On March 21, 2019, Cardinal Ladaria approved the publication of “Religious Freedom for the Good of All: Theological Approaches and Contemporary Challenges,” a document by the International Theological Commission, Sub-commission for Religious Freedom. The document aims to resituate the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, particularly the teaching from Dignitatis humanae, in a context that has changed since the Second Vatican Council. “Religious Freedom for the Good of All” is an excellent reflection on the meaning of religious liberty and the Church’s role in political life today, one that can help us promote the mission of the Church in our pluralistic society. It presents a vision of “positive laicity,” where there is cooperation between Christian faith and the state grounded in a proper distinction of tasks (no. 65). Some themes from the document stand out as particularly important for us in the United States.
The ITC notes that in the time since the Second Vatican Council it has become clear that religion, against predictions, is not fading away as a force in society. This can be seen particularly in the Middle East and in Asia, where religious traditions play a leading role (no. 2). Even secular societies have to consider the relevance of religious communities for social and political life (no. 2). Wherever the problem of religious freedom is discussed throughout the world, however, it is with reference to the liberal, democratic, pluralistic, and secular conception of human rights and civil liberties—whether in support or in opposition (no. 3). Fundamentalist radicalism does not simply represent a return to a more traditional religious practice. Rather, it is, in many ways, a reaction against the liberal conception of the modern state because of its ethical relativism and indifference towards religion (no. 4). Others criticize the liberal state, not for its indifference to religion, but for its hostility toward it, since, in its self-proclaimed neutrality, it seems unable to avoid the tendency to view religious affiliation as an obstacle to an individual fully participating in cultural and political citizenship (no. 4).
The ITC denounces “political monophysitism,” whether a “state theocracy” or a “state atheism,” in which the distinctions between religion and the state are lost and both are deformed (no. 61). The Church’s teaching rejects the temptation to allow either religion to absorb the state (theocratic) (no. 53) or the state to absorb religion (atheistic or secularist) (no. 60). While the Church was right to reject the anti-clericalism and aggressive secularism that accompanied the rise of the liberal state in the nineteenth century, the clarification of the distinction between temporal and spiritual authority represents a positive development (nos. 15-16). As Massimo Faggioli rightly notes, the ITC “does not invite Catholics to look back to Christendom with nostalgia.”
While the ITC sees as a positive development the clearer distinction between Church and state, along with the widespread embrace of the free exercise of religion in pluralistic societies, it criticizes certain conceptions that shape modern liberal states.
One such conception is radical state neutrality in matters of morals or values. The ITC argues that the idea of equality of individuals before the law seems to have been transposed into the realm of ethics and culture, imposing an “egalitarian ideology, which refuses to express any value judgment whatsoever” (no. 62). This neutrality, however, is only apparent, since in fact the state does not guarantee equality of all before the law, but rather excludes certain viewpoints, i.e., any vision of society based on the idea of a transcendent good (no. 63). Such an allegedly neutral political culture “imposes the marginalization, if not exclusion, of religious expression from the public sphere and with that the full freedom to participate in the formation of democratic citizenship” (no. 5). This kind of neutrality can lead to “the spread of a nihilistic ethic in the public domain” (no. 4).
The ITC envisions a society where the contribution of religion to social and political life is recognized: “Only where there is the will to live together can a good future be built for everyone: otherwise there will be no good future for anyone. […] We do not see why it should be impossible, with mutual respect, to share as a good available to all the personal and community relationship that religious communities cultivate with regard to God” (nos. 68-69).
The Church is conscious of the fact that in our world there is a “plurality of different ways of recognizing and understanding the sense of individual and common life” (no. 84). She is committed to developing a way of fulfilling her vocation to be a witness to the faith that is “respectful of individual freedom and the common good,” one that is not marked by a spirit of domination concerned with the conquest of power as an end in itself (no. 84). She calls on the state to exercise a “positive laicity” and to recognize that there is “no reasonable argument for the State to exclude religious freedom from participating in the reflections of the public sphere in the contribution of reasons for the common good” (no. 86).
Finally, the importance of truth is a thread that runs throughout the text. Human persons have a right to religious freedom because we have a duty to seek the truth, to which we must respond in freedom (no. 19). “If freedom grows with the truth, it is equally evident that truth must exist in a climate of freedom in which it can flourish” (no. 41). The “horizon of conviviality” enables us to engage in a “dialogue of truth that all seek” (no. 30). It is because religious freedom is ordered to truth that religion must be willing to engage with all who seek the truth.
Religion cannot forsake truth merely to achieve a false peace in a pluralistic society. “In the name of the pluralism of society, Christians cannot favor solutions that compromise the protection of fundamental ethical needs for the common good” (no. 65). Religious traditions should facilitate and engage in dialogue, which includes speaking the truth clearly as well as listening to the other.
The ITC has produced a profound reflection on the Church’s teaching on religious freedom. I encourage Catholics, and all people of good will, to spend some time with it when you have a chance.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan is Archbishop of New York and Chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty.