Academy Looks at 4 Threats to Religious Liberty

Meeting Has «Memorable Character» With Beatification of Founder

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 4, 2011 ( The president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences says the group’s 17th plenary assembly had a «special and memorable character» since it coincided with the beatification of Pope John Paul II, who founded the group in 1994.

Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon offered a wrap-up of the April 29-May 3 session today, explaining how the scholars considered «Universal Rights in a World of Diversity – The Case of Religious Freedom.»

She said there is a «critical challenge for religious liberty» today. «Even in countries where religious liberty has a long and apparently secure constitutional foundation, the suspicion of those religious believers who claim to know truths about the human person leads to marginalization and even outright discrimination.»

The scholar noted how the pontifical academy members looked at the theme with «the conviction that religious freedom goes to the very heart of what it means to be human.» They highlighted what she called «four broad areas of threats to religious liberty.»

The first is the «standard threat»: state coercion and persecution of religious believers. Then there is: state restrictions upon the religious liberties of religious minorities; societal pressure on religious minorities that may or may not be state sanctioned, but nonetheless curtails the liberties of those minorities; and the growth of secular fundamentalism in Western countries which considers religious believers a threat to secular, liberal democratic politics.

Glendon cited studies showing that religious liberty started to decline in 2005, after a high point in 1998.

«According to the most extensive cross-national study ever conducted, nearly 70% of the world’s people currently live in countries that impose ‘high restrictions’ on religious freedom, the brunt of which falls on religious minorities,» she said.

Even in countries with few restrictions, Glendon added, «the academy and public life often portray religion as a source of social division, and treat religious freedom as a second-class right to be trumped by a range of other claims and interests.»


The lawyer observed, however, that social science «has begun to cast doubt on the common belief — almost a dogma — in secular circles that religion is per se a source of social division, and on the related claim by many authoritarian governments that religious freedom must be curtailed for the sake of social peace.»

She said there is under way a re-examination of the «traditional bias against religion in elite circles,» and a questioning of «the assumption that the liberal state can afford to be indifferent or hostile to religion.»

«No serious thinker disputes that the preservation of a free society depends on citizens and statespersons with particular skills, knowledge, and qualities of mind and character,» Glendon said. «But many have taken the position that the free society could get along just fine without religion, and that the more religion was confined to the private sphere, the freer everyone would be. […] That faith in the ability of democracy to generate the virtues it needs in its citizens was shaken, however, in the wake of the social and cultural upheavals of the late 20th century.»


While Glendon acknowledged that no model of religious freedom can work for every nation, this, she said, in no way implies that religious freedom is not a universal right.

«Rather,» she said, «it is to recognize that there must be room for a degree of pluralism in modes of bringing religious freedom and other fundamental human rights to life under diverse cultural circumstances.»

The pontifical academy members examined this degree of pluralism, acknowledging the «major difficulty» of determining «where does legitimate pluralism end and pure cultural relativism begin.»

The speakers looked at questions on limits of tolerance, the freedom of religious institutions to govern themselves, the role of religiously grounded moral viewpoints in public discourse, and the role of natural law, among many other issues.

«Several dilemmas emerged from these discussions,» Glendon admitted. «On the one hand, the more broadly religious freedom is conceived, the more tensions arise among individual religious freedom, the autonomy of religious bodies, other rights, and the interests of the state. Yet, one of the principal ways in which religious liberty is violated is by construing it so narrowly as to confine it to the private sphere. To abolish religion from the public sphere […] does not resolve conflicts but merely papers them over.»

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