The Demand of Religious Liberty

Given that the inquiry into religious liberty in Australia headed by former Australian Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, has now handed its report and recommendations to the current federal government, which has not yet released the contents into the public domain, a timely column from Massimo Faggioli appears in Commonweal magazine yesterday.

Drawing on a document of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae (the Declaration on Religious Freedom), Faggioli comments on the significance of Catholics (in particular) and seeking to protect religious freedom. There is, he says, still a misunderstanding or unwillingness to accept the theology that lies behind Dignitatis Humanae coming from not only some bishops in the United States (the specific context in which Faggioli writes) but others who are embracing the rise of Catholic traditionalism and an accompanying Catholic anti-liberalism.

The Second Vatican Council make sit clear that religious liberty is a fundamental right of all human beings, not just Catholics and not just Christians. Paragraph two of Dignitatis Humanae, which Faggioli cites, makes this abundantly clear. It is worth quoting this paragraph in full, given the ongoing issues that surround religious freedom in Australia, in the United States, and around the world:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons – that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility – that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

Which raises the question, at least in my mind, about how we go about balancing the rights of a wide variety of people who find themselves with different and sometimes competing religious beliefs – or indeed, those who claim to have none. It is not a simple question of majority rules, a zero-sum game where in order for some to win others must lose. The balancing and enhancing of civil rights can never be sorted out in such a manner. Yet balanced and enhanced they must be since that is the nature of living in human society.

Returning to Faggioli’s thesis, Catholics, if they are to be authentically so, must work for the religious liberty of all people of all faiths (and none). Catholics can no longer simply insist on the freedom to live in accord with the tenets of Catholic Christianity while denying that same freedom to other Christians, or other faiths, or people of no faith.

Dignitatis humanae rejects confessional authoritarianism unequivocally: “Government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens” (par. 6). Catholics who support religious freedom for themselves cannot be indifferent toward threats against the religious freedom of non-Catholics and non-Christians in the United States or abroad. President Trump’s recent executive order protecting religious organizations from government overreach must be examined in light of his prejudicial statements about Islam. As Dignitatis humanae makes clear, religious liberty is by definition universal. It is not an idea that can be pulled out of storage when Catholics need it, only to be locked back up when the Muslims arrive.

Read the full article here.