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Catholicism and Religious Freedom—A Paradox? PDF Print E-mail

Josef H. Frickel
University of Graz, Austria

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

That the Church still has some difficulties in practicing religious freedom may be in some way surprising, considering the fact that the Second Council of the Vatican has made a solemn declaration about this issue of religious freedom. Nevertheless, the psychological difficulties connected with the realization of such a theory are understandable, in particular since this program of the Vatican does not confirm the former practice of the Catholic Church. It is even possible that many clergymen here today do not really agree with the content of this issue in the declaration. In order to clarify these points, I want to first describe shortly the content of the given declaration of the council. Second, I will examine how this document came about. Finally, I am going to give a brief summary of the early theories of the Catholic Church concerning religious freedom.

First, the content of the Declaration Concerning Religious Freedom. The primary objective of this declaration is the right to freedom of religion for everyone. The basis of this right is not any concession of a civil or clerical authority, but solely the dignity of man. Man, it is said, is a reasonable being with free will. Therefore, each person has his or her own responsibility. This means that people need to decide by themselves to live a morally good life. This decision naturally requires the right to choose or change his religion or belief and, furthermore, to manifest one’s religion in teaching, practice, worship and observance. Nobody should be prevented from acting according to his or her conscience, either alone, in community with others, or in public. From this derives a further right to establish new religious communities, or to be able to join them. Even more, this right of religious freedom should become a civil law in all states of the world. This is to declare that this right to freedom of religion does not depend on whether a religion is true or false. The point being that religious communities do not use any kind of force or an unacceptable way of attracting or holding on to members, because such measures hurt the freedom of the individual, and lead to the misuse of the right to religious freedom.

According to the Second Vatican Council, religious freedom also means the right of parents to educate their children, to the best of their judgment, and to choose a private—which means a religious—school. Also, the right to freedom of religion is a precious good, so that its maintenance and protection belongs to the general well being. It is in the particular interest of the individual citizen, and the state. This, of course, also applies to those countries in which one religion, one religious community, is accepted above all others. For example, a Christian church in one of the European countries, Judaism in Israel, Islam in the Orient, and so on. In these countries, it is extraordinarily important that the state grants religious freedom to all people, by law, and protects this right by state authority.

One who reads the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council carefully gets the impression that the council is far more consequent and progressive than many modern constitutions. A large majority accepted this text. The final tally showed that 2,308 agreed, only 70 disagreed, while eight votes were declared invalid. Considering this, the chosen topic of my paper about difficulties in the Catholic Church still existing, might even appear incomprehensible. However, as so often happens, appearances are deceiving.

Let us come to the second point. This ecclesiastic declaration about religious freedom is not a document of instant agreement. Rather, it is the result of long and tedious discussion. Moreover, it is not a written and summarized version of what has been practiced by the church for many centuries. It is, rather, a kind of a calling to the divine revelation of how Jesus Christ treated people of different beliefs, and to the rational nature of men. In order to comprehend the numerous difficulties we have had to overcome before the declaration could come into existence, we have to understand the background and history of the development, because originally nobody thought that religious freedom would ever be an issue on its own.

Up to the time of the council, it was a common practice to address this issue only as a supplement to teaching about the church. Therefore, the first draft of the Roman curia, which was presented to the council, expressed the common attitude of theology toward religious freedom. In fact, if you check the handbooks of the Church published in the nineteenth through the twentieth century, the topic of religious freedom is not even mentioned there. At the beginning of this century, it was not yet a subject. In the books mentioned, you first find some reference to freedom of belief, and there you find some reference to the word tolerance. Under the word tolerance you read:

Tolerance means the toleration of divergent religious beliefs, which you internally do not approve of or cannot look at them with equanimity. Externally, you do not hinder them, but tolerate their existence. A belief that is not approved by the church is a moral evil, namely heresy. However, one has to distinguish between the false doctrine and the person who is teaching or practicing it. It is possible to meet a person who has been led astray through tolerance, but not to tolerate the false doctrine. Seen from a dogmatic point of view, the Christian teaching, revealed by God Himself, does not practice tolerance and this dogmatic intolerance is only the logical consequence of the dogma of “the only true church of Christ.” Since the time of the Apostles, it is said, the Catholic Church has always presented itself as the only true church. Therefore, dogmatic tolerance is immoral and reprehensible because it encourages heresy.

We recognize in this interpretation the philosophical thesis, which the early Fathers of the Church already practiced and thought. Which means that only truth has rights and error, which means that heresy has no rights.

What I just read to you, from a popular Christian reference book published in 1899, is probably quite similar to what was written in the first draft of the Roman curia to the Vatican Council. There it said that if the majority of the people in a state are Catholic, the state also must be Catholic. Whoever has a different religious belief has no right to practice it in public. For the general well being, however, the state can or has to tolerate different religions, but only as a kind of trouble. On the other hand, if the majority in the state are not Catholics, then that state has to follow natural law. This means that the state has to give complete freedom to each individual Catholic, and to the Church as a whole. According to this teaching, religious tolerance is only connivance, but not true religious freedom. An enormous change has, therefore, taken place here in the Vatican Council.

First, just a little bit about history. The Fathers of the council rejected this draft of the curia. Pope John XXIII, who was more open-minded to a new understanding of religious freedom, entrusted the head of the Secretariat for the Unity of the Christians, Cardinal Augustin Bea, to prepare a new text. Subsequently, the issue of religious freedom was separated from the doctrine of the church, and classified as an ecumenical issue. However, very soon it changed again. After having revised the text six times, religious freedom became a declaration of its own. Again, it had to be revised several more times, but only because it was strongly supported by the newly invested Pope Paul VI, it was finally accepted in October 1965.

It is not our task here to evaluate how such a miracle could come about. Yet, even a casual observer cannot deny that the spirit of God had a hand in it. Two popes who were very open-minded toward religious freedom, a few broad-minded, outward, and forward-looking theologians, and the majority of the bishops, who trusted the guidance of God, all took part in this little miracle. On the other hand, it is not surprising that some members of the council had problems keeping pace with such an enormous spiritual development. Refusal, or anxious hesitation, increased with the appearance of restorative elements inside the church, which were more concerned about the future of the church, and did not really trust the presence and the guidance of the spirit of God.

In order to understand this attitude, it might help to briefly survey the development of the concept of religious freedom in the church. Today, we may wonder whether the promoters of religious intolerance were aware of the fact that Jesus Christ, the founder of the true religion, was the most prominent victim of such dogmatic intolerance. This was the very reason why the Jewish high council handed Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified. These high priests and scribes belonged to a religion that was directly built by God, according to their faith. Also, many disciples of Jesus were slandered, and even killed, because of the dogmatic intolerance of the representatives of the Jewish religion.

Furthermore, the first three centuries were full of religious persecution, and many Christians had to die. We also know, from this time, numerous testimonies of Christians who protested against accusations of ungodliness, lawlessness, and other crimes and accusations raised against them. In the second and third century, Christian apologists demanded justice and religious freedom for themselves, and for their Christian belief. Their call for religious freedom was justified, not by human nature, but by their conviction to worship the true God.

Soon, those Christians claimed to have the only true religion, and the only acceptable way of worshipping God. They felt exclusively entitled to this, because of the direct revelation God had given them. God, in the beginning, had given His revelation to the Jewish people, but then the divine revelation was given solely to Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. The Son of God, according to this theology, appeared in the flesh and lived as a man among men. God is invisible and incomprehensible. No man has ever seen or known God. Only the Son of God knows God, his Father, and he revealed God to humankind. Even more, God revealed himself in the man Jesus Christ. The doctrine of God and man, developed more and more over the first four centuries, finally became a kind of trump card in the play between the philosophers and theologians, who were fighting to prove the true religion.

The strong argument about God revealing himself, and becoming man in Jesus, was undefeatable and had to lead to the final victory of the true religion over all other religions. In the first half of the fourth century, Emperor Constantine, carrying the symbol of the Christian cross, won victory over all his opponents. In the view of the Christian, this was only the external sign of the ultimate victory of the true religion over all other religions. This victory should soon lead, however, to supremacy of Christianity in the late fourth century. A new era had begun which strongly influenced the theological image of the Church.

One consequence of this was that the Catholic religion of the true believers became “the only true religion.” The Christian church, since then, has become the only true mediator between God and men. In the controversies against false doctrines and heresies, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, in about the middle of the third century, coined the sentence “extra ecclesia nulla salus,” which means, “outside the church there is no salvation.” The notion of the sole true church was born with this sentence. With this saying, the established church felt qualified to reject any theological or philosophical school of thought that was not in accordance with its official teaching. A synod in North Africa, very much in the spirit of St. Augustine, declared, “Whoever is separated from the Catholic Church, regardless of his good and moral life, only viewed with the crime that he is separated from the church, he will not have life but stay in the anger of God.” This dogmatic intolerance was promulgated by the councils and popes for the following centuries, even though it was argued that those who don’t know the true religion are not responsible in front of God, if their ignorance was invincible.

I just want to mention that the same dogmatic intolerance defined the sixteenth century among Protestants, Calvinists and so on. Many so-called Christian sects still hold the same kind of intolerance against other religions today, and many times this intolerance is the main motivation for their worldwide missionary zeal.

In conclusion, as far as religious freedom is concerned, one has to keep in mind this long history of intolerance when looking at the first draft of the Vatican Council about religious freedom. This was the very expression of a long tradition of attitudes toward other religions. In this way, we may understand why some members of the council, as well as other people inside or outside the Catholic Church, who have been educated in the spirit of dogmatic intolerance, still have problems in practicing religious freedom even today.

One thing is clear. We will not know true tolerance and true understanding among the religions of this world unless these religions realize that they do not fully own the whole truth, but that they are still on the way to a more profound and deeper understanding of it. Of course, this does not mean that all religions are equal. Each religion has its own function, and its own ecumenical mission, namely, to fulfill God’s will of salvation. Nevertheless, it is the great challenge to the Christian churches of our time, to hear this call and to take the lead in the way to religious and human fulfillment.