What I learned about religious freedom

I just finished reading a new Vatican document on religious freedom. (You were warned.) I didn’t understand most of it. But there were a couple of sections (from the very poor English translation) that I want to ponder at greater depth.

Here’s what I like: it invites a new models of relationship between religious freedom and civil democracy; reminds of the primacy of individual conscience with God; frames Christianity as an alternative to the religious cults of empires; links forced migration to an opportunity for greater religious freedom and respect; a “living faith” sometimes requires conscientious objection; the gospel can unmask even the evil embedded in the Church; any religious violence in word or deed should cause us to rethink our understanding of our own religion; and the Christian response to targeted violence is supreme nonviolence, even to persecution or martyrdom.

Excerpts from RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOR THE GOOD OF EVERYONE (International Theological Commission, Vatican, 2019).

“The imposing season of migrations of entire peoples, whose lands are now rendered hostile to life and coexistence, above all due to an endemic settlement of poverty and a permanent state of war, are creating, within the West, structurally interreligious, intercultural, inter-ethnic societies. Would it not be time to discuss, beyond the emergency, the fact that history seems to impose the true invention of a new future for the construction of models of the relationship between religious freedom and civil democracy?” (#9) 

40. This truth of the human condition appeals to the person through moral conscience, that is, the “judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is about to put, is performing or has accomplished” [33] . The person must never act against the judgment of his conscience – which must be properly formed, with responsibility and with all the necessary aid. On his part, it would allow him to act against what he believes to be the need for good and, therefore, ultimately, God’s will [34] . Because it is God who speaks to us in that “most secret and sacred shrine of man, where he is alone with God” [35]. And, to the moral duty of never acting against the judgment of one’s conscience – even when it is invincibly erroneous – corresponds the right of the person to never be forced by anyone to act against his conscience, especially in religious matters. The civil authorities have a correlative duty to respect and enforce this fundamental right within the right limits of the common good. (#40)

There is no lack, to be in the context of the Roman Empire, of attesting to Christian resistance in the face of the persecutory interpretations of religio civilis and the imposition of the cult of the emperor [60] . The emperor’s religious cult appears as a true alternative religion to the Christological faith – which represents the only authentic incarnation of the lordship of God – imposed by violence by political power [61] . (#59)

A “state theocracy”, as well as a “state atheism”, which claim, in different ways, to impose an ideology of replacing the power of God with power of the State, respectively produce a distortion of religion and a perversion of politics. (#61)

In fact, one of the most striking data, regarding the conflicts that are now the main concern, is the fact that the ruptures and horrors that ignite the outbreaks of a world war “in pieces”[74] , they devastate with sudden fury peaceful cohabitations long experimented and settled over time, and leave behind an endless line of suffering for people and peoples [75] . In today’s troubled context we cannot ignore the concrete effects that migration due to political conflicts or precarious economic conditions entail for the just exercise of religious freedom in the world because migrants move with their religion [76] . (#67)

72. A free and conscious conscience allows us to respect every individual, to encourage the fulfillment of man and to reject a behavior that damages the individual or the common good. The Church expects its members to be able to live their faith freely and for the rights of their conscience to be protected where they respect the rights of others. Living the faith can sometimes require conscientious objection. In fact, civil laws do not oblige in conscience when they contradict natural ethics and therefore the state must recognize people’s right to conscientious objection [81].  (#72)

The Church must examine herself in order to rediscover with ever renewed enthusiasm the way of true adoration of God “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23) and of love “before” (Rev 2: 4). It must open, through this continuous conversion, the access of the Gospel to the intimacy of the human heart, in that point where it seeks – secretly and even unknowingly – the recognition of the true God and of true religion. The Gospel is really capable of unmasking religious manipulation, which produces effects of exclusion, debasement, abandonment and separation among men. (#75)

77. Inter-religious dialogue is fostered by religious freedom, in the search for the common good together with the representatives of other religions. It is a dimension inherent in the mission of the Church [88] . It is not as such the goal of evangelization, but contributes greatly to it; it should therefore not be understood or implemented as an alternative or in contradiction with the mission ad gentes [89] . Dialogue illumines, already in its good disposition to respect and cooperation, that relational form of evangelical love which finds its ineffable principle in the Trinitarian mystery of the life of God [90]. At the same time, the Church recognizes the particular capacity of the spirit of dialogue to intercept – and to nourish – a particularly felt need in the context of today’s democratic civilization [91] . The willingness to dialogue and the promotion of peace are in fact closely linked. Dialogue helps us to orient ourselves in the new complexity of opinions, knowledge and cultures: also, and above all, in matters of religion. (#77)

When, on the other hand, religion becomes a threat to the religious freedom of other men, both in words and in deeds, even reaching violence in the name of God, we cross a border that recalls the energetic denunciation first of all by part of the religious men themselves [97] . Regarding Christianity, its “irrevocable dismissal” from the ambiguity of religious violence can be considered a kairòs in favor of a rethinking of the theme in all religions [98] . (#79)

81. The “martyrdom”, as the supreme non-violent testimony of one’s fidelity to the faith, made the object of specific hatred, intimidation and persecution, is the limit-case of the Christian response to targeted violence towards the evangelical confession of truth and the love of God, introduced in history – mundane and religious – in the name of Jesus Christ. Martyrdom thus becomes the extreme symbol of the freedom to oppose love to violence and peace to conflict. In many cases, the personal determination of the martyr of faith in accepting death has become a seed of religious and human liberation for a multitude of men and women, to the point of obtaining liberation from violence and overcoming hatred. The history of Christian evangelization attests it, also through the initiation of processes and social changes of universal scope. These witnesses to the faith are just cause for admiration and following from the believers, but also of respect on the part of all men and women who care about freedom, dignity and peace among peoples. The martyrs resisted the pressure of retaliation, annulling the spirit of revenge and violence with the power of forgiveness, love and brotherhood [99] . In this way, they have made evident for all the greatness of religious freedom as the seed of a culture of freedom and justice. (#81)

82. Sometimes, people are not killed in the name of their religious practice and yet they must suffer profoundly offensive attitudes, which keep them on the margins of social life: exclusion from public offices, indiscriminate prohibition of their religious symbols, exclusion from certain economic benefits and social …, in what is called “white martyrdom” as an example of confession of faith [100]. This testimony still provides proof of itself in many parts of the world: it must not be attenuated, as if it were a simple side effect of conflicts for ethnic supremacy or for the conquest of power. The splendor of this testimony must be well understood and well interpreted. It instructs us on the authentic good of religious freedom in the clearest and most effective way. Christian martyrdom shows everyone what happens when the religious freedom of the innocent is opposed and killed: martyrdom is the testimony of a faith that remains faithful to itself by refusing to revenge itself and kill itself to the last. In this sense the martyr of the Christian faith has nothing to do with the suicidal-homicide in the name of God. (#82)


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