| |

SIDIC Periodical XIII - 1980/3
Religious Liberty (Pages 04 - 09)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Right to Religious Liberty
Franco Biffi


This paper was presented at the eighth annual meeting of the International Liaison Committee between the Roman Catholic Church and Judaism at Regensburg, Bavaria, October 1979.1 It seeks to outline the teachings of the Catholic Church on religious liberty as stated in the Second Vatican Council's document on this subject and in subsequent papal statements. It traces the essential elements of the right to religious liberty and delineates the part that should be played by civil authorities in safeguarding the rights to religious liberty of their citizens.

One of the most important affirmations of the Second Vatican Council is that which declares the human person's basic right to religious freedom. This right is expressed in the Declaration: Dignitatis Humanae whose first chapter opens with the words:

"The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his conviction in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others." 2

This declaration illustrates the progress that has been made within the Catholic Church itself as well as a step forward in the progress of mankind. Yves Congar, one of the foremost theologians at the Council, speaks of an indubitable change whose name is development: a development clearly visible in the thinking which resulted in the promulgation of this Declaration.

We shall consider first of all the essential elements of this right to religious liberty and then go on to discuss the role played by civil authorities in according these rights to their subjects.


We must distinguish between religious liberty as a positive value and spurious imitations. It cannot be equated, for example, with religious indifferentism that would consider "one religion as good as another"; neither is it a philosophical relativism that would deny the existence of objective truth. One cannot call religious liberty the concept that would deny a person's obligation to seek to discover wherein lies true religion or that would teach that one is not subject to divine law but only to the moral rules laid down by society. Far from being a release from religious and moral obligations, religious freedom, on the contrary, binds all persons

"... to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it. The sacred Council likewise proclaims that these obligations bind man's conscience. Truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power." 3

What then is religious freedom? It is neither tolerance nor liberty of conscience nor freedom to believe what one wishes rather it is the duty and the responsibility of seeking the truth in that liberty which is consonant with human dignity.

Religious Liberty a Natural Right

Religious liberty is not a right which is conferred by the State of which a person is a citizen. Rather it belongs to all citizens as a natural right, a right to which they are entitled as human beings and, as such, must be protected by the State. It belongs to all men, today and for always, wherever they may be:

"... religious freedom must be recognized as the right of all men and all communities and must be sanctioned by constitutional law." 4

The Dignity and Responsibility of the Human Person

"The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed Word of God and by reason itself."5

It is interesting to see how the dignity of the human person has been receiving more and more emphasis in our day:

"Contemporary man is becoming increasingly conscious of the dignity of the human person; more and more people are demanding that men should exercise fully their own judgment and a responsible freedom in their actions and should not be subject to the pressure of coercion but be inspired by a sense of duty. "6

Thus we see how, as history develops, there is a progressive growth in the consciousness of the dignity of the human person so that people are gradually coming to demand to be considered not as instruments but as free and responsible individuals. They see a responsibility inherent in their very nature to enter into a relationship with God, and above all, to find an answer to the great questions posed by human existence (cf. D.H. 1).

When a person has learnt to distinguish good from evil, and truth from falsehood, he assumes the responsibility for shaping his eternal destiny. While his ability to do this is a gift from God, nevertheless it is a profoundly human act endowed with great dignity.

This decision and this conquest must be made in complete freedom from outside pressure (cf. D.H. 11 a) since such pressure could not have any positive effect on a personal relationship with God (cf. D.H. 10). On the contrary, it could prove a disturbing element. The right to religious freedom therefore constitutes the guarantee of the DUTY of each person to seek the ultimate meaning of his life:

"The impossibility for any human being of eluding the responsibility and therefore the duty personally to establish a relationship with God constitutes the deepest root of the right to religious freedom. " (Pavan)

Thirdly, the dignity of the person is seen from the point of view of his relationship with truth. Man is created to seek the truth, to adhere to it and to translate it into action. To know, to love and to live the truth: these are the three motive forces through which human beings recognize themselves, develop and fulfil themselves as persons. But truth cannot be known except "in the light of truth": force from outside can be no substitute for interior evidence. Adhering to the truth means an act of love and love cannot be imposed.

A life which is apparently coherent with the truth can have no value unless it is the manifestation of a free personal decision; otherwise it is mere hypocrisy and formalism.

For many believers their readiness to receive the truth is complemented by an openness to the personal, transcendent truth already existing, which proposes freely chosen adherence to itself (cf. D.H. 3). For us Christians, this truth has been revealed in Christ.

The Object of the Right Immunity from all Constraint

It is generally admitted that the subject of a right cannot, immediately and formally speaking, be a spiritual value such as truth, moral good, justice, etc. because the subjects of rights are persons, and persons only (in the physical sense). Thus, the relationship between persons and spiritual values is not of a legal nature but metaphysical, logical or moral. Legal relationships are always and without exception relationships between individuals, that is, person-to-person and not between persons and values.

This being so, the basis of the right to religious freedom is not the concept (widespread by the way, before the Council) decreeing that "only the truth has rights" while "error can have no rights at all". The conclusion to be drawn from these two affirmations is that only those who "posses" the truth have the right to communicate and spread their convictions, while those who are "in error" have not this right. Hence the call on the civil authorities to put their "strength" at the disposal of the truth and at most to "tolerate" error.

In the course of history this concept has led to situations where the "structural violation" of the rights of persons or groups has taken place.

To be more precise, in religious terms and within Catholic milieux, the concept of religious freedom which was current until the time of Vatican II can be formulated as follows: "The Catholic faith alone, being the only true faith, is to have rights in society."

On the contrary, the definition of Catholic doctrine at the Council is as follows:

"... man's response to God by faith ought to be free and therefore nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will. It is therefore fully in accordance with the nature of faith that in religious matters every form of coercion by men should be excluded." 7

The great change in perspective consists in the fact that it has fortunately been "rediscovered" that religious freedom does not concern the content of religion nor the relationship of man with truth or error and above all with God, in the sense of an "existential" (metaphysical and moral) relationship, but solely the exercise in society of the power to act freely in religious matters. In other words, religious freedom concerns the relations between citizens when there is a question of inwardly belonging to a religion; of practising it in public, in private, alone or as a group; of introducing it to others or influencing secular structures according to its tenets.

The right to religious freedom means immunity from all constraint in religious matters in the life of society and this in a double sense since no-one, in religious matters, can be forced to act against his conscience or be prevented from acting according to his couscience.

"Conscience" means first of all "responsibility", so that the statement quoted above should be understood thus: "No-one, in religious matters, should be forced to act in a manner differing from that which he himself has decided upon."

In the second place, "conscience" has the meaning of "moral rectitude", so that the statement can be read in another sense: "No-one, in religious matters, can be forced to act in a way differing from that which he sees to be his duty." It must be clearly stated that the right to religious freedom has nothing to do with moral problems caused by a conscience rightly or wrongly orientated, honest or dishonest: such problems concern the relationship of man to the truth, while religious freedom concerns the relationship of persons, one to another.

The right to religious freedom therefore has as its object freedom from all constraint, whether by individuals, intermediary bodies or public authorities.

For this reason religious freedom may be seen as guaranteeing the inviolability of a human area within which the individual may fulfil the duty of clarifying his relationship to God and the truth without suffering pressure from outside. It is the guarantee that society shall respect the individual when what is at stake are the most important decisions of his existence. All that has been said here can be found in essence in D.H. 2a which has already been quoted.

The Subjects of the Right to Religious Freedom

Those who have the right to religious freedom are first and foremost, human beings as persons or individuals. This is a right which concerns all men, believers or unbelievers. The athiest has a negative answer to the problem of religion, but this also forms part of "religious matters". It is a right which affects religious acts whether private or public, individual or collective. (Cf. D.H. 3).

Secondly, the subjects of this right are religious groups:

"The freedom of immunity from coercion in religious matters which is the right of individuals must also be accorded to men when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the nature of man and of religion itself." 8

Thirdly there are families, within which religious life derives mainly from the parents; theirs is the right to decide on the religious education of their children and to be free to choose schools and other means of education. Civil authorities are to recognize and respect this right, without making it too difficult to exercise (cf. D.H. 5).

The right to religious freedom obviously implies that within the family parents cannot impose their religious faith on their children: they must however see to it that the children are able to receive it in ever-increasing moral awareness.

The Extent of the Right to Religious Freedom

As a general principle all possible freedom must be accorded to individuals and to groups, and this is only to be curtailed in cases of necessity (cf. D.H. 7a). This point will be further elaborated in the latter part of this article.

Since what is in question is a natural right of the individual, its extent is determined by the inner nature of the right under discussion and by the dignity of the person. We have already spoken of this right as protecting the inviolability of the vital area necessary to the person or the group, the space for each person to become conscious that he cannot elude his responsibility. Inviolability implies that the decisions taken by him shall not meet with obstacles raised by exterior agents.

The extent of this space must be deduced from what has been stated above on the subject of the relationship of the person to truth and to God. The function of religious freedom is in fact to permit the exercise of the responsibility of every human being to enter into a relationship with God and to fulfil the respansibilities imposed by this relationship.

For each person the extent of the right will be judged according to the principle that the right to religious freedom must guarantee that the individual not be forced to act against his conscience nor, conversely, be hindered from acting according to its dictates. He must therefore be free to worship in private or in public, as an individual or as a group, and to manifest or diffuse truths of a religious nature in accordance with his religious principles.

For communities, the area of freedom must be seen both in a context of the religious life itself and of the internal organization of the group. In accordance with what is clearly stated in D.H. 4, this freedom will extend likewise to the spreading of belief and to the religious spirit inspiring the secular activities and institutions of communities.

A Glance at Secular Reality

In political systems with totalitarian regimes, there is the claim to "dictate" what the citizen is, what he is to think and how he is to act; this derives from the totalitarian concept of man as an instrument and is therefore opposed to his dignity as a person (cf. D.H. 1). From this follows the claim to limit religious freedom to acts of private worship or at most to individual acts performed in public. This is done in the belief that religion will thus die out sooner or later, both in individuals and in society as a whole.

But the nature of things is such that if the right to religious freedom is not recognized, an abyss is created between the people and the governing power. This results in certain reactions such as dissidence and violence. Thus, to prevent men from manifesting their religious beliefs and letting them permeate their lives is a violation of human dignity (cf. D.H. 3d).

Indeed, one's human identity is an indissoluble whole, as can be seen from the close connection of the premises indicated above. Man is created to know the truth; the truth once known, demands to be loved; once loved, it demands to be incarnated in the structure of existence. This is the way to the harmonious development of the person. If this continuity is broken, the dignity of the individual is violated. To prevent aperson from being himself in public, therefore, is to destroy him.

In systems with democratic regimes, it is a fact, generally speaking, that religious freedom is conceded to its full extent and according to its nature. It is also a fact that the free exercise of religious liberty is the basis of all rights, for it is the exercise of the greatest freedom that man can have, that which concerns one's ultimate aim in life. When a person is free to choose his path in this field, he is demanding and practising all the other aspects of freedom, while respecting the freedom of others. Herein lie the foundations of democracy.

However, it is also unfortunately the case that in certain democratic systems freedom cannot blossom to the full and does not enjoy all the respect due to it. This occurs in States with a non-religious or religiously neutral basis, which confine themselves to the negative aspect of their duties as will be explained further on.

A survey of the social reality of our world must not fail to mention religious groups which are very exclusive or very intolerant. It is enough to say that their way of acting is analogous to that of totalitarian regimes. They take the place of the individual in decisions regarding his relationship to God and the truth and forget that force and violence can never be convincing arguments.

They injure the cause of "their" religious truth by behaving as though it were not in itself strong enough to carry conviction. Using coercion does not serve the cause of truth; it damages it by implying a lack of confidence in the power of the truth to illuminate the human spirit by its own light.


Civil authorities should never forget that religious acts transcend by their very nature the domain of earthly and secular aims to which the State's competence is restricted. The State is concerned with all dimensions of the person but the spiritual dimension is not being respected unless the citizen is fully autonomous.

Nevertheless, religious freedom is exercised in a social context, that of the common good, the responsibility for which devolves upon the civil authorities. Their guideline in these matters should be the standard indicated by the encyclical, "Pacem in Terris":

"The common good consists especially in safeguarding the rights and duties of the human person; hence governments must guarantee above all to recognize and respect these rights, their mutual reconciliation, their defense and their expansion and consequently, to make the fulfilling of these duties possible for each citizen." 9

The Recognition and Respect for Religious Freedom

The State must defer to the right of religious freedom because this right does not derive from it; each citizen bears it within his person, the dignity of which is inviolable. It is a right which even lessens the power of the civil authorities over the individual.

The State must "recognize and respect" this natural right, that is, abstain from any interference in order to "control or direct religious activity." 10

The Protection of Religious Freedom by the State

"The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man is an essential duty of every civil authority." Civil authorities therefore have the duty, as the text goes on to explain:

"to undertake to safeguard the religious freedom of all the citizens in an effective manner by just legislation and other appropriate means."

The organization of the State in matters of legislation cannot be said to conform to justice if it does not offer the citizens effective legal means of asserting their rights. It has rightly been stressed that it is almost impossible, given the nature of human beings and their affairs, for the rights of the individual effectively to be safeguarded if the fundamental power of the State is concentrated in the hands of a single person or group of persons. A clear distinction or, as "Pacem in Terris" has it, "a suitable division" of power within the State is therefore to be desired.

The Promotion of Religious Freedom

Civil authorities should promote and facilitate religious freedom (cf. D.H. 6b). They should also see to it that the citizen does not lack the means of fulfilling his religious duties. Indeed the sole justification for the existence of civil authorities is the working towards the public good, that is to say, the creation of a social environment where men may find the means and the stimulation necessary to the development of their personality as a whole. Now, religious freedom is a basic factor in this flourishing of the personality and its exercise has a positive influence on the life of society.

Indeed, the sincere profession of a living religious faith feeds the moral sense which spurs the citizen to act everywhere in a spirit of responsibility, mutual understanding and fruitful collaboration (cf. D.H. 6b, 8b). Civil authorities would exceed their competence if they claimed to determine the content of belief or the manner of worship; this does not mean however that they should take no interest in the means of worship (there must be planning, for example, to ensure building sites for churches).

No Discrimination

We live in times of religious pluralism and, generally speaking, under regimes practising the division of Church and State.

This need not prevent a certain political community from "giving special recognition" (cf. D.H. 6c) to a given religious community. History is full of such examples and we meet them today. It was to be expected that the Catholic Church should envisage such a situation.

Taking this situation as a starting point, the Council then declares: "... the right of all citizens and of all religious communities must be respected as well" (cf. D.H. 6c). In such a situation the social pressures tending to impair the equality of all citizens before the law naturally grow stronger this is why the conciliar document asks civil authorities to take steps to safeguard this equality in such cases (cf. D.H. 6d).

The Limitation of the Right to Religious Freedom

Human beings are capable of abusing the right to religious freedom just as they can misuse other rights. Civil authorities have the task of preventing abuses and remedying them (cf. D.H. 7c). But this must not be done in a arbitrary manner, hence the delicacy of the question of choosing the criteria instructing authorities if and when they have the duty or the right to intervene.

Here there is a pitfall to be avoided on either side: individuals or groups could commit acts impairing the rights of others and and so become harmful to society or the State under religious pretexts; civil authorities could undertake arbitrary limitations of the right to religious freedom in the name of justice.

The Declaration of the Council has assumed the criterion of the public order, stating precisely what elements are necessary to ensure it. It asks for the effective protection of rights, the defense of public morality and the preservation of the public peace, all these things being basic components of the public good. It demands a life founded on true justice so that men can live together in harmony.

Finally and above all, the aim must be co-existence inspired by the principles dictated by an objective morality. It should not be forgotten that by preventing the abuse of religious freedom the attention of the citizens is drawn to the true nature of religious faith which must be professed for its own sake, because of the spirit inspiring it. On no account may the practice of religion violate others' rights.

The Fundamental Criterion

Having listed the elements that make for public order, the text (cf. D.H. 7) wisely adds:

"For the rest, the principle of the integrity of freedom in society should continue to be upheld. According to this principle, man's freedom should be given the fullest possible recognition and should not be curtailed except when and in so far as is necessary."

It is therefore desirable for religious freedom to develop, not within an absolutist or totalitarian State but rather in a State with democratic and social rights. Better still, the character of this State should be neither non-religious nor religiously neutral nor determined by a single religious denomination. The ideal in fact is a democratic State which considers it a duty and a right to take positive action in matters of religious belief, an action which corresponds to the true nature of religion.

Help is needed to create a climate of understanding between human beings, a climate of respect, of trust, of the will to act mutually for the good of all. In such an atmosphere, those who are in the truth can manifest it and those who are in error will be able to discover the truth in all areas including that of religion (cf. D.H. 8b), but in a manner in accordance with their dignity and with the nature of the relationship between the individual and the truth, that is, in the light of truth.

1. Cf. SIDIC, Vol. XII, No. 3 - 1979, pp. 29f. for the press release of this meeting.
2. Austin Flannery, General Editor: Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, "Dignitatis Humanae" (hereafter referred to as D.H.) pp. 799ff. Dominican Publications/Talbot Press, Dublin, 1975. D.H. 2a.
3 Ibid lb; 3a, b.
4 Ibid 13c.
5. Ibid 2a.
6. Ibid la.
7. Ibid. 10.
8. Ibid. 4.
9. John XXIII, translated from Documentation Catholique no. 1398, p. 524.
10. D.H. 6, conclusion.
11. Ibid 6.


Home | Who we are | What we do | Resources | Join us | News | Contact us | Site map

Copyright Sisters of Our Lady of Sion - General House, Rome - 2011