Religious Freedom, Cornerstone of Human Dignity

Author: Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo

Religious Freedom, Cornerstone of Human Dignity

Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo
Secretary for Relations with States

Holy See: Modern Challenges to Religious Freedom

On Friday, 3 December, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, Secretary for the Holy See's Relations with States, delivered the following address at a Conference on Religious Freedom organized by the Embassy of the United States of America to the Holy See at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome.

Mr Ambassador,

I am grateful to His Excellency Mr Jim Nicholson, Ambassador of the United States of America to the Holy See, for the invitation to address this Conference that brings to conclusion a series of celebrations on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the United States of America. In particular, I wish to express my appreciation for this initiative intended both to confirm and to render more effective the excellent relations between his great Nation and the See of Peter.

I am also glad that the celebrations are taking place at the Pontifical Gregorian University, the Alma Mater of my philosophical and theological studies and a prestigious academic center of the Catholic Church.

In the course of this Conference dedicated to the topic of religious freedom as the cornerstone of human dignity, I would like to offer some considerations from the point of view of the diplomatic activity of the Holy See.

The religious mission and universal vocation proper to the Catholic Church require the Holy See to promote the great causes of the human person and of peace. In the realm of human rights, the Holy See, understandably, gives special attention to religious freedom.

This is a current topic, sadly very current, as appears, for example, from the voluminous 2004 Report on Religious Freedom in the World, published by "Aid to the Church in Need", that examines the situation in 190 countries.

In this paper I will omit speaking about the foundation and content of the right to religious freedom, but rather pass immediately to a consideration of the contribution offered by the Holy See to ensure that this right is recognized by individual States and, above all, by the international community.


Considering the importance of religious freedom for the very life of the Church and her faithful, it is obvious that Vatican diplomacy must actively concern itself with this right. The diplomacy of the Holy See, in fact, does not determine its priorities based upon economic or political interests, nor does it have geopolitical ambitions: its "strategic" priorities are, above all, to ensure and to promote favorable conditions, not only for the exercise of the proper mission of the Church as such but also for the life of faith of believers.

The Catholic Church, therefore, is interested in the free exercise of human rights and fundamental liberties that are anchored in the very nature of man and in an objective moral order.

This is not, as it might first appear, a task free from difficulty. In fact, in international relations, the reference to religious freedom was and remains a contested point, oftentimes with opposing views and interpretations.

It was thus during the time of antagonism between East and West, and it is thus today, before phenomena of intolerance and violence, sometimes connected with a religious fundamentalism closed to rational dialogue, or with an ideological vision that precludes the transcendental dimension of man or that abandons him on the shifting sands of relativism.
In this context, I believe it is important to remember what Pope John Paul II said on 2 October 1979, on the occasion of his first speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations: "Respect for the dignity of the human person would seem to demand that, when the exact tenor of the exercise of religious freedom is being discussed or determined with a view to national laws or international conventions, the institutions that are by their nature at the service of religion should also be brought in" (n. 20).

This is. the case because, in attempting to concretize the content of religious freedom, if . the participation of those who are most directly interested in this area and who have a particular experience and responsibility in it is overlooked, then there exists the risk of formulating arbitrary applications and "of imposing in so intimate a field of man's life, rules or restrictions that are opposed to his true religious needs".

This, too, is a reason for the diplomatic commitment of the Holy See on all levels. Further treatment of this topic can be found in the book published this year by the Apostolic Nuncio to Venezuela, Archbishop André Dupuy, entitled Pope John Paul II and the Challenges of Papal Diplomacy.

1.1 Religious Freedom in the bilateral diplomacy of the Holy See

On the bilateral level, the Holy Father and the diplomats of the Holy See have frequently referred to religious freedom.

The so-called "concordat diplomacy" of the Holy See aims at ensuring stability and certainty for the activities of the Church and safeguarding the exercise of religious freedom for the Catholic faithful. Those who thought that the Second Vatican Council marked the end of the era of relations between Church and State based on negotiated treaties have been proved wrong by an increasing number of concordats and agreements.

From 1965 until today, no fewer than 115 agreements have been concluded. Even though each one of them responds to precise historical and political demands and necessities and, therefore, has a specific content, they are all inspired by certain fundamental criteria:

1. to ensure the freedom of cult, of jurisdiction and of association of the Catholic Church;

2. to open areas of cooperation between the Catholic Church and the civil Authorities, especially in two areas: education and charitable activity. These two spheres, especially considering their relations to the two foundational pillars of human activity and the activity of the Church — namely, truth and love — define, in a certain way, the identity of the Catholic Church and delineate the religious and social commitment of her institutions and of her members.

In an even more general sense, it is important to remember that these agreements, which also manifest a recognition of the public dimension of religion on the part of the state Authorities, redound to the benefit of other religious denominations: this has been seen in Italy, but not only in Italy, where the Concordat of 18 February 1984 was followed by various agreements with other religious confessions.

1.2. Religious freedom in the multilateral diplomacy of the Holy See at the United Nations

Today, however, it is my intention to present some considerations on religious freedom as the object of the activity of the multilateral diplomacy of the Holy See.

The importance assumed by such a right at the United Nations is evident from the care with which this Organization favored its maturation and specification. Religious freedom is recognized in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance".

This right was later taken up by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, and its application was further developed in the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, adopted on 25 November 1981.

The United Nations considers the topic of religious freedom with regularity, either in New York or in Geneva, where the Holy See has its own Representatives with the rank of Apostolic Nuncios and the status of Permanent Observers.

In New York, the topic is discussed each year in the Third Committee of the General Assembly. The Holy See intervenes formally on the question and participates informally in the negotiations concerning the Resolution on religious freedom.

This year, it has dedicated particular attention to a draft Resolution, presented by the Philippines, on the cooperation between the United Nations and world religions. The Holy See declared its openness to such a cooperation, on the condition, however, that it does not interfere in questions which specifically concern interreligious dialogue, as these are, and must remain, the exclusive competence of the religious Leaders.

In Geneva the topic of religious freedom is also regularly discussed during the annual session of the Commission on Human Rights. On this occasion, the Holy See formally intervenes on themes of religious intolerance, the defamation of religions and the implementation of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 7 September 2001.

In reference to this last topic, during the recent session of the Commission, the Holy See also insisted that so-called "Christianophobia" be condemned together with "Islamophobia" and anti-Semitism. In fact, it should be recognized that the war against terrorism, even though necessary, had as one of its side-effects the spread of "Christianophobia" in vast areas of the globe, where Western civilization or certain political strategies of Western countries are erroneously considered to be determined by Christianity, or at least not separated from it.

In view of the Session of the Commission on Human Rights at Geneva at the beginning of each year, the special Rapporteur on religious freedom presents his report on the respect for such a right throughout the world. This, too, is the object of special attention on the
part of the Observers of the Holy See, both in New York and in Geneva.

In 1999, the aforementioned Rapporteur, Mr Abdelfattah Amor, decided to meet with representatives of the major religious confessions; he thus visited, from 1 to 3 September, the various Dicasteries of the Holy See, establishing with them a dialogue not only on the contents of the above-mentioned 1981 Declaration, but also on other topics connected with religious freedom and conscience.

1.3 Religious freedom in the Holy See's multilateral diplomacy in the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

Having completed this brief excursus on the commitment of the Holy See at the United Nations, allow me now to recall for you the undertakings of the Holy See on the same issue within the framework of today's Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In 1975, the signatory States of the Final Act of Helsinki adopted the so-called Decalogue which, even now, serves as a guide for the relations between participatory States. Thanks in particular to the activity of the Holy See, the VII principle of the Decalogue expressly lists religious freedom among the human rights which the States commit themselves to respect, in order to ensure peace and security for their own citizens.

In successive meetings on the same topic, the Holy See has always been a point of reference, because it presents itself as the bearer of general religious interests and not just those pertaining to the Catholic confession.

A particular commitment of the Delegation of the Holy See was to obtain a broad description of the content of religious freedom. To this end, it is worthwhile remembering that on 1 September 1980, on the vigil of the Conference of the CSCE in Madrid, Pope John Paul II sent to the Heads of State or of Government of the Member Countries a Document on the value and content of the freedom of conscience and religion. This contributed in a significant way to the reflection of the CSCE on this topic and found an echo in paragraph 16 of the final document of the Vienna Meeting of 1989. That document states that religious freedom involves the right of religious communities:

— to establish and maintain freely accessible places of worship or assembly;

— to organize themselves according to their own hierarchical and institutional structure;

— to select, appoint and replace their personnel in accordance with their respective requirements and standards as well as with any freely accepted agreement between them and their State;

— to solicit and receive voluntary financial and other contributions;

— to train religious personnel in appropriate institutions;

— to acquire, possess and use sacred books, religious publication in the language of their choice and other articles and materials relative to the practice of religion or belief;

— to produce, import and disseminate religious publications and materials.

"De hoc sufficit", as my professors from the Gregorian used to say. But, let me only add that perhaps the influence of the Helsinki Process in the preparation of the historic turning-point of 1989 has not yet been adequately recognized. That Process, whose active members also included countries behind the Iron Curtain, was characterized by its eloquent defense of fundamental human rights, "et prae primis", of religious freedom. Its principles remain valid and binding throughout the entire vast territory covered by the OSCE, the successor to the CSCE.


I would like now to recall some of the principal challenges that the international community must confront today in order to defend the contents of religious freedom as delineated in the reflection of the same international community.

a) Notwithstanding the fact that society of many countries seems to live with religious indifferentism and that younger generations are made to grow in ignorance of the spiritual patrimony of the people to which they belong, the religious phenomenon does not cease to interest and attract citizens.

For this reason, the Holy See never ceases to insist that, while respecting the legitimate autonomy and secularity of the State (Pius XII had introduced the expression "sana laicità"), the public dimension of religious freedom be recognized. This argument has been advanced on various occasions by the Holy See, not only during the recent debate on the Christian roots of Europe, but also in relation to some national legislations.

Last 12 January, the Holy Father himself said as much in receiving the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See. He recalled how "a healthy dialogue between the State and the Churches — which are not rivals but partners — can encourage the integral development of the human person and harmony in society".

Such dialogue is necessary, among other reasons, in order to respect the principles of an authentic pluralism and to build true democracy, either on a national or international level. Was it not Alexis De Tocqueville who underlined the fact that despotism does not need religion, but freedom and democracy do? (cf. Democracy in America, I, 9).

In today's multiethnic and multi-confessional societies, religions constitute an important factor of unity among their members, and the Christian religion with its universal outlook invites all to openness, to dialogue and to a harmonious working together.

When the secularity of the State is, as it must be, an expression of true freedom, then it favors dialogue and, therefore, transparent and regular cooperation between civil society and religious groups in the service of the common good, and it contributes to building up the international community based on participation rather than exclusion, and on respect rather than on contempt.

b) During the process of drafting the European Constitutional Treaty, a memorandum of the Holy See recalled, among other things, the importance of the institutional dimension of religious freedom and, as a consequence, the right of each religious confession to organize itself freely, in accordance with the statutes that govern it. This aspect found a reference in Article 52 of the European Constitutional Treaty.

Let me point out that it would be out of place to fear that the recognition of such a dimension exonerates religious communities from respecting some fundamental norms of law, thus favoring eventual fundamentalist and extremist groups or even conniving with terrorist networks. Both international and national legislation contain clauses that safeguard and protect human and fundamental rights, such as the respect of public order and national security.

The observance of these clauses is imperative. Such clauses guarantee that any statute, activity or organization which places itself in contrast with the fundamental principles of individual countries or of international law, may not be recognized in their respective domains.

c) If religious freedom is accepted as a right rooted in the very nature of the human person and, as a result, prior to any express recognition on the part of state Authorities, then the registration of religious communities cannot be considered as a prerequisite for enjoying such freedom. When the registration of religious communities is required in order to enjoy fully and exercise effectively the right to religious freedom, it cannot be denied by state Authorities provided that, obviously, there exist those general basic conditions required by national legislations and by international standards.

d) On the multilateral level, the Holy See has emphasized on more than one occasion that religious freedom implies, in the civil sphere, the subjective right of changing one's religion as well. This specific right is the object of special attention in bilateral relations with countries in which a state religion is constitutionally recognized.

As I have already mentioned, the Universal Declaration states that religious freedom "includes the freedom to change his religion or belief"; various international documents also contain similar affirmations.

In this regard, I would like to mention General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Committee, relative to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states: "The freedom to have or to adopt a religion or a belief necessarily includes the freedom to choose a religion or a belief and to substitute that which one already believes, or even to assume an atheistic conception". I chose this document because it interprets authentically Article 18 and has binding force for the States Party to that Pact.

In the international context, marked by an insurgence of religious fundamentalism, it is more than ever imperative to recall the international ban on coercion, on penal sanctions or on the threat of physical force in order to force adherence to religious creeds or religious communities. Here, several States are seriously deficient.

Furthermore, as far as this issue is concerned it is not enough for a State to guarantee such a freedom by means of a constitutional norm, or by means of a corresponding legislation which applies it; the exercise of this freedom must be effectively protected on the level of
lived social relations.

e) In these times, the attention of the international community and of some of its organizations tends to place religious freedom "under the umbrella" of
tolerance. I am thinking, in a particular way, of OSCE and the attention which that organization, for some time now, dedicates to the topic, in the realm of its so-called "human dimension".

In this regard, the Holy See has oftentimes recalled the content of yet another international document to which it so readily committed itself. I am referring to the 1995 UNESCO Declaration on Tolerance.

This document specifies that tolerance does not mean "a renunciation or a weakening of one's own principles", but rather "the freedom to adhere to one's own convictions and to accept that others can do the same".

Those who live with coherence their own religious convictions cannot, as such, be considered intolerant. They become so if, instead of proposing their own convictions and eventually expressing respectful criticism of convictions other than their own, they intend to impose their convictions and exercise either open or surreptitious pressure on the conscience of others.

On the other hand, prevision for a differentiated juridical discipline of religious confessions is not contrary to tolerance, as long as the identity and freedom of each one of them is guaranteed. In itself, not even the recognition of a state religion violates human rights.

Naturally, such a disposition must not prejudice the effective and full enjoyment of even one of the civil and political rights of religious minorities. In this sense, it is helpful to recall yet again that the already-cited General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Committee emphasized that, for the principle of nondiscrimination on account of religion or creed, the state Authority must not limit access to services and government offices only to the faithful of the official religion or of the religious majority.


I would like to conclude with a question: is there a State in which the Church can say that religious freedom is so fully realized that she, with the freedom which is distinctively hers — the libertas Ecclesiae— finds herself perfectly at ease? If the answer is to be exact or precise, it cannot be in the affirmative.

Even in States in which the right to religious freedom is taken very seriously and in which the Church can say that she is reasonably satisfied, there is always something which does not adequately respond to her needs.

In one country, for example, the specific nature of some of her fundamental institutions is not recognized (for example, regarding her hierarchical structure); in another there is no due recognition of canonical marriage; in another the educational system does not sufficiently respect the right of parents and even less of the Church; in yet another the fiscal system does not take into account the properly social ends of the institutions of the Church.

In these countries, notwithstanding this or that particular limitation, the Church nevertheless can say that she enjoys almost always sufficient freedom, equal to that of other religious confessions. And she knows how to accept certain limitations, fully cognizant of her "pilgrim" nature, "in statu viae", as a companion with and sympathetic toward each "homo viator" who seeks, consciously or not, the face of God.

The libertas Ecclesiae, her intrinsic freedom, is in each case stronger than any possible limitation that can be imposed upon her, because it derives from the mandate of Christ and has the deep and vast breath of the Spirit: it is the freedom of that love which dwells in her — so ancient and ever new — for the human person, who is the living image of God.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 December 2004, page 9

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