The Holy See and Challenges to Religious Freedom

According to Archbishop Lajolo, Vatican Secretary for Relations With States

ROME, DEC. 11, 2004 ( Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the secretary for the Holy See’s relations with states, delivered an address at the Dec. 3 conference on “Religious Freedom: The Cornerstone of Human Dignity.” The event was organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and held at the Gregorian University. Below is an excerpt from the talk.

* * *

“The Holy See and Contemporary Challenges to Religious Freedom”

Mr. Ambassador, …

I am grateful to His Excellency Mr. Jim Nicholson, ambassador of the United States of America to the Holy See, for the invitation to address this conference bringing to a conclusion a series of celebrations on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the United States of America. In particular, I wish to express my appreciation for this initiative intended both to confirm and to render more effective the excellent relations between his great nation and the See of Peter. …

I would like … to recall some of the principal challenges that the international community must confront today in order to defend the contents of religious freedom as delineated in the reflection of the same international community.

Notwithstanding the fact that society of many countries seems to live with religious indifferentism and that younger generations are made to grow in ignorance of the spiritual patrimony of the people to which they belong, the religious phenomenon does not cease to interest and attract citizens.

For this reason, the Holy See never ceases to insist that, while respecting the legitimate autonomy and secularity of the state — Pius XII had introduced the expression “sana laicità” — the public dimension of religious freedom be recognized. This argument has been put forward on various occasions by the Holy See, not only during the recent debate on the Christian roots of Europe, but also in relation to some national legislations. Last January 12, the Holy Father himself said as much in receiving the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. He recalled how “a healthy dialogue between the state and the churches — which are not rivals but partners — can encourage the integral development of the human person and harmony in society.”

Such a dialogue is necessary, among other reasons, in order to respect the principles of an authentic pluralism and to build true democracy, either on a national or international level. Was it not Alexis De Tocqueville who underlined the fact that despotism does not need religion, but freedom and democracy do? (cfr. “Democracy in America,” I, 9). In today’s multi-ethnic and multi-confessional societies, religions constitute an important factor of unity among their members and the Christian religion, with it universal outlook, invites all to openness, to dialogue and to a harmonious working together. When the secularity of states is, as it must be, an expression of true freedom, then it favors dialogue and, therefore, transparent and regular cooperation between civil society and religious groups, in the service of the common good, and it contributes to building up the international community based on participation rather than exclusion, and on respect rather than on contempt.

During the process of drafting the European Constitutional Treaty, a memorandum of the Holy See recalled, among other things, the importance of “the institutional dimension of religious freedom” and, as a consequence, the right of each religious confession to organize itself freely, in conformity with the statutes that govern it. This aspect found a reference in Article 52 of the European Constitutional Treaty.

Let me point out that it would be out of place to fear that the recognition of such a dimension exonerates religious communities from respecting some fundamental norms of law, thus favoring eventual fundamentalist and extremist groups, or even conniving with terrorist networks. Both international and international legislation contain clauses that safeguard and protect human and fundamental rights, such as the respect of public order and national security. The observance of these clauses is imperative. Such clauses guarantee that any statute, activity or organization which places itself in contrast with the fundamental principles of individual countries or of international law, may not be recognized in their respective domains.

If it is accepted that religious freedom is a right rooted in the very nature of the human person and that, as a result, it is prior to any express recognition on the part of state authorities, then the registration of religious communities cannot be considered as a prerequisite for enjoying such freedom. When the registration of religious communities is requested in order to enjoy fully and exercise effectively the right to religious freedom, it cannot be denied by state authorities provided that, obviously, there exist those general basic conditions, required by national legislations and by international standards.

On the multilateral level, the Holy See has emphasized on more than one occasion that religious freedom implies, in the civil sphere, the subjective right of changing one’s religion as well. This specific right is the object of special attention in bilateral relations with countries in which a state religion is constitutionally recognized.

As I have already mentioned, the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] states that religious freedom “includes the freedom to change his religion or belief”; various international documents also contain similar affirmations. In this regard, I would like to mention General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Committee, relative to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states: “The freedom to have or to adopt a religion or a belief necessarily includes the freedom to choose a religion or a belief and to substitute that which one already believes, or even to assume an atheistic conception.” I chose this document because it interprets authentically Article 18 and has binding force for the party-states to that pact.

In the international context, marked by an insurgence of religious fundamentalisms, it is more than ever imperative to recall the international ban on coercion, on penal sanctions or on the threat of physical force in order to force adherence to religious creeds or religious communities. Here, several states are seriously deficient. Furthermore, as far as this issue is concerned it is not enough for a state to guarantee such a freedom by means of a constitutional norm, or by means of a corresponding legislation which applies it; the exercise of this freedom must be efficiently protected on the level of lived social relations.

In these times, the attention of the international community and of some of its organizations tends to place religious freedom “under the umbrella” of tolerance. I am thinking, in a particular way, of OSCE and the attention which that organization, for some time now, dedicates to the topic, in the realm of its so-called human dimension.

In this regard, the Holy See has many times recalled the content of yet another international document for which it so readily committed itself. I am referring to the 1995 UNESCO Declaration on Tolerance. This document specifies that tolerance does not mean “a renunciation or a weakening of one’s own principles,” but rather “the freedom to adhere to one’s own convictions and to accept that others can do the same.” Those who live with coherence their own religious convictions cannot, as such, be considered intolerant. They become so if, instead of proposing their own convictions and eventually expressing respectful criticism of convictions other than their own, they intend to impose their convictions and exercise either open or surreptitious pressure on the conscience of others.

On the other hand, prevision for a differentiated juridical discipline of religious confessions is not contrary to tolerance, as long as the identity and freedom of each one of them is guaranteed. In itself, not even the recognition of a state religion violates human rights. Naturally, such a disposition must not prejudice the effective and full enjoyment of even one of the civil and political rights of religious minorities. In this sense, it is helpful to recall yet again that the already cited General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Committee emphasized that, for the principle of nondiscrimination on account of religion or creed, the state authority must not limit access to services and government offices only to the faithful of the official religion or of the religious majority.


I would like to conclude with a question: Is there a state in which the Church can say that religious freedom is so fully realized that she, with the freedom which is distinctively hers — the “libertas Ecclesiae” — finds herself perfectly at ease? If the answer is to be exact or precise, it should be negative.

Even in states in which the right to religious freedom is taken very seriously and in which the Church can say that she is reasonably satisfied, there is always something which does not adequately respond to her needs. In one country, for example, the specific nature of some of her fundamental institutions is not recognized (for example, regarding her hierarchical structure). In another there is no due recognition of canonical marriage; in another the educational system does not sufficiently respect the right of parents and even less of the Church; in yet another the economic system does not take into account the properly social ends of the institutions of the Church.

In these countries, notwithstanding this or that particular limitation, the Church nevertheless can say that she enjoys almost always sufficient freedom, equal to that of other religious confessions. And she knows how to accept certain limitations, fully cognizant of her “pilgrim” nature, “in statu viae,” as a companion with and sympathetic toward each “homo viator” who seeks, consciously or not, the face of God.

The “libertas Ecclesiae,” her intrinsic freedom, is in each case stronger than any possible limitation that can be imposed upon her, because it derives from the mandate of Christ and has the deep and vast breath of the Spirit: It is the freedom of that love which dwells in her — ever ancient and ever new — for the human person, who is the living image of God.

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation