Religious Freedom From Constantine to Today

Book Pick: Let's Not Forget God


Freedom of Faith, Culture and Politics

By Cardinal Angelo Scola

Image Books, 2014

124 pages, $20

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Religious freedom figures prominently in the news, from the release of Meriam Ibrahim, who faced execution in Sudan for converting to Christianity, to the Hobby Lobby victory, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a company with strong religious convictions could not be forced to pay for other people’s abortifacients, which it deemed death-dealing drugs and devices.

Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, Italy, and a frequently named papal contender in 2013, spoke at length about religious freedom on the occasion of the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, Constantine’s decree ending the persecution of the Church and granting religious freedom to everyone in the Roman Empire.

This book developed out of the speech. Cardinal Scola’s text is a historical, philosophical and theological tour de force that spans more than 17 centuries, from the last gasp of Roman religious repression under Diocletian to the question of whether a contemporary country that embraces religious freedom must also embrace what Father Richard Neuhaus called a “naked public square” in which no believers need apply.

Three themes stand out in the seven chapters of this short book: the history behind the Edict of Milan; Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty; and the current dilemmas and possible solutions to religious-freedom claims in democratic countries.

The religious environment of the Roman Empire is treated in some detail, while Cardinal Scola showcases the novelty of the Edict of Milan. By granting religious toleration, Constantine was in some ways very modern — and, in some ways, anticipating Vatican II. 

As philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski notes, Constantine’s innovation was in fact undone by Theodosius when, in 380, he made Christianity the imperial religion.

Cardinal Scola also devotes attention to the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae (whose golden jubilee occurs this year), trying to show that its teaching on religious liberty, while representing development, also stands in continuity with earlier ecclesiastical teaching. 

The heart of the book, however, is the religious situation today, especially in Western Europe and the United States, where “religious freedom” is often perverted into an aggressive freedom from religion:

“The issue of ‘religious freedom,’ which at first glance raises a very widespread consensus, has always possessed a content that is anything but obvious. It is embedded, in fact, in a fairly complex knot in which at least three serious problems intersect: (a) the relationship between objective truth and individual conscience; (b) the coordination between religious communities and state power; and (c) … the interpretation of the universality of salvation in Christ. ... Religious freedom ... appears today as the encapsulation of a much broader challenge: that of the elaboration and practice, on the local and universal levels, of new anthropological, sociological and cosmological foundations of the coexistence proper to civil societies in the third millennium.”

The author raises provocative questions of how to foster dialogue about the common good in modern society when that dialogue previously depended on an increasingly spent reservoir of socio-cultural influences from Judeo-Christian thought, a source increasingly hounded out of public life. He also makes important comments about the role of lay Catholics to witness to their faith in public life.

This little book is no easy read, because of the academic level at which Cardinal Scola is operating (see the previous quote), its genre (a survey that sweeps through a daunting swath of topics) and its telescopic treatment of some subjects that warrant a lecture in themselves (e.g., his remark that conscientious objection serves not just the moral integrity of the dissenter but society itself by insisting there is no common consensus on a topic whose proponents would like nothing less than feign growing social approval). 

No person undergoing serious discussion of religious freedom and wanting to understand where Catholics are coming from can ignore this book. Highly recommended.

John M. Grondelski writes from

Shanghai, China.