Hermeneutic of continuity and freedom of conscience

Commentaries on the Society of St Pius X often remind us that the issue is not simply a matter of liturgy but also of the teaching of Vatican II. One key area of discussion is the question of religious liberty and liberty of conscience. If we accept that the teaching of various Popes, especially Pope Gregory XVI and Blessed Pope Pius IX, is part of the tradition of the Church, we will need to read Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae in terms of a "hermeneutic of continuity." In other words, we will need to understand Dignitatis Humanae in such a way that it does not form a point of rupture with the past but is in accord with the tradition of the Church, including those encyclicals. Some will say that this is impossible but I wonder whether the case of Bishop Williamson can help us in the quest.

Dignitatis Humanae taught that
In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. (n.3)
When we read the encyclical letter Quanta Cura of Blessed Pope Pius IX there seems to be a sharp contrast since he condemns the error of liberty of conscience and worship, agreeing with Pope Gregory XVI that this was an insanity, as well as condemning the insane idea that:
[...] a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way. (n.3)
Blessed Pope Pius IX was referring to the encyclical letter Mirari Vos in which his predecessor Pope Gregory XVI said:
This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. (n.14)
He went on to say:
Here We must include that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamor. We are horrified to see what monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors are disseminated far and wide in countless books, pamphlets, and other writings which, though small in weight, are very great in malice. (n.15)
Most people today would instinctively reject the statements of Blessed Pope Pius IX and Pope Gregory XVI and enthusiastically applaud the Church for finally coming round to the view that we should have liberty of conscience.

Except in the case of Bishop Williamson.

Bishop Williamson believed what he said when he denied that Jews were killed in gas chambers. He was wrong, but he was not saying something that he personally believed to be false. He felt somehow duty bound to express these views because he believed that his (utterly mistaken) view of history ought to be made known in order to counteract what he believes to be a false view of history. In other words, he was acting in accord with his conscience. It was an erroneous conscience that could be informed by attention to the evidence of the holocaust provided particularly by records meticulously kept by the Nazi regime and produced as evidence at the Nuremburg trials. (There is much else that can be easily found to refute the nonsense of Fred Leuchter and others.) Nevertheless, he was following his conscience.

If we read Dignitatis Humanae in a simplistic way, leaving the statement about liberty of conscience devoid of the context of the tradition of the Church, we might end up saying that Bishop Williamson should be free to express his views and should not be restrained from acting in accord with his conscience. Bishop Fellay's order, prohibiting his expression of such views might be seen as a contravention of the principle of liberty of conscience enshrined in Vatican II.

But we think that Bishop Fellay is right to issue this prohibition. So how can we reconcile such coercion with Vatican II? Clearly we must read Vatican II in the light of tradition, interpret it in accord with the constant teaching of the Church: we must apply the "hermeneutic of continuity."

In fact, we can find some hints even in Dignitatis Humanae itself to support such a reading. Earlier on, the Declaration affirmed that:
On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it. (n.1)
This principle is prior to the principle of freedom of conscience. A further restraint on liberty of conscience is provided by the test of "public order." Speaking of religious freedom (although the principle also applies to freedom of conscience) Dignitatis Humanae says that a person should have immunity from coercion but adds an important proviso:
In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed. (n.2 - my empahsis)
In some states, denial of the holocaust is a criminal offence - the state intervenes for the sake of the public order to prevent the encouragement of neo-nazism. Such states recognise that liberty of conscience has its limits. Most people also think that the truth about the holocaust is an important matter - whether or not holocaust denial is punishable in civil law. As far as the holocaust is concerned, "error has no rights" and the world concords with Blessed Pope Pius IX in seeing the absolute liberty of conscience as an insanity. 

Indeed the world's press agrees with Pope Gregory XVI in being horrified at the "monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors" that are proclaimed when the liberty of conscience is unrestrained by the obligation of seeking the truth and the duty to preserve public order and recognises that the idea that liberty of conscience should be proclaimed for everyone is "an absurd and erroneous proposition."

The media furore over Bishop Williamson thus neatly demonstrates that it is perfectly reasonable to interpret Dignitatis Humanae in the light of Mirari Vos and Quanta Cura.

When the regularisation of the SSPX is completed and the SSPX Bishops are part of national Bishops' Conferences, we might want to take a look at the notion of collegiality.

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