Articles > Religious freedom > 2008 > Pharaoh Amenhotep and Dignitatis Humanae
The journal > Year 4 N.8 December 2008 > Pharaoh Amenhotep and Dignitatis Humanae

Pharaoh Amenhotep and Dignitatis Humanae

Nikolaus Lobkowicz | 01 December 2008

To say something reasonable about the history of religious freedom within the limits of an article is far from easy. On the one hand, although the notion of religious freedom did not emerge until the seventeenth century, the issue is as old as the history of religion. On the other, the meaning of this notion is more complex than at first it may seem.

Today we understand by ‘religious freedom’ the legitimate and therefore legally recoverable claim at any time to choose – without incurring any disadvantage – one’s religious convictions, that is, publicly to confess and to live according to the religious creed one has decided for. Usually, this claim is guaranteed by a Constitution, since mainly it is addressed to the State. Most modern Constitutions and/or administrations of justice therefore also severely limit the right of the government to meddle with the internal affairs of a recognised religion. There may exist political or social communities without any formalised Constitution; in this case, the claim is addressed to the community and whatever institutions it has developed, in particular the courts. It is important to see that this claim or right has limits some of which are heatedly disputed today in the Western world and may differ from country to country. One reason is that no Constitution defines the notion of religion. More generally, religious freedom is considered a basic human right only to the extent that it does not in an obvious way disturb the public order as defined by the Constitution. Dignitatis Humanae mentions this restriction several times by referring to a ‘just public order’. Moreover the human right of religious freedom increasingly risks entering into conflict with other human rights, particularly the right to equality and the right not to be discriminated against because of something considered irrelevant.

I will now come, however, to the specific subject of my article, the history of religious freedom. Polytheistic cultures such as those of ancient Greece or of the Roman Empire prior to the so-called Constantine turning point implicitly granted religious freedom; there were many divinities and one was free to choose the ones that one venerated or felt the need to pacify. There was only one exception: the accusation of asebeia (which literally means something like ‘lack of pious awe’) which induced several Greek thinkers to flee abroad and cost Socrates his life. 

Asebeia and impietas seem always to have had a political connotation, in the sense of outrage at the rejection of the divinities of the polis. Something of the same kind applies to ancient Rome: the Christians and to a lesser extent Jews were persecuted for ignoring the politically relevant religious traditions. An accusation they had to defend themselves against was novitas, which in this case does not mean ‘renewal’ but rather ‘an extraordinariness that offends the sense of tradition’.

The German Egyptologist Jan Assmann has argued that among religions only monotheism is potentially violent and thus inimical to religious freedom. This claim is obviously inspired by Assmann’s studies of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV who called himself Echnaton, ‘the servant of the only God Aton’, and the -monotheistic revolution about thirteen centuries before Christ. Assmann’s suggestion has a certain initial plausibility. If there is only one God, the veneration of all other supposed divinities is a scandal and has to disappear. Or to put it another way: monotheism introduces into religion the idea of truth, the distinction between truth and untruth. In a way, Pius XII still argued along these lines when towards the end of his pontificate he affirmed that although for the sake of peace one may have to tolerate non-Catholic confessions and non-Christian religions, these errors cannot appeal to a right, since error has no rights.

The extraordinary quality of the declaration Dignitatis humanae consists in the fact that it shifted the issue of religious freedom from the notion of truth to the notion of the rights of a human person. Although error may have no rights, a person has rights even when he or she is wrong. This is, of course, not a right before God; it is a right with respect to other people, the community and the State.

The issue was from the outset complicated by what was once called the ‘alliance between throne and the altar’. Echnaton’s monotheism was the faith proclaimed by a ruler. Thus, inevitably, it had political implications; the ruler’s faith and the unity or identity of the Egyptian Empire became connected. Before Constantine the Great, the Christian faith was at most a tolerated, often persecuted, religion. But as soon as Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire it was no longer tolerant of other religions. What in this case ‘it’ means is of course ambiguous. It means neither the Church alone nor the Emperor alone. The rulers were interested in the foundations and the unity of their empire; the Church was interested in winning the hearts of the people. But in spite of the differences between their interests the two co-operated. Politics became an instrument of religion and religion as the only true view of reality became an instrument of politics. This does not, of course, mean that heralds of this alliance immediately and constantly persecuted those committed to another faith. At first, they were simply pushed against the wall; only officials such as bishops who were considered heretics sometimes had to flee. But latent violence was present even if neither the political nor the Church authorities explicitly promoted it. A famous example is the Alexandrian stoning of one of the last neo-Platonists, the women philosopher Hypathia, by a fanatical Christian crowd in 415. This unpleasant event is an early example of what one can often observe during the Middle Ages: in many cases the violence stemmed neither from the Church nor from the state but rather was due to primitive and superstitious believers whom the authorities preferred not to enter into conflict with.

One form of violence was forced baptism. From St. Augustine’s dispute with the Donatists onwards, this was often justified with the words compelle intrare, ‘forced to enter’, from Christ’s parable about the heavenly banquet in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke. If the only way to save someone from damnation lay in baptising them, it seemed rather natural, almost an act of charity, to baptise them even if they did not want this. The Church never explicitly approved of this practice but unambiguous and explicit condemnations of it were rare and did not turn up until quite late. As unpleasant as it may be for we Christians, an honest Church historian will have to admit that especially during the Middle Ages there were times during which some Muslim rulers and religious authorities were in this respect more enlightened and tolerant than Christian authorities. Enforced baptism was often aggravated by the suspicion that converts secretly continued to stick to their former faith; one may think of the issue of the Marranos in Spain and Portugal or of the fact that even St. Ignatius of Loyola precisely for this reason seems not to have wanted converted Jews in his order.

Corrupting Faith

There is another aspect of the issue that led to the emergence of the idea of religious freedom. Today, we are horrified when we hear about Muslims who, due to several surahs of the Koran and some Islamic traditions, are condemned to death and killed only because they became Christians. But we should not forget that this was the way Christianity, too, for a considerable time dealt with its own heretics. The conversion of Christians to another religion, especially to Islam, used to be rare and almost never happened within the confines of the Christian world. But heretics accompanied Christianity from its earliest times. I cannot say who was the first heretic to be executed because of his opinions. Yet obviously the practice was considerably older than the Inquisition, was common until the sixteenth century and in some countries until the seventeenth century, and was in no way restricted to Catholic parts of the world. The burning of heretics was carried out by political authorities but it was the Church authorities that condemned them and handed them over to the state. Those who, like myself, cherish Aquinas and consider him one of the greatest Christian theologians, might be surprised to hear that this enlightened man without reservation agreed with this practice. In the third article of the eleventh question of the Secunda secundae he asks himself whether heretics ought to be tolerated. His answer is unambiguous: no, of course not. After all, one condemns to death, for example, money forgers who injure nothing else but temporal life. To damage faith, which is the life of the soul, is a much more serious crime. Therefore, if there is no hope that they will retract their false opinions, heretics have to be excommunicated and delivered up to the secular authority in order to be excluded from the world by death: sunt a mundo exterminandi per mortem. Of course exterminare does not mean to exterminate something in the way that one speaks about exterminating rats or vermin; it simply means to banish. Also one should not overlook that at the same time and a few pages earlier, Aquinas categorically rejects the idea that gentiles and Jews should be forced to accept the Christian faith. They should only be prevented from obstructing faith as well as punished for blasphemies and evil seductions, crimes that even justify wars against them. In other words, Aquinas makes a clear distinction between those who have never accepted faith and those who accepted it but later ¬deviated from it. Only the latter are etiam corporaliter compellendi ut impleant quod promiserunt et teneant quod semel susceperunt.

If one considers this tradition it is in a way puzzling that the idea of freedom of worship emerged nowhere else but within the confines of the Christian universe. It was a complicated process. On the whole the Church usually was against enforced conversion; one of the earliest examples of this is a letter by St. Ambrose who was already aware of the Marranos problem: ne fictos catholicos haberemus quos apertos haereticos noveramus, he wrote.

During the Middle Ages one often notices concern about the libertas ecclesiae in the face of political pressure; usually, however, it amounted to the demand for the supremacy of the Church over the secular ruler. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries humanists such as Marsilius of Padua and Lorenzo Valla begin to argue against the Church’s supremacy over public affairs. The discussions about the respective authority of the Pope and a Church Council, as well as the efforts in favour of a reunion with the Church of the East, led to a new awareness of the fact that at least some of the differences of the creed might not be issues of orthodoxy but matters solely of traditions and rites (Nicholas Cusanus, one of the towering figures of the Council of Florence, argued this way inDe pace fidei). Humanists such as Erasmus of Rotterdam began to study the early Church Fathers and rediscovered a more subject-oriented faith free from political implications. The same applies to Luther and the early Reformation, but when the reformers looked for political recognition along the lines of the Roman Church their efforts created a new schism. Whereas Western Christianity hardly noticed the break with Constantinople in 1054, from the middle of the sixteenth century onwards, due to the Reformation and Rome’s reaction to it, the Western Christian universe was also divided. There no longer existed one Christianity but several Churches that slandered and fought each other.

«Cuius Regio Eius Religio»

When one reads Malcolm Lambert´s fascinating book, published 1992 in Oxford, Medieval Heresy, a history of ‘Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation’, one almost has the impression that after the Constantinian turning point the idea of religious freedom could not emerge until the Emperor or the Church were unable to suppress a heretical rebellion. This happened the first time in the fifteenth century in Bohemia due to the movement started by Jan Hus who was burned at the stake in Basel in 1415. The next dramatic event was the sixteenth-century Reformation in Wittenberg, Zurich and Geneva. The long-term consequence was the Thirty Years’ War which devastated great parts of the European continent and which nobody really won. Again, of course, the religious question was closely connected with issues of power. The war was ended in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia with its principle cuius regio, eius religio. The king, the duke or whoever was the ruler could declare his personal religious denomination as the recognised, i.e. state, religion of his realm. He was not permitted to persecute believers of another denomination but in general such believers were to be forbidden to exercise their creed in public. There was a number of exceptions, for example, if the ruler was an ecclesiastical authority (e.g. a bishop), he had to resign when he changed his confession. Certainly, it was a peace treaty but one that could no longer be interested in truth. One of its implications was that adherents of a non-official denomination could leave the country and take with them whatever they owned, although, of course, not real estate.

Traditionally, Catholics considered the Peace of Westphalia a scandal because it handed over large regions of Europe to heretics. But one should not overlook that it also was a first step, on the one hand, towards democracy, and, on the other, towards religious freedom. For the sake of peace it rearranged the Holy Roman Empire without any reference to a unique creed. Religion was no longer, and in any case soon ceased to be, the legitimisation of political power. Not individuals but countries could peacefully co-operate in spite of different creeds. Rulers were free to decide which creed and which religion, and to what extent, they would tolerate. Generally, Catholic countries tended to be less tolerant. One striking exception was the aristocratic republic of Poland; long before the Peace of Westphalia it had been extremely tolerant towards religious minorities, including Jews, which explains why it became the European country with the greatest number of Jewish citizens. That today Poland is the European country in which anti-Semitism flourishes like nowhere else is a phenomenon that is as puzzling as it is painful, in particular since only a tiny number of Polish Jews survived the holocaust.

Another important development took place in the British Isles. Differently from the European continent, England and Wales were not particularly pestered by heresies during the Middle Ages; one of the few exceptions was John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century, but his theology was not declared heretical until more than thirty years after his death. After the break of Henry VIII with Rome, however, there emerged in England numerous dissenters, i.e. groups that in one way or another disagreed with the Anglican hierarchy. The Toleration Act of 1689 ended their persecution (though not that of Catholics). Meanwhile many of them had emigrated to the New World, to North America, which thereby became that part of the world where freedom of worship was not only for the first time Constitutionally codified but in a way was also perfectly natural. The Founding Fathers of the United States were the descendants of people who had left Britain for a largely uninhabited part of the world in order to be free to confess their faith and to live according to what they felt to be right. Catholics at first had difficulties in this New World; they were seen as being particularly intolerant. Moreover, the first British Americans, in spite of the numerous religious differences among them, were passionate Protestants who detested Catholicism. But in 1634 the State of Maryland in a special Toleration Act recognised all Trinitarian confessions as equally legitimate, and within a short time Catholics, too, could occupy the highest offices.

It is interesting in this respect to compare the French declaration of human rights of 1789 and the Virginia Bill of Rights of 1776. The French declaration says in article 10 that nobody should be disturbed because of their opinions, including religious ones, as long as they do not disturb the public order as determined by law. Article 16 of the Virginia Bill of Rights, on the contrary, explicitly refers to a respect for the Creator, and declares that all people are equally entitled to confess their religion according to the voice of their conscience and to share in the common duty of Christian patience, love and compassion. This difference well illustrates the different inspirations of the French and the American revolutions, although they were contemporary. The French Revolution wasagainst something: the old order, the King, the Church.The American Revolution, on the contrary, guaranteed freedom in a new world, as if mankind´s history could be started afresh – and its spirit was deeply Christian. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Catholic French aristocrat loyal to the post-Napoleonic French king, was deeply aware of this difference when in 1835 he published the first volume of his famous book, De la démocracie en Amérique. Coming from France he had expected that the United States would be a completely secularised country because of its strict separation of state and religion. To his surprise he discovered something completely different: a country that was deeply religious precisely because of this separation. Of course it was not a Catholic religiosity but it was unambiguously one that was based on Christianity.

Obedience to the Pope

The American emphasis on religious freedom was strongly influenced by John Locke´s Letter on Tolerationwhich was first published, in Latin, in 1689. As he was afraid that intolerant Catholics might recapture the British Isles, Locke argued that a government should consider religion the private affair of its citizens. The task of a government, he felt, consists in the protection of the life, the freedom and the property of the citizens. It has no competence as far as religion is concerned and after all the Bible nowhere says that people should be forced to accept a religious creed. That he did not extend this defence of a freedom of religion to Catholics he justified by arguing that obedience to the Pope undermines obedience to a secular ruler. That a political community has to be ruled by someone is obvious; but citizens should not be confronted with two authorities that might contradict each other. Nor should, however, a government tolerate atheists, since without faith in a Creator the moral convictions presupposed by an orderly State would not survive for long.

In a way it is quite understandable that the Catholic Church for a long time detested such assertions. Since the Catholic version of the Christian creed was the only true one, it expected from a government or ruler that they did whatever they could to promote the Catholic faith. For the sake of peace one might have to tolerate the presence of a few non-Catholics or even non-Christians. But a Catholic should not feel that this was an ideal state of affairs. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Church largely ignored the ideas that were developed in England and in America, and in France were supported by Rousseau in his novel Émile. But because at the beginning of the nineteenth century such ideas began to spread among Catholics, the Church felt that it had to react – and its reaction was a categorical ‘no’. As early as 1814 in a letter to a French bishop Pius VII had given vent to his displeasure about article 22 of the recent post-Napoleonic Constitution which not only guaranteed the freedom of all cults but even suggested that the government should protect and support them. Eighteen years later Gregory XVI in the encyclical Mirari vos called the idea that everybody should be free to follow their conscience an error of epidemic proportions and indeed a deliramentum, a madness. The thrust of this encyclical was directed against what at that time was called ‘indifferentism’: the idea that, especially with respect to salvation, it makes no difference which propositions one considers true and which values one upholds. Another expression was ‘tolerantism’, today one probably would prefer the term ‘relativism’. The Church authority was still not able to distinguish between how a Catholic should think and what the civil law, even in the eyes of a Catholic, should permit. The idea that ultimately only a Catholic State was legitimate was simply too strong. The lack of this distinction became even more obvious when Pius IX in 1864, in his encyclical Quanta cura, repeated the rejection of the deliramentum and in the infamous Syllabus enumerated a number of propositions that a Catholic was not permitted to agree with: that everybody should be free to confess the faith they consider true (15); that the State and the Church should be separated from each other (55); that non-Catholic creeds could legitimately be a State religion (77); and that religious freedom does not ruin morals and does not seduce people into the ‘plague of indifferentism’ (79). Leo XIII in the encyclical Libertas praestantissimum of 1888 emphasised that not only justice but also simple reason prohibited the government from pursuing the policy of granting the same rights and privileges to all confessions and religions. Although later the tone became more moderate, on the whole this was the way in which even Pius XII still thought and argued when in 1953 he addressed a conference of Catholic jurists.

A Break with Tradition

It was mainly this nineteenth-century tradition that induced the former Archbishop of Dakar, Marcel Lefèbvre, to break away from Rome after the overwhelming majority of bishops had voted in 1865 for Dignitatis humanae; he and his followers considered the declaration on religious freedom a straightforward heresy. It is in fact not easy to say whether and to what extent Dignitatis humanae is a document that contradicts what the nineteenth-century Popes had maintained. It is certainly not a dogmatic constitution and its subject is not the Church but the civil community. It is almost unthinkable that the Church will ever retract what it declared in 1965. But this document constitutes an unambiguous break with a way of thinking whose origins go back if not to the times of Constantine the Great then in any case to the year 380 when Theodosius I declared the Christian creed the religion of the Roman Empire. Some commentators have suggested that the situation had changed, and that the nineteenth-century Church authorities would have agreed with Dignitatis humanae had they lived in the second half of the twentieth century. But can one really maintain that the Church adapts its teaching, be it only its social teaching, to different times and situations? This was and still is the accusation of the Lefèbvrists and other traditionalists: that the Church had succumbed to the spirit of the times and one of its most outspoken ideologies. Though the wayDignitatis humanae argues is strictly theological, indeed Christological, it is obvious that the authors and the voting bishops were also influenced by what ‘the world’ thought. Perhaps the best way to deal with such questions was advanced by Hans Urs von Balthasar, though not exactly (or only) in the context I am dealing with. In modern times, he argued, the Church had occasionally overlooked that what it condemned in its real or supposed antagonists, might have been, and perhaps really was, something akin to a lost splinter of its own heritage. Balthasar justified this observation with St. Augustine’s interpretation of the exspoliatio Aegyptiorum as advanced in De doctrina christiana: whatever is true and genuinely valuable comes from God and the Christian should not be afraid to accept it even if it is promulgated by a pagan. As has often happened during the history of the Church, it took the Church a considerable amount of reflection and time to discover and to acknowledge that Jesus Christ himself certainly would have voted for freedom of religion as a principle of human cohabitation.

The history that I have tried to sum up is after a fashion embarrassing for we Catholics, especially when one considers the nineteenth century. But then, on the one hand, ‘progress’ certainly is not, and should not be, a central issue for the Church or in fact for any faithful Christian. To preserve the depositum fidei is substantially more important. On the other hand, though it took the Church a considerable time to sort out what in the modern call for religious freedom was legitimate and what could not be accepted, Dignitatis humanae is an expression of something like the ‘spirit’ of the Vaticanum secundum: though it unambiguously insisted on truth, the Church no longer wanted to lay any claim to any form of power but only to reach the hearts of people, just as Jesus Christ had done. 

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