Pope issues “mini-Encyclical” on Religious Freedom for World Day of Peace

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.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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6 Responses to Pope issues “mini-Encyclical” on Religious Freedom for World Day of Peace

  1. Alfredo Watkins says:

    You make a good point about rights, especially how some people consider rights to be a mere matter of arbitrary However, I wonder whether religious freedom is an “innate right rooted in the very dignity of the human person.” I know that previous popes, such as Bl. Pius IX specifically condemned the idea of religious freedom for all as an error in Syllabus Errorum. Consider these propositions which were condemned as errors:
    -“Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.” (No. 15)
    -“The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.” (No. 55)
    -“In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.” (No. 77)
    -“It has been wisely decided by law, in some Catholic countries, that persons coming to reside therein shall enjoy the public exercise of their own peculiar worship.” (No. 78)

    Of course, the Church has always taught that it is a prudent matter that religious freedom is granted in states. And of course, it is strictly forbidden that anyone should be compelled to the Catholic Faith by force.

    • Schütz says:

      Cardinal Pole has earlier pointed out this “discrepancy”. I believe in fact that the answer to the problem is a complete difference in context between the context in which the Syllabus of Errors was issued and the context of the present day.

      • marcel says:

        “I believe in fact that the answer to the problem is a complete difference in context between the context in which the Syllabus of Errors was issued and the context of the present day.”

        The liberals use this ‘historical context’ method to undermine the Church’s teaching on any number of issues. Pius IX lived less than 200 years ago and his teachings were prophetic, not a case of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’.

      • Alfredo Watkins says:

        First off, please understand that I don’t consider the Holy Father a heretic, or the Second Vatican Council to have been a devil’s council or anything.

        However, with that said, this seems to be the same problem as those who consider rights to be a matter of legal positivism, no? If the Holy Father can declare at one time that religious liberty ought to be forbidden, and at another time that it is “an innate inalienable right” (starting to really sound like some of the modern thinkers), we have the same problem, yes?

        Moreover, I don’t know that there’s really a difference in historical context. Syllabus Errorum was working in the context of liberal democracy. So is the Holy Father’s current letter.

        It seems one of them must be wrong. Or, if not that, then we are misinterpreting one of them. However, it’s very hard to see how we could be misinterpreting either. I think the way to understand it is to consider “religious freedom” to have a more specific sense than the Enlightenment thinkers, a sense more akin to that of ancient Cicero or Saint Thomas Aquinas.

  2. Bear says:

    Marcel’s comment is not entirely accurate – the intent of the Syllabus was to condemn the errors of the time. Considering this, context then is rather important.

    Also the world has changed somewhat in that time – and therefore the context.

    As I understand it, the Syllabus is a prudential document, rather than an authoritative doctrinal document. Consequently, it is subject to error.

  3. Schütz says:

    I did a bit of searching on the net this morning and found this article which I think is helpful on the question of the apparent contradictions between the Syllabus and current Catholic teaching. It is by one I. Shawn McElhinney
    and is entitled “The ‘Counter-Syllabus’ Canard”. (http://matt1618.freeyellow.com/syllabus.html) He has some interesting things to say about No. 15 in particular.

    From reading this article, I have been able to see at least one way in which the “religious freedom” that Vatican II and the post-Vatican II popes have taught differs from the condemned proposition in the Syllabus is in respect to the “light of reason” phrase in the condemned proposition.

    No. 15 states: “Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.” In fact, the form of “religious freedom” which the Church champions today is built upon the fact that by the very nature of faith and the very nature of human dignity, freedom is necessary for the working of the grace of God. The search for truth is a search which God aids by his grace, rather than one which can be successfully carried out by reason alone. For that grace to be possible, there must be freedom from coercion in the human agent.

    Thus also, the article explains, when the Church recognises that in the observance of other religions, human individuals may, by God’s grace in a way that is not known to us, be moving towards salvation, it is not proprosing the exercise of these religions as means of salvation or alternative paths of salvation, but already related in some way toward the Church (even though many elements in those religions may in fact impede rather than aid this journey of faith).

    The whole thing needs a careful and rather nuanced reading of the actual situation of the Syllabus and the situation today, and reading very closely what the Church does and does not mean by “religious freedom”.

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