«The Edict of Milan of 313 has an epochal significance because it marks the initium libertatis for modern man». This statement by a celebrated specialist in Roman Law, the late lamented Gabrio Lombardi, goes to show how its provisions, signed by the two Augusti - Constantine and Licinius - marked not only the gradual ending of the persecutions of the Christians but, above all, the birth certificate of religious freedom. In a certain sense, we can trace as far back as the Edict of Milan the very first emergence in history of the two phenomena that today we call “religious freedom” and “the secular state”. These are two crucial elements of a good organisation of political society.
An interesting confirmation of this may be found in two significant teachings of St Ambrose. On the one hand the archbishop never hesitated to call on Christians to be loyal to the civil authority, while at the same time he taught that the civil authority must guarantee freedom to citizens on the personal and social level. In this way there developed a recognition of the boundaries of the public weal, whose security citizens and authority alike are called to ensure together.
It cannot however be denied that the Edict of Milan was in reality something of a “failed beginning”. The events that ensued in fact opened the way to a long and anguished history.
The historical and unjustifiable admixture of political power with religion can represent a useful starting point for gaining an understanding of the various phases distinguishable in the history of the practice of religious freedom.
The situation changed greatly with the promulgation of the Declaration Dignitatis humanae. What is fundamentally new about the Conciliar teaching? The Council, appealing to the light of right reason as confirmed and illuminated by divine revelation, affirmed that man has the right neither to be constrained to act against his conscience nor to be prevented from acting in conformity with it.
With the Conciliar declaration we actually move beyond the classic doctrine of tolerance to recognise that «the human person has a right to religious freedom», and this right «continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it» (DH 2). According to Nikolaus Lobkowicz, formerly Rector of the University of Munich and President of the Catholic University of Eichstätt, «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».
2. Practising and conceiving religious freedom today
In actual fact, talking about religious freedom today means facing up to an emergency which is progressively taking on a global character. According to the accurate study by Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, between 2000 and 2007 there were as many as 123 countries in which some kind of religious persecution was evident, and unfortunately that number is constantly on the increase.
These data, a worrying expression of a serious civilisational malaise, encourage us to focus more closely on the subject without neglecting the debates, sometimes very lively and certainly never dormant, on the nature and correct interpretation of the declaration Dignitatis humanae and on its necessary adoption.
First of all, the content of the notion of “religious freedom”, which at the superficial level attracts very wide approval, has in reality always to some degree lacked clarity. It is in fact embroiled in a rather complex tangle involving at least three grave intertwined difficulties: a) the relationship between objective truth and the individual conscience, b) the way that religious communities relate to state power c), from the Christian theological point of view, the question of the interpretation of the universality of salvation in Christ, by contrast with the plurality of religions and world visions (“substantive” ethical visions).
In the second place, we need to acknowledge that in addition to these more or less classic problems in the interpretation of religious freedom, there are new ones that are no less crucial.
Let me mention three of these problems. The first is that of the relation between the personal religious quest and its communitarian expression. The question is often raised as to how far religious freedom can be limited to a merely individual expression. On the other hand, there is also the question as to the conditions on which a “religious group” can lay claim to public recognition in a plural interreligious and intercultural society. We are here confronted with the delicate question concerning the power of the legitimately constituted public authority to make a distinction between an authentic religion and an inauthentic one. Thus the facts confirm that the distinction between political power and religions is not as obvious as may appear at first sight.
There is a problem of a similar type with the distinction between religions and “sects”: this is a question as old as the Roman notion of religio licita [lawful religion], but it has recently become much more acute for a variety of reasons: a general trend towards fragmentation, the proliferation of “communities” within the Christian world, and the agnostic position taken up by most legislators with respect to religious phenomena.
Finally it is important to note that one of the most burning questions today in the area of debates about religious freedom is that of its connection with freedom of conversion.
For all these reasons, reflecting on religious freedom and making a practice of it seems to be much more difficult nowadays than we might have expected - especially after the Council declaration.
3. Thorny issues to be resolved
In this context, if we are to resolve certain thorny issues, at least two types of consideration are useful and important.
The first concerns the nexus between religious freedom and peace in society. Not only actual practice but also various recent studies have demonstrated that there exist very close correlations between the two realities. If in the abstract we might imagine a type of legislation capable of bringing down the level of diversity between religions, thereby virtually eliminating the conflicts that may derive from it, in reality the exact opposite proves to be the case. The more the state imposes limitations, the more religion-based conflicts increase. This result is in reality perfectly comprehensible: imposing religious practices or banning them by laws, in the evident absence of any possibility of modifying the corresponding personal beliefs as well, only increases resentment and frustration, which then manifest in the shape of conflicts in the public arena.
The second problem is even more complex, and it calls for rather more intensive reflection. It has to do with the connection between religious freedom and the attitude of the state - and, at various levels, of all the state institutions - with respect to the religious communities present in civil society.
The evolution of liberal democratic states has increasingly been modifying the equilibrium which has traditionally been the basis of political power. Even up to a few decades ago, substantial and explicit reference would be made to anthropological structures generally recognised, at least in a broad sense, as constitutive dimensions of religious experience: birth, marriage, procreation, education, death.
What has happened now that this reference, identifiable as having a religious origin, has been called into question and held to be inapplicable? Decisional procedures have developed in politics and they have taken an absolute character, tending to be unconditionally self-justifying. This is confirmed by the fact that the classic problem of moral judgement on laws has increasingly become transformed into a problem of religious freedom. The Bishops’ Conference of the United States explicitly speaks of the damage to religious freedom caused by the HHS Mandate, that is the Obama health reform, which imposes on various kinds of religious institutions (especially hospitals and schools) the duty of offering to their employees insurance policies which include contraceptives, abortions, and sterilisation procedures.
The theoretical presupposition of this evolution goes back basically to the French model of laicité which has seemed to many to provide a response sufficient to guarantee full religious freedom, especially for minority groups. Laicité is based on the idea of the in-difference - defined as “neutrality” - of the institutions of the state with respect to the religious phenomenon, and therefore at first sight it seems suitable for the creation of a sphere favourable to the religious freedom of all. This conception is now fairly widespread in European juridical and political culture. On closer inspection however, it emerges that the categories of religious freedom and the so-called “neutrality” of the state in the laicité model have been every-increasingly superimposed on one another, ending up by being identified with one another. Essentially, for various reasons of a theoretical and a historical nature, French-style laicité has ended up becoming a model that is hostile towards the religious phenomenon. Why? First of all, the very idea of “neutrality” has proved to be somewhat problematic, above all because it is not applicable to the civil society whose precedence the state must always respect, limiting itself to the governance of it and not claiming to be entitled to administer it.
Now, respecting civil society implies recognising an objective fact: today in western civil societies, above all the European ones, the deepest divisions are those between secularist culture and the religious phenomenon, and not – as is often erroneously assumed – between believers from the various faiths. Failing to recognise this fact, the proper and necessary non-confessionality of the state has ended up dissimulating, under the idea of “neutrality”, the support of the state for a vision of the world which rests on the secular and godless ethos. But this is only one among the various cultural visions (“substantive” kinds of ethic) which inhabit plural society. Thus the so-called “neutral” state, far from being neutral in reality, constructs its own specific culture, the culture of secularism. Through legislation this then comes to dominate, ultimately exercising a negative power with respect to other identities - and especially the religious ones - present in civil societies, and tending to marginalise them if not indeed actually to expel them from the public sphere. The state, putting itself in the place of civil society, slides, even if involuntarily, towards that foundational position that laicité intended to reject in its preoccupation with the “religious”. Under a semblance of neutrality and objectivity of the laws lies concealed and is actively diffused – at least in essence – a culture strongly marked by a secularised vision of man and of the world and devoid of any openness to the transcendent. In a plural society this is in itself legitimate, but only if it remains as one vision among others. Should the state appropriate the secularist vision as its own, it ends up inevitably limiting religious freedom.
How are we to find a remedy for this serious state of affairs? By rethinking the theme of the non-confessionality of the state within the framework of a renewed idea of religious freedom. What we need is a state which, without appropriating any specific vision, does not interpret its own non-confessionality as “detachment”, as an impossible neutralisation of the world visions that find expression in civil society, but rather opens up spaces within which each personal and social subject can bring its own contribution to the construction of the common good.
The question arises however: is calling for a liberty of religion for the various communities and asking for respect for the “peculiarities” of their minority moral sensibilities the best way to deal with this delicate situation? Even if right and proper, this demand may be enough on its own to reinforce in the public arena the idea that the actual content of religious identities is made up of nothing more than long-obsolete mythologies and folklore. It is absolutely necessary that this legitimate claim is made as part of a broader agenda involving a clearly-stated hierarchy of elements.
These far too brief pointers not only demonstrate how complex the issue of religious freedom remains, but above all they encourage us to acknowledge how, today more than ever, this issue represents the most sensitive litmus test for the level of civilisation in our plural societies.
The truth is that if religious freedom is not guaranteed and accorded the first place in the hierarchy of fundamental rights, the whole hierarchy crumbles. Today religious freedom looks as though it is the bellwether of the much more wide-ranging challenges connected with the development and practice, on the local and the universal level, of new anthropological, social, and cosmological foundations for a life lived together in the civil societies of this third millennium. Obviously this process cannot signify a return to the past, but it has to take place in a context of respect for the plural nature of society.
Therefore, as I have had occasion to say on other occasions, it must take as its starting point the practical common good involved in our being together. Appealing then to the principle of communication rightly understood, personal and social subjects who inhabit civil society must both present their own narrative and listen to the narrative others construct on them, with a view to an ordered reciprocal recognition aiming at the good of all.
4. For a shared path
In this connection, I would simply like to refer to a condition I consider to be absolutely essential for those setting out on this arduous path, a condition whose fulfilment cannot be postponed.
Taking note of the teaching of Dignitatis humanae in connection with the initium libertatis positively established by the Edict of 313, according to which adherence to truth is possible only in a voluntary and personal way while external coercion is contrary to its nature, it has to be acknowledged that this double condition often remains basically unrealisable. Why? Because we do not at the same time follow «the duty, and even the right, to seek the truth» (DH 3) which is what frees every proper affirmation of religious freedom from the suspicion of being just another name for religious indifferentism - a religious indifferentism that cannot fail to be, for all practical purposes, a specific world vision which, in the present historical situation, tends increasingly to justify the hegemony of one particular vision of the world over the others.
How are we to react then to the objection that so many do not fulfil the obligation to seek the truth in order to adhere to it? First of all, we need to repeat that that too is always the choice of a world vision which has citizenship in a plural society, while at the same time we must emphasise that it cannot surreptitiously be made the foundation for the non-confessionality of the state.
More importantly we must point to the free invitation addressed to such persons to reflect on the question of what their obligation consists in.
Augustine, a genius at giving expression to human restlessness, had grasped the secret of it, as Benedict XVI observes: «It is not we who possess the Truth after having sought it, but the Truth that seeks us out and possesses us». In this sense, it is truth itself, through the significance of the relations and circumstances of life in which each person is a protagonist, which presents as the “serious event” in human existence and human cohabitation. The truth which seeks us is evidenced in the insuppressible longing which makes mankind aspire to it: «Quid enim fortius desiderat anima quam veritatem?». And this longing respects the freedom of all, even of the person who calls himself agnostic, indifferent, or atheist. Religious freedom would otherwise be an empty word.
 G. LOMBARDI, Persecuzioni, laicità, libertà religiosa. Dall’Editto di Milano alla “Dignitatis humanae”, Studium Roma 1991, 128.
 N. LOBKOWICZ, Pharaoh Amenhotep and Dignitatis Humanae, in Oasis 8 (2008) 17-23, here 18.
 The Price of Freedom Denied. Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century, Cambridge University Press, New York 2011.
 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty. A Statement on Religious Liberty, 12.04.2012.
 Cf. A. SCOLA, Buone ragioni per la vita in comune, Mondadori, Milano 2010, 16-17.
 BENEDICT XVI, General Audience, 14 November 2012.
 AUGUSTINE, “what does the soul desire more strongly than the truth?”, Tractate on the Gospel of John 26,5.