Christianity and Freedom

Author: Dominique Mamberti

Christianity and Freedom

Dominique Mamberti

Between relativism and fundamentalism

"Christians and Religious Freedom" is the title of address given by the Archbishop Secretary for Relations with States delivered on Friday, 13 December, at the Pontifical Urbaniana University at a conference organized by Georgetown University of Washington, D.C., entitled: "Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives". The following are excerpts from his address.

In speaking of Christians and religious freedom, it is easy to bring up the all too frequent cases where that freedom is violated as a result of intolerance or discrimination — we can think of the recent case of a television journalist who was removed from her job because she wore a small cross around her neck — or the more serious situations of persecution. Sadly, we have to acknowledge that in many parts of the world Christians have become a target of violence and are often forced to abandon their culture and the lands where, in some cases, they have been living for centuries, not infrequently because they are deprived of their civil rights and even threatened with physical harm.

Here, however, I would like to move beyond a mere presentation of cases and examples, which ultimately does no more than cast blame on those responsible. Rather, I would like to address the relationship between Christianity and freedom, not least with the aim of discrediting the erroneous and outdated notion that Christianity is the enemy of personal freedom and conscience, and that its claim to truth surely leads to violence and oppression. Indeed, the concept of "human rights" itself originated in a Christian context.

The link between Christianity and freedom is thus original and profound. It has its roots in the teaching of Christ himself and St Paul appears as one of its most strenuous and brilliant defenders. Freedom is intrinsic to Christianity, for it was, as Paul says, for freedom that Christ set us free (cf. Gal 5:5). The Apostle, of course, was referring primarily to the interior freedom enjoyed by Christians, but this interior freedom naturally also has consequences for society. This year marks the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, which crowned the expansion throughout society of that interior freedom of which St Paul spoke. At the same time, from an historical and cultural standpoint, the Edict represented the beginning of a process which has marked European history and that of the entire world, leading in the course of the centuries to the definition of human rights and the recognition of religious freedom as "the first of human rights, for it expresses the most fundamental reality of the person" (Benedict XVI, Address to Members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, 9 January 2012) and as "the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights" (John Paul II, Address to Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, 10 October 2003).

History shows that there is a virtuous circle between that characteristically human openness to the transcendent and the growth of society. The restriction of religious freedom thus proves harm to society, as well as to individual men and women in their deepest needs and aspirations for what the medievals called the transcendentals of being: truth, goodness and beauty. The exercise of religious freedom is inseparably linked to these.

At this point, however, there is a need to avoid possible misunderstanding, since the word "freedom" can be interpreted in many ways. Freedom cannot be reduced to mere caprice, or understood in a purely negative sense as the absence of constraint, as is often the case in today's culture. Here we can recall the words of Benedict XVI: "A freedom which is hostile or indifferent to God becomes self-negating and does not guarantee full respect for others. A will which believes itself radically incapable of seeking truth and goodness has no objective reasons or motives for acting save those imposed by its fleeting and contingent interests; it does not have an 'identity' to safeguard and build up through truly free and conscious decisions. As a result, it cannot demand respect from other 'wills', which are themselves detached from their own deepest being and thus capable of imposing other 'reasons' or, for that matter, any 'reason' at all" (Benedict XVI, Message for the 2011 World Day of Peace, January 2011, n. 3).

When the Second Vatican Council set forth the principle of religious freedom it was not proposing a new teaching. Rather, it was restating a common human experience: namely, that "all human beings, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will, and therefore bearing personal responsibility, are impelled by their nature ... to seek the truth" (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae, 2). At the same time it restated an ancient principle: namely, that human beings must be "immune from coercion by ... any human power" (ibid.). This, then, is the basis of religious freedom. But this is also the reason why religious freedom represents a "problem" in international debates, where it is frequently reduced to a matter of examining individual cases as they emerge, rather than being put on the same level as other fundamental freedoms. Underlying such an approach is the deliberate refusal to acknowledge any possible truth claim in human existence. Whether this rejection is based on relativism or fundamentalism matters very little, since both have a single common denominator: fear, which arises from the iniquity which obscures what is good (cf. Wis 4:11-12) and corrupts the heart. As I mentioned above, the Christian vision is radically different. It is in the truth, seen not so much as an absolute which we already possess, but as the potential object of rational and relational knowledge (Francis, Letter to a Non-Believer, 4 September 2013), that we encounter the potential for a sound exercise of freedom. And it is precisely in this connection that we discover the authentic dignity of the human person. In these days you will have an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the problem of the relationship between religious freedom and Christianity. I have sought to provide a framework for your labours, one which I trust will help in some way to stimulate a greater awareness of the important social role of religion, in the perspective of that "Constantinian spirit" which enabled the growth of that awareness of the dignity of the human person which is now part of the common heritage of humanity.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 January 2014, page 14

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