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Holy Spirit Interactive: Russell Shaw: Free to Worship - Religious Liberty and Human Rights

Free to Worship - Religious Liberty and Human Rights

by Russell Shaw

In his message for the 2007 World Day of Peace last New Year’s Day, Pope Benedict XVI surprised some readers by linking the right to life and the right to religious freedom. As one has learned to expect with this pope, he had his reasons and he was prepared to explain them.

The right to life, Benedict said, arises from the fact that life is a gift from God. No one, including its possessor, can claim authority over it. As for religious freedom, it similarly "places the human being in a relationship with a transcendent principle which withdraws him from human caprice." In sum, the Pope concluded, "the right to life and the free expression of personal faith in God are not subject to the power of man."

In thus endorsing religious liberty, Pope Benedict contributed his own special insight to the topic. But the endorsement in and of itself was hardly something new for him. A little over a month earlier, in fact, on November 28, Benedict had this to say in his first address in Turkey, delivered at the Religious Affairs Directorate in the capital city, Ankara:

Freedom of religion, institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice, both for individuals and communities, constitutes for all believers the necessary condition for their loyal contribution to the building up of society in an attitude of authentic service, especially towards the most vulnerable and the very poor.

Considering the conditions in a country like Turkey, where Christians are few and far between and subject to disabilities of various sorts, and considering also the controversy still swirling around the Pope’s remarks about Islam in September in Regensburg, Germany, self-interest as well as principle undoubtedly was at work in this remark. For more than four decades, however, the Church’s embrace of religious liberty has clearly and specifically gone far beyond mere expediency. Instead, religious liberty has been-as it now is-firmly grounded in the Church’s own authentic teaching.

A Shift For Freedom

On December 7, 1965, one day before the formal conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the council fathers by a vote of 2,308 to 70 adopted the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. Pope Paul VI promulgated it at once. The decree says in part:

The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power 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. . . . The right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. . . . [It] has its foundation not in the subjective attitude of the individual but in his very nature. (no. 2)

A historian records that the promulgation of the religious liberty decree was greeted with "great applause." But it wasn’t always that way. The Church’s thinking on this subject has had a tortuous and mixed history.

For many centuries, in fact, the Church had no compelling reason to think about it at all. Universal adherence to the Catholic faith marked Christendom in the Middle Ages. The implications of religious pluralism was a non-issue in a place and time when, with rare exceptions like the Albigensians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, nearly everyone was Catholic and hardly any of the Catholics thought of being anything else.

Furthermore, although power struggles between churchmen and princes were all too common in those times, no one thought of separating church from state. Indeed, even after the Reformation sundered the unity of Christian Europe, people in Protestant countries were expected to be Protestants, and people in Catholic countries were expected to be Catholics. Cuius regio, eius religio-loosely, "The ruler’s religion is everybody’s religion"-was the working principle.

This system gradually broke down over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The French Revolution of 1789 was the great watershed event, and the secularizing nationalist movements of nineteenth-century Europe ended it once and for all. Increasingly, church and state were separate, while anticlericalism and anti-Catholicism dominated the new political landscape in many countries.

Not surprisingly, the Church largely resisted the new arrangements, with the papacy-soon to be smarting over the loss of the Papal States-taking the lead. Among the 80 "errors of our age" listed by Bl. Pius IX in his famous Syllabus of Errors (1864) was this: "In this age of ours it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be the only religion of the state, to the exclusion of all others."

Yet even among Catholics, new ideas about these old questions now began to emerge. Religious toleration was accepted as a fact of life in Catholic countries, and in places like the United States, where the Church was putting down roots and growing by leaps and bounds, toleration was a matter of constitutional principle. Against this background, a "thesis-hypothesis" theory took shape in Catholic intellectual circles: although the Catholic state remained the ideal ("thesis"), religious toleration was acceptable in view of the new facts ("hypothesis").

The Constitution and Catholic Tradition

Gradually, too, not just toleration but religious liberty began to enter into Catholic discourse, spurred by comments by popes like Leo XIII, Pius XII, and Bl. John XXIII. (The three are cited in a footnote to the passage from Dignitatis Humanae quoted above.)

On the theological front, especially noteworthy were efforts of Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-67), an American who in the 1940s and 1950s sought to show that constitutional religious liberty was consistent with the Catholic tradition. Fr. Murray’s ideas were controversial at the time, and in 1954 his Jesuit superiors instructed him to stop writing on church-state questions. But he was vindicated at Vatican Council II, where he served as a peritus and participated in the writing of the Declaration on Religious Liberty.

Dignitatis Humanae, the priest later declared, was "the most controversial document of the whole Council," because it inescapably turned the spotlight directly on a fundamental issue underlying virtually all the truly big debates at Vatican II: the development of doctrine. In approving the idea of religious liberty, he wrote, the Council "formally sanctioned" a development in Catholic teaching on the relationship of church and state. It embraced the principle of "limited government" which leaves people "unhindered in the free exercise of religion in society," and accorded free exercise the status of a human right. While the Church was "late in acknowledging the validity of the principle," Fr. Murray added, that in itself made the decree "a significant event in the history of the Church."

Some bitter-enders still dispute the teaching, but religious liberty now stands as a solidly established element of Catholic doctrine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes a section to the subject ("The Social Duty of Religion and the Right to Religious Freedom," nos. 2104-9) that includes this summary statement:

The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities. This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the juridical order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right. (no. 2108)

In the United States, arguments about religious liberty usually focus on the meaning of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which forbid a government-supported "establishment" of religion and bar attempts to interfere with religious free exercise.

Historically, American Catholics have been well-pleased with this arrangement. But as debates over applying the Religion Clauses have taken shape in a series of Supreme Court decisions that now extend back well over half a century, a fundamental question has emerged. It’s this: whether the no-establishment principle should serve free exercise, or whether in conflict situations free exercise must take the back seat.

Western Attacks Against Religion

It’s customary to see violations of religious liberty in several countries outside the West. But some people also perceive a subtle but real discrimination against religion at work in secularized countries of the West. Pope Benedict is one.

In his World Day of Peace message last January, he noted the presence not only of "regimes that impose a single religion upon everyone" but also "secular regimes [that] often lead not so much to violent persecution as to systematic cultural denigration of religious beliefs."

So the struggle for religious liberty goes on. As it does, this human right has no stronger and more reliable champion today than the Catholic Church.


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