Religious Freedom and Religious Persecution | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 27, 2011 | Ignatius InsightReligious Freedom and Religious Persecution | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 27, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

"'The right to religious freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person' whose transcendent nature must not be ignored or overlooked. ... Without the acknowledgement of his spiritual being, without openness to the transcendent, the human person withdraws within himself, fails to find answers to the heart's deepest question as about life's meaning fails to appropriate lasting ethical values and principles, and fails even to experience authentic freedom and to build a just society."
Benedict XV, Message for the World Day of Peace, #2 ("Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace", December 8, 2010, L'Osservatore Romano, English, December 22, 2010).

"At present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from the persecutions on account of its faith."
Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Peace, #1.


Robert Royal, author of the Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, recently wrote, "Many people, especially in the developed world, find it hard to take seriously that there has been systematic Christian persecution in modern times, especially of the Catholic Church as the largest and most cohesive Christian body" (Catholic Thing, January 13, 2011). The facts are otherwise, of course, and we wonder why the facts are not noticed, even by Catholics. We find Benedict XVI, in his recent "World Day of Peace" Address, as cited above, states the same truth. Even though Scripture tells us that we should expect such things, we find it hard to admit the fact.

"Why is this?" In part, I think, it is because much of the persecution is found in the Muslim world where it is seen as an exercise of "religious freedom" as they understand it. It also comes from the fact that the secular mind wants to think that all religions are fanatical by definition. A few odd religious people killing each other are to be expected. The only solution, in such sectarian minds, is to get rid of religion. Still others think that everyone has freedom of religion and the killings are due to a few extremists.

The Holy Father recognizes that, in light of the targeted killings of Copts and Catholics in Egypt and Iraq especially, he needs to state what is at stake—what is the central issue. "It is painful to think that in some areas of the world it is impossible to profess one's religion freely except at the risk of life and personal liberty." Just where these places are is not mentioned. Everyone who keeps up with the news knows generally, but the press itself rarely delves deeply into these causes.

The pope thus presents again the basic teachings of the Church on religious liberty and its public expression. "Religious freedom expresses what is unique about the human person, for it allows us to direct our personal and social life to God, in whose light the identity, meaning and purpose of the person are fully understood." The whole purpose of our lives in this world, after all, is that we reach our final end, no matter what civil society we live in.

Benedict states frankly that religion has a public purpose. It is to be an actor, after its own nature, in any discussion of humanly important issues. It does this acting not only by its charitable and educational works. Benedict says in Light of the World that the organization that takes care of more AIDS patients in the world, on the ground, so to speak, is the Church. Much of the actual charitable aid given in the world comes in fact from religious sources and motives.

But this right to religious freedom also includes the ability legally to present what the Church is in such a manner that it can be openly taught and spoken of—even converted to—without fear of death or imprisonment. The number of nations in which such religious liberty actually exists is rather small in comparison with those in which it does not.

The Church comes at the notion of religions liberty not from its own institutional need but from what it is to be a human person. The human person is a free, reasonable being. He needs and wants to know his destiny and purpose. He wants to follow those institutions and means that offer them to him; he wants to hear freely the essential things he needs to know to achieve his purpose in life.

John Paul II had called religious liberty "the first right," something reflective of the American First Amendment. It is "first" because if we are free to do everything else but what is most essential, then our freedom is illusory. Benedict himself says "Religious freedom is at the origin of moral freedom" (#3). Moral freedom means that we seek our final end in all we do. Our second nature means the sort of being we make ourselves to be through our choices and actions. Primary in this "making" of ourselves is how we stand to God.


"The transcendent dignity of the person is an essential value of Judeo-Christian wisdom, yet thanks to the use of reason it can be recognized by all" (#2). Thus, if we read this statement carefully, we see that Catholics do not base their understanding of religious freedom primarily on divine revelation. It is true that, if God has given us something to tell others, they have some obligation at least to hear it. But they need an opportunity to do so. This opportunity is often denied or restricted by civil powers or religious systems. This restriction indicates a disordered polity.

But the approach here is from the other angle. "Openness to truth and perfect goodness, openness to God, is rooted in human nature; it confers full dignity on each individual and is to guarantee of full mutual respect between persons" (#3). We ask: "What is it a human being needs and ought to have?" The Church wants to be presented to him only through his willingness to receive it on the basis of grace and evidence.

The pope is aware that religious freedom is denied by religious and political laws in many nations. He seeks a grounding of the legal and civil order that rests on a common reason that can formulate the rule that freedom of religion allows for the highest things to be brought together. "Religious freedom is not the exclusive patrimony of believers, but of the whole family of the earth's peoples. It is an essential element of a constitutional state; it cannot be denied without at the same time encroaching on all fundamental rights and freedoms, since it is their synthesis and keystone" (#5).

The civil order itself has as its end the fostering of the actual good of each of its citizens. Among these goods is the highest good. The civil order does not itself propose what this is, though it can foster the beliefs and practices of religious bodies in the name of the common good. It can certainly cease to be an impediment.

"The profession of a religion cannot be exploited or imposed by force. States and the various human communities must never forget that religious freedom is the condition for the pursuit of truth, and truth does not impose itself by violence but 'by the force of its own truth'" (#7). The pope warns about religious and anti-religious "fanaticism and fundamentalism". He is opposed to all sorts of violence.

One thing this address seems to be lacking is discussion of the need of police and armies to protect those constitutions that do respect freedom of religion. The closest the pope comes to this issue is in the following passage: "Religion is defended by defending the rights and freedoms of religious communities" (#13). Who is to do this defending? With what? This explanation is still vague about what needs to be done and who can carry it out.

Whenever Catholics are persecuted in various countries, however, the pope calls on the government to prevent such violence. The assumption is that a) this prevention is the obligation of the government and b) the government has the coercive means to do so. Otherwise, it is futile to complain. While it may be true that "violence is not overcome by violence" (#14), the fact is that when violence erupts it must be met with adequate force if the religious freedom of those being persecuted is to mean anything. It is not the pope's intention to foster martyrdom by letting violence go unopposed. The distinction between "religion" and "fanaticism" needs much clarification as so much violence does come from "religion," as the pope acknowledges.


"With due respect for the positive secularity of state institutions, the public dimension of religion must always be acknowledged. A healthy dialogue between civil and religious institutions is fundamental for the integral development of the human person and social harmony" (#9). The state must know the limits of what it is competent to do. The Church must understand that its mandate is not political. But the two sources can and should work together.

In the context of religious freedom, Benedict brings up the question of relation to other religions. Ecumenical approaches have generally been used to govern this relationship so that the good of a forum or opportunity to discuss peacefully the differences of religion has governed this issue. The pope mentions that the upcoming World Day of Prayer for Peace, which will be held in Assisi in October, is part of this issue. This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original meeting under John Paul II. Not a few worry that this sounds like a kind of religious syncretism or a sort of United Nations umbrella under which all religions were considered equal and equally dubious.

The pope has tried a pre-emptive strike to assure us that praying together is a simple and good gesture that does not involve any judgment on religions, though it seems that those who do foster violence should be excluded.

When we look at all the world's religious leaders and their theologies, we often wonder if there is any sense in which they are "praying" to the "same" God. The spectacle can give secularists cause for thinking that it is all a confusion. "The path to take is not the way of relativism or religious syncretism," Benedict writes. "The Church, in fact, 'proclaims, and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6); in Christ, in whom God reconciled all things to himself, people find the fullness of the religious life'" (#11). This passage recalls Dominus Jesus, the document on the necessity of salvation in Christ, which the pope authored while he was at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

So why meet? This statement of what Catholics hold is well-known to all invited. Praying together "in no way excludes dialogue and the common pursuit of truth in different areas of life." Praying together is obviously a first step of respect. If religious people cannot do this, what is the rest of the world to think of them? Each prays in his own way. No implication is given that anyone agrees or disagrees with the respective theologies of prayer.

The purpose of the World Day of Peace document is to foster peace. This can ultimately happen only if a society is "reconciled with God" (#15). This phrase, I suspect, is what is behind the pope's whole effort to re-present the issue of religious freedom. He first seeks a civil society in which citizens are free to practice and explain their religion in peace. He does not bring up the delicate question, as he did in the "Regensburg Lecture," of whether some religions in their very teachings themselves foster violence as a religious principle. This issue needs to be addressed much more frankly than it usually is.

But politically and prudentially, it is sometimes better to overlook certain issues until some forum of trust can be established. This pope, I have noted, also looks to the long-run. The "answers to man's deepest questions" cannot be found outside of man's religion and its pursuit of truth, including the truth of revelation and the freedom to testify to its meaning in all existing civil societies. The pope's constant insistence that there is a philosophy to which all religious minds are or should be open is his way to insuring that the possibility of explaining the Gospel in all nations exists.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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