Religious Freedom, the Church, and State Coercion

"DH does not treat the question of religious freedom as primarily a matter of jurisdiction, of who does and does not have the authority to use coercion in religious matters; rather, it asserts that religious freedom is the fitting precondition for fulfilling the obligation to seek and hold to the truth. As the theologian David L. Schindler explains in his commentary on DH, the declaration proposes a teleological understanding of religious freedom in which freedom and truth are intrinsically linked. The human person is drawn by nature to seek out and hold the truth whose fullness is revealed in God’s revelation in Christ, but this vision of human fulfillment implies a human subjectivity whose freedom must be respected as it seeks out the truth which fulfills it.

The genius of DH is that it demonstrates that the “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ,” which had in the past been used to justify a coercive role for the state in religious matters, is instead the very basis for religious freedom. The implication of DH’s teaching is that the state cannot exercise coercion in religious matters even at the direction of the Church; the Church’s responsibility is to guide society toward the truth, but it must do so “in a manner in keeping with [persons’] own nature,” which excludes any form of state coercion."