Every 3rd Sunday of the month I am off to St. Clement’s Eucharistic Shrine in Boston to participate in a Communio study group. The group chooses an article from The Catholic journal Communio for discussion and each member leads a discussion on it. This Sunday it was my turn and we read an article titled The Nature and Scope Of Religious Freedom In Our Contemporary Culture by Angelo Cardinal Scola, previously the Patriarch of Venice and currently the Archbishop of Milan. I posed a Q&A on the article and here are my notes.
If you would enjoy Catholic fellowship and a discussion group on Catholic topics, join us. Happy to provide information to any interested. Leave a comment and I will get back to you.
Q: What was the significance of the Edict of Milan?
A It marked not only the gradual ending of the persecutions of the Christians but, above all, the birth of religious freedom. In a certain sense, we can trace as far back as the Edict of Milan the very first emergence in history of the two phenomena that today we call “religious freedom” and “the secular state”.
Q: The author speaks of “the grave contradictions linked to the practice and conception of religious freedom.” What are some of those contradictions that arose over time?
A Ambrose wrote that Christians should be loyal to the civil authority, while at the same time he taught that the civil authority must guarantee freedom to citizens on the personal and social level. In this way there developed recognition of the boundaries of the public weal, whose security citizens and authority alike are called to ensure together.
In the early years of Christianity social disorders connected with the phenomenon of heretics invalidated the framework of religious freedom and the secular state that Ambrose and the Edict of Milan had established.
The Protestant Reformation led to an intensification of the rigid admixture [vocab: The state of being mingled or mixed] of political power and religion that culminated in the Wars of Religion.
The French Revolution introduced the idea of the absolute autonomy of the individual and society in respect to God and his Church. The Church responded in Dignitatis humanae by stating that the right to religious freedom implies immunity from coercion in a twofold sense: man has the right not to be constrained to act against his conscience and at the same time not to be prevented from acting in conformity with it.
Q: How did the promulgation of the Declaration Dignitatis humanae fundamentally change the classic doctrine of religious tolerance developed after the Edict of Milan?
A Dignitatis humanae stated that the human person has a right to religious freedom, and this right continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it. Dignitatis humanae shifted the issue of religious freedom from the notion of truth to the notion of the rights of a human person .Although error may have no rights, a person has rights even when he or she is wrong. This is, of course, not a right before God; it is a right with respect to other people, the community and the State.
The moral law in question is a negative right that adequately establishes the limits of the state and of the civil powers, denying them any direct competence in the area of religious choice. Understood in this way, the right to religious freedom implies immunity from coercion in a twofold sense: man has the right not to be constrained to act against his conscience and at the same time not to be prevented from acting in conformity with it.
Q: What does the affirmation of religious freedom entail (really mean)?
A The affirmation of religious freedom is the acquisition of a renewed knowledge of truth and, as such, always constitutes the start of a journey more than an arrival point. In this case it really means the acknowledgement of a crisis:
- In countries still governed by atheist dictatorships, persecution of dissidents and members of religious communities continues to be common practice.
- In Western Europe and the U.S. several frequent legal acts and decisions have been taken in the West which tend to coercively prevent the full expression of religious freedom: from prohibitions of conscientious objection in a professional sphere to the ban on wearing and showing religious symbols to the obligatory teaching even in religion schools of subjects based on an anthropology or a scientism which is opposed to one’s own creed
Q: Contemporary neo-liberalism (Think Barack Obama or Andrew Cuomo) advances the idea (née conceit) of a neutral state, one that is in-different to religious phenomena which are labeled in the article as secularity of laicité. Describe the position citing examples from the article:
A In no particular order:
- A vision of public power as the defender of a secularity (laicité) that is extraneous to and mistrusts — or even discriminates against — any religious group or institution
- Encourages a cultural prejudice, i.e., the idea of identifying — in a way that is more practical than theoretical — what is secular with what is non-religious. In this way, the public arena is willing to accommodate all different visions and practices other than the religious ones.
- Takes on a secularist orientation which, by means of legislative choices, especially in matters of a sensitive anthropological nature, becomes hostile toward cultural identities of religious origin.
- By means of the objectivity and the authority of the law, it spreads a culture that is a secularized vision of man and of the world that improperly limits religious freedom.
- Takes on a secularist orientation by means of an anthropological vision marked by a profound individualism with an undue emphasis on “rights” rather than duties or obligations and the exercise of/moral conscience. Freedom “from” rather than freedom “to.”
- Elevating a scientistic and technocratic political culture at the expense of the religious.
Q When Cardinal Scola speaks to the notion of religious freedom he encounters what he calls a complex knot of “classic problems.” One is the relationship “between objective truth and individual conscience.” What do you think he means by that?
A A reference to a kind of Vatican short hand shown in this quote from Veritatis Splendour, encyclical letter of John Paul II:
The relationship between man’s freedom and God’s law is most deeply lived out in the “heart” of the person, in his moral conscience. As the Second Vatican Council observed: “In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: ‘do this, shun that’. For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Romans 2:14-16)”. 101 The way in which one conceives the relationship between freedom and law is thus intimately bound up with one’s understanding of the moral conscience. Here the cultural tendencies referred to above – in which freedom and law are set in opposition to each other and kept apart, and freedom is exalted almost to the point of idolatry – lead to a “creative” understanding of moral conscience, which diverges from the teaching of the Church’s tradition and her Magisterium.
Veritatis Splendour, #54
Q The following is a reading selection from pp 326-27 about some of the features of American neo-liberalism. How does it contrast with your understanding of what the American Founding Fathers had in mind or traditional American religious values vis-à-vis the state?
Contemporary neo-liberalism has taken positions that try to found what is political on procedures that are totally neutral with regard to any “substantive” vision, wanting to guarantee an active neutrality. In some cases, however, this even goes so far as to theorize that people who believe in a truth must be marginalized from liberal political debate… it is now a widespread conception in European juridical and political culture, particularly within European institutions. This conception interprets the categories of religious freedom in the light of the so-called “neutrality” of the state, and tends to become an institutional negative prejudice toward the religious phenomenon, instead of protecting an irreducible distinction between state and religions…. [It] encourages the idea of identifying – in a way that is more practical than theoretical — what is secular with what is non-religious. In this way, the public arena is willing to accommodate all different visions and practices other than the religious ones. … By means of the objectivity and the authority of the law, a culture spreads that is marked by a secularized vision of man and of the world, which is a legitimate voice in a plural society, but which the state cannot assume as its own, without implicitly taking up a position which improperly limits religious freedom. … Consequently, the so-called “neutral” state is not, in fact, impartial, in cultural terms. Rather, it takes on a secularist orientation which, by means of legislative choices, especially in matters of a sensitive anthropological nature, becomes hostile toward cultural identities of religious origin.
Q Based on the reading what is the difference between a non-confessional state and a secular state?
A Couldn’t find it but I found this (my previous post on PayingAttentiontotheSky.com): A non-confessional state is one in which no religious belief is given precedence over any other. The government refrains from favoring or imposing one particular world view, and, without being dogmatic about it, tries insofar as is possible to treat different religious communities evenhandedly. This presumably is what the majority of the American founding fathers had in mind. A secularist state, on the other hand, is one in which religion as such — the notion or even mention of God — is as far as possible excluded from public life, public affairs, and public documents — with the purpose of eventually making godlessness, coupled with a humanistic adulation of man and his achievements, the reigning belief of the majority of citizens. This is the current American state.
Q Were the American founding fathers being inconsistent when, in establishing equal treatment (at least in theory) for all religious denominations, they allowed references to God and the natural law in their Declaration of Independence and their Constitution?
A I (Philip Trower, previous post, speaking here) would say No, because belief in a Creator, in the natural law, and in a moral conscience are not matters of faith. They are logical inferences based on the evidence, and as such are acts of reason within all men’s reach. This is at least implicitly recognized in the Vatican II documents on religious liberty.
Q After describing a crisis in our current state of affairs living under secularism, Scola asks how are we to find a remedy for this serious state of affairs? What is his solution?
A Recognizing that under the Edict of Milan (313) a) Adherence to truth is possible only in a voluntary and personal way, and b) external coercion is contrary to its nature, it has to be acknowledged that the realization of this double condition hinges on a presupposed personal commitment to truth. Indeed, to follow “the duty, and even the right, to seek the truth” (DH, 3) releases religious freedom from the suspicion of being just another name for religious indifferentism, which, in turn, presents a precise worldview, at least practically speaking. In the present historical moment, the worldview of religious indifferentism tends to dominate the others.
Q What is Truth to the secular vision?
A Truth is conceived only in relation to the subject and the subject’s freedom (which more than occasionally declines into subjectivism and its consequent relativism), it is, however, also true that religious adherence to established traditions is lived, too often, as a mere reaction. It is thus increasingly conceived solely in terms of public, community, and social life, to the point where it is quite difficult today to find cases in which the words “private,” “intimate,” “interiority,” “particular” and “individual” are used without a derogatory connotation.
Q What does “a search for truth in the existential sense” mean for religious freedom and how does the current secularist state view it?
A A search for truth in the existential sense still remains an inescapable part of life. However the secularism that embraces us encourages that the very idea of the search for a truth that is ultimate and therefore religious is simply losing any meaning.
Q “A faith that is lived integrally” What does that mean to religious freedom?
A The recognition of the fact that a faith that is lived integrally has an anthropological, social, and cosmological importance, which carries extremely concrete political consequences with it. If in every sphere of human existence, including the political, one witnesses to one’s convictions, this does not infringe anyone’s right. On the contrary, in the moment in which one promotes it, one sets in motion the virtuous search for the “noble compromise” (cum-promitto) on specific goods of an ethic, social, cultural, economic, and political nature. Where it is not possible to agree with other members of a pluralistic society on unrenounceable principles, one can resort to conscientious objection. It is more necessary than ever, today, to reflect deeply on the social dimension of conscientious objection, a reflection that is sadly still lacking.
Q How are we to react then to the objection of a secular society that does not perceive an obligation to seek the truth in order to adhere to it? How does the Truth seek us? How does that longing for Truth affect society and religious freedom?
A Our free invitation to them to reflect on what it means to have the obligation and the right to search for the truth is crucial. Augustine, a genius at giving expression to human anxiety, had grasped the secret of it, as Benedict XVI observes: “It is not we who possess the Truth after having sought it, but the Truth that seeks us out and possesses us.” In this sense, it is truth itself, through the significance of the relations and circumstances of life in which each person is a protagonist, which presents itself as the “serious event” in human existence and the shared life of human beings. The truth which seeks us out is evidenced in the irrepressible longing which makes man aspire to it: Quid enim forties desiderat anima quam veritatem? [What does the soul desire more strongly than the truth?] This longing respects the freedom of all, even of the person who calls himself agnostic, indifferent, or atheist. Religious freedom would otherwise be an empty word. The claim for religious freedom would become absolutely empty if we did not suppose the existence of human beings who personally and intimately cannot renounce the desire to adhere to an ultimate truth that determines their life.
Q: What is the duty of the state vis–à–vis religious freedom
A To guarantee space for public expression of religion (a safety zone which guarantees the inviolability of a human space) and communication between subjects.
Q: What is the role of the laity in society?
A It is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.” This is not an invitation to pursue hegemony or domination, but rather the recognition of the fact that a faith that is lived integrally has an anthropological, social, and cosmological importance, which carries extremely concrete political consequences with it. If in every sphere of human existence, including the political, one witnesses to one’s convictions, this does not infringe anyone’s right. On the contrary, in the moment in which one promotes it, one sets in motion the virtuous search for the “noble compromise” (cum-promitto) on specific goods of an ethic, social, cultural, economic, and political nature. Where it is not possible to agree with other members of a pluralistic society on unrenounceable principles, one can resort to conscientious objection. It is more necessary than ever, today, to reflect deeply on the social dimension of conscientious objection, a reflection that is sadly still lacking.