Here, as if to answer some of the questions in my mind comes this analysis by Archbishop Charles Chaput over at Crisis Magazine. Worth reading. An excerpt:
Of course, the idea of the “state” is a modern invention. I use it here to mean every prince or warlord the Church has faced through the centuries. The point is this: Over time, and especially after the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution, the “confessional state”—a state committed to advancing the true Catholic religion and suppressing religious error—became the standard Catholic model for government.
That’s the history Dignitatis Humanae sought to correct by going back to the sources of Christian thought. The choice to believe any religious faith must be voluntary. Faith must be an act of free will, or it can’t be valid. Parents make the choice for their children at baptism because they have parental authority. And it’s important that they do so. But in the end, people who don’t believe can’t be forced to believe, especially by the state. Forced belief violates the person, the truth and the wider community of faith, because it’s a lie.
Or to put it another way: Error has no rights, but persons do have rights—even when they choose falsehood over truth. Those rights aren’t given by the state. Nor can anyone, including the state, take them away. They’re inherent to every human being by virtue of his or her creation by God. Religious liberty is a “natural” right because it’s hardwired into our human nature. And freedom of religious belief, the freedom of conscience, is—along with the right to life—the most important right any human being has.
Having said this, we should recall what Dignitatis Humanae doesn’t do. It doesn’t say that all religions are equal. It doesn’t say that truth is a matter of personal opinion or that conscience makes its own truth. It doesn’t absolve Catholics from their duty to support the Church and to form their consciences in her teaching. It doesn’t create a license for organized dissent within the Church herself. It doesn’t remove from the Church her right to teach, correct and admonish the baptized faithful—including the use of ecclesial penalties when they’re needed.
It also doesn’t endorse a religiously indifferent state.