The Holy See’s “foreign minister” has reminded delegates attending a conference on Christianity and freedom that the concept of human rights has its original roots in Christianity.
Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, secretary for Relations with States, affirmed that “the concept of human rights itself originated in a Christian context” and offered as an example St. Thomas More. The 16th century martyr, at the price of his own life, “bore witness to the fact that Christians, in the light of reason and by virtue of their freedom of conscience, are called to reject every form of oppression,” he said.
The conference was organised by the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown University and the Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. Archbishop Mamberti gave a presentation on the links between religious freedom and Christianity at the conference whose theme was “Christians and religious freedom: historical and contemporary perspectives”.
“The link between Christianity and freedom is thus original and profound”, he continued. “It has its roots in the teaching of Christ himself and Saint Paul appears as one of its most strenuous and brilliant defenders.”
“Freedom is intrinsic to Christianity, for it was, as Paul says, for freedom that Christ set us free”, he said, adding that while Paul referred to interior freedom, this “naturally also has consequences for society”.
Recalling the Edict of Milan, he said it marked the expansion throughout society “of that interior freedom of which Saint Paul spoke.” At the same time, he added, from an historical and cultural standpoint, the Edict represented “the beginning of a process which has marked European history and that of the entire world, leading in the course of the centuries to the definition of human rights and the recognition of religious freedom as ‘the first of human rights’”.
“Constantine saw that the growth of the Empire depended on the ability of each individual to profess freely his or her religious beliefs,” Archbishop Mamberti said. “It suffices to consider the great patrimony of the world’s art, not only that of Christian inspiration, in order to appreciate the inherent goodness of this relationship.”
But he stressed that the word ‘freedom’ can be interpreted in many ways. “Freedom cannot be reduced to mere caprice, or understood in a purely negative sense as the absence of constraint”, he explained. Consequently, he added, religious freedom cannot exclude reason and faith which provides “a bulwark” against both relativism and forms of religious fundamentalism.
The Archbishop concluded stressing that when the Second Vatican Council set forth the principle of religious freedom, “it was not proposing a new teaching.”
Rather, it was “restating” a common human experience: namely, that all human beings are impelled to seek the truth.
“It is in the truth, seen not so much as an absolute which we already possess, but as the potential object of rational and relational knowledge, that we encounter the potential for a sound exercise of freedom,” he said. “And it is precisely in this connection that we discover the authentic dignity of the human person”.