A Proposal from Milan: Making Space for Religion

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.”

Scola Book CoverWhile 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.

R. J. Snell


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

  • David Kenny

    Secularism is not neutrality, but a wholly new state religion, which is antithetical to Christianity. The adherents of secularism are only too happy to impose their religion on the rest of us, while decrying the imposition of Christianity on themselves.

    • shieldsheafson

      “Toleration as it was understood by early modern philosophers like John Locke was richer and fuller than toleration as political liberals understand it today. Political liberals today think of toleration in a methodologically secular way: they try to replicate the two-kingdom infrastructure of Christian liberty in ways that do not retain the Christian model’s theological commitments.”

      “But after decades of efforts to be emancipated from religious influences, political liberals have only succeeded in developing a toleration that is an impoverished relative of its classical cousin.”


    • Atilla The Possum

      How right you are!

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Well if the snake and the mongoose are going to live together peacefully, the mongoose will just have to loose its teeth and claws. Its only fair to the cobra.

  • JP

    The idea of secular neutrality immediately puts religion on the defensive, as it is assumed the secular state has the upper hand and is only accommodating religion or religious people. This runs smack dab against the idea that no government or political party grants Man his rights, for those rights are endowed by our Creator. We the people give the State are consent to be governed. And consent can be withdrawn. We are witnessing the State grabbing as much power as it can and thus negating any idea of neutrality.

    On the one hand, there are militant Muslims murdering Christians; on the other hand, the secular state is withdrawing any pretense of neutrality. I don’t think any Catholic no matter how orthodox wishes to see a return of a religious political order. However, the costs of living in a secular one means an almost constant permanent vigil for the religious. It would be a constant tension within society, as the secular state constantly attempts to erode the rights of the Church, while the Church constantly has to fend off such attempts. We all know how persistent Progressives can be. They never sleep.

  • ColdStanding

    Dignitatis Humanae was a dud from the get go. The big cuckoo egg: “subsists”.

  • craig

    The first duty of all peoples and all governments is toward the truth. (Toward capital-T Truth and the Logos of John 1, yes, but let’s aim lower at first.) A state is ethically crippled if it refuses to acknowledge the objective existence of moral truth, or dismisses it as merely socially constructed (which amounts to the same thing). All states that have politics establishing the moral code instead of merely subscribing to it, inevitably end up as might-makes-right.

    The trick for Christian polities (if there are ever to be any again) is to discern a middle way between declaring official indifference toward truth on the one hand, and conflating heresy with treason on the other. I can see merit in the claims of some that Dignitatis Humanae departed from historical Catholic doctrine and practice, but then I cannot not instinctively abhor the view of medieval Christendom regarding religious freedom as being basically Islamic in its disdain for freedom of conscience. Much as I would like to admire St. Thomas More’s martyrdom for following his conscience, I cannot overlook that he had other people burned at the stake for following theirs.

    “When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.” — Frank Herbert, from “Dune”

    I ask: is there a way to hold the idea that “error has no rights” and yet not to put Order above Law in practice? Is genuine evangelization and conversion even possible in a society which treats disbelief as a crime?

    • Joseph

      I thought that, like the Inquisition, the church and church leaders did not have anything to do with any executions. I thought that torture and punishments were allowed, as the intention was repentance. I do not think that the church is empowered to punish someone for heresy with death. Wasn’t it the state that executed people?

      • craig

        It’s not much of a distinction. There are numerous textual sources declaring it a ruler’s solemn duty to punish and even execute heretics on behalf of the Church, and threatening rulers with interdict or worse for not carrying out that duty. So clerics can’t get off the hook merely by claiming it wasn’t their hands doing the deed. Jesus was executed by the (Roman) state too, but that fact didn’t absolve the Sanhedrin of their share of blame.

    • Trazymarch

      “I cannot not instinctively abhor the view of medieval Christendom
      regarding religious freedom as being basically Islamic in its disdain
      for freedom of conscience.”
      Do you abhor the view of the current Secularism regarding freedom of conscience too?

      • craig

        I’m not sure there is a single secularist view to abhor. In general, there is a continuum of possible views regarding freedom of conscience:
        (a) theocratic state with prohibition of dissent;
        (b) established state religion with suppression of dissent;
        (c) established state religion without suppression of dissent;
        (d) unestablished religion that is dominant over secular culture;
        (e) no single dominant religion;
        (f) unofficial secularism that is dominant over religious culture;
        (g) official state secularism that accommodates religious conscience;
        (h) official state secularism that suppresses religious conscience;
        (i) official state atheism that prohibits religion entirely.

        I’d call the views starting at (f) and going down from there ‘secularist’ in increasing degrees. I listed the categories because there is a tendency for secularists to work toward an actual goal one line lower on this list than the goal that they tell themselves they are seeking. Only rarely, such as in Maoist China or Revolutionary France, is the absolutist (i) sought openly.

        In the USA, most of the Founders remembered (b) in recent British history and therefore sought (d), and a scant few of them imagined themselves in favor of (e). America for most of its history was in (d) but only the rural areas of ‘red’ states are still there. Since 1945, the cities and suburbs have morphed through (e) into (f). The GOP elite is now entirely (f) and (g), while the rank-and-file is now dominated by (f) with a remnant of (d). The Democrat rank-and-file now mostly imagine themselves to be seeking (g), but they in fact seek (h). The Democrat elite is (h) trending toward (i). Catholics, I’d say, are dominated by (f) with a remnant of (d).

        My question above was sincerely asking whether it is possible at all to have a stable (c); if it’s not, I prefer (d) over (b). My own view can be summarized by Lincoln’s maxim: ‘as I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master’.

        • Trazymarch

          Actually IMHO it’s impossible for state to exist without suppresing, at least to some extent, dissent. Whether its monarchy,liberal democracy or whatever else. Also your model has a bit of weakness. Rather than listing possible ways I think it would be better – in case of current countries – to aproach this way:
          a) Country approach to religion is akin to French model of enlightenment
          b) Country approach to religion is akin to Anglosaxon model of enlightenment
          c) Something different
          If you go into the past there are very interesting countries/regions which might broaden your view of point:
          a)Byzantine Empire – domination of state over Church.
          b)Latin Culture – power of Church and state were in balance.
          Feliks Koneczny had written more about it.

  • HartPonder

    Some would argue the claim “…the secularism of the state, consequently granting freedom of religion for all, equally, without distinction…”

    In fact, Pagan sacrifice was forbidden, and treasures of many temples were confiscated (excepting those temples dedicated to the Imperial cult).

    Notwithstanding, the State didn’t direct aggression only against Pagans. ‘Heretic’ cults of dissension from the larger established Church cause problems as well. Arianism come to mind.

    Jesus is spot on:

    Mark 12:17

    “And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at him.

    “The Church, in fact, lives in the world, even if she is not of the world (cf. Jn 17:16). She is sent to continue the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, which “by its very nature concerns the salvation of humanity…” CHRISTIFIDELES LAICI

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      The text relating to the banning of pagan sacrifices (Cod. Theod., XVI, x, 2) is rather obscure and occurs in an edict of Constantine’s son.

      It was limited to private sacrifices (sacrificia domestica) not to the public cults – “We do not forbid the old usages in the light of day.”

  • pbecke

    Wow. What a perceptive, informative analysis.

  • John Albertson

    If Scola had been elected in the last Conclave, the Church would be in a much more blessed position now.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “[T]he “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…”

    I fail to see how the banning of religious symbols, such as the hijab in state schools, or the wearing of the burka, infringes anyone’s religious freedom – Such laws are concerned with actions, not opinions.

    • Aliquantillus

      Freedom of religion is not freedom of opinion or freedom of speech. If this were so, then a distinct freedom of religion wouldn’t be included in the Constitutions of modern States. Freedom of religion is freedom of religious observance, freedom to fulfil one’s religious obligitions. For example the freedom of the Jewish community to perform Shechitah in order to have kosher meat, or the freedom of Catholics to go to Mass on Sundays, and generally the freedom of religious organizations to rule their own affairs according to their doctrines. For example the freedom of the Pope to appoint bishops without political interference. Religious freedom is thus exactly a freedom of action, of religious practice.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Many modern constitutions adopt the formula in the Eclaration of the Rights of Man – the oldest such guarantee: “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, even religious ones, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.”

        Dignitatis Humanae, would appear to have this model in mind, in declaring that religious freedom “is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.” It elaborates this, as follows, “These norms arise out of the need for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality.”

        It would appear that the legislator’s margin of appreciation is considerable. Thus, in supporting the ban on the hijab in schools, Rachida Dati, herself a Muslim, noted that “Pupils’ freedom of conscience, which is an internal freedom, in no way gives them ‘the right to express and manifest their religious beliefs’ in educational institutions, for that involves external acts which improperly introduce religion into the public domain of the school.”

        This notion of “internal freedom” or “forum internum” figures prominently in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

        • Aliquantillus

          I consider this a wrong approach, which will end in active persecution of religious minorities, primarily the Jews. I prefer a more historically oriented foundation, which guarantees that parents and communities themselves have rights. Only this guarantees that in the long run practices such as Jewish circumcision and Catholic child baptism will not be outlawed.

          As to your concern that religion penetrates the “public domain”, religious expression in the public domain is not a problem as long as a specific religion doesn’t claim the public domain by harming the liberties of other religions and the non-religious. The public domain is not secular domain but a common domain, where the should be place for all. In the public domain we have Jewish kippot, Catholic crosses, and Muslim headcoverings. The project of clearing the public domain from religious expressions sends the signal that religion is only a personal, not a communal affair. This is an utterly un-Catholic viewpoint, which would require the removal of countless crucifixes, other statutes and visible signs of Catholicism, such as processions.

          To clear the public domain from religious symbols intentionally or unintentionally sends the message the the ideal for our society is secularism. It is outright discrimination to permit secularist symbols but not religious symbols in the public domain.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour


            You are confusing the public sphere of the state and its administration, the public sphere, encompassing the state, territorial authorities, public administration, and public services with the public domain, the framework of society, which is the domain not only of individuals but of groups and associations (and thus of churches and religious communities). This is why religious freedom is at once individual (freedom of conscience) and collective (freedom of religious communities). It implies that the latter organize themselves and operate freely.

            More simply, the religious neutrality of the state concerns the religious beliefs of individuals, not in order to restrict them, but in order to exclude their intervention in, or impact on, the relations between private individuals and public authorities and obliges individuals to respect common rules in these relations.

        • “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, even religious ones, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.”

          All hail God state. Let us empower and serve public magistrates, such as Imperial Prosecutor Vital Dutour, who can bring his or her cynicism and wisdom in ensuring that public order is not “disturbed” by the “hallucinations” of a Bernadette.

          What ever lofty words are employed in Europe has provided a rhetorically robust, but a substantively impotent right of religion, that has resulted in the destruction of Christendom in favor of statism while simultaneously being unable to identify and repel the insidious boring of the invasive termite from the Middle East, that gnaws endlessly on the beams.

          If one wants vainglorious rhetoric, consult European legislatures and tribunals. If one wants effective public policy, ignore Europe and their machinations.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            “These norms arise out of the need for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality.” – Dignitatis Humanae

            • Fantastic. Too bad governments have a different view.

        • craig

          ‘Public order’ is a wedge by which almost any religious exercise can be
          suppressed (and has been). Diocletian himself could have used that excuse. So I’m not impressed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

          First Amendment to the US Constitution has the stronger statement
          ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
          or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…’ Current
          jurisprudence on the subject permits laws that abridge a fundamental
          Constitutional right only according to the doctrine of ‘strict
          scrutiny’, meaning that a court must determine that a law or policy:
          (1) is justified by a compelling governmental interest; (2) is narrowly
          tailored to achieve that goal or interest; and (3) is the least
          restrictive means for achieving that interest.

          For example, a ban on religious garb worn by military personnel on top of the required uniform has been upheld as a compelling interest for military discipline, applying only in the context where the uniform is required to be worn.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            Yet “public order” is the term employed by Dignitatis Humanae.

            • craig

              Yet “public order” is the term employed by Dignitatis Humanae.

              And it’s a flaw. DH circumscribes religious freedom according to the needs of a “just public order” — a phrase as lawyerly as it is content-free.

              Does DH mandate that Jews or Hindus or heretical Christian sects have
              freedom to practice in a hypothetical Catholic state, or not? Any
              clever lawyer could argue that these groups’ religious freedom
              constituted an injury to “just” public order. When I come across blog posts by SSPX-types detailing their complaints against DH, I think: what is the big deal? DH gives with one hand but takes away with the other.

              • Michael Paterson-Seymour

                I believe DH quite consciously adopted the language of existing constitutional guarantees.

                Again, its elaboration, “These norms arise out of the need for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality” will be seen to parallel the language of the European Declaration of Human Rights, “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” I do not believe these similarities are coincidental.

                The legislator obviously has a wide margin of appreciation in the application of principles to particular local and historical circumstances.

  • Wayfarer

    In the very first line of the article, you say that we are in the “waning days of Christendom.” I was wondering if you might elaborate upon what you mean precisely by that and do you see it as inevitable?

  • veritasetgratia

    The problems with the above are that when one fails to welcome “the truth” either as the Christian message, or even the truth which is revealed through science (e.g. climate, sickness, and so on), then the punishment is that God brings down a “blindness” as a punishment and we see this so amply today with politicians failing to assess the real threats to our free society. So at its base, secularism is atheism and is a turning away from the whole “arrogant” notion of truth existing. What’s more, a cynicism develops where politicians believe they can use one religious group to carry out mayhem against another equallly troublesome group. At the forefront, we see the Catholic Church maintaining that it is speaking for the Truth, and on the other side we see Islamists pursuing their interpretation of the demands of Truth (from their own understanding). So plurality in society, where all religious groups harmoniously pursue truth in their own way, is a mirage. To some degree, anyone who does not welcome the Truth is in fact an atheist or on their way even if they dont realise it. It is time to unmask Secularism for what it is : Atheism with the scent of totalitarianism, communism with another face.