Religious Freedom: A View From Across the Pond

Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom is just as timely today as it was fifty years ago.

A Dominican friar prays in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in Blackfriars church

A Dominican friar prays in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in Blackfriars church, Oxford. (Credit: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP)Religious freedom is the issue of the hour: in America, in Europe, in what we (used to?) think of as “the West”. But what is particularly interesting is that this comes just as we are marking the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council – the Council in which the Church explored the whole question of religious freedom and gave the world a valuable document which established the Church’s approach to this subject for the new millennium.

The Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, emphasised that “all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.” This duty is fundamental. Religious belief cannot be imposed by government edict, or by coercion using the authority of the State. “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.”

When this was all being debated at the Vatican Council, and in the years immediately following, attention focused essentially on the internal tensions within the Church on the subject. But now the fullness of the importance and value of Dignitatis Humanae is coming into its own, and in circumstances that would have been unimaginable to many of the Bishops gathered in Rome in the 1960s.

Critics of Dignitatis Humanae, and in particular those who support the line taken by the late Archbishop Lefevbre and his followers, claim that it dishonours God because it is necessary to insist the Church must be enshrined in the fabric of the State.

The reality of things, however, has proved the prophetic and powerful value of the Declaration on Religious Freedom: its true importance is perhaps only now emerging, as we see what it achieved in the 1970s and 80s, and what it means for us today, and tomorrow.

From Communism to Contemporary Crisis

For this writer, based in London, issues of freedom and human rights have taken a new turn in recent years. At one time, religious freedom was an issue that chiefly concerned people living in Eastern Europe or the old USSR – what we used to call the “Communist bloc”. We all knew the history: from 1917 onwards, Christians suffered under atheist regimes centred on a Marxist creed, and here were numbers of martyrs – bishops, priests, poets, academics, campaigners for workers’ rights, and ordinary faithful Christians who simply wanted to live out their faith and pass it on to their children. A Christian in the West could help only by prayer, expressions of solidarity, efforts with various underground support networks, and so on.

We could not foresee how God would work through his Church. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council heard from bishops in Eastern Europe, notably the Cardinal Archbishop of Cracow, one Karol Woytila. There was a recognition that, in speaking about freedom, the Church needed to speak with integrity. She had to be true to the dignity of man – made in the image of God and capable of seeking truth and holding to it. She could not go halfway and simply insist on privileges for herself, as if nervous of her own position. The issue at stake was the reality of truth itself. Does truth have its own power?

Dignitatis Humanae gave to Christians in Eastern Europe a mighty spiritual weapon they could wield with integrity. They did not have to defend a Church seeking a specific role in the State, and did not have to spell out what that role might be or whether it had worked well in generations past. They could simply insist on their right to seek truth and to live by it. The language of rights and freedoms, of human dignity and human worth, of struggling to live by sincere beliefs, found its natural home in the place where it had actually originated – in the Church founded and established by Christ, “the Way the Truth and the Life”. It fell to the bureaucrats, the oligarchs, the rulers of brutal police states, to be the ones who could not provide answers and who resorted to trite slogans, clichés, tired excuses, and of course to violence and arbitrary arrests and imprisonments and torture.

And now we in the West are also coming to see the full value of Dignitatis Humanae. Our rulers, soaked in clichés, are insisting that their particular line on a range of issues – marriage, same-sex relationships, abortion, the distribution of contraceptives to young teenagers – is the only one which can be acceptably taught and upheld in public institutions. Their line of approach often tends towards bullying and is based on shallow thinking and often illogical arguments. Christians, in campaigning for freedom and the right to live with integrity, can look to Dignitatis Humanae, and we also have something that those campaigners in Eastern Europe didn’t have: we have their example.

As we mark the Golden Jubilee of the opening of Vatican II, we have just celebrated the Beatification of John Paul II, the Pope from Eastern Europe, the Pope who spoke so much about freedom, the Pope who told us “Do not be afraid!” When he was elected, the tremendous excitement of having a Pope from Poland was connected for many of us to a certain sense of having to discover “the other”. Poland was part of that whole territory behind the Iron Curtain of which we really knew very little. The people there were a “they” and the West was a “we”.  We looked to this new Pope to bind us together, and just over a decade after his election he had done much more than that and together we had seen the collapse of the Communist system and the triumph of freedom in his homeland and across the other lands that had endured Marxist dictatorships for so long.

There was a rich hinterland that Karol Woytila represented – a philosophical and spiritual hinterland that many in the West had largely ignored. We ignored it because we didn’t think we needed it: issues of freedom and human dignity, of the struggle for truth and the inherent strength and beauty that truth holds, were secondary for us. We thought that what mattered was material prosperity, doing-your-own-thing, and having a sense of independence, and we assumed that this was all that Eastern Europeans wanted too. But in fact both we and they are going to be in a terrible mess unless we look to spiritual realities: the realities that Pope John Paul taught, the values that brought down Communism.

The Situation in England

Who would have thought, back in the 1960s, that Londoners like me would be looking to the Church to defend everyday freedoms? Back then, every Londoner was proud of what the city had given to the world in a previous generation as the heartland of freedom during World War II.  We who were born after that war were encouraged to see ourselves as inheriting a tradition of freedom hallowed by the sacrifice of brave lives: freedom of religious belief, freedom to speak and write about religious and moral issues, freedom to debate such things and to organise our lives around our deepest convictions. We would have been astonished to be told that as adults we could face disciplinary action at work, or public ridicule — or both — for upholding the statement that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, or that the deliberate killing of an unborn child is a dreadful thing, or that young boys and girls should be strongly discouraged from engaging in sexual activities.

A housing manager, Adrian Smith, employed by the Trafford Housing Trust in Manchester, was charged with “gross misconduct” because he said, in private email correspondence to various friends, that obliging churches to conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies would be “an equality too far”.  During discussions with his bosses concerning the matter, he learned that he would have been fired, but they decided simply to slice his wages by 40 percent, because he had been an exemplary employee for many years. Although he was not writing on behalf of the Housing Trust when he wrote the private Facebook comments, his friends included some who were work colleagues, and it seems that this was enough for the Trust to start action against him.

A Christian family who ran a bed-and-breakfast business in their home were forced to pay compensation to a homosexual couple after they refused to give them a double room. Mrs Christine Wilkinson, owner of the bed-and-breakfast, said that she had only wanted to live by her own principles. ““We believe a person should be free to act upon their sincere beliefs about marriage under their own roof without living in fear of the law. Equality laws have gone too far when they start to intrude into a family home.

“People’s beliefs about marriage are coming under increasing attack, and I am concerned about people’s freedom to speak and act upon these beliefs. I am a Christian, not just on a Sunday in church, but in every area of my life – as Jesus expects from his followers. “

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, has admitted that churches may need special safeguards if the Government’s plans for same-sex unions go ahead. He said that the churches had “legitimate fears” and that they needed some protection.  But it is by no means clear that any legal provision would safeguard churches because this could be overruled by the European Court.

Religious freedom: the issue of the hour. Dignitatis Humanae: “This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right. It is in accordance with their dignity as persons — that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility — that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature…”

That is the voice of the Church, and the voice of the hour. It can inspire us as it inspired Blessed John Paul: ”Do not be afraid.”

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About Joanna Bogle 77 Articles
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom. Her book Newman’s London is published by Gracewing Books.