Universitas, Number 10, November 2001

Right Of Freedom Of Religion

dgboland © 2001

I have already dealt, in a general way, with the question of rights and freedoms in my article "Rights and Freedoms". The terms are often used interchangeably and there is a good reason for this, discussed in that article. Here, however, we have to deal with a specific right or freedom, namely, that concerned with a person's religious beliefs and practices.

One of the most significant documents of Vatican II, its Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) has very forcefully stated such a right. Thus the Council declared categorically that one must not be forced to act in a manner contrary to one's religious beliefs. That is one aspect of the matter. One can imagine a person being free in this regard, provided he kept his religious belief to himself. But the Council went further. It declared that, as part of the right to religious freedom, one must not be restrained from acting in accordance with one's beliefs, alone or in association with others, within due limits.

Leaving aside for the moment a more detailed discussion of the qualification put upon this right, it has seemed to some to be stating the matter too strongly. Some even see it as inconsistent with previous doctrinal statements in this regard, not to speak of ecclesiastical practices towards those adhering to beliefs and religions other than the Catholic Faith. For, it is argued, if there is a true religion, one is not free to believe in or profess the beliefs of another false religion. Error has no rights.

However, the Council had already taken this objection into account. For it was careful to emphasise that what it was declaring was intended to leave untouched the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward true religion and the Church of Christ. It was not talking about freedom in this sense, a right to be wrong, as it were.

The religious freedom that it was concerned with has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. It has to do with the correct understanding of the relationship between individual persons and the civil society to which they belong. The discussion about religious freedom that the Council was engaged upon is part of a general discussion of individual liberty and public authority. In this debate there are two extremes to be avoided. The individualistic liberalism that dominated the thinking of people in early modern times, issuing in the revolutionary political activity of the nineteenth century, was an expression of one extreme. The Church's strong condemnations of this political philosophy were thought by some to mean that she was against individual freedoms. Certainly, the publicists of the day, the equivalent of our modern media, were most adept at presenting the Church as the enemy of liberty. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that, read in the light of these condemnations, Vatican II's strong defence of individual liberty, especially in regard to religious belief and its promulgation, should give to some the impression that the Church has shifted ground.

But, understood in context, and upon a proper consideration of the object of the condemnations, the Council's declaration of personal freedom, or individual liberty, is in no way inconsistent with its earlier stance, as it was keen to point out in the document itself. The right or freedom defended is a limitation imposed upon civil authority. This freedom is not, as individualistic liberalism teaches, a right to think and do as one likes, with the civil authority's role being to facilitate that individual autonomy as far as possible. There are social ends that the community through its public authority is entitled to insist that individuals be responsible for and to enforce if necessary.

The occasion for the Church making such a strong declaration is related, in my opinion, to the domination in the twentieth century of the other extreme to Philosophical Liberalism, namely, Radical Socialism or Communism. According to this political ideology, the State or public authority has no limits upon it and may suppress all individual rights and liberties to achieve a desired social end. The right that suffers most in this is quite obviously that of freedom of religion. The practical political system that this kind of thinking results in is called Totalitarianism. Often enough those who begin as individualistic liberals end up as radical socialists, a confirmation of the dictum "les extremes se touchent". Disillusioned with the lack of success of the liberal movement in changing society along the lines they desire they are tempted to take matters into their own hands. It is ironic how the most out spoken champions of toleration when not in power tend to be the most intolerant of all when in power.

The Church has therefore reinforced her condemnation of radical socialism with a resounding declaration of the freedom of individual persons to profess and even preach their genuinely held beliefs. In doing so she condemns also those who profess to be liberals but whose hatred of religion makes them in this one regard prepared to ally their thinking with the other ideological extreme.

The Council has pointed out that this freedom is an intrinsic part of the dignity of the human being, something belonging to us prior to anything external, rooted in our very nature. We are nothing if we are not free. The power to act freely is a god-like possession of ours; it is what distinguishes us from the rest of nature. Moreover, insofar as the relationship with our creator is the most fundamental of all, it is here that freedom is most precious and worthy of the greatest respect. Indeed, so deep-rooted is this free character of our nature that it is still to be safeguarded from coercion even where our actions are contrary to what reason and morality dictates we should do.

The right, properly characterised, names an immunity in the individual from coercion on the part of the civil authority, or society generally. It is a civil right. This does not mean that the civil authority has created it and can therefore override it. It is a natural or moral right in the individual against society, because coming out of his very nature as a free being. Yet it does not signify any moral right to hold certain religious beliefs should they be erroneous. It is a right based purely in the nature of man as free. It is the most basic of freedoms, the freedom of the free. It is a right in the individual person to be allowed to operate in a fundamentally human way, written into his nature before participation in society. On the other side of it is the duty of the civil government to operate strictly within the limits of its authority and not to encroach on the rightful freedoms of its citizens.

Let us now come to the qualification expressed. "Within due limits" in the Council's declaration of this right refers to the extent of the power that the State has to restrain a person from acting in accord with his beliefs, alone or in association with others. This is the key to the resolution of the conflict between the two extremes of liberalism and socialism regarding the relation of the State to the individual. Failure to understand the significance of this qualification will mean that one will fail to understand the Church's position and how it has not changed.

It remains, therefore, to determine what are the limits of civil authority in relation to the freedom of the individual person. The Council puts these in terms of what are the just requirements of public order. And the basic components of the public order are said to be public peace, good order, true justice and public morality. The civil authority would therefore be justified in restraining anyone from exercising his right to freedom of religion if this resulted in or threatened not only the commission of unjust acts and disturbance of the peace of the community but also if it were offensive to public morality. It will be seen from this how much the Council's view of this freedom differs from that of the extreme liberal view. The right of freedom of religion is very much circumscribed by the requirements of a moral and orderly community life.

There was some comment at the time regarding the use of the phrase "public order" rather than the traditional "common good". The end of government is the common good of the whole community, and it therefore may be used to define the limits of the government's power and authority over individuals. However, there are various aspects of the common good, some of which, such as cultural goods, are more properly the concern of the community as a whole rather than the public authority. Public order is a fundamental aspect of the common good and is more immediately the concern of the civic authority or the State considered narrowly as the political government. In my view, it is a most suitable phrase in this context.

The just requirements of public order, however, are not something that can be determined in the abstract. The art of medicine is not simply directed towards bringing us to a state of perfect health - for that may not be possible. Similarly, the art of government, or political prudence, is also the art of the possible. As Aristotle pointed out, its object is not merely to achieve the best possible political order, but the best "in the circumstances". It very much depends, therefore, upon the condition, especially the moral condition, of the individuals who go to make up a particular society. Some try to equate this practical truth with a proposition that would limit the government to following "community standards". This is a conception of government that can only lead to social disintegration. The leaders of the community have an obligation to lead it and its political leaders have a particular obligation to direct the community towards a greater degree of justice and civic virtue.

How they do this, however, depends upon the mental and moral state of the populace. The extreme liberal philosophical position of accommodating government to "community standards" is essentially a defeatist one. In a party political system of government it often means only the substitution of one party's standards for that of the other upon change of government. What is true, though, is that the measures that a government may take must be relative to the state of the community. Accordingly, one cannot determine what are the just requirements of the public order without a full knowledge of the particular society concerned.

This will give us some insight into the problem of assessing the consistency of the Church's position regarding the right of freedom of religion. For differences of opinion will be had regarding what measures are necessary for public order in any particular time and place. It is fundamentally a practical problem, requiring the exercise of political prudence in the light of all the circumstances. We should be careful, then, not to rush to judgement upon the legal and judicial systems of other times and places, especially those far removed from us. Much depends upon an assessment of the condition of the "body" at the time. The medical analogy can be a dangerous one in this context. But, when wanting to criticise the extreme measures of past regimes, it is useful to remember that the most mild-mannered doctors will sometimes feel the need to carry out drastic surgery for the sake of the health of the patient. They may at times over-react, but, in practical matters, we cannot avoid having to learn to some extent from our mistakes, and those of others.

However, criticism of the actions of public authorities in previous societies, including ones we may designate as Catholic or Christian, where public and ecclesiastical authority were intertwined, does not affect the statement of principle regarding the fundamental right of all to freedom of religion. There is plenty of room to argue about what were the right policies at the time. Without going into a detailed examination of such policies, then, we can be confident that the Church has consistently defended the right of freedom of religion.

dgboland © 2001


dgboland © 2001 is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted November 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 10 (2001).
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