Religious Liberty

Author: Sandro Maggiolini


Sandro Maggiolini

The necessity of clarifying the terms used in speech exists always but particularly in tense and tormented periods. Otherwise, the same words conceal meanings and attitudes which may be divergent and even opposed.

Take the case of religious liberty. When it is established that it is not a question of doctrinal and moral relativism but of a civil right not to be subjected to coercion or discrimination on the part of the State in the name of a choice of faith, the problems do not all seem solved. Is the subject of this right only the individual citizen, or also the series of intermediate bodies which act in society and the Christian community itself under the leadership of its pastors? Is the autonomous decision to believe—or not—to be safeguarded and facilitated only in its development within the depths of human conscience, or also in its important sociological manifestations? And are these manifestations to be limited to forms of worship and of intra-ecclesial organization, or can they go beyond them, being expressed also in projects and cultural realizations—cultural in the significant sense of the term—within the context of the common good? And is the common good identified necessarily with a State to the extent that community religious expressions can be accepted only insofar as they are considered "instrumenta regni''?

The questions do not seem exhausted. Underlying them is always a general determinant question, which concerns the very structure of religion and the concept of faith that justifies it.

The Catholic position takes for granted that the "confessional State" (even more precisely, the "Christian State") is a thing of the past. But yet it does not accept an "ideological State". "Can a State"—Paul VI asks in his address to the Diplomatic Corps on 14 January—"fruitfully call for entire trust and collaboration while, by a kind of 'negative confessionalism', it proclaims itself atheist, and, while declaring that it respects, within a certain framework, individual beliefs, takes up position against the faith of part of its citizens?" The question can be repeated even if the State does not declare itself atheist, but in actual fact hinders or does not accept public expression of the religious convictions "both of individual persons and of associations". The Declaration Dignitatis Humanae already affirms: "There are forms of government under which, despite constitutional recognition of the freedom of religious worship, the public authorities themselves strive to deter the citizens from professing their religion and make life particularly difficult and dangerous for religious bodies" (n. 15). Further, it points out that this liberty may be violated "either openly or covertly" (n. 6) and also with psychological pressure (cf. n. 2).

It would perhaps be useful, at this point, to insist on clarifying further the necessity that faith bears within it of being lived in a community key and of assuming public expressions. The above-mentioned conciliar Declaration does not limit itself to claiming the right of the individual believer: it proposes, for example, also the right of the family (cf. n. 5), of the school (ibidem), of intermediate groups (cf. n. 4), of the eccelesial community itself (cf. nn. 13-14), to act freely "in private or in public, alone or in associations with others" (n. 2) in the name of a faith that does not oppose, but promotes, an orderly civil society. As to the importance also of external acts, reference is made to the fundamental principle according to which "his own social nature requires that man give external expression to these internal acts of religion, that he communicate with others on religious matters, and profess his religion in community'' (n. 3).

Let these references be sufficient. Yet the fundamental problem remains and returns: has not faith in itself the capacity and, in fact, the necessity of making an impact also on the way of instituting a culture and a civilization? Consequently, does not religious freedom include also the right of influencing society to make it more human, because more inspired by evangelical principles?

Do not fear a return to "integralism" or a kind of attempt at a "theocracy" or "ecclesiocracy". Integralism exists when the claim is made to exhaust the riches of the Christian mystery in projects of culture and civilization which cannot but present themselves as limited and precarious; or when the claim is made to find or draw from revelation even the most detailed formulas to be applied to the different situations regardless of the historical context; or when "profane" areas of existence are unduly "sacralized"—instrumentalizing them. And "theocracy" or "ecclesiocracy" could not fail to appear, today, as a real sin against the divine gift of man's freedom and of the independence of the creature.

But there is a vast difference between recognizing these facts and setting asidethe faith as a principle that saves and stimulates the truest human values.It depends on whether or not one admits that the religious choice possesses an originality of thought and of life of its own, and that this originality—never to be imposed—has within it the strength to react against all injustice and to stimulate the construction of a more and more human society.

If the answer to the question is affirmative—albeit with all the difficulty of determining the content and the method of implementation of Christian originality—then consequences of considerable importance can be drawn.

There is derived from it, for example, the right of the ecclesial community to carry out the mission which it believes Christ has entrusted to it, and to have at its disposal the means suitable for this purpose within the limits of common good (cf. Dignitatis Humanae, nn. 13-14; the last Synod of Bishops laid great stress on this subject). This is not all: there is derived from it the right of the ecclesial community to establish and run forms of human aggregations which, though not being directly forms of worship, are in some way connected with religious life for example, culture, the school welfare, recreation, etc. Unless the State decides aprioristically that the Christian faith must be a private fact or a phenomenon to be shut up within the walls of temples!

It is a question of the freedom of Catholic institutions, recently affirmed again by the Italian bishops. The conciliar Declaration speaks of the right of the community to "promote institutions in which members may work together to organize their own lives according to their religious principles" (n. 4).

A quotation from the communiqué of the Presidency of the Conference of Bishops of Italy CEI on 27 January may be illuminating: "We wish to say a word as regards the tendency in progress in our country to centralize, albeit at various levels, a political power which leaves no freedom for persons, families, intermediate bodies, the plurality of experiences and institutions, and the presenceof the Church. A hegemonic and totalitarian planning of education, of the schools, of culture and its expressions, of free time, of public welfare, of medical care, of the economy, can do nothing but diminish responsibility and create the dangerous premises of a collectivity that loses man, suppressing his fundamental rights and his free capacities of expression". It will be noted that what is at stake is not so much the believer. It is man as such: the man of whatever outlook and of whatever behaviour who does not tyrannize others.

It goes without saying, however, that this right does not exhaust religious liberty (even if it shows in an outstanding way its innovative and creative impulse, also in human matters). Even before this comes the right of the believer to be able to express his own originality in the social context—a "lay" one—in which he finds himself living: not in order to "ecclesialize" structures which must remain independent of a religious view but to make them more and more correspond to the indispensable dimensions of the person and of civil society. This is confirmed by Paul VI in the address to the Diplomatic Corps: "On our side, we have always encouraged Pastors and faithful to show persevering patience, to be loyal to the legitimate authorities, and to commit themselves generously in the civil and social field in everything that serves the good of their country".The emphases—ours—also explain a critical attitude of believers where man's fundamental rights are violated. Similarly, they explain a constant commitment of Catholics who receive precisely from their faith the ultimate reason of their responsibility to construct a more human history. Here the address that the Pope delivered at the General Audience on Wednesday 1 February should be re-read entirely: "Christian life is a social vocation... man needs others, and is bound by the great commandment of love... We must beware of the temptations of anti-sociality, which real life may bring forth even in those who set themselves an honest programme of social life, but defend themselves from the disturbances and obligations thatthe community relationship may bring with it... There is danger of a "strike" of good citizens, who merely submit passively to being members of the collectivity, while seeking silently to evade those burdens which conflict with their own interest, their own habits and their own ideas... The Christian, even if the social framework tends to reduce him to silence, to make him a mere unit in the mass, to extinguish in him the spark of his faith and his love, always possesses in himself an original principle of goodness and action, which often, as the example of the Saints and of the good teaches us, has succeeded in drawing from the contrast of the times the idea and the strength to bear witness to itself in a new form, salutary for everyone... Take heart, then ...".

Take heart, yes—and a thank you to the Pope—since it is not a question just of affirming a view of faith that is not disincarnate or of claiming a civil right that is perhaps contested. It is a question of working for religious liberty in the whole range of its expressions and applications: with imagination, with wisdom and with serenity.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 March 1978, page 11

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