Carl Anderson: Dignitatis Humanae Can Help Address Religious Freedom Crisis

Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus
Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus (photo: CNA)

Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, can help address a “global crisis” in religious freedom, enabling Muslims and the West to confront and better respond to violent religious extremism, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus has said.

In a speech Dec. 12 to an international Rome conference on religious freedom, Carl Anderson said the Vatican II declaration, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, can also help “re-energize” an appreciation for religious freedom in Western societies as well as “better enable Muslims and others to confront violent extremism among their co-religionists.”

Noting that genocide against Christians is taking place in Iraq and Syria and threatening the disappearance of Christianity there, he said not only is religious persecution caused by governments and extremist groups, but also by a decline in religious freedom “throughout the West.”

The "unfortunate result” he said, is that Western governments “are now increasingly unwilling or unable to convince non-Western societies to respect religious freedom — even when the violations of religious freedom in those societies rise to the level of deadly persecution.”

Anderson’s speech, delivered in his absence by Patrick E. Kelly, vice president for public policy at the Knights of Columbus, was given at “Under Caesar’s Sword” — an international Rome conference on the Christian Response to Persecution held by the University of Notre Dame Dec. 10-12.

His comments follow calls from Anderson, religious leaders and scholars for the State Department to classify persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq as genocide. So far, the State Department’s reportedly impending statement on genocide refers only to Nineveh’s Yazidi community.

Other key points Anderson highlighted in his Rome speech were that in the West:

  • Increasing numbers of people see religious freedom as a mere claim of privilege by religious people or more often by religious institutions. 
  • Among militant secularists, religion is not seen an expression of human flourishing but rather an impediment to freedom and wellbeing.
  • For “too many”, religion — particularly Christianity — is no longer seen as a “solution to society’s problems, but as the problem itself.”

To deal with this global crisis in religious freedom, he suggested:

  • Recognizing that the ideologies of many Western governments renders them incapable of responding to the crisis, making it important to make Dignitatis Humanae understood in the West.
  • Realizing the limits of military action: although it can defeat terrorists, it’s not sufficient because the cause is “a religious sensibility that insists upon violence.” Military action cannot impose a solution because a solution cannot be imposed.
  • Finding other ways of interpreting the Koran and the Hadith for which Dignitatis Humanae could provide a “roadmap”, and draw on the examples of Muslim-majority countries such as Senegal which has been successful in moving towards religious freedom.

He went on to say Dignitatis Humanae could have a “decisive role” in the following six ways by showing that:

  • Religious freedom has staying power because it is a gift of God, not of the state, known through “the revealed word of God and by reason itself.”
  • A notion of religious freedom that excludes the “free exercise of religion” and substitutes instead the narrow concept of freedom to worship is “universally inadequate.”
  • Religious freedom extends to religious communities and faith-based civil-society organizations just as it does to individuals.
  • Religious freedom doesn’t mean syncretism but rather freedom to seek the truth.
  • All religious and faith-based communities have an equal right to make their respective claims in society.
  • There are limits to religious freedom; it doesn’t give permission for violence but guarantees freedom for religious minorities.

He noted that when the Declaration was promulgated in 1965, most Catholic-majority nations, such as Spain, Chile and the Philippines, had authoritarian governments. Dignitatis Humanae then became part of a catalyst for these countries to transition to free and stable societies.

For this reason, he believes the declaration can be a “document of hope”, above all showing that violence cannot be used in the name of religion.

Christians, he said, need to work with Muslims to steer the religion from extremist violence or “the results will be catastrophic.” He also urged following the example of Pope Francis who has been one of the few to speak of a genocide against Christians in the Middle East.

Dignitatis Humanae, he said in closing, provides “a unique platform” for Christians and Muslims to work together “in a spirit of good will”, possibly creating “a second Arabic golden age as they did centuries ago.”

Here below is the full text of the speech:

Dignitatis Humanae and Global Crisis of Religious Freedom - (Delivery Text)