Religious Freedom

The English edition of L’Osservatore Romano, for the Fourth of July, carried a "Common Declaration" signed in the Vatican Private Library by Pope Benedict XVI and the Orthodox Archbishop H. B. Chrysostomos II of Nea Justiniana and All Cyprus. In No. 4 of this declaration, these two leaders, somewhat curiously, address themselves to "those who everywhere raise their hand against their own brethren," exhorting them to "lay down their arms." Nothing is said about what is to be done if this exhortation is ignored.
Next follows an appeal to "ensure that human rights are always defended in every nation." The word used is "defend," seeming to imply something more than an appeal. The rationale for this appeal is set down: Human rights should be "defended" because the "human person is an image of God." To protect this person is "a fundamental duty for all."
How is this "duty" to be carried out? If we say that the "human person" is an "image of God," we appeal to a revelational principle. Why are those who do not accept this position bound by it? If they are not, it obviously makes no sense to call on "human rights." Moreover, in modern terminology, the word "rights" can have almost any meaning.
What follows next is a priority statement that John Paul II often used. "Among human rights to be safeguarded is freedom of religion." This latter should be at the "top of the list." Why? A negative answer is given, an argument from consequence: "Failure to respect this right constitutes a very serious offence to the dignity of the human being, who is struck deep within his heart where God dwells."
The implied reasoning seems to be that one’s relation to God cannot be governed by violence, a central theme of the Regensburg Lecture. It is "unreasonable" to use violence to further religion. But again, when violence is so used for that purpose, what is to be done?
The final argument for religious freedom is stated in secular — not religious — terms. "To profane, destroy or sack the places of worship of any religion is an act against humanity and the civilization of the peoples." The focus here has shifted from the "heart" to places of worship that have been bombed and destroyed in the Turkish occupation of Cypriot land. Implied here is a connection between the protection of places of worship and the inner freedom to worship God that is the result of a duty of our being.
Why is "freedom to worship God" the first freedom? Freedom has an object. It is not something given just to be free. We are free in order to accomplish what we are. We are receivers of what we are.
The reason given to protect places of worship is that their destruction is an "act against humanity," not against God, or at least, not so mentioned. Humanity is not an "entity." Destroying churches is also called an act "against the civilization of the peoples." Such expressions sound rather strange.
Presumably, a Muslim would have had no objection to using the notion of crimes against God in this context, even though in his terms, religious shrines, whenever taken over, are often transformed to mosques. We are used to the extraordinary phenomenon in our time of mosques being built all over the world in nations that acknowledge freedom of religion, but the same permission to build churches in Muslim-controlled areas is either denied or severely restricted.
Thus the oft-used terminology "acts against humanity" and crimes "against the civilization of peoples" seems geared to those who are secularized; those who might have some vague notion of what is humanly decent or civilized but no idea of how these standards are related to God.
The First Amendment places freedom of religion first: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." It does not say why it is first or toward what it is exercised when used. Neither the pope nor the archbishop of Nea Justiniana would have any trouble with this statement if we could get it practiced everywhere.

Rev. James V. Schall, S. J., teaches political science at Georgetown University.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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