about the truth and love of Jesus Christ. The Church has long recognized that people in all societies strive to know God and live justly. “We are all free to enjoy God in the way we come to know him, but the freedom that Dignitatis Humanae describes comes in knowing God in his fullness,” according to Fr. Nuelle. If freedom is simply being able to do whatever we want whenever we want, then we are not really free. We are most free when we do what is right and good.
Pope Francis has reminded us that everything we do affects others. Indeed, our actions can affect the whole of creation, from the natural environment, to the social and cultural environment. Fr. Nuelle explained that Dignitatis Humanae teaches that human dignity is rooted in the fact that we are God’s children. This dignity allows each of us to bring something to the world that only we can bring. However, Fr. Nuelle explained that this is not a “private dignity”; rather, the various spiritualties, traditions, and cultures present in the Church all come together in “the mosaic that is the Church”. Each piece of the mosaic has its own personal dignity that can never be denied, but its dignity is highlighted and magnified by how it fits in the mosaic. We must do what is right for the common good. We must do our part in light of the whole.
Emily Huezo is an Executive Assistant for the USCCB Office of General Counsel and assists with the work of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. Learn more about the U.S. bishops' religious liberty efforts at www.usccb.org/freedom.