The Second Vatican Council’s declaration Dignitatis Humanae marks a significant advance over prior magisterial teaching about the right to religious liberty, yet the nature of this advance has long been subject to controversy. Is it a true development, conserving and extending what came before? Or does it instead chart a new course entirely, rejecting and replacing the older teaching?

In Religious Liberty and the Hermeneutic of Continuity, R. Michael Dunnigan takes up these pressing questions and offers a careful examination of how the claims of Dignitatis Humanae relate to the magisterial precedents set by the papacy in the nineteenth century. With precision and nuance, Dunnigan analyzes the object, scope, and foundation of the right to religious liberty itself, and his analysis culminates in the proposal that the “right” endorsed by Vatican II is not identical with the “rights” condemned by previous popes.

Beyond establishing the claims of Dignitatis Humanae as a true development of prior teaching, Dunnigan shows that its contribution to the question of religious liberty has not yet received full appreciation. Indeed, Dunnigan demonstrates how the Vatican II declaration reaffirms, reinforces, and even revivifies prior magisterial teaching on religious liberty through its emphasis on human integrity, which emerges as a foundational but often overlooked principle of continuity.

R. Michael Dunnigan (JD, Georgetown University; JCD, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross) is associate professor of canon law at Saint Meinrad Seminary, having previously practiced both civil and canon law. His research interests include the rights of the faithful, comparative law, and doctrinal development.

“How did the human right to religious liberty become an essential piece of modern Catholic teaching? R. Michael Dunnigan’s contribution to the literature on Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae brings to bear his keen theological and legal acumen not only to defend its compatibility with prior periods of Catholic teaching, but also to show its positive contribution in promoting human integrity in the modern world. Dunnigan explains how Dignitatis Humanae develops Church teaching on human dignity and the roles of civil authority and of law in both fostering and limiting the exercise of religion, and he lends his voice to recent arguments that regard the law of nations and the condition of reciprocity as grounding a development in justice that requires religious liberty among and within societies. Dunnigan’s grasp of magisterial teaching, secular and ecclesiastical jurisprudence, and the post-conciliar literature is most impressive.”

—Barrett Turner
 Mount St. Mary’s University


“This is an extraordinarily competent and lucid investigation of the right to religious liberty promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. There might indeed be stronger rights or lesser rights to religious liberty, and perhaps different reasons for each, but Professor Dunnigan insists on getting to the precise right adopted by the Council. This is not easy work. He sifts through both the history of the conciliar debates and the plethora of post-conciliar opinions. I deem it fair not only to the Council but, perhaps just as importantly, to the scholarly debates thereafter.”

—Russell Hittinger
 Catholic University of America


“One problem with Dignitatis Humanae is not what it said but what it didn’t say. There was so much left to the imagination and future theological reflection. With this volume Dunnigan presents the principles of Dignitatis Humanae in the context of the broader theological tradition rather than leaving people to believe that the declaration was an endorsement of philosophies undergirding the French and/or American Revolutions. The work is essential reading for anyone interested in Catholic jurisprudence and political theory.”

—Tracey Rowland
 University of Notre Dame (Australia)


“Dr. Michael Dunnigan has written a thorough and masterful study of Dignitatis Humanae that shows both its doctrinal continuity with previous Church teachings and its prophetic significance on the prudential plane. While refusing to shy away from the difficulties the text poses for interpreters concerned to reconcile the document with the teachings of nineteenth-century popes, Dunnigan convincingly demonstrates that Dignitatis Humanae roots religious liberty in the human desire to seek truth without coercion. He thus provides a subtle corrective to John Courtney Murray’s highly influential view, according to which the text is founded on an acknowledgement on the part of the Church of the powerlessness of the state in the religious sphere. Dunnigan’s book will be a standard reference in the field. Highly recommended.”

—Keith Lemna
 Saint Meinrad Seminary



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Religious Liberty and the Hermeneutic of Continuity: Conservation and Development of Doctrine at Vatican II