It is the 7th of December, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Well, no insignificant event today, as it was on this, the 7th of December in 1965, that Christendom in the West was officially declared over and done with and, with that, a rebirth of a kind of religious freedom.
And you say, 1965! And I, once again tapping the sign, remind you of the historical significance of the 2nd Vatican Council and what it did officially for the Roman Catholic Church but also the impulses it checked and encouraged in the broader church.
So, first- religious freedom is a difficult concept. Here in America, we go to the First Amendment- Neither Congress nor the state can make a law establishing religion, nor may it prohibit the free exercise of. But before this notion of enlightenment came to us, it was the early Christian church that established the idea of “religious liberty”- the first recorded use of the term comes from the church father, Tertullian. It was in his “Apologeticum,” written in 197 that he declared religion to be something of inner conviction that could not be coerced. In 197, this made sense as Christianity was a minority religion and piety to the cult of the Roman Gods was required by the Emperor.
All that was well and good until the conversion of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity and then, in the Middle Ages, the baptism of the Christian state into what we call “Christendom.” This is the idea that the Christian bishop has state authority. And why not? The majority were Christian, and if pagan rulers attacked, you could call on Christian soldiers to do their duty.
However, this theory has had critics from its inception. “Christendom” seemed like a coerced faith- after all, heresy is dealt with by temporal and physical punishment. The Reformation makes “Christendom” tricky because which flavor of Christianity gets to hold the reigns?
And if things went bad for Christendom, then wait for the Enlightenment and the French Revolution officially banning Christianity in favor of a cult of public reason. Tertullian would like a word.
In the aftermath of the radical enlightenment, many Christians in the West looked to America as an example of a post-Christendom future. The 19th century Popes would have none of it. In fact Pope Pius IX had declared “Americanism” as a heresy.
Enter the 20th century, the 2 World Wars wherein the nazis were defeated by Liberal democracies and the Cold War, and a debate raged amongst Catholics who had traditionally taught a theory of Christendom that worked in the Middle Ages but was proving threadbare.
Then, from 1962 to 1965, the Catholic Church would be forever reformed with the 2nd Vatican Council. While many have pointed to the loss of the Latin Mass as key to the council, in its time, the controversy swirled around a document called "Dignitatis Humanae,” which was officially declared by Pope Paul VI on this, the 7th of December in 1965. It read: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.” And “This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.”
While the motion passed with overwhelming support from the Bishops attending it was an issue of debate between traditional and progressive Catholics. It is clear that the teachings of the church have changed. The model of “Christendom” or a “Christian State” was abandoned. Of all the rumors as to what was “really” behind this, my favorite is that it was the CIA working covertly as part of its Cold War scheme to weaken the Soviet Union. That would be big if true (it’s not true).
Despite the controversy at the time, one of the Bishops present at the council was the future Pope John Paul II- who, from behind the Iron Curtain, didn’t want a state religion dictated by the Soviets. As a later conservative Pope, he would champion the “Dignitatis Humanae” as would his successor Pope Benedict. And if you need any sign that the modern Catholic teaching of religious freedom, instead of Christendom, has been embraced in the mainstream, Benedict and his successor, the progressive Pope Francis, praised the document with one accord. I told you it was a big deal- the “Dignitatis Humanae” of Vatican II- proclaimed on this- the 7th of December in 1965.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- a call to repentance and promise from the prophet Hosea:
“Come, let us return to the Lord,
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of December 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who was sure that an “Americanism” was espresso and hot water- he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man whose favorite Americanism is the prepackaged, pre-sliced stuff that melts so nicely for a grilled cheese. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.