The First “Word Day of Peace” was instituted by Pope Paul VI 43 years ago in 1968, the year in which the famous Humanae Vitae encyclical was released. It is worth read Pope Paul’s original message in which he explains his rationale for such a “Day of Peace”. Among other things, he says:
The proposal to dedicate to Peace the first day of the new year is not intended, therefore, as exclusively ours, religious, that is, Catholic. It would hope to have the adherence of all the true friends of Peace, as if it were their own initiative, to be expressed in a free manner, congenial to the particular character of those who are aware of how beautiful and how important is the harmony of all voices in the world for the exaltation of this primary good, which is Peace, in the varied concert of modern humanity.
Every pope since then has used this day to address weighty matters, including, as Pope Paul himself said, that every person’s “right to life and human dignity [be] recognized and respected. The topics of Pope Benedict XVI’s messages have so far included In Truth, Peace, The Human Person, the Heart of Peace, The Human Family, a Community of Peace, Fighting Poverty to Build Peace, and If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation. That last one, for 2010, is a virtual critique of the policy of the Australian Greens party, focusing as it does on the importance of maintaining the human ecology as well as the natural ecology.
Now the Holy Father has released his message for the 2011 World Day of Peace, on the topic Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace . It is a dense and tightly argued letter – practically a “mini-encyclical” – on the fundamental human right of religious liberty. (Again, the Greens, who believe that “giving absolute primacy to freedom of religion over the entire range of other rights would not be necessary” (Greens response to Your Vote, Your Values), could take note.)
He begins by immediately calling to mind the murderous attack on the Syro-Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad, and expressing his closeness to all Christians in the Middle East who are suffering persecution for their faith.
In this context, I have felt it particularly appropriate to share some reflections on religious freedom as the path to peace. It is painful to think that in some areas of the world it is impossible to profess one’s religion freely except at the risk of life and personal liberty. In other areas we see more subtle and sophisticated forms of prejudice and hostility towards believers and religious symbols. At present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith.
This paragraph shows that he has two main threats to religious liberty in view. The first is that posed when prevailing forms of religion or political ideology in a given society directly oppose the exercise of religious freedom with real, physical violence and abuse. Here it is clear that he has mainly extreme Islamist and communist states in view, although he never actually names them as such. The second is clearly the secularist ideology that prevails in so many Western societies which, in the name of “tolerance” actually seeks to banish religion from its legitimate place in the public square. The Pope writes:
Religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity.
Thus he identifies both the situation “in Asia and in Africa, [where] the chief victims are the members of religious minorities” and the “more sophisticated forms of hostility to religion which, in Western countries, occasionally find expression in a denial of history and the rejection of religious symbols which reflect the identity and the culture of the majority of citizens.”
His observation that “at present” the religious group experiencing the most widespread and universal opposition is Christianity is timely. It is a fact which is empirically verifiable. To be sure, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are also on the rise in many places, but in terms of sheer numbers of those affected, no one can deny that, as much as any time in Church history (including the first 300 years), this present age can rightly be called “the era of persecution”.
If one looks at the footnotes, one stands out from the others. It is a reference to Cicero:
Whenever the legal system at any level, national or international, allows or tolerates religious or antireligious fanaticism, it fails in its mission, which is to protect and promote justice and the rights of all. These matters cannot be left to the discretion of the legislator or the majority since, as Cicero once pointed out, justice is something more than a mere act which produces and applies law. It entails acknowledging the dignity of each person which, unless religious freedom is guaranteed and lived in its essence, ends up being curtailed and offended, exposed to the risk of falling under the sway of idols, of relative goods which then become absolute. All this exposes society to the risk of forms of political and ideological totalitarianism which emphasize public power while demeaning and restricting freedom of conscience, thought and religion as potential competitors.
This appears to me to be a swipe at the sort of legal positivism that often appears in a discussion of human rights: that those alone are human rights which are “created” by positive acts of legislation. I have always feared that a “bill of human rights”, as proposed by some in our federal government, would be dangerous for this reason: that it would create “rights” that are not true human rights (such as the right of same-sex partners to “marry”) and that it would fail to recognise other human rights (such as the right to life of the unborn).
This “mini-encyclical” goes on to stress that
• The right to religious freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person
• Religious freedom is at the origin of moral freedom.
• A freedom which is hostile or indifferent to God becomes self-negating and does not guarantee full respect for others
• Religious education is the highway which leads new generations to see others as their brothers and sisters
• Religious freedom enjoys a special status among the fundamental rights and freedoms rooted in the dignity of the person,
• Religious freedom is not the exclusive patrimony of believers, but of the whole family of the earth’s peoples.
• Religious freedom proceeds from the personal sphere and is achieved in relationship with others; freedom without relationship is not full freedom.
• The profession of a religion cannot be exploited or imposed by force.
• Religious freedom is the condition for the pursuit of truth, which does not impose itself by violence but “by the force of its own truth”.
• Every form of hostility to religion that would restrict the public role of believers in civil and political life must be opposed.
• Healthy dialogue between civil and religious institutions is fundamental for the integral development of the human person and social harmony.
• Dialogue between the followers of the different religions is essential to peace but this cannot take the path of relativism or religious syncretism.
• Politics and diplomacy should look to the moral and spiritual patrimony offered by the great religions of the world in order for those universal truths, principles and values which cannot be denied without denying the dignity of the human person.
• Religion is defended by defending the rights and freedoms of religious communities.
• For the followers of Christ, witnessing to the Gospel is, and always will be, a sign of contradiction
But how does this look in practice? It has often been said that the power of the Church’s teaching lies in its ability to implement in practice, to say “damnamus” and “anathema sit” to those concrete cases where the Church’s teaching is violated. As if to give us just such an example, the Holy See has reacted with condemnation against China for the renewed acts of force against Catholics in that country. Catholic bishops in that country have been forced against their will to attend a meeting of the Patriotic Association in which the participants were forced to “elect” presidents of both the illicit “College of Catholic Bishops of China” and of the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association”. The Holy See’s opposition to both these organisations can be seen from the fact that the Vatican statement laments equally the election of an illegitimate bishop as head of the “College” and a legitimate bishop as head of the “Association”.
As Pope Benedict reminds us, Christians are called to live in the world as “signs of contradiction”. Nevertheless it is the duty of all human beings and societies to uphold the fundamental right of religious liberty for the sake of peace and human dignity.