Christendom may have begun with an edict from Milan; now, in the waning days of Christendom, another voice from Milan, Angelo Cardinal Scola, in his little book Let’s Not Forget God: Freedom of Faith, Culture, and Politics, “brings back to our attention the issue, more relevant than ever, of religious freedom.”
Initially a speech celebrating the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, the watershed declaration of 313 AD by which emperors Constantine and Licinius granted legal rights to Christians, Let’s Not Forget God provides a serious, if brief, examination of the prospects of religious liberty under the regime of secularism, although it does so by turning to earlier days of the Church.
Beginning in 286, Diocletian attempted a dramatic renovation of the empire, including a revived sacralization of the sovereigns, whose adoration ensured the “pax deorum and therefore the safety of the empire and its inhabitants.” For several religious groups, including Christians, this was intolerable, eventually resulting in an attempt to demolish the Church by prohibiting the liturgy, confiscating property, denying legal recourse, and execution.
While persecution ended in 311 with Galerius requesting “the faithful not do anything against the public order and … pray to ‘their God’ for its safety,” acceptance of Christianity as religio licita “continued to maintain that it was an inalienable prerogative of imperial power to ‘manage’ the relationship between the divine sphere and the subjects of the empire.” But, says Cardinal Scola, the Edict of Milan was the “dawn of religious freedom” insofar as it differentiated the juridical and religious dimensions and recognized, within the limits of its time, the secularism of the state, consequently granting freedom of religion for all, equally, without distinction. Or, in the words of the Edict itself, “we … grant both to the Christians and to all men freedom to follow the religion which they choose … each one should have the liberty of choosing and worshiping whatever deity he pleases.”
While Galerius still judged the pax deorum to depend on the power of the state, Constantine and Licinius claim no divinity for themselves but recognize “the absolute freedom of the divinity itself” in requiring worship. That is, while the Edict of Milan still intends that “whatever heavenly divinity exists may be propitious” to the empire—a pax deorum—now the deity rather than the sovereign determines the licitness of religion. Which is not to pretend, as Scola acknowledges, a subsequent history free from excess or abuse.
Still, while the Edict of Milan may mark the “initium libertatis of modern man,” it does not speak in modern categories, for while “modernity understands religious freedom as a right of the subject … for the ancient it is ‘the religious sphere’ that is free.” Constantine limits his authority to manage religion, but we moderns think religious freedom subsists when the individual exercises freedom with respect to religion. In a similar way, then, Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom, emphasizes religious duties and rights: “a vision of the person as principle, subject, and end of all social institutions.”
As summarized by Scola, the declaration affirms the person’s right to religious freedom, within the limits of a just public order, inasmuch as all persons bear the “moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth,” and since “men cannot discharge these obligations … unless they enjoy immunity,” the right of religious freedom rests in the very nature of the person.
From this several points follow. First, freedom stems from the responsibility to seek and live by the truth, so religious freedom cannot mean an absolute moral autonomy with lordship over the truth but rather a negative juridical freedom limiting state power. Second, error still has no rights, and there is no legitimate autonomy to invent or deny the truth, but “a person has rights even when he errs” and ought always to be guaranteed immunity from external coercion. One may be wrong, and one has the duty to correct that error, but even then one maintains “an inviolable social buffer zone” into which the state and others cannot intrude, within the bounds of a just public order.
In light of this conception of religious freedom, scanning the news of our day presents cause for concern, says Scola. First, violent persecution persists in all too many regions of the world. Second, even within Western democracies, an atmosphere of threat and fear is present, and perhaps even growing, along with intimidation, vandalism, and violence directed against certain religious groups. Third, and the focus of his discussion, a secular ideology fosters the “now numerous and frequent juridical decisions in the West that tend to restrict the full expression of religious freedom,” including the prohibition of religious symbols and various attempts requiring individuals and groups to violate their conscience or face punitive state action.
According to Scola, the theory of secular neutrality is a troubling one when prescinding from substantive visions of the good is construed to require “that those who believe in a truth must simply be excluded from the liberal political debate.” Neutrality tends to create a condition in which public authority does not merely maintain aconfessionality but “ends up legitimizing a vision of public authority as defender of a secularism foreign to religious realities.” That is, too often neutrality equates secular with nonreligious. In that context, the public sphere is willing to work with every idea except those of religion: “in this way the so-called neutral state is not culturally impartial but takes on a secularist orientation that … becomes hostile” toward religion.
In practice, neutrality’s deformed equation of aconfessionality with secularity can rather aggressively violate religious freedom—the “contraception mandate” or the rights of health care professionals. As troubling as those examples are, it is perhaps more distressing to realize that neutrality creates sustained and permanent conditions siding against religion; in its attempt to preserve the peace, the state ends up governing religion, a devolution to the pre-Constantinan management of religio licita.
Rather than equate secular with nonreligious (or even antireligious), Scola presses the genuinely aconfessional state—and he expresses no nostalgia for Christendom—to forgo the myth of “detachment,” or the “impossible neutralization of worldviews,” and instead seek to open space where individuals and institutions may “make its own contribution to the common good.” Not, he hastens to add, out of an anemic respect for the “peculiarities” of this or that religious sensibility, thus cementing the interpretation of religion as “obsolete, mythologic, folkloric.” Instead, and in keeping with Dignitatis Humanae, the state should recognize and promote as inherent to persons the duty and right to seek ultimate truth, which “also concerns those who do not believe.” In fact, if there is a fundamental obligation to seek and live by the truth (and thus a right to do so with immunity), then within the limits of a just order the state should refrain from impinging or limiting this search in any way, and should, moreover, promote such a search as inherent to the full flourishing and dignity of its citizens. Rather than an incipient antireligious mood masquerading as neutrality, the state should promote religion, albeit in an explicitly pluralistic way.
As Scola explains, and those who confuse pluralism with a rejection of the encounter between various truth-proposals should consider, it is only when we acknowledge the duty, and thus freedom, to seek the truth that a space can be opened “in which the good of communication among subjects and their mutual recognition may be effectively guaranteed.” Truth without freedom leads to clashes—sometimes violent—between worldviews, but freedom unhooked from truth eviscerates the possibility of communicating with each other in a polity.
In fact, the widely lamented “crisis of communication,” the disengagement and incivility so endemic in our democracies, appears all but inevitable given the collapse of the “great narratives” of modernity, unless we begin from “the principle of communication” understood as a “holding” and “being in common.” Such a principle is not just a fact but is the “result of a decision” in which a shared idea of goodness exists “in which all can recognize themselves.” Of course, in a context of pluralism this shared recognition is not likely to be a universal narrative, worldview, theory, or religion, but it can be understood as the “practical good of being together.”
Such a common good—the practical good of being together—simply cannot be achieved when differences are thought to foster “an estranging privation” or when enforced in violation of the freedom and dignity of those differences. Instead, the “truly public and therefore authentically aconfessional” makes it possible for citizens to express the meaning of their own experience even when such expression requires them to draw upon “the traditions to which they belong, whether these be religious or secular.” The good of being together, then, as full persons, “requires abandoning” those oppositional accounts of secularism’s neutrality in favor of allowing each and every person to “have their say,” even when they cannot speak themselves without the language and logic of religion.
But surely a pluralistic and democratic polity can hope for no less than the mutual encounter of citizens coming together in deliberation—locking themselves together in argument—each in their full status. As Hopkins knew, “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same … Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells”; and it cannot be a requirement for our public life that we must be less than ourselves.
The Edict of Milan gave the early, albeit incomplete, shape to religious freedom. Seventeen centuries later the Archbishop of Milan shares a proposal—an offering, a gift, not an edict—attempting to preserve and develop that legacy. It’s a gift worth receiving, even if to counter and debate, but we would be wise to do so, especially at a time when the “normal” conversation seems decrepit and creaky, and with so much at stake.