The pagans of Rome cast the early Christians as bad citizens, a charge which reappears today in both the West and East: secularists in the Americas and Europe gradually move to marginalize a Christian presence in public life while Islamic extremists and totalitarian regimes use starker measures to purge Christians from society altogether. Pope Benedict XVI drew attention to these violations of religious freedom in his January address to members of the world diplomatic corps stationed at the Vatican. He began his survey by remembering the plight of Christians in Iraq, the terrorism in Egypt that “brutally struck Christians as they prayed in church,” Pakistan’s anti-Christian blasphemy law, the attacks on Christians in Nigeria during Christmas, and the trials and difficulties Christians still face in Communist China.
Turning to the West, he noted that its violations of religious freedom assume a more subtle character, often appearing in countries “which accord great importance to pluralism and tolerance.” He said that Christian doctors, nurses, and legal professionals have seen their right to conscientious objection wither. He decried “the banning of religious feasts and symbols from civic life under the guise of respect for the members of other religions or those who are not believers.” And he expressed dismay at the tendency of Western societies to harass Christian social, educational, and charitable agencies even when they “contribute to society as a whole.”
Western society only undercuts itself by hampering these groups, Benedict argued. Far from endangering the common good, the truly religious make the deepest contribution to it. “A clear example of this was Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” he said. “People like her show the world the extent to which the commitment born of faith is beneficial to society as a whole.”
“The great lesson of history” is that true religion gives a civilizational push to the world, he said. Out of the “sincere search for God” has come the establishment of democratic societies and respect for human rights. Religious freedom is not in conflict with the common good, he argued, but an inseparable component of it. Man cannot rest in a good that satisfies his nature without serving and seeking God, and thus religious freedom is the “fundamental path to peace.”
“Humanity throughout history, in its beliefs and rituals, demonstrates a constant search for God and ‘these forms of religious expression are so universal that one may well call man a religious being,’“ he said, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “The religious dimension is an undeniable and irrepressible feature of man’s being and acting, the measure of the fulfillment of his destiny and of the building up of the community to which he belongs. Consequently, when the individual himself or those around him neglect or deny this fundamental dimension, imbalances and conflicts arise at all levels, both personal and interpersonal.”
Pope Benedict said that governments from both the East and West make rhetorical nods to religious freedom even as they hollow out its reality through a monopolistic hold on public life. In a comment directed to Middle Eastern governments, he said, “I would like to state once again that the right to religious freedom is not fully respected when only freedom of worship is guaranteed, and that with restrictions.” To all governments, he said, “abstract proclamation of religious freedom is insufficient: this fundamental rule of social life must find application and respect at every level and in all areas; otherwise, despite correct affirmations of principle, there is a risk that deep injustice will be done to citizens wishing to profess and freely practice their faith.”
Christian persecution has been defined downward, observed Pope Benedict. He said that it is the Church’s “conviction that one cannot create a sort of scale of degrees of religious intolerance. Unfortunately, such an attitude is frequently found, and it is precisely acts of discrimination against Christians which are considered less grave and less worthy of attention on the part of governments and public opinion.”
He also expressed concern that some in the international community too often treat religious freedom and “human rights” as automatically at odds, which is an impossibility if the good of man is properly understood. He lamented that this view leads to the inventing of new rights as a way of canceling out a right to religious freedom. These invented rights are “merely the expression of selfish desires lacking a foundation in authentic human nature,” he said.
To see what he means, one only has to look at the extent to which “gay rights” and “abortion rights” in the West have been used by government officials to sideline Christians in public life. Today’s secularists are not unlike the pagans who presided over the collapse of the Roman Empire, blaming its decline on the most conscientious citizens while honoring the most decadent ones.
But true peace can only come from the tranquility of order, as St. Augustine wrote, and the tranquility of order depends upon the intellectual and moral virtues that Christianity fortifies. This is why Pope Benedict reminded the diplomatic elite that eroding religious freedom in the name of peace will only extinguish it. In a peaceful world, he said, no one should have to choose between “fidelity to God and loyalty to their nation.”