What IS "religious freedom"?

Cardinal Pole, on these pages and on his own blog, has put forward the following idea with regard to religious liberty:

To say that “everyone has a natural right to the free exercise of religion” (call this proposition A) is not erroneous, since it does not specify the object of this right. But if one were to add the words ‘any’ and ‘whether Catholic or non-Catholic’, so that the proposition becomes “everyone has a natural right to the free exercise of any religion, whether Catholic or non-Catholic” (call this proposition B), then this would indeed be erroneous.

I have ridiculed this interpretation of religious freedom as being basically non-sensical. It is the equivalent of the man who is told by the waiter that he is free to order anything he likes on the menu and then handing him a menu with only one dish on it. It would be a marvel of ingenuity and originality to apply such an hermeneutic to Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae).

Nevertheless, Cardinal Pole has insisted that Pope Benedict himself “has never specified that false religions can be the object of a right to free religious activity.”

Well, let us see what the Pope means when he speaks of “Religious Freedom”. Here is Papa Benny in his address to the Curia in December 2005.

First, he reitterated the point (which is challenged by some readers on this blog) that:

The Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time; she continues “her pilgrimage amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God”, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 8).

Second, he said that

Those who expected that with this fundamental “yes” to the modern era all tensions would be dispelled and that the “openness towards the world” accordingly achieved would transform everything into pure harmony, had underestimated the inner tensions as well as the contradictions inherent in the modern epoch.

But how is it possible that, in facing the “inner tensions…inherent in the modern epoch” the Church could take a stance with respect to religious liberty that was so contrary (or had the appearance of being contrary) to the statements of the Church in former times? Benedict explains:

The Second Vatican Council, recognizing and making its own an essential principle of the modern State with the Decree on Religious Freedom, has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church. By so doing she can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself (cf. Mt 22: 21), as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time. The ancient Church naturally prayed for the emperors and political leaders out of duty (cf. I Tm 2: 2); but while she prayed for the emperors, she refused to worship them and thereby clearly rejected the religion of the State.

The martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one’s own faith – a profession that no State can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God’s grace in freedom of conscience.

This was, of course, his famous discourse on the “hermeutic of continuity”, and thus he addressed the fact that there could be such strong apparent differences between the “before” and “after”:

It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists. In this process of innovation in continuity we must learn to understand more practically than before that the Church’s decisions on contingent matters – for example, certain practical forms of liberalism or a free interpretation of the Bible – should necessarily be contingent themselves, precisely because they refer to a specific reality that is changeable in itself. It was necessary to learn to recognize that in these decisions it is only the principles that express the permanent aspect, since they remain as an undercurrent, motivating decisions from within. On the other hand, not so permanent are the practical forms that depend on the historical situation and are therefore subject to change. Basic decisions, therefore, continue to be well-grounded, whereas the way they are applied to new contexts can change.

I don’t think the Holy Father could be clearer on this point. It is no coincidence then that he goes on to speak of Religious Freedom as a case in point.

Thus, for example, IF religious freedom were to be considered an expression of the human inability to discover the truth and thus become a canonization of relativism, then this social and historical necessity is raised inappropriately to the metaphysical level and thus stripped of its true meaning. Consequently, it cannot be accepted by those who believe that the human person is capable of knowing the truth about God and, on the basis of the inner dignity of the truth, is bound to this knowledge. It is quite different, on the other hand, to perceive religious freedom as a need that derives from human coexistence, or indeed, as an intrinsic consequence of the truth that cannot be externally imposed but that the person must adopt only through the process of conviction.

At this point I think Cardinal Pole must concede that Benedict IS referring to the freedom of all persons to follow the creed of their conviction, Catholic or otherwise. What else can he mean when he says that religious freedom is a “need that derives from human coexistence”? I concede, as I think I have done before, that we cannot claim religious liberty as a “right before God” (what Pope Benedict calls raising it “inappropriately to the metaphysical level”) but it is a right of the human being with respect to the State – precisely because, as Papa Benny points out, religion “cannot be externally imposed”.

Via several links to conversations that Cardinal Pole provided elsewhere on the net, I eventually found this statement from the dearly departed Cardinal Avery Dulles which puts it very well:

Over the past fifty years we have seen a strong and welcome development of the doctrine of religious freedom. Articulating the principles of the gospel in new situations, the Church has found a new voice. She speaks with a fresh awareness of the dignity and freedom that God wills for all human beings and with a deeper realization of the limited competence of civil governments. As the Church adapts her social teaching to changing political and social circumstances, she comes to a sharper perception of certain aspects and consequences of the gospel. The teaching of the nineteenth-century popes was not erroneous, but was limited by the political and social horizons of the time. In the words of DH, Vatican II brought forth from the Church’s treasury “new things in harmony with those that are old.” This process of development must continue as the Church faces the new problems and opportunities that arise in successive generations. (Source: First Things)

I do so like it when I discover my own independantly formed ideas expressed by wiser and greater people than myself.

[PS. As a simple example of how things have changed at a practical level regarding Church and State, need one cite any thing else than the contrast between a Church that once endorsed an Albert, elector and archbishop of Mainz and archbishop of Magdeburg (1490-1545) and a Church which censured a Bishop Fernando Lugo, now President of Paraguay?]

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4 responses to “What IS "religious freedom"?

  1. Schütz

    “As far as the free expression of personal faith is concerned, another disturbing symptom of lack of peace in the world is represented by the difficulties that both Christians and the followers of other religions frequently encounter in publicly and freely professing their religious convictions.”

    BXVI Message for World Day of Peace 2007

  2. Schütz

    “Interreligious dialogue is not founded on religious relativism or indifferentism. This is true for the Catholic religion, but is also true for a public reason that has not entirely surrendered to the dictatorship of relativism. By proclaiming the right to religious freedom, the Church has never meant to deny that Christianity is the true religion or that the state has obligations towards the true religion.

    According to the declaration “Dignitatis humanae” of the Second Vatican Council, the right to religious freedom “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”[19] Now, from where does the state, which is secular, derive these obligations to the true religion?

    Not from being a “Christian” state, but from reason, that is from the natural ability to see truths about man in society, from the ability to understand the common good. This also founds the ability to see that one religion consolidates and helps pursue humanization objectives while another contributes to the degradation of man. Christian religion has this claim, the claim of preaching a “God with a human face.”

    Public Reason and the Truth of Christianity in the Teachings of Benedict XVI by Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

  3. Schütz

    Cardinal Ratzinger Commends U.S. Model of Laicism : Sees European Brand as Threat to Religious Freedom NOV. 25, 2004

    In comparing U.S. and European attitudes to diverse religions, Cardinal Ratzinger added: “I think that from many points of view the American model is the better one,” while “Europe has remained bogged down in caesaropapism.”

    “People who did not want to belong to a state church, went to the United States and intentionally constituted a state that does not impose a church and which simply is not perceived as religiously neutral, but as a space within which religions can move and also enjoy organizational freedom without being simply relegated to the private sphere,” he explained.

    On this point, “one can undoubtedly learn from the United States,” as it is a “process by which the state makes room for religion, which is not imposed, but which, thanks to the state, lives, exists and has a public creative force,” the cardinal said. “It certainly is a positive way.”

  4. Cardinal Pole

    “I do so like it when I discover my own independantly formed ideas expressed by wiser and greater people than myself.”

    I think that this smug statement sums up why this discussion is going nowhere. You are scouring the statements of a single Pope and whatever self-appointed pundits care to expound on these matters, regardless of the latter’s lack of a grounding in basic political science, Catholic or secular. You are looking for what you want to find, and finding it.

    “I concede, as I think I have done before, that we cannot claim religious liberty as a “right before God”….”

    I have refuted this false dichotmoy between ‘rights before God’ and ‘rights before man’ already, but I’ll do it again here. It is false for three reasons:

    1) By definition of a right: a right can, strictly speaking, only have for its object what is true and good. So even if permitting the dissemination of heresy were the lesser evil, it is still an evil, only to be tolerated (NOT granted a true right, though a purely civil right is, of course, acceptable) in order to procure a greater good or avert a greater evil.

    2) Before man taken individually: a right to spread error entails the possibility of seducing Catholics into error.

    3) Before man taken socially (the State): the State derives its authority from God, not man, so if you concede no right to error before God then there is no right to error before the State either.

    [That deleted comment was mine, I deleted it because I had thought that the quoations were from the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, not Benedict XVI.]