How the Catholic Church took religious liberty from the sacristy to the street
When St. John XXIII released his encyclical “Peace on Earth” weeks before his death in 1963, the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray saw in it promise for a new era in church-state relations. Like other editors of America at the time, however, Father Murray was skeptical of the dying pope’s utopian schemes for peace.
Anti-Communist, staunchly patriotic, the editors were at first less than enthusiastic about the encyclical. In the atmosphere of the Cold War, they mistrusted Pope John’s disengagement of Italian bishops from Christian Democratic politics, his rapprochement with Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev and his projection of a global peace built on the promotion of human rights.
In an early response to the papal letter, however, Father Murray found the pope’s distinction between popular movements and ideologies as a ray of light. It opened the way, he believed, to a “complete, unitary Catholic doctrine of Church and State” based on religious freedom and the separation of church and state suited to “the political and religious conditions of our times.” Far more than Father Murray realized at the time, “Peace on Earth” laid the foundation for a new Catholic political theology, a social-pastoral strategy of engagement with the world in the promotion of human rights and a new image of the church itself as servant to the world.
As a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council, Father Murray would become a principal drafter of the council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” one of its major achievements. Together with the council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” the declaration opened the way for the church’s active presence in the modern world.
A Servant Church
Perhaps the most far-reaching proposition found in “Declaration on Religious Freedom” was the council’s affirmation of the church’s rights in the public square. “It comes within the meaning of religious freedom,” the council declared, “that religious communities should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity” (No. 4).
In the following years, even knowledgeable parties often continued to regard religious liberty narrowly as simply freedom of worship. The declaration makes clear, however, that “Religious freedom...ought to have this further purpose and aim, namely, that men may come to act with greater responsibility in fulfilling their duties in community life” (No. 8).
Furthermore, the council proclaimed, “the Church by virtue of the Gospel committed to her, proclaims the rights of man; she acknowledges and greatly esteems the dynamic movements of today by which these rights are everywhere fostered” (“Church in the Modern World,” No. 41). Among the responsibilities the council listed for bishops was speaking out on “the most serious issues” in public and international life (“Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church,” No. 12).
Under the inspiration of the council (See “Church in the Modern World,” Nos. 89-93), lay Catholics were among the pioneers in the human rights struggles of the late 20th century. Laypeople, like Kim Dae Jung in South Korea, Lech Walesa in Poland, John Hume in Northern Ireland and Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, led human rights movements in their countries. A number were named Nobel Peace Prize laureates. In its service to the world the postconciliar church had become a public church, a church in the street as well as in the sacristy.
Religious Liberty for All
The regnant Catholic view prior to the council had been that error had no rights, and the model church-state arrangement was one in which the Catholic Church would be the established church, as in Franco’s Spain. For that reason, prior to Vatican II, the Vatican had used its diplomacy to secure the freedom of worship and the administration of the sacraments.
Beginning with the “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” however, the church promoted the freedom not just of Catholics, but of all believers. The new teaching on religious freedom altered Vatican diplomacy itself. Before the Second Vatican Council, concordats (treaties with the Vatican) protected the church’s right to minister to its people. Now, the church demanded protection for all believers.
At the conclusion of the meeting of the Synod of Bishops for Lebanon in 1997, for example, Pope John Paul II in “L’Espérance Pour le Liban” (“Hope for Lebanon”) repudiated “confessionalism,” the status quo in Lebanon since independence in 1943. Confessionalism apportioned political power according to sectarian membership, so Lebanon’s president is a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite.
Instead the pope urged freedom of religion and equality for all citizens. Enjoyment of the rights of the church, he hoped, would be best secured with the civil freedoms of its members. The civil freedom of citizens became the underlying premise of the Holy See’s Middle East policy in treaties with Israel (1993), Jordan (1994), the Palestinian Liberation Organization (2000) and the Palestinian Authority (2015).
Poland: An Early Paradigm
The lived connection between religious liberty and promotion of human rights more broadly can be seen in the case of Poland. Since the Middle Ages, religious freedom, understood as freedom of the institutional church, had been described as “the first freedom,” opening space for the growth of other liberties because it limited the reach of secular power and guaranteed a domain in society subject to other values. In Poland, the maxim proved true once again: The church became the refuge of freedom.
In the 1970s church construction itself became a contentious issue. The identification of Poles with the church was especially strong. While Poland’s Communist governments were repressive, when it came to the church they acted cautiously, allowing the church a margin of action not found elsewhere in Soviet-dominated Europe. When the government attempted to restrict church construction, parishioners built churches without permits. Soon churches were rising like mushrooms in a fall rain.
Churches became symbols of collective Polish resistance to Soviet domination. Catholic intellectuals, like Tadeusz Mazowiecki, and then other independent thinkers held their meetings in churches and printed their literature from them. In 1989 Mazowiecki would become the first non-Communist prime minister since 1946.
As bishop, archbishop and later as pope, St. John Paul II showed how important the church’s institutional freedom could be to the liberation of an entire people. His pastoral visits as pope in 1979, 1983 and 1987 greatly strengthened popular resistance to Communism. In 1980 his direct intervention with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev helped prevent Soviet suppression of popular movements. That allowed the Polish political situation to evolve with minimal bloodshed.
By 1987 Poland’s President Wojciech Jaruzelski had built a secret trialogue with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II, resulting in a series of reforms and confidence-building messages. Their exchanges led eventually to elections and the end of Communist government in Poland. In early 1989, Mr. Jaruzelski also brought together government ministers and the Polish hierarchy to plan the forthcoming elections.
On Dec. 1, 1989, following the revolutions across Eastern Europe, President Gorbachev came to Rome to visit Pope John Paul. The pope told his close advisers afterward that Mr. Gorbachev was prepared “to go all the way on religious liberty and other freedoms.”
In some Soviet bloc countries, like Czechoslovakia, Catholics like Tomas Halik joined in the so-called Velvet Revolution with secular leaders like Vaclav Havel. In East Germany, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, through its Peace Prayer Groups, played a role similar to that of the Catholic Church in Poland, providing sanctuary for dissident intellectuals.
In majority-Catholic countries like Poland and the Philippines, as well as in South and Central America, church leaders and justice and peace commissions often took the lead on religious liberty and human rights issues.
In Christian-minority countries—Pakistan and India, for example—justice and peace commissions, sometimes ecumenical in composition, defended the liberty of Christians but also spoke out for the rights of workers and the poor. Religious liberty had been extended from the sacristy to the public square.
Disquiet on the Eastern Front
In the years following the council, in many places the exigent human rights issue was still the freedom of the church. In Eastern Europe, for example, even after the fall of Communism in 1989, the implementation of the right of religious freedom was more complicated than it had been in Poland.
Despite the opportunities Mr. Gorbachev had opened, there was only partial success in taking possession of one-time Catholic churches in Russia and Ukraine because of opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church. Even in the Baltic countries legal title was confused by a succession of different church and state owners.
In Russia itself after 1989, Orthodox metropolitans often adhered to a hegemonic view of state religion. They regarded even Catholic efforts to minister to extant Catholic populations as poaching on Orthodox territory. In Catholic circles, the desire to re-establish or strengthen a Catholic presence often competed with the goal of promoting ecumenical harmony between Catholics and Orthodox.
In the current Ukrainian crisis, however, a national ecumenism reigns, with the three Orthodox churches united with the Latin (Roman) Catholic and Ukrainian Catholic churches in resistance to Moscow’s ambitions for regional dominance.
Overtures in China
China remains a uniquely complex religious liberty case. During the presidencies of Jiang Zemin (1988-2002) and Hu Jintao (2002-12), the Holy See made multiple attempts to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing in hope of normalizing the church’s status. In large cities there was informal collaboration between registered (government approved) and underground Catholic communities, but elsewhere the “two faces” of the Catholic community were sometimes at odds. The status of religious liberty was further complicated because repression often came from local authorities and party officials acting independently of the Beijing government.
Anticipating formal normalization of relations, however, in 2007 Pope Benedict XVI published a letter to the church in China meant to heal internal differences. But normalization did not come. The appointment of bishops has been a litmus-test issue. At stake is the right of the church to determine its own organization and communicate with its clergy and people.
The “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (No. 4) asserts that immunity from coercion applies to the religious community as well as to individuals. In particular, it affirms that “religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transfer of their own ministers....”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s the two sides began to make progress on episcopal appointments, first with the Holy See legitimizing government-appointed bishops who requested recognition and later with the Chinese electing bishops from a slate approved by the Vatican. In a few cases in recent years, in the interest of internal church unity, newly appointed bishops were announced as the joint successors to both registered and unregistered bishops, suggesting greater collaboration between Rome and Beijing.
Chinese authorities still fear foreign influence and desire more authentically Chinese forms of religious expression. A few years ago, for those reasons, Pope Francis’ desire to promote greater synodality in church governance and his view of cultural variety as integral to orthodox ecclesiology might have appealed to the Chinese authorities as congenial to Chinese Catholicism. But the heightened suspicion of today’s Chinese leadership toward any independent source of authority outside the Communist Party makes that unlikely.
The Catholic Human Rights Movement
The first great explosion in Catholic human rights advocacy took place with the 1973 coup overthrowing the government of President Salvador Allende of Chile. Initially, an ecumenical coalition called the Committee for Peace sought to defend those pursued by the military and to document the military’s abuses. When the committee came under pressure from the Pinochet regime, Cardinal Raúl Silva Hernández, S.D.B., took the committee under the protection of the Archdiocese of Santiago with the new title Vicariate of Solidarity.
The vicariate became a model for Catholic human rights offices all over Latin America and then around the world. In the 1970s and ’80s, Tutela Legal in San Salvador and the archdiocesan office in Guatemala City gathered documentation and publicized human rights violations. In the courts and the media, they defended prisoners of conscience and those caught up in the Reagan administration’s Contra wars.
In Guatemala, Bishop Juan Gerardi, who had headed a committee that drew up a report on rights violations during that country’s civil war (1960–96) called “Nunca Mas” (“Never Again”), was killed in 1998 on the day after making the report public. Later the Bartolomeo de Las Casas Center in Chiapas and the Miguel Pro Center in Mexico City carried on similar work in Mexico.
Over the past 50 years, the promotion and defense of religious liberty have been aided by diplomatic and legal developments. A key step was the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975. The climactic event in the détente between the Soviet Union and the West, the Helsinki Final Act’s Chapter VII guaranteed human rights, including “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief,” in 35 signatory states.
Monitoring provisions led to formal review mechanisms in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In the United States, Congress’s Helsinki Commission (a joint body of the House and Senate), Helsinki Watch (later Human Rights Watch) and other advocacy groups regularly reported on progress and setbacks in the field. A 1981 U.N. “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief” also mandated an annual report to the secretary general by an independent consultant.
Aided by the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, in the 1970s and 1980s the United States government, along with Jewish defense organizations, put a great deal of energy into freeing Soviet Jews for emigration to Israel. Jackson-Vanik was one religious liberty initiative that had real teeth.
Events of special concern to Catholics, like the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero in 1980, the murder of a group of U.S. churchwomen the same year and the killings in 1989 of Jesuits at the University of Central America in El Salvador, ran athwart U.S. foreign policy. They were investigated only after extensive Congressional pressure and the personal involvement of House speaker Thomas P. O’Neill.
Major concerns like China aside, the decline of progress in human rights has coincided in large part with the tension between Catholic rights concerns and U.S. strategic interests. Despite the institutionalization of human rights concerns in the State Department under President Jimmy Carter (1997-81) and the more recent establishment of the Office of International Religious Freedom and the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (1998), Catholic human rights and religious liberty concerns have played a limited role in U.S. foreign policy.
We continue to witness the massively destructive results of the 2003 U.S. war of choice in Iraq. The conflict created conditions for the persecution of Christians, leading to a major exodus from Iraq and later Syria, and it exacerbated the division of Sunni and Shiite Muslims. However otherwise undesirable, the secular Baathist regimes of Iraq and Syria had long provided refuge for a variety of Christian and Muslim sects.
Beginning with the Iraq war, the Eastern Churches have been greatly reduced in number in their homelands, first by Sunni jihadists in Iraq and more recently by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Despite Pope Francis’ popularity, his many appeals for Christians in the Middle East have not been heard, it appears, except in the larger strategic context of the fight against ISIS.
U.S. coddling of our Saudi Arabian ally has further embittered Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Saudi-backed Wahhabi missionaries have put minority Shiites at risk all over the Muslim world. In Yemen, moreover, the United States has assisted Sunni Saudi Arabia in its war against Yemen’s Houthi minority.
The Saudis regard the Houthis as heretics, exaggerating their political ties to Shiite Iran. For their part, the Houthis took up their rebellion in large part to defend themselves against the imposition of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. One decisive step the United States could take to aid religious freedom today and advance the cause of peace would be to cease abetting the worldwide Saudi war against the Shiites from which Christians as well as Shiites, and even many Sunni, suffer.
In 2013 Secretary of State John Kerry established a new Office of Religion and Global Affairs to engage religious communities at home and abroad on areas of common concern. That office has greatly improved the education of the U.S. Foreign Service about religion, and it promises an increased role for religious expertise in making foreign policy. Let us hope that in the decade ahead, with this new expertise, the United States will find inventive ways to promote religious freedom even when it seems in tension with the nation’s strategic interests.