Pope Benedict's message for today's World Day of Peace (text here) is a powerful and succint argument for religious freedom as the foundation of all other human rights and freedoms. It's not an academic matter. Mounting violence against Christians in the Middle East -- the Pope begins with the massacre in Baghdad, since then eclipsed by last night's in Alexandria -- as well as below-the-radar daily persecution and discrimination across the world, makes this an urgent matter, as is the growing exclusion of Christianity from the European public sphere in the name of equality. The genius of the Pope's message is his linking of religious fundamentalism and aggressive secularism, seeing them as the mirror images of each other.
"The same determination that condemns every form of fanaticism and religious fundamentalism must also oppose every form of hostility to religion that would restrict the public role of believers in civil and political life", he says, adding: "religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity."
Defending "secularity" against "secularism" is turning out to be one of the interesting intellectual keynotes of this papacy. In October, the Synod on the Middle East in Rome positioned the Church as the region's advocate of what it called (not without controversy) "positive secularism [laicite]", meaning a healthy relationship between state and Church, faith and public square, religion and reason. A similar message lay at the heart of Pope Benedict's address at Westminster Hall on his visit to London last September. The first had its eye on the Islamic states of the Middle East, while the second looked to the rise of what he has called Europe's "dictatorship of relativism".
The Pope sees both as urgent and necessary. But asserting the freedoms and rights of Christians in Islamic states or China is politically and intellectually more straightforward. The Church can appeal to international law, not least the 18th Article of the Declaration of Human Rights which enshrines “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, a right which “includes freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest [one’s] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
As the Pope comments: "The international order thus recognizes that rights of a religious nature have the same status as the right to life and to personal freedom, as proof of the fact that they belong to the essential core of human rights, to those universal and natural rights which human law can never deny."
The challenge, in other words, is not persuading western nations of the case for freedom of religion, but for mustering sufficient political will on the world stage to put religious freedom as high on the western political agenda as other human rights. And that's where the link with the other part of the argument comes in.
Theocrats and secularists have this in common: they usually cannot see what the problem is. Just look, for example, at China's reaction to the Pope's Christmas Day criticism of the country's lack of religious freedom. Because China has no grasp of the separation of realms, it sees the Vatican's insistence on the right to appoint bishops as interference in sovereignty.
So, too, in Europe, when you raise the issue of religious freedom; you usually get told that it's ridiculous for Catholics to complain: people are free to believe and to practise their faith. The idea that faith might have corporate rights -- the "freedom to manifest belief", a vital part of religious freedom, requires, for example, that Catholic organisations might need to hire and fire people on the basis of their beliefs and lifestyles -- is one that doesn't often occur to Europeans.
The problem for the Church is that on issues of sexuality -- and the gay rights agenda in particular -- it is seen as opposed to basic democratic freedoms and rights, or at least selective in their application. There is a strong suspicion among European and other western intellectual elites that the Church argues for the freedom to believe in and practise what the Church teaches, but not what it doesn't.
That's why attacking "aggressive secularism" in modern western democracies can sound to secular humanists like attacking what the Church dislikes. That's not fair, and reflects a blind spot in contemporary secularism, one that Pope Benedict brilliantly takes on in his recent book interview, Light of the World, in which he shows how tolerance is being overturned in the name of tolerance.
But it's a complex, sophisticated argument which flies high above the heads of most. Rather than pick intellectual fights in lofty terrain, the Church needs to advance a positive vision for politics and society -- a new humanism, if you like, that can compete with the narrow secular narratives currently on offer.
That's where religious freedom comes in. It is a positive concept which appeals to the sacred modern icon of freedom. And it's the keystone of a religiously-inclusive -- and therefore genuinely pluralist -- democracy.
The Pope's Peace Day message argues for religious freedom as the cornerstone of everything western democracies hold dear. The denial of it, he says, is to create injustice, stifle peace, and inhibit humanity's growth. Enabling it, on the other hand, is to allow for people to choose fore themselves what is right and good. "Religious freedom should be understood," he says, "not merely as immunity from coercion, but even more fundamentally as an ability to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth."
The commentary on the Message by the president of the Vatican's Justice and Peace Council, Cardinal Peter Turkson, notes that the Pope uses the concept of religious freedom to refer to "man’s freedom to express his being capax Dei: his freedom to respond to the truth of his nature as created by God and created for life with God without coercion or impediments. It is in this that man finds his peace, and from there becomes an instrument of peace."
In other words, we have here the way of ordering a society -- its laws, its institutions, its priorities -- which maximises human flourishing by giving expression to the core human freedom.
To a contemporary (western) society that suspects the Church of restricting and chilling that freedom, that's a message that's hard to hear. And yet, Pope Benedict argues, "The sincere search for God has led to greater respect for human dignity. Christian communities, with their patrimony of values and principles, have contributed much to making individuals and peoples aware of their identity and their dignity, the establishment of democratic institutions and the recognition of human rights and their corresponding duties."
He goes on:
"Through the democratic activity of citizens conscious of their lofty calling, [society's] laws and institutions must adequately reflect the authentic nature of the person and support its religious dimension. Since the latter is not a creation of the state, it cannot be manipulated by the state, but must rather be acknowledged and respected by it."
Or as the Pope also neatly puts it: "It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights”.
God precedes the state; and the state's acknowledgement of that is the door which opens up all other freedoms, because the state is acknowledging that it is not the arbiter of right and wrong, but at its service. That'swhat makes society possible. And that is why, as the Pope argues, "With due respect for the positive secularity of state institutions, the public dimension of religion must always be acknowledged. A healthy dialogue between civil and religious institutions is fundamental for the integral development of the human person and social harmony."
What undermines religious freedom, in other words, is what distorts the delicate balance between temporal and spiritual, the eclipse of one by the other, leading to fundamentalism enthroned in theocracy, or relativism enthroned in totalitarianism. As Cardinal Turkson says, relativism, syncretism and fundamentalism are "all abused forms of religious freedom".
A leading official told at the J&P Council told me recently that the its agenda over the coming year would be, essentially, "Caritas in veritate plus the Pope's Peace Day message".
It is, essentially, the social Catholic agenda of the coming era, a "third way" between fundamentalism and relativism, just as social Catholicism was a third way between liberalism and totalitarianism in the 1920s-30s. The historic parallels seem to me unmistakable. This year looks exciting already.