We Must Stand Up For The Religious Liberty Of Others

We Must Stand Up For The Religious Liberty Of Others July 17, 2018

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.[1]

Religious liberty is a concern for everyone. Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and anyone else, should not be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs and practices. The Catholic Church, following what was taught since the time of the early martyrs, declared at Vatican II that it was a basic, God-given right for everyone to have the freedom to believe and practice their religious faith (so long as their faith does not violate the rights of anyone else in the process):

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.[2]

Due limits are important. There are obvious cases where supposed religious faith turns into a dangerous fanaticism which dangers society (such as what occurred at Jonestown). Religious liberty is a basic principle. It tells us that not only should everyone have the freedom to believe as they wish, but to ensure they have the means to practice their faith, so long as such practice does not harm or hinder others and their own freedoms. This is why Pope Benedict XVI, in speaking in favor of religious liberty, underscored the dangers of religious fanaticism and how such fanaticism was not supported by religious liberty:

Whenever the legal system at any level, national or international, allows or tolerates religious or antireligious fanaticism, it fails in its mission, which is to protect and promote justice and the rights of all. These matters cannot be left to the discretion of the legislator or the majority since, as Cicero once pointed out, justice is something more than a mere act which produces and applies law. It entails acknowledging the dignity of each person which, unless religious freedom is guaranteed and lived in its essence, ends up being curtailed and offended, exposed to the risk of falling under the sway of idols, of relative goods which then become absolute. All this exposes society to the risk of forms of political and ideological totalitarianism which emphasize public power while demeaning and restricting freedom of conscience, thought and religion as potential competitors.[3]

The dignity of the human person, and the right freedom for the person to preserve that dignity, is key. When religious liberty is violated out of bigotry and undue prejudice, human dignity and the pursuit of the truth is hindered. All suffer as a result of such grave indignity. What is used to justify such violations of human rights can and will easily turn on those who use those justifications. Evil corrupts and destroys all who willingly accepts its ways. When basic human dignity can be rejected, then no one is safe. History consistently demonstrates that when discrimination against one religious tradition develops as a result of hate speech, then others will slowly find their own rights and dignity violated. It is a painful experience to those who have been violated, but also, it is an attack on justice, on the basic order of society founded upon the basis of human dignity, as St. John Paul II understood:

Certainly the curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but it is above all an attack on man’s very dignity, independently of the religion professed or of the concept of the world which these individuals and communities have. The curtailment and violation of religious freedom are in contrast with man’s dignity and his objective rights.[4]

It is clear, with the rise of the alt-right extremism in Europe, a new anti-human ideology is gaining power. Fearmongering and hate speech against Muslims are being used to encourage violations of human dignity as Muslims are finding their religious liberty denied. In Austria, mosques are being shut down and many imams are being expelled, due to the rise of anti-Muslim hysteria. Xenophobia has been used to justify such violation of human rights as Muslims are being told they cannot receive any funding from abroad.[5] It should not be difficult to see how this can quickly be used against others, religious or non-religious, as nationalism builds up walls which will find anyone who accepts financial support from outsiders as suspect.[6]

This bigotry is also on the rise in the United States has helped inspire the right-wing in Europe. Trump’s “Muslim Ban” not only has been approved by the right-wing in Europe, but they want to follow his example and encourage such discrimination as well.. The end result is not too surprising: those who are Muslims, even if they have lived all their lives as citizens of country in which they reside, are being treated as outsiders. We can see this in the United States as we watch a video coming out of New York showing Muslims being harassed as they are told that they cannot be Americans. Their rights and dignity are being violated. All those of good will must stand up and resist such discrimination, not just because of what will come next if it is not stopped, but because all humans deserve basic dignity and respect. If such bigotry is not stopped, then, it should not be surprising that both the nation which accepts such discrimination will become radicalized and tyrannical in its behavior as those facing such discrimination will become radicalized and fight back.

Acceptance of immigrants and the willingness to see the beauty behind a diversity of cultures is a necessary prerequisite for a thriving society. Those who are aware of others and their differences are far less likely to become hostile to them. Living with the other takes out fear and prejudices spawned by gossip, for what is said underhandedly about the other is able to be proven to be false. The Christian tradition, which knows how Christians were killed as a result of such malice, must follow through with the lessons it learned at the earliest stages of Christian history, and join their voices in defense of others who suffer religious discrimination and persecution. When it is the Jews being scapegoated, anti-Semitism must be rejected. When it is Muslims being used as scapegoats, then Christians must speak up and resist Islamophobia. This is exactly what Pope Francis has called Christians to do in the world today, to work with members of other religious traditions, even atheists, and speak up for the common good:

In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or, as I said earlier, to try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religious traditions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and the rights of others.[7]

If we do not do this, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when we find ourselves suffering from true religious discrimination because we would have helped create the structure of evil which denigrates the human person.


[IMG= Freedom of Worship by Norman Rockwell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] Nostra Aetate. Vatican translation.   ¶5.

[2] Dignitatis humanae. Vatican translation.   ¶2.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI. Message for World Day of Peace. January 1, 2011. ¶8.

[4] St. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis. Vatican translation. ¶17.

[5] Vatican II recognized this as a violation of human rights: “Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferral of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties.”  (Dignitatis humanae,  ¶4.)

[6] Will the Vatican be allowed to give support to Austrian churches? Will financial assistance given to scientists be scrutinized and used to squash their research?

[7] Pope Francis. Address of the Holy Father to the Meeting for Religious Liberty with the Hispanic Community and Other Immigrants (Philadelphia: Sept 26, 2015).



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