Relativism Is Not Basis of Religious Freedom

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

Angelus Message 18 February 1996

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

1. Today we are ending the reflections I began sometime ago on the documents of the Second Vatican Council by meditating on the Declaration Dignitatis humanae, dedicated to religious freedom.

It is well-known that on the subject of relations between different cultures and religions, the attitudes of various human communities, of States and sometimes of believers themselves have not always been marked by respect and tolerance. For her part, the Church has experienced persecution from the beginning of her history. Moreover, the Council itself honestly recognized that even among Christians, "there has at times appeared a form of behaviour which was hardly in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel and was even opposed to it" (Dignitatis humanae, n. 12).

Dignitatis humanae, in the name of right reason and Revelation, proclaims a true and proper right to religious freedom, by virtue of which "all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits nobody is forced to act against his convictions nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters, in private or in public, alone or in associations with others" (Dignitatis humanae, n. 2).

2. There is no relativism or religious indifferentism at the basis of this right, as if no truth existed and every choice had the same value. Instead, there is the dignity of the human person, who by nature has the right and duty to seek the truth and can do so in a truly human way only if he is actually free. "Truth", the Council affirms, "can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power" (Dignitatis humanae, n. 1).

However, the Council adds that the right to religious freedom, like that of any other freedom, should be exercised with respect for the just requirements of public order (Dignitatis humanae, n. 2). In this regard, "acts of religion ... cannot be commanded or forbidden" (Dignitatis humanae, n. 3) by the civil authority, which in reality has no power to do so, but has the precise duty to protect society against possible "abuses committed in the name of religious freedom" (Dignitatis humanae, n. 7).

3. Let us pray, dear brothers and sisters, that in every nation this fundamental right will be guaranteed.

May the Blessed Virgin, a free and gentle woman, teach us to cultivate the sense of God, which, if it is genuine and profound, is accompanied by sentiments of respect and love for all. May she particularly obtain for the sons and daughters of the Church the grace of totally assimilating the great inspirations of the Second Vatican Council, which, in this as in all its documents, reveals itself to be increasingly, as the years pass, a patrimony of priceless value and a reliable guide on our way towards the third millennium now close at hand.

After praying the Angelus the Holy Father said:
In these hours, as important negotiations to reinforce peace in Bosnia Hercegovina are taking place in Rome, may our thoughts and prayers turn to those peoples who are still living in the expectation of more dignified living conditions. Let us also think of the senior political leaders who have gathered here with the help of the international community. Let us pray to God to inspire in each person courageous initiatives and actions in order to achieve once and for all a civil peace based on justice.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 February 1996, p. 1.

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