Recovering Our Understanding of Religious Freedom

COMMENTARY: We must defend the autonomy of the Church, its institutions and faithful Catholics’ ability to meet the needs of those in our midst.

For the Church to fulfill her divine mission — which is, of course, the salvation of souls — religious freedom must not only be proclaimed in words and incorporated in law but also be given sincere and practical application.
For the Church to fulfill her divine mission — which is, of course, the salvation of souls — religious freedom must not only be proclaimed in words and incorporated in law but also be given sincere and practical application. (photo: Sberazer / Shutterstock)

It’s a sad fact that the 21st century is full of hotspots of religious persecution. Neither the Church nor secular institutions saw this coming. As a result, they aren’t prepared for the horrifying reality of life in Nigeria, Nicaragua, many parts of the Middle East and South Asia, Pakistan and China: constant surveillance, false imprisonment, kidnapping, arson, trumped-up charges of “blasphemy,” and assassination.

This is not something we can ignore or pass over with pious platitudes. Defending the persecuted and promoting religious freedom isn’t a political project; there’s nothing optional about respecting an inviolable right of the human person and the common good of society.

As Catholics, we have at our disposal the richness of Catholic social teaching to help us understand the importance of religious freedom.

At the end of 1965, for example, the Second Vatican Council issued its declaration on religious freedom. Dignitatis Humanae made clear that all men and women instinctively seek the truth, which is revealed in its fullness in the teachings of God’s Holy Catholic Church, and roots religious freedom in the Church’s perennial teaching on human dignity.

As the website for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains, Dignitatis Humanae “teaches that religious freedom is the cornerstone of a society that promotes human dignity; it is a fundamental human right, which follows on the duty of all people to seek the truth about God.”

Ordering our “whole lives in accord with the demands of truth,” as the Council advised us, means that religious freedom is more than just the right to worship. It also entails the right to live our entire lives consistent with our beliefs. And for the Church to fulfill her divine mission — which is, of course, the salvation of souls — religious freedom must not only be proclaimed in words and incorporated in law but also be given sincere and practical application. We must defend the autonomy of the Church, Church-run institutions, and the faithful’s ability to meet the needs of those in our midst consistent with Catholic teaching.

For those who are unfamiliar with or even hostile to Catholic teaching, Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at Notre Dame, offers a “fresh defense” of religious freedom. Philpott, a strong advocate for global religious freedom and former co-director of the Under Caesar’s Sword project, which researched Christian responses to persecution around the globe, has written an upcoming article in the American Journal of Jurisprudence entitled “Why Religious Freedom Is a Human Right.”

Philpott notes that, as a matter of law, religious freedom has strong standing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, for example, defines the nature of religious freedom in Article 18 as follows: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” And recent surveys show that about 90% of the world’s state constitutions, including our U.S. Constitution, include religious freedom as a guarantee.

But here’s the worrying part. Despite the inclusion of religious freedom in these important documents and its championing by human-rights organizations and international bodies, the actual enjoyment of religious freedom has declined globally.

Citing a report from the Pew Research Center, Philpott notes that “about three-quarters of the world’s population live under a regime that harshly denies the religious freedom of its citizens and that the violation of religious freedom around the world has increased in the past decade.” Going back to the basics, he then addresses head-on the skepticism that questions religious freedom’s distinctiveness and challenges its universality.

This new skepticism perhaps accounts for the lukewarm responses by government officials, Church leaders and even those of us in the pews to the plight of the persecuted. It might account for the decision by President Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to disband the Commission on Unalienable Rights established by his predecessor Mike Pompeo.

The commission’s “Final Report” specifically looked at the historic place of religious freedom in our American tradition and the importance of grounding our foreign policy on America’s founding principles. Blinken justified the move by arguing that all human rights are “co-equal.” Shortly thereafter, Blinken’s State Department announced that it would “use a broad range of diplomatic and programmatic tools and resources” to meet the demands of LGBTQ+ people.

Recovering an understanding of religious freedom as a human right, observes Philpott, requires grasping ideas that now seem controversial, such as “what religion is, how it is distinct, how it is universal, why it is good, and why everyone has a right to practice it freely.”

To begin with, Philpott defines “religion” not merely as a set of ideas, but as the “right relationship with a superhuman power, achieved through practices.” He continues by asserting that religion is a “basic good” that is “sufficiently distinct from and irreducible to” other phenomena such as speech, assembly, expression and conscience. Religion is “intrinsically valuable for human beings.” In light of this, the right to religion is a “right of its own” and that “to impede the practice of religion is to destroy a dimension of intrinsic human flourishing and thus violate the dignity of the human person.”

Recognizing a right to religion isn’t, however, the same thing as guaranteeing its free practice. There are many countries in which members of a religion are left undisturbed so long as they never attempt to convert anyone. This doesn’t satisfy Philpott, who invokes the notion of religion’s “interiority.”

He writes, “Closely related to the will, to conscience, to mind, and to that seat of awareness and action that most religions revere, the heart,” religion’s interiority demands protection of the “search for, investigation of, and effort to persuade others of religion, as well as rejection, refusal and exit from religion.”

In other words, freedom necessarily involves not just practice, but also conversion and renunciation. This rules out the sort of theocracy promoted in some Catholic circles, because “even were the theocrat’s religion fully true, it would be unjust to violate a person’s authentic pursuit and grasp of this religion.”

That said, he notes that the right to religious freedom is not absolute. Limits on this freedom relating to safety and order can avoid “grievous injustices committed in the name of religion.” At the same time, limitations on religious freedom ought to be applied carefully. Overall, to honor a right to religious freedom is to “respect human dignity in its specific dimension.”

Both Catholic social teaching and the writings of those, like Daniel Philpott, who are well versed in the Catholic intellectual tradition present religious freedom as a basic human right, intimately connected to our inherent dignity. Yet, tragically, the civil rights of religious individuals and communities, including the Church herself, are still being trampled on by state and nonstate actors.

The Catholic Church and her members — particularly those heading into the upcoming Synod on Synodality that will be attended by two bishops approved by the Chinese Communist Party — must continue to promote religious freedom for everyone, everywhere.