At their annual meeting in Turin, Italian Muslims and Catholics revisited the topic of freedom of religion. From a new perspective

Last update: 2023-08-30 11:56:31

When two interlocutors return on the same subject time and again, it means that they consider it important, but also that they have not reached full consensus on it. A case in point is religious freedom within Muslim-Christian relations. Frequently raised, it remains a potential source of tension. Following their medieval juridical tradition, Muslims normally interpret it as freedom of worship—and they point to the restrictions that often limit this right in Europe. Instead, for Christians, religious freedom includes the possibility of conversion, which is ruled out in almost all Muslim-majority countries, and even punished by death in some of them.


A recent Italian Muslim-Catholic meeting, which took place at the Arsenale della Pace in Turin on 24 June, marked a possible breakthrough. Italy’s main Islamic associations (Confederazione Islamica Italiana, UCOII, CoReIs, Istituto Tevere) shared a position paper (testo bussola) with the Office for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue of the Italian Bishops’ Conference that clearly espouse freedom of conscience, “including the freedom to change religion or belief,” as enshrined in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And—even more interestingly—they did so from a non-relativist perspective. What does this last specification mean and why is it important?


As the document illustrates, religious freedom can be defended on the grounds of a weak conception, which deliberately leaves out the question of truth. According to this way of thinking, the different religious expressions are interchangeable, either because none of them can fully express the Absolute, which is always beyond the symbols that represent it, or, more radically, because the question of truth would not (or no more) make sense. As a consequence, changing one’s belief becomes a matter of mere personal preference: a choice not to be compelled in any way, but also purely subjective and ultimately contentless. The fable of the Three Rings in Gotthold Lessing’s drama Nathan the Wise (1779) articulates this conviction with the power of great literature. A father leaves three rings to his three sons, all of whom he loves alike. One is real, the other two are copies of the original, but so well made that there is no way of telling them apart. In the end, each of the three sons has to be happy with acting as if his ring were the real one.


The fact that this tale is already found in Boccaccio’s Decameron shows that this approach, which I would call relativist, did not come about in the Enlightenment. It already featured in medieval thought as an attempt to provide a rational response to the “scandal” of religious diversity—in Islam, for example, it is found in some Ismaili circles, which could be the possible ultimate source of Boccaccio’s novella. But there is no doubt that it was with modern and postmodern sensitivity that this position has become dominant, at least in the West. Nevertheless, as Benedict XVI wrote in his spiritual quasi-testament, What is Christianity?, “faith loses its binding character and its seriousness, if everything is reduced to interchangeable symbols, capable of referring only distantly to the inaccessible mystery of the divine.” Incidentally, it would be a useful exercise to analyse the current ecclesial crisis from this hypothesis, which touches the heart of the Christian faith, instead of the currently dominant trend, which essentially explains the retreat of Christianity in the West with a problem of bad communication and some moral norms in need of adjustment.


But to stay on-topic, this way of reasoning seems to condemn us to an unpleasant alternative. Either religious freedom, but at the price of truth—already in Boccaccio the father can no longer reveal which is the original ring because, in an incredibly modern, almost Nietzschean detail, he has died. Or we could opt for the truth and assert that error cannot objectively be placed at the same level as truth. Fine, but in a context where various hypotheses coexist as to what is true and what is error, this attitude seems the surest recipe for endemic and destructive conflict.


In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the position paper breaks from this false alternative, by adopting a more refined anthropology. “The ultimate and most solid foundation of religious freedom,” the document states, “is not indifference, ‘each to their own,’ or the resigned pessimism of ‘who can ever know the truth?’ but love for the other.” The other keeps their dignity as a person even when they adopt a wrong or only partially true opinion, because, while error has no rights, the human person keeps their dignity even when they are wrong, even totally wrong.


Those familiar with the tormented path that led the Second Vatican Council to accept religious freedom will find nothing new in these lines. What is new is that this line of reasoning has also been adopted by the main Muslim associations in Italy. With much realism, the document’s authors observe that, even though the pathway of dialogue has made Christians and Muslims more attentive to the riches they share, not every difference between the two faiths can be smoothed out. After all, the three rings are not so impossible to tell apart. Alongside the elements of agreement that immediately jump out (one God, creator and judge, personal entity who reveals himself to humankind), there are many other seemingly different aspects which can be understood as complementary through study, dialogue, and spiritual sharing. Nevertheless, there remain some non-marginal points on which an agreement at dogmatic level appears neither possible, nor desirable, because it would lead towards an insipid form of deism. For the document’s signatories, these irreconcilable points of view are not a problem. “The religious freedom we are proposing,” they write, “is not based on a common agreement on dogma or law or on agnosticism, but on the fact that we recognize the dignity of the person who is before us.”


So, it is no exaggeration to argue that the document presented in Turin embarks on a new way if compared to previous attempts to discuss freedom of religion and conscience within a purely juridical framework or on the sole basis of scriptural references. It is potentially a very important development. Indeed, religious freedom is the foundation of all other freedoms and a society which does not recognize it or limits it to freedom of worship alone critically curtail people’s and communities’ energies. “We want,” the Catholics and the main Italian Islamic associations write, “these energies to be freed”. One cannot but agree.