It is not surprising that several of the opening floor interventions came from American bishops. Cardinal Spellman of New York and particularly Cardinal Cushing of Boston, who decried government coercion in matters of religion. The suppression of Catholic churches in communist and totalitarian governments was a matter of great concern, and in my own childhood I recall learning in school of the brutal 1949 trial of Cardinal Mindszenty in communist Hungary. (Mindszenty was, during the Council and until 1971, a political refugee in the U.S. Embassy in Hungary.)
Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis seconded his confreres, but he added a new twist, the rights of Christians in Catholic countries. England’s Cardinal Heenan admitted that “it was the custom of both sides to burn heretics.” As the discussion progressed, there seemed to be some dissatisfaction with the grounding of religious rights solely in the realm of natural reason; to a number of fathers it seemed a fitting exercise to find this right in the corpus of revealed truth. Cardinal Urbani of Venice stated on the floor that this teaching could in fact be derived from the teachings of popes from Leo XIII to John XXIII. Urbani, of course, set off multiple alarms in some quarters, arguing in effect that the principle of religious liberty was part and parcel of Catholic moral teaching and that this teaching had developed over time.
I cannot speak for Urbani, but it is true that American bishops were impacted by the writings of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, a moral theologian whose writings were widely disseminated in the United States. Despite the fact that Murray was still under a Vatican-ordered silencing when Vatican II opened, he was brought to the Council as a peritus by Cardinal Spellman himself, where he played a major role in helping the American caucus formulate its arguments on the religious liberty discussion. Murray’s writings established a template for the rights and duties of religion in democratic societies as they emerged throughout the world in the twentieth century in the pattern of “the American experiment.”
Murray’s thinking and writing was troubling to Rome because, even at the time of Vatican II, the old guard Vatican—but not Popes John and Paul--still held to the model of “the confessional state,” where Catholic faith and thought would shape and guide the formation and execution of civil government. This was an easy concept to defend after the Reformation when Protestant states—England a good example—emerged as clear cut enemies of Catholic states such as Spain and pre-Revolution France. Democracy, however, was a true wild card: a state of no religious confession where, on the contrary, all would be free to worship (or not worship!) by the dictates of conscience.
To give the right to “not worship” or “believe heretically” was a hard pill to swallow for some, and this sentiment was voiced in the conciliar debate by, among others, the Curia’s Cardinal Siri, who voiced opposition to freedom to deviate from truth. As Siri put it, “We cannot defend what God only tolerates.” Siri was referring to a then-current theological train of thought that a pope, God’s vicar,” could “tolerate” the reality of a non-confessional or heretical state till a more fortunate time came about, but by the 1960’s this line of thinking was becoming philosophical apocalyptic.
Another fear—not necessarily far-fetched in the thinking of the day—was a fear that freedom of religion would open the doors to proselytism. The Spanish bishops were particularly forceful about this danger. This line of defensiveness perhaps reflected a silent sentiment of concern in many quarters that the “Catholic brand” was not as strong in many parts of the world as many would have liked to believe. After the Council, and up through the present day, Evangelicals—to cite one significant religious force—have made significant inroads into many Catholic nations, notably in Central and South America. However, it is farfetched to think that suppression of evangelicalism by strong Catholic monarchs or dictators would have been tolerated by the rest of the Catholic world, with or without a schema on religious liberty.
Again, it is useful to recall that in 1965 the major threats to Catholic belief and practice were perceived to be the godless communist and totalitarian states, and the discussion of “rights” took place within that understanding. There was less time to reflect upon the exercise of power in democratic or constitutional states and nations where the governments were constituted more or less by the will of the citizenry. Session IV of the Council could not see further down the road to times when democracies would initiate or endorse policies at odds with formal Roman Catholic teaching. Consider just a few such circumstances in the United States: the absence of legal sanctions against the sale and prescription of birth control pills, the Roe V. Wade 1973 Supreme Court Decision on abortion, the ACA controversy with the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the June 2015 Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.
Such concerns, of course, would gather momentum after the Council. The balance of the week-long Religious Liberty debate pitted traditionalists—who argued that the document undercut the teachings of previous popes—against bishops in the actual line of fire from hostile governments, including the future John Paul II of Krakow, Poland. Again, the Curial floor masters attempted to pull the document back from discussion, but on Tuesday, September 21, 1965, Pope Paul ordered the schema to be put to a floor test, with the resulting vote 1997-224-1 in favor of the draft. Xavier Rynne adds an interesting point: Pope Paul had determined privately that he was not going to speak to the United Nations in 1966 without such a declaration of liberty on the record. (p. 466)