There is an order in the universe and at its summit there is God’. This is the image with which André Frossard (1) explains his choice of faith, in freedom, with a phrase that can help us in an effective way to understand the concept of religious freedom: the free capacity of a person to realise the need to raise himself above human affairs to find his roots. A fascinating perspective and at the same time a process always underway which demonstrates how religion is a ‘religious fact’ and an ‘institutional reality’ that concerns not only the private sphere of the believer: it also has a public dimension that is relevant in the world of States and the broader community of peoples. And it is specifically this last aspect that indicates the complexity of rights such as the right to religious freedom, brought about by its broad contents of history, doctrines, and proclamations, and changes in ideas, in culture, and in legal sources.
The search for meaning imposes a primary question: a delineating of the contents of religious freedom. And not to deprive it of some its component elements or to narrow its range but exclusively to avoid an erroneous or at least partial interpretation of what it is. It may, therefore, be helpful – or perhaps even necessary – to employ an inductive methodology in order to clarify immediately its sense and meaning, thereby identifying those elements that are extraneous or which at any rate do not constitute the essence or value of religious freedom.
The image offered by Frossard demonstrates that the person does not have the faculty to be or to become the supreme law of himself by adopting the stance of being totally independent of God. Such a reading, for that matter, would fall into that vision by which human freedom becomes the exclusive source of the behaviour of the person, his acting, even from a religious point of view. In addition, if one accepted such an approach, the person would see himself let loose from every religious tie or duty, coming in this way to admit that to each individual is arbitrarily given the function of establishing if he should believe or not. Denial and indifference would be, to say the least, the obvious consequences.
Religious freedom, moreover, cannot mean that a person can legitimately place truth and error on the same level and thus argue that all beliefs or forms of religiosity (or those that proclaim themselves such) are equivalent. In doing this, in fact, religious freedom would be the equivalent of the tolerance applied to the so-called forms of ‘new religiosity’ (New Age), even when faced with clear violations of rights and freedom. It is certainly the case that reflection is required when, for example, international guarantees of the right to freedom of religion put traditional religions on a par with new forms of religiosity, theistic and non-theistic religions together.(2)
Furthermore, another element is to be found in the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of belief or creed. Until the 1990s the two elements had a close correlation (or to put it better: opposition) in order to allow the supporters of state atheism to justify themselves as regards behaviour that involved omission or forms of intolerance. Today, instead, the phrase ‘freedom of belief’ is placed as a pendant to freedom of religion, allowing the perception of the idea that the right to freedom of belief or creed is no longer the equivalent of the freedom to profess or propagate atheism, but, rather, a right not to profess any religion or creed or to profess one’s ‘own’ personal and autonomous belief. This is the phenomenon of ‘individual believers’ to which belong tendencies that involve the legitimating of behaviour distant from the religious fact and from the institutional dimension of religions.
The Autonomy of the Person
In the light of these clarifications, it is easier to depict religious freedom as the right of every person to profess their own religion according to the dictates of their conscience: a right to establish relations with God in the intimacy of the conscience but in an individual and collective form at one and the same time, safe from all forms of coercion that can intervene externally or which it is believed have a right to be engaged in. Here there returns the public dimension because to uphold religious freedom as a fundamental right means to support the autonomy of the person not in relation to religion but with respect to all those who would like to limit the range of religious feeling. The defence of religious freedom, therefore, has as a consequence the guarantee of relations between the person and God, relations which, if seen as a juridical relationship, are able to identify ‘duties’ and ‘rights’.
A similar approach is present in Catholic doctrine which in proclaiming religious freedom does not state that human beings are freed from the obligations that derive from religion but, rather, that human freedom is violated if someone is impeded from following their own conscience in religious matters. All of this has a strong motivation in the very mission of the Church in her dimension of being the ‘people of God’, which remains anchored in the divine commandment to ‘bring the good news to all peoples’ [Mt: 16:9-20]. Indeed, all Christians, who are called to spread the Gospel message to ‘all’ men, are invited to work to ensure that this goal can be reached. A way of recognising the rights of which every person – those to whom Christians are called to provide the preaching of the ‘good news’ – is a bearer, custodian and beneficiary: rights amongst which stand out also that of reaching knowledge of the truth and adhering to it freely.
And here returns the reference to freedom of religion as freedom of the conscience not to be in any way forced, in the choice of God as well. This is how the Second Vatican Council expresses itself in its Declaration Dignitatis Humanae (DH) when it indicates the ways and means for the spreading of the ‘good news’, specifying that in every form of apostolate or in work to make the Christian message known believers should never have recourse to coercive methods. Indeed, they are called to work so that every person, created in the image and likeness of God, adheres to the Christian faith, manifesting a fully free consent, that is to say that his dignity and freedom are respected.
Although the Catholic vision of religious freedom calls for (and almost imposes) this doctrinal argument and method from and on those who make up the Church, there is a second approach which as a consequence emerges and which can be easily understood. Religious freedom, because it is a fundamental right, must be recognised as being possessed by each person not only by Catholics but by all human beings and, primarily, by the public powers that preside over the life of every political community.
A Century-Old Journey
The justification of this interest, translated, then, into a concrete commitment, lies in the fact that each individual is held to constitute his own relationship with God in correspondence with the law that God Himself has established. For this reason, a person also has the duty to know that law with ever increasing clarity, utilising suitable means of information, and, if one is dealing with Christians, following the teaching of the Church, conforming himself ever more effectively to the will and design of God. A will and design that is perceived through the dictate or voice of conscience: what emerges is still the right not to be impeded from following one’s own conscience. The exact opposite to approaches which, in aiming at discrimination in every forms, at coercive proselytism or at forced conversions, do not recognise that ‘religious intolerance is to a high degree odious and offensive to the human person; by it in fact man is deprived of his freedom in following the dictates of his own conscience; dictates that he considers supreme and sacred even when, in good faith, he falls into error’ [Second Vatican Council, preparatory schema, ‘De liberatate religiosa’, 19. XI. 1963, n. 3 last section].
A second sphere of analysis is expressed in a question: from what assumptions does a correct vision of religious freedom draw its foundation? First of all the capacity of a person to connect himself to principles and operative elements that from the ‘community that believes’ are able to directly involve also the life of the ‘community in which he lives’.
And for Christians the search for the origin of the right of the human person to search in the religious field – a right that is now universally recognised, albeit with diverse shades as regards the level of coherent defence – involves a centuries-old pathway that was encountered from the beginning of the Christian experience. With Jesus Christ, for the first time in history, the relationship between human beings and God was proposed in terms of an unmistakable clarity, revealing itself to be an immediate and personal relationship which should be constituted and experienced in truth and love. Without taking anything away from the action of the social body. Free actions, therefore, and thus ones able to assure a full capacity to operate with responsibility, pursuing a personal realisation: to grow in oneself, over time, making ever more intense in truth and love one’s own communion with God, as is observed by the decree on the apostolate of the laity of the Second Vatican Council [Apostolicam Actuositatem, n. 4].
The relationship between religion and freedom should be measured with the need for the social dimension so as not to obstruct the exercise of that freedom but, rather, to foster it. This involves, for that matter, that the social context not applying pressure for a religion to be adhered to which a person believes he does not adhere to; in the same way that it should not impede by force the profession of a religious faith.
Fortified by this recognised dignity, a believer is called to resist precepts, laws or requests for behaviour issued by public authorities when these are acts in opposition to the voice of conscience and thus to divine commandments. For Christians, the first commandment is to love God: ‘You will love your Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; this is the greatest and the first commandment’ [Mt 22:37]. And love can only be experienced freely. This doctrinal line motivates the statement to be found in Dignitatis Humanae: ‘It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will. This doctrine is contained in the word of God and it was constantly proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church’ [n. 10]
The Right Limits
It is certainly the case that in examining religious freedom one takes on the perspective of respect for the rights of man; Christian martyrdom appears as an underlining not only of freedom of religion but also of freedom of thought and conscience. There come to mind the words of the ‘trilogy’ of Pius XI of March 1937, namely the encyclicals Mit brennender Sorge, Divini Redemptoris and Nos es muy conocida, which, addressed respectively to the situations brought about by Nazism, Communism and atheistic Socialism, are placed on the same level by their appeal to a ‘composite’ freedom of religion: respect for conscience, thought, worship, teaching, and the public action of believers in civil society.
One of the questions that is most encountered in the practice of States and the tendencies of the international order is that regarding the limits that can be imposed on religious freedom. This is a complex aspect brought about, beyond its often conflict imbued juridical dimension, also by visions and consequent choices connected with the religious dimension and with inter-religious dialogue itself. In other terms, can the possibility of proclaiming and spreading a religious message be subjected to restrictions?
Although the right to religious freedom should be recognised in juridical systems and upheld as a fundamental right, nonetheless ‘right limits’ can be applied to it at the level of its exercise. These, however, are limits determined according to the situation with a necessary discernment, that is to say with that necessary political ‘assessment’ in conformity with the needs of the common good, through laws that correspond to the objective moral order, as is requested ‘for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality’ [DH, n. 7].
Against the True Nature
Certainly other aspects remain that indirectly emerge, equally, as limits on the exercise of this right, as in the case of the historical ties and cultural traditions of a religious community with a particular nation. These are those situations that allow the same community to receive a special recognition by the State – such a recognition should not in any way generate discrimination of a civil or social kind for ‘the religious groups’ [DH, n. 6]. But they are still evident situations in which even if the relations between the state apparatuses and the religious communities correspond to the requirements of the rule of law and to the norms of international law, this vision does not encounter a general consent. And yet ‘the religion or creed for those who profess them is one of the fundamental elements for their view of life and thus that freedom of religion or creed must be fully respected and assured’.(3)
Unfortunately, situations are well known about in which the right to religious freedom is not only violated but is also proposed in a way that is deformed when compared to its true nature, as is demonstrated by certain indicators taken from the context of contemporary international relations. This is the case of the trend to incorporate religion into the wider concept of culture, as demonstrated by the decision of the European institutions which in proclaiming 2008 the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue referred to ‘religions’ and then spoke about ‘creeds’ or ‘beliefs’ present in ‘Europe and elsewhere’ which needed to be harmonised: the instrument of this should be intercultural dialogue which locates religion only in an instrumental position. In a similar way should be read the position with which the General Assembly decided to institutionalise a dialogue between religions within the United Nations, arguing that ‘mutual understanding and dialogue between religions constitute important elements of the dialogue between civilisations and the culture of peace’.(4) In this case as well inter-religious dialogue takes place through dialogue between cultures.
In the face of these increasingly ‘dilated’ limits, Christians are aware of the consequence for relations between the religious community and the political community: the first is organised with forms suited to meeting the spiritual needs of its faithful, whereas the second has the task of creating relationships and institutions at the service of the common good. And this beginning with respect for religious freedom which imposes a guarantee for the area of action necessary to the religious community.
As John Paul II observed in Centesimus Annus: ‘The Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution’ [n. 47] and it does not even have the task of judging the merits of political programmes, unless we are talking about their religious and moral implications. This is the principle of reciprocal autonomy which does not involve a separation that excludes cooperation between the two communities.
A correct vision of religious freedom thus implies an individual and collective dimension which contemplates freedom of expression, of teaching, and of evangelisation, as well as freedom to express worship in public, the freedom to organise and to have one’s own internal regulations, the freedom of choice, of education, of the appointment and transfer of one’s own ministers, the freedom to construct religious buildings and the freedom to buy and possess goods suited to one’s own activities. Lastly, freedom of association for ends that are not only religious but also educational, cultural and charitable in character.(5)
When on 18 April 2008, in front of the General Assembly of the UN, Benedict XVI, when speaking about the contents of the right to freedom of religion, affirmed that it was ‘ inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves – their faith – in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights’, one clearly perceived that freedom of religion is an essential component of the lives of peoples and the family of nations. Is it perhaps for this reason that threats and obstacles are now converging against religious freedom?
(1) God Exists, I Have Met Him (Collins, London, 1970).
(2) The reference is to General Comment No. 22 (48) of the Committee of Human Rights of the UN in article 18 of the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights, which defends freedom of religion.
(3) Resolution 4/10 of the Council of Human Rights of the United Nations of 30 March 2007.
(4) Resolution 61/221 of 20 December 2006.
(5) Cf. John Paul II, Letter to the Heads of State Signatories of the Final Act of Helsinki (1 September 1980), n. 4.