John Young

Religious freedom and Vatican II: two perspectives

by Arnold T. Guminski and Brian W. Harrison
(St Augustine's Press, 2013, 287pp, paperback, $50. ISBN: 978-1-58731-698-2. Available from Freedom Publishing)

This book is different. Much has been written about the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Liberty Freedom ( Dignitatis Humanae), including claims that it contradicts what the Church had taught for centuries.

But the present book is a debate between a Catholic priest and a former Catholic who now describes himself as a non-theist.

One welcome feature of the book is the civilised way the debate is conducted. Another feature is the logical manner of arguing, with each author carefully analysing the disputed propositions.

Both are well equipped to engage in this kind of disputation. Arnold T. Guminski is a lawyer who has argued cases before the United States Supreme Court, and has a keenly forensic cast of mind.

Father Brian Harrison is internationally known as a scholar who is always prepared to engage in discussion on the current debates about doctrinal and moral questions.

I have long admired his patience and pastoral concern in his many discussions with Catholics, on the so-called right and the so-called left, who have deviated from the Church's teachings.


The question debated here is this: Did Vatican II contradict previous official Catholic doctrine about religious freedom? If the answer is yes, and the previous teaching was wrong, doesn't it follow that we need to reassess other supposedly settled teachings? If the Pope and the bishops have gone astray here, they may have gone wrong on many other matters.

Alternatively, Vatican II may have fallen into error, raising doubts about other areas of its teachings.

On one hand many ultra-traditionalists have rejected the Second Vatican Council on the grounds that it fell into grave error by proclaiming a right to religious freedom which the Church had previously condemned.

On the other hand some Catholics, including many influential theologians, have rejected the Church's teaching on a range of issues believing that Vatican II was right about religious freedom and the Church for centuries was in grave error.

Therefore the question discussed in this book is of vital importance for resolving the doctrinal conflicts and confusion besetting the Catholic Church today.

Both authors of this work are in agreement that no infallible teaching of the pre-Vatican II Church is contradicted by Dignitatis Humanae.

I believe their discussion makes it clear that there is no such contradiction. But what of pronouncements before Vatican II which were authoritative and which Catholics were obliged to accept, but which fell short of infallibility?

According to Arnold Guminski, Vatican II does contradict the official (but non-infallible) teaching of earlier popes. Father Harrison disagrees. That is the key question debated in this book.

Father Harrison points out that the Council Fathers were repeatedly told, by the relator explaining the document, that there was no contradiction of previous doctrine, and it seems no Father ever disputed this. (They intended to develop the Church's understanding, but without contradicting anything previously held.)

Further, Dignitatis Humanae aims to assess the question of religious freedom as it pertains to today's world, where conditions are very different from those prevailing in former centuries.

Even in previous centuries, Father Harrison argues, the Catholic Church never taught that under no circumstances does anyone ever have a natural right to be left free by civil authorities to publicly practise a false religion.

I find Father Harrison's case completely convincing. But Mr Guminski argues his position very skilfully.

Father Harrison has studied and debated these issues for many years, and he compliments his opponent for issuing "the most serious challenge I have had to confront, during a quarter-century of intermittent controversy on this topic" (p. 223).

Reasoned discussion

Anyone who wants a detailed examination of the vital question of religious freedom should read this book. Anyone who likes close, carefully reasoned discussion will enjoy the book: it should improve the reader's skill in thinking logically.

It should certainly be in libraries: whether one's personal library or public libraries. Every seminary should have a copy.

I suggest that in future printings (and I hope there will be several of these) a list of the abbreviations be given. Rather than spelling out commonly used terms each time, the authors have chosen to abbreviate them. So we find RLC, VSC, FRM and others.

Those of us who lack a photographic memory have to turn back the pages rather frequently to find where the words are spelt out and what the abbreviations mean.

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