Because human beings are endowed with the dignity of being created in the image and likeness of God, they possess an inherent freedom, especially in the realm of religion. Although all people must seek the truth and embrace it fully when they find it, no one can be forced to participate in or abstain from public or private religious practices. The Vatican II Fathers wrote Dignitatis Humanae, or the Declaration on Religious Liberty, to lay out the principles and practices of religious freedom in the modern world.
Here are a few of the topics and ideas you'll find in Dignitatis Humanae.
On the Right of the Person and Communities to Social and Civil Liberty in Religious Matters
* Modern people are becoming more and more aware of the dignity of the human person and of the right each person has to exercise responsible freedom without coercion.
* People are demanding freedom, especially with regard to the practice of religion.
* The Council has carefully discerned modern ideas about religious freedom in order to see how they correspond with truth, justice, Sacred Tradition, and the teachings of the Church.
* There is one true religion that God has revealed to humanity through Christ, His Son. This religion exists in the Catholic Church, which has the task of spreading it throughout the world.
* All people are duty bound to seek the truth and “embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it.”
* While all people have the obligation to worship God according to the true religion, they must not be coerced into doing so, for this violates their freedom and human rights.
* Instead, the truth, with its gentleness and power, must win over people's hearts and minds.
Chapter I – The General Principle of Religious Freedom
* All people have a right to religious freedom, which means that they “should be immune from coercion” so that “within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others.”
* Religious freedom is based on human dignity and is a civil right.
* Human beings, who are “endowed with reason and free will,” must seek the truth, adhere to it when they find it, and “direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth.”
* Freedom is necessary to humans beings that they may seek, find, and embrace the truth.
* The divine law reveals the truth and teaches it to human beings.
* The search for truth takes place through free inquiry, instruction, communication, and dialogue. Seekers help each other in their search.
* No one must be forced to act against his or her conscience nor prevented from acting in accordance with his or her conscience.
* Religion practices must be “voluntary and free” acts both internally and externally. People must be free to express themselves religiously and profess their faith publicly.
* Civil authority must not control or restrict religious activity for either individuals or communities.
* Religious communities “have a right to immunity,” to organize, to worship publicly, to teach their faith, and to promote their institutions.
* Communities have a right to witness to their beliefs and live their faith without hindrance from civil authorities.
* Parents have the right to control the religious life of their families and choose how they want to educate their children.
* Protecting religious freedom is part of promoting the common good.
* Civil authorities should safeguard religious freedom and promote “conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life.” They must also make sure that all citizens are equal before the law and do not face discrimination because of their religious beliefs.
* Religious freedom is regulated by the moral law and must be balanced with justice and the common good.
* The civil authority must keep the peace, protect the rights of all, maintain public order, and safeguard justice and the moral law.
* Truth, freedom, responsibility, morality, and cooperation go together to promote and regulate religious freedom.
Chapter II – Religious Freedom in the Light of Revelation
* The doctrine of religious freedom “is rooted in divine revelation,” has been discerned in greater detail by the Church over the centuries, and “is in complete harmony with the act of Christian faith.”
* A person's response to God has to be free, and “therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will.”
* People should, however, be invited to embrace the fullness of Christianity and express it in their lives.
* Jesus never forced anyone to believe in Him and accept His message. Instead, He patiently invited and persuaded people through love and through His sacrifice on the cross. The apostles followed in His footsteps as does the Church today.
* The Church requires “sacred liberty” to proclaim the Gospel and fulfill her mission. She “claims freedom for herself in human society and before every public authority.”
* Christians must first pray for the salvation of all people. They must also promote the Church's mission, teaching the truth and spreading the Gospel with “confidence and apostolic courage.” As they grow each day in the “knowledge of the truth,” they proclaim and defend it vigorously with “love, prudence and patience.”
* Religious freedom is a necessity that must be promoted and protected throughout the world so that all people will have the opportunity to come to know Christ.
The full text of Dignitatis Humanae is available online at the Vatican website.