Monday, December 7, 2015

Religious Liberty and Ecumenical Dialogue

By John W. Crossin, OSFS

As the 50th anniversary celebrations for the Second Vatican Council come to a close, there is one last anniversary to commemorate. Dignitatis Humanae, or the Declaration on Religious Freedom, was the last document to be promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI from Council on December 7, 1965. This document is foundational for the dialogue process.

This past June I attended my first meeting of the Joint Working Group between the World Council of Churches [WCC] and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity [PCPCU]. The meeting took place in Rome and the second will occur in Geneva next September as the twenty of us from all parts of the globe familiarize ourselves with each other’s mission and structure.

In the week-long meeting I was reminded that the relationship began before the Second Vatican Council. There were some initial conversations between the WCC and Cardinal Bea’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity especially through the then-Monsignor (later Cardinal) Willebrands who had come to work at the Secretariat. As the ecumenical officer for the Dutch Bishops he had regular contact with WCC officials in Geneva.

As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration on Religious Liberty of the Council, we do well to recall this early relationship. Scholars note that the WCC leaders spoke to the Secretariat about the importance of religious liberty to ecumenism.

If there is no religious liberty, ecumenical dialogue loses its credibility. It is no accident that along with the Decree on Ecumenism, with Nostra Aetate and with related parts of other Council documents, Cardinal Bea’s Secretariat shepherded the Declaration on Religious Liberty for several years. Much to their credit, Cardinals Bea and Willebrands saw the importance of religious liberty not only for their work but for the good of communities throughout the world.

The final document, influenced greatly by the scholarly research and practical sense of the American John Courtney Murray, S.J., was and remains foundational in a host of ways. For example it discourages proselytism and encourages respect for the conscientious decision of each person about their faith. It is a touchstone for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. I see this as I help to continue the honest conversations begun by colleagues over fifty years ago.


 Father John W. Crossin is an Oblate of St. Francis DeSales and executive director of the U.S. Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

The Challenge of Religious Freedom

In 1965, the Catholic Church promulgated Dignitatis Humanae, its Declaration on Religious Liberty. The declaration teaches about the nature of religious freedom, truth, and the relationship between the Church and government. This teaching does not only affect Church officials, leaders, and administrators. It makes a demand on each and every one of us, for we are a called to a life of holiness, a life of seeking and living the truth about God.

One of the great challenges that many people face in our spiritual lives today is to succumb to a kind of spiritual listlessness, a sense that persevering on the hard road of discipleship day-in and day-out is unnecessary and yields few rewards. The temptation can afflict anyone. We may ask ourselves, do I really need to go to confession? Why should I go to Mass? Can’t I just “worship” by enjoying a nice brunch with friends and loved ones? Sociologists who study the religious attitudes of Americans have long shown that most people, from almost all faith groups, believe that God basically just wants us to be nice and happy.

This spiritual condition helps drive our current struggles over religious freedom. The steadfast commitment to principle and conscience that we see in people like the Little Sisters of the Poor might seem odd in an environment when almost anything is up for compromise. Principled people challenge the idea that God only wants us to be nice and happy. They bear witness to a different way, a way of unyielding devotion to the truth.

When we think of religious freedom, we may tend to think of civil rights and the government, rather than spirituality. Nevertheless, a call to discipleship flows from the Declaration on Religious Liberty. Dignitatis Humanae teaches that human beings have both a right and a duty to pursue the truth, especially the truth about God. Indeed, the right follows from the duty. All of us must seek the truth and comport our lives with the truth when we discover it. This is a major challenge that the Declaration on Religious Liberty asks us to encounter today.

We are all called to holiness, and that means that we are all called be vigilant in our search for truth and to hold fast to our principles, to refuse to compromise on matters of conscience. A culture in which religious freedom thrives is one that is populated by truth-seekers. When the search for truth is compromised across broad swaths of society, religious freedom is diminished. Dignitatis Humanae reminds us that religious freedom is a cultural and spiritual issue, as well a political and social one. We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae in the middle of Advent, a time set aside for Christians to prepare to meet the Divine Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the perfect time to strengthen our resolve to be people of principle, who constantly seek to conform our lives to the truth that has been revealed to us in Christ.


Aaron Matthew Weldon is Program Specialist for the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. Learn more about the U.S. bishops' religious liberty efforts at

Follow the USCCB's religious freedom efforts on Twitter: @usccbfreedom