English translation problem on Vatican website of key paragraph of an important document

15_03_23_DH2_screenshotFrom a reader…


I was reading an article on the SSPX website on Religious Liberty last night. In it, they quoted Dignitatis Humanæ of the Second Vatican Council. Interestingly, the part the SSPX would particularly object to is missing on the Vatican’s website!

Here is the quote the Society gave:

“This right essentially means that all human beings must be immune from all coercion, both by individuals and by social groups and by any human authority whatsoever, so that in religious matters no one is forced to act against his conscience or prevented from acting, within just limits, according to his conscience, in private as well as in public, alone or together with others.”

And here is the Vatican’s English version of DH 2.

“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, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

Interestingly, the German translation of DH 2 includes the highlighted bits:

“Diese Freiheit besteht darin, daß alle Menschen frei sein müssen von jedem Zwang sowohl von seiten Einzelner wie gesellschaftlicher Gruppen, wie jeglicher menschlichen Gewalt, so daß in religiösen Dingen niemand gezwungen wird, gegen sein Gewissen zu handeln, noch daran gehindert wird, privat und öffentlich, als einzelner oder in Verbindung mit anderen – innerhalb der gebührenden Grenzen – nach seinem Gewissen zu handeln.”

I assume this is yet another case of the Vatican’s website not living up to standards one would expect, but it is a very curious omission, is it not? After all, the words are intermingled in the sentence and not a separate paragraph, so one would think their omission would be conscious.

Yes, that is curious indeed.  It seems that the problem is in the rendering, or non rendering, of Latin neque impediatur.

Here is the Latin:

2. Haec Vaticana Synodus declarat personam humanam ius habere ad libertatem religiosam. Huiusmodi libertas in eo consistit, quod omnes homines debent immunes esse a coercitione ex parte sive singulorum sive coetuum socialium et cuiusvis potestatis humanae, et ita quidem ut in re religiosa neque aliquis cogatur ad agendum contra suam conscientiam neque impediatur, quominus iuxta suam conscientiam agat privatim et publice, vel solus vel aliis consociatus, intra debitos limites. Insuper declarat ius ad libertatem religiosam esse revera fundatum in ipsa dignitate personae humanae, qualis et verbo Dei revelato et ipsa ratione cognoscitur (2). Hoc ius personae humanae ad libertatem religiosam in iuridica societatis ordinatione ita est agnoscendum, ut ius civile evadat.

Here is the Italian:

2. Questo Concilio Vaticano dichiara che la persona umana ha il diritto alla libertà religiosa. Il contenuto di una tale libertà è che gli esseri umani devono essere immuni dalla coercizione da parte dei singoli individui, di gruppi sociali e di qualsivoglia potere umano, così che in materia religiosa nessuno sia forzato ad agire contro la sua coscienza né sia impedito, entro debiti limiti, di agire in conformità ad essa: privatamente o pubblicamente, in forma individuale o associata. Inoltre dichiara che il diritto alla libertà religiosa si fonda realmente sulla stessa dignità della persona umana quale l’hanno fatta conoscere la parola di Dio rivelata e la stessa ragione (2). Questo diritto della persona umana alla libertà religiosa deve essere riconosciuto e sancito come diritto civile nell’ordinamento giuridico della società.

Curious indeed.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. benedetta says:

    The differences in the two English versions you posted are very striking Father Z. Parsing the two passages above from the perspective of weight and meaning, the second Vatican website translation indeed seems to imply some very different things. When one considers development in theology with respect to religious liberty, it’s obvious to even someone as unlettered in it as I am the second translation would be at odds with the intent of the document. I’d be very interested as to what others make of the Latin as well as the Italian and German you posted. Interesting catch. Certainly no small matter.

  2. Uxixu says:

    Very interesting omission. Have to wonder if it was deliberate in the ICEL sense or not…

  3. Henry Belton says:

    What am I missing? Both provide for protection from coercion if both public private acts, right?

  4. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Latin has “in re religiosa neque aliquis cogatur ad agendum contra suam conscientiam neque impediatur, quominus iuxta suam conscientiam agat” which is followed in Italian, “in materia neque aliquis cogatur ad agendum contrareligiosa nessuno sia forzato ad agire contro la sua coscienza né sia impedito, entro debiti limiti, di agire in conformità ad essa” and German, “in religiösen Dingen niemand gezwungen wird, gegen sein Gewissen zu handeln, noch daran gehindert wird,” and in the Society website English, “in religious matters no one is forced to act against his conscience or prevented from acting, within just limits, according to his conscience”, while the Vatican English has (1) “his own beliefs” – translating what? “in re religiosa”?, “suam conscientiam”?, both these sort of collapsed together?, and (2) lacks anything translating “neque impediatur, quominus iuxta suam conscientiam agat” – or is that meant to be somehow collapsed into “to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs”? (“Forced” as “neque aliquis cogatur ad agendum” and “neque impediatur, quominus iuxta” both at once?)

  5. Gerard Plourde says:

    So they’re objecting to the idea that forced conversion is intrinsically wrong?

  6. Andrew says:

    no one is to be forced to act [or hindered from acting] in a manner contrary to his own beliefs [replace “beliefs” with “conscience”].

    The thing is that English speakers are more practical and we know that to be forced is pretty much the same as to be hindered, so we just wrapped it up as one idea. And to say “beliefs” instead of “conscience” just goes to show that we are ahead of others in nuance. But for those who still worry, rest assured that the Hungarian and the Bohemian versions are up to par:

    s ne is akadályozzák abban

    ani mu nesmí být zabra?ováno

    However, the Byelorussian follows the English in missing the “hindered” part.

  7. Dave N. says:

    I’ve noticed in general that the English translations of the various documents of Vatican II are notoriously prone to out-and-out sloppy translation errors. Sometimes the text is sort of “Well, that’s at least in the ballpark…” and in other places “No, that’s just plain wrong!” In general, the Romance language translations come much closer to the Latin text.

    Really—don’t ever trust the English translation if you’re doing a close reading of Vatican II. If you read English and Spanish but not Latin, follow the Spanish text.

    Perhaps we could have some renderings of “What Did Vatican II Really Say?” SC would be a fantastic place to start.

  8. The Cobbler says:

    I’d say if anyone’s going to consider either version of the document problematic due to implying universalism and/or agnosticism, the “simplified” translation is actually more objectionable. After all, typically the problem with statements about the rights of one’s conscience is merely omission of mention of the duty to form one’s conscience correctly; but to defend whatever happens to be anyone’s belief is rather inescapably to imply that the particular thing believed does not matter.

  9. quamquam says:

    1. Something on which I would be interested in Fr Z’s expert opinion, is whether in the Latin the crucial ‘within just limits’ applies to both freedom from being hindered from acting according to conscience, and freedom from being forced to act contrary to conscience? Or do the just limits apply only to the freedom from being hindered from acting according to conscience, leaving the freedom from being forced from acting contrary to conscience absolute and unlimited?

    For example, someone might be hindered from acting according to conscience if a Protestant were prohibited by law from building a Protestant church in a Catholic country. Conversely, someone might be forced to act contrary to conscience if a Protestant were coerced to profess the Catholic Faith contrary to his honest belief.

    One could imagine the latter form of coercion being denounced in a more absolute way than the former, without possible exceptions or limits – but what does the Latin say?

    2. Another example of a difference between the Latin and the English on the Vatican website is found in the Decree on Ecumenism ‘Unitatis Redintegratio’ 3.

    The English has:

    “It follows that the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.”

    The Latin, however, has ‘catholicae’ modifying ‘Ecclesiae’ at the end, so seemingly the English translation should really end “the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”:

    “Proinde ipsae Ecclesiae et Communitates seiunctae, etsi defectus illas pati credimus, nequaquam in mysterio salutis significatione et pondere exutae sunt. Iis enim Spiritus Christi uti non renuit tamquam salutis mediis, quorum virtus derivatur ab ipsa plenitudine gratiae et veritatis quae Ecclesiae catholicae concredita est.”

    The absence of ‘Catholic’ in the English unfortunately makes the meaning a bit less clear, contrary to the intention of the Council.

  10. kittenchan says:

    Ok, call me an undereducated, malformed Catholic if you must (and being in my early 20s you can bet my education was woefully lacking), but I’m not sure what’s so objectionable in this passage. If (when?) Islam rises strongly enough to overthrow other countries is it then supposed to be a truth of Catholic teaching that people have no right to protection of their religious beliefs and actions from threats against their lives and livelihoods, and it is just (or at least not unjust) that Christians be forced to renounce their faith and swear fealty to Allah? I suppose then, under this thinking, that it was just for Romans to torture and kill Christians if they did not offer incense to their false gods? Perhaps I am grossly misunderstanding the issue; I certainly hope I am; I have just been introduced to it. How is it so objectionable to accept that a person’s religious beliefs and actions ought not to be manipulated at the point of a sword? Isn’t that one of the rights we are struggling to define and maintain in the United States? I am shocked and very confused. :(

  11. Giuseppe says:

    I believe Pope Benedict has something to say about spreading the faith by sword.

  12. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Following on from kittenchan (and not – yet – having attempted to locate the relevant “article on the SSPX website on Religious Liberty” – neither article nor website!), why would “neque impediatur, quominus iuxta suam conscientiam agat privatim et publice” be “the part the SSPX would particularly object to”?

    Is it that it is especially where “neque impediatu” is oncerned too sweeping to say “debent immunes esse a coercitione ex parte”, when one cannot count on commonsense not being thrown to the wind where injurious or dangerous practices or acts are involved, or, for that matter, where the calculated ‘construction’ of a ‘religio’ to ‘justify’, for example, drug use, sexual practices, ritual mutilation, etc., is concerned?

    Andrew says, “The thing is that English speakers are more practical and we know that to be forced is pretty much the same as to be hindered” – hmm, that’s not the impression I get from, say, software licencing agreements (i.e., spelling things out in detail – including the use and definition of terms – cannot be assumed to be superfluous).

  13. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Thanks for drawing attention to this! Fr. John Hunwicke very plausibly accounts for how a translator might make the mistake.

    But in the elementary initial checking of the work (by comparing original and translation), whether by translator or another, how was the obvious omission (even at the level of taking up space on the page, let alone lack of balance, completeness, parallelism, etc.) missed? Sloppy, reprehensibly sloppy! – even if it is on the level of a copyist’s “scribal error” rather than a translator’s error – that is, if someone butchered in in transcribing by retyping it (for the website, for example).

  14. bsjy says:

    I’m not a close follower of SSPX, but it is curious to me that they would cite a document issued by a Council which they reject.

  15. jhayes says:

    Here is the SSPX’s explanation of their objections to that passage in DH:

    What is noteworthy in this passage from Vatican II?
    First, Vatican II not only says that no one should be forced to believe (which the Church has always taught), but also claims that no one can be restrained from practicing the religion of his choice.

    Then, and this is paramount, Vatican II no longer speaks of tolerance alone, but actually recognizes a real natural right of the adepts of all religions not to be hindered in the practice of their religion.

    Finally, this right not only concerns practice in private, but also public worship and propagation of the religion. Thus Vatican II promotes something the Church always condemned previously.
    Does the teaching of Vatican II on religious freedom contradict the Church’s perennial teaching?
    The religious liberty taught by Vatican II not only contradicts the teaching of tìhe Church, but also, and foremost, its constant practice.

    How does Vatican II contradict the constant practice of the Church?
    The saints have never hesitated to break idols, destroy their temples, or legislate against pagan or heretical practices.
    The Church—without ever forcing anyone to believe or be baptized—has always recognized its right and duty to protect the faith of her children and to impede, whenever possible, the public exercise and propagation of false cults. To accept the teaching of Vatican II is to grant that, for two millennia, the popes, saints, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, bishops, and Catholic kings have constantly violated the natural rights of men without anyone in the Church noticing. Such a thesis is as absurd as it is impious.


    Reminds me of Saudi Arabia’s policy of prohibiting the contruction of Christian church buildings, evangelization ,or holding of any Christian worship services within its territory – or ISIS’s destruction of Christian religious symbols, both of which the Church opposes. I suppose that the SSPX would argue that that is different because we are the true Church and they are not.

  16. Hrodgar says:

    Re: jhayes
    If that is their only objection, that bit translated “within due limits” or “within just limits” seems like it would more or less take care of the problem. I expect they’d still see the implications as problematic (and they may very well have a point; they often do), but broad latitude in determining what precisely constitutes “due” or “just” limits does not appear to get in the way of taking an axe to a statue of Serapis given the opportunity, or even using the state or prince using such powers as are proper to itself to restrict the public preaching of heresy.

  17. jhayes says:

    Hrodgar, where I put the ellipsis in my quote, they have a long discussion of why they find “just limits” inadequate. Briefly, they feel it covers only things that disturb public order:

    For Vatican II, having set aside the obligations of strict natural law, the only restraining limit on religious freedom is public order. As long as the cult is not a cover for terrorist attacks, criminal networks, pedophilia, or some other infringement of “the rights of man,”everything must be authorized.

    Whereas, they want “false religions” to be suppressed

    Even interpreted strictly, this limitation of religious liberty to the “objective moral order” is inadequate because restricted to the natural order of things, thereby omitting consideration of the supernatural order. Such a conception of religious liberty fails to recognize the social kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ, the supernatural rights of His Church, and the supernatural end of man in the common good of the political order. It fails to consider that the false religions, by the mere fact that they keep souls from the Catholic Church, lead souls to hell. In a word, it is naturalism.

    Which is related to their uunderstanding of ”Extra ecclesiam nulla salus”

  18. Aquinas Gal says:

    It’s not really so curious. The translation on the Vatican website is that of the NCWC (National Catholic Welfare Conference). That was what the US bishops had before the USCCB was established. The translation was done quickly after Vatican II, so that people could get the documents as soon as possible. It was not an expertly done translation.
    The other English translations were the Abbott edition and the Flannery edition. Norman Tanner also did one in 1990 in his massive text of all the conciliar documents of the Church.

    The sad reality is that the Latin is often translated badly in the “official” English versions of papal documents that appear on the Vatican website. This is nothing new and there is no nefarious conspiracy. The Vatican needs to get its act together on translations, but I’m not holding my breath. It’s just a matter of bad translations done by people who don’t know the language that well. Why doesn’t the Vatican hire some experts to do it? Good question!

  19. jhayes says:

    Aquinas Gal, the SSPX used the Abbott translation in the article I linked to. Abbott broke it into two sentences:

    This Vatican Synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. 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 in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. (Walter M. Abbott, S.J., Editor, The Documents of Vatican II (New York: The America Press, 1966), pp. 678-79.)

  20. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Thank you for quoting and linking! (I suspect it is not the article the Exquistor was reading, as the translation is different – is, in fact, a fuller version of the Vatican website text: presumably the original version, indeed! – but it is certainly to the point.)


    As you will (have) see(n) from the full article linked, the author, Fr. Matthias Gaudron , and presumably those posting, do not think that sufficient – whether the reasoning convinces, is another question.

  21. benedetta says:

    It’s funny how all throughout the 80s and 90s you heard law school elites and pundits and talking heads on the tube complaining how civil rights and liberties were being whittled away in favor of centralized federal power. However when a bedrock civil liberty gets whacked in less than a decade no one blinks.

    As always jhayes above provides helpful links and fulltext galore, however, it is unsurprising that the English would have been lifted straight from, somewhere.

    The current Obamalinsky interpretation with the Abbott quoted above simply does not square with the original intent of Second Vatican. I don’t care how much text anyone wants to cut and paste. The fact is that what has come to pass under this Democratic president has done violence to the obvious intent. See, J Courteny Murray, SJ

    Given the outrageous destruction of religious liberty in the US and its sad colonialist way of inflicting it upon the rest of the world, and the horrible disfigurement done to Second Vatican by people within the Church, why shouldn’t the sspx take a decent stab at an authentic rendering?

  22. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    benedetta writes, “why shouldn’t the sspx take a decent stab at an authentic rendering?” With ‘rendering’ in the sense of translation from the Latin, no reason that I know of (though I know nothing about the Vatican and copyright law) – I’d say, good for them. If one thinks of ‘rendering’ in terms of explication of the sense of the text, I’d again think, that is presumably something they are free to try to do well. And that in less urgent circumstances that the current ones. (Not that I as ‘I’ bring any weight to bear!)

    That Fr. Matthias Gaudron’s article, as reproduced, does not seem convincing (to me, as far as I can honestly, though quickly, see), does not mean its arguments should not be advanced or discussed or further and better worked out.

    The last sentence which Fr. Z quotes, “Hoc ius personae humanae ad libertatem religiosam in iuridica societatis ordinatione ita est agnoscendum, ut ius civile evadat”, is rendered on the Vatican website in English as “This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.” What do the more knowledgeable than I think of this translated sentence? It looks o.k. to me.

    Is this now happening as it should in, for example, the U.S. or the U.K., where Christianity is concerned? And (to echo Lumen gentium 15), insofar as it is not, are those in positions of authority and responsibility in the Church and/or “in propriis Ecclesiis vel communitatibus ecclesiasticis” doing as much as they should to promote ‘agnoscere’ and ‘evadere’, and criticize and protest against abuse?

  23. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Aquinas Gal,

    Thank you very much for that information (and good question)!

  24. Giuseppe says:

    The Vatican could hire a certain blogger-priest to do official translations of documents into English. He might even be able to do it from home, with frequent business-expensed trips to Rome.

  25. benedetta says:

    Obviously, “liberalism” is no longer liberal when it sells out a fundamental civil right and human liberty on the basis of the request of the obamalinsky et al to suffer the lives of little ones on the bare slab of the altar of secularism.

    And when people who call themselves Catholics gut the plain meaning and intent of the Second Vatican text with respect to religious liberty, depriving their fellow co religionists of human rights in order to procure even more abortions to serve the greed of party hacks, activists, and prudish sexual ideologues, the political tenor turns then to totalitarianism.

    At that point even, or perhaps precisely, the discernment and reflection with study of the documents of those who have turned to the old Mass for hope and respite for their souls, no matter where situated, it seems to me, are most needed at the table of dialogue with respect to a crucial turning point in what was once a democracy. After the material destruction that has been wrought to our fundamental rights by those calling themselves Catholic and qualified to interpret Second Vatican for us, both in letter and spirit, a fresh set of eyes and unique focus is greatly needed.

    On this the anniversary of Evangelium Vitae, one cannot say definitively, from the perspective of the Church, the Vatican, the hierarchy, and certainly the whole of the believers universal, that the only voice that may participate meaningfully in the public square as to how we may go about ordering our lives with one another, in freedom, is the one that dissents from the Gospel of Life and says that the lives matter not, and that the consciences of those who believe in those lives matter not. We can’t, in other words, say that the consciences of the unborn and those who advocate for them matter not and call it freedom. So long as those who speak up for life are subject to vicious harassment and no one is permitted dissent from the government’s consumption of innocent lives through rationalization of so many needs, religious liberty, whether envisioned by Second Vatican or the U.N., in this country, simply doesn’t exist according to a liberal envisioning.

  26. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    In a report I read yesterday of the Ohio House of Representatives passing HB 69, Ohio’s Heartbeat Bill, 55-40, to protect unborn babies with a detectable beating heart, was included the information that Rep. Janine Boyd – happily, quite unsuccessfully – proposed an amendment to protect a mother’s “religious beliefs” to choose to abort her baby with a beating heart.

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