The National Catholic Review
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A bombing at a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt, opened the new year, just as the old year ended with the breakdown of the entente between the People’s Republic of China and the Vatican on the appointment of bishops. December brought new waves of bombings against Christians in Iraq as Christians in Pakistan and Malaysia falsely accused of blasphemy were threatened with the death penalty.

Against the background of this rising tide of anti-Christian intolerance, Pope Benedict XVI delivered his message for the 2011 World Day of Peace, titled “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace.” It is the most extensive official treatment of religious freedom since the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” in 1965. The pope’s premise is that without religious freedom men and women cannot develop their own identities in relation to the transcendent horizons that are essential to being human. Freedom of religion “allows us to direct our personal and social life,” the pope wrote, “to God, in whose light the identity, meaning and purpose of the person are fully understood.” The alternative, when it is not all-out totalitarianism, is a society that subjects persons to arbitrary political manipulation.

The message insists that religious freedom entails respect for the faith of others, the right to change one’s faith—to convert—and even the right to profess no religion at all. It welcomes religious pluralism; it affirms the need for public authorities to defend religious minorities; and it encourages interreligious dialogue and dialogue between religious and cultural institutions. It also embraces a “positive secularity,” by which governments provide a common life and equal rights for men and women of diverse faiths. Here the message introduces a helpful distinction between secularity—the independence of political and other institutions from religious domination—and secularism, a West European ideology hostile to religion.

The pope also acknowledges the subversion of religious liberty by defective forms of religion, particularly fundamentalism. “Religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike,” he argues; “both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity,” and both absolutize “a reductive and partial vision of the human person, favoring in the one case forms of religious integralism and, in the other, of rationalism.”

The message underscores that religion requires protection in public as well as in private settings. “Each person must be able freely to exercise the right to profess and manifest, individually or in community, his or her own religion or faith,” writes the pope, “in public and in private, in teaching, in practice, in publications, in worship and in ritual observances.” For in the public exercise of religion believers make their distinctive contributions to the common good of their societies and to the justice and peace of the world. Such an expansive defense of religious liberty is most welcome in a church that until a half-century ago supported religious establishment and asserted that error has no rights.

Opening space for religious activity in the public square in ways consistent with Pope Benedict’s vision, however, will demand hard, organized work over many years. The Holy See’s own diplomacy has increasingly supported religious liberty for all, not just Catholics. But its capacity to monitor and respond to problems of religious persecution and intolerance is inadequate. Catholic donors and foundations might explore offering assistance to expand those capacities. Furthermore, opportunities to engage countries with problematic religion policies, especially China, have often been lost because of debilitating policy differences within the Roman Curia. Internal discipline within the Curia is necessary to engage the church’s interlocutors over the long run.

The plight of Christians abroad also demands a vigorous response from church communities in the United States. Catholics and mainline Protestants must tackle these problems with as much organized effort as evangelicals and Jews. The old tools of denunciation of abuses and of cooperation with moderate religious leaders, though necessary, have proved too weak to hold back the advancing tide of intolerance. They should be supplemented by new strategies for mobilizing both elite and popular opinion.

Furthermore, both church and human rights groups should goad government to resist political constraints against examining the adverse policies of close allies like Israel and Turkey. Together Catholics and Protestants must press government to redirect U.S. foreign policy to effectively address religious liberty and the plight of minority Christian populations in conflict zones like Iraq, Pakistan and the Israel-Lebanon border. Religious liberty, as the pope urges, must become a visible part of diplomacy.

Comments

ANN CLEM | 1/15/2011 - 10:03pm
I am a product of Vatican II's teachings and beliefs.  As a religious at the time, we studied and rejoiced with the changes that were happening.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI have only and continue to negate the progress that was accomplished during that time.  Our young seminarians are scary to those of us who have lived the old practices of the church and grown with the experiences of life.  They are more legalistic than the Pharisees and Sadducees. 
ANN CLEM | 1/15/2011 - 10:03pm
I am a product of Vatican II's teachings and beliefs.  As a religious at the time, we studied and rejoiced with the changes that were happening.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI have only and continue to negate the progress that was accomplished during that time.  Our young seminarians are scary to those of us who have lived the old practices of the church and grown with the experiences of life.  They are more legalistic than the Pharisees and Sadducees. 
ANN CLEM | 1/15/2011 - 9:59pm
I am a product of Vatican II's teachings and beliefs.  As a religious at the time, we studied and rejoiced with the changes that were happening.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI have only and continue to negate the progress that was accomplished during that time.  Our young seminarians are scary to those of us who have lived the old practices of the church and grown with the experiences of life.  They are more legalistic than the Pharisees and Sadducees. 
Charles Erlinger | 1/15/2011 - 11:37am
I appreciate the observation of a little know fact among U S Catholics, made in your sentence: " Such an expansive defense of religious liberty is most welcome in a church that until a half-century ago supported religious establishment and asserted that error has no rights."
Joseph Mahon | 1/14/2011 - 6:39pm
What happened to Vatican II's promise of religious liberty within the Church? JPII and B16 have destroyed religious liberty for Catholics within the Church.
Alan Horton | 1/14/2011 - 4:53pm
OH mY, Reading what the Pope wrote, then in the same vein run nicely infused opinion, what are you trying for. What the Pope wrote is what we should do, then you folks in the same article write what he should do to impliment his words. Reads like a nice private discussion with self with reader listening in. Anerica has done "better".
Eric Bergerud | 1/14/2011 - 4:40pm
I have no arguments with this editorial. It does, however, sound odd coming from a journal that is relentlessly critical of the Vatican and seemingly anything to do with Pope Benedict. America is calling for greater "discipline" inside the Curia? For some reason this just does not sound right. At leaat the editors still show no ability to distinguish between Israel and Hezbollah, so the world remains coherent.

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