The West

The Search for Truth
as an Inalienable Right of Man

Without religious freedom, the synthesis of all human rights, man’s ultimate desires, are repressed. Thus, the State must defend and enhance it. On the often difficult relationships between States and religions, an interview with Giorgio Feliciani (expert on canon law)

edited by Carlo Dignola

“The right to freedom of religion is insufficiently or inadequately recognized in numerous nations. But the yearning for religious freedom is unrestrainable. It will remain alive and pressing as long as man lives.” John Paul II’s affirmation in his talk to the Diplomatic Corps at the Holy See last January 10th raised an alarm that did not escape the attention of Giorgio Feliciani, Professor of Canon Law and Ecclesiastical Law of the State at the Catholic University of Milan, and long-standing President of the International Association of Scholars on these subjects.

We take for granted that a man can choose his religion, but the situation in the world is not very happy.
Religious freedom is harshly repressed in many countries. There are Islamic nations that apply the sharia to the entire population, or that prohibit the existence of any Christian place of worship, countries in which even prayer gatherings in private homes are clandestine. The responsibility is not always the State’s; even groups or individuals play their part. For example, in Baghdad, when they throw bombs in churches or kidnap bishops as well as the Christian faithful, evidently this is also an attack on religious freedom. But there are also much more nuanced situations. The Secretary for the Holy See’s relationships with States, Msgr Giovanni Lajolo, said recently that there is almost no nation where the Church enjoys all the rights to which she maintains she is legitimately entitled.

In the countries with a Christian culture, instead, there is broader freedom, not only for Christians but for everyone.
Let’s say that today you can’t talk about the freedom of the Church without the problem of religious freedom in general. John Paul II has focused a large part of his teaching on this very topic, but also the Second Vatican Council dedicated an entire declaration to it in Dignitatis Humanae.

Why is it so important to defend it?
Man has the right and the duty to search for truth, and he must be able to adhere to it once he has recognized it, and order his life according to its requirements, in a condition of freedom from any outside constraint. In the final analysis, the religious sphere is that of the Truth. If religious freedom doesn’t exist, then man is limited, conditioned, and repressed in his search and in his desire.

Is it a very personal and intimate question?

Religious freedom, which pertains to individuals, also pertains to them when they act in a communitarian way.

Today there is concern for the individual aspect, and the freedom of the Church as an institution is not considered a value to be defended.
Exactly. Even in international treaties, individual liberties are usually foreseen and guaranteed, but there is much less concern for the freedom of religious denominations. Even the new European Constitution chose fairly vague expressions, and the treatment of the religious question is quite singular. The awkwardness is such that the denominations are put on the same level as philosophical organizations.

There has been a great increase in sensitivity to human rights, and even in the Catholic sphere they are considered the hallmark of a policy of openness toward other cultures. Instead, religious freedom is perceived as a less essential right. How are these two realms intertwined?

More than intertwined, the question is the same: religious freedom is a human right; in fact, it’s the one that maximally implicates the others. Religious freedom means freedom of conscience, freedom to manifest one’s own thought, to exercise forms of propaganda, freedom of association, of meeting, in the use of communications, freedom of education, and of undertaking cultural, charitable, and assistance initiatives according to one’s own creed. Religious freedom represents the foundation or, better, the synthesis of all human rights. It can be affirmed that where it is recognized in all its ramifications, the other rights are also effectively respected.

We are heading toward a multiethnic society. Will it be necessary to safeguard the choices of the other religions as well?

Certainly, and to avoid discrimination among them as well. We can’t accept the position of those who say, “Since the Church’s rights are not acknowledged in Islamic countries, then we shouldn’t recognize the rights of Muslims here.” It’s ridiculous. It would be like saying, “Since Iraq, or East Timor, or China violate human rights, then we’ll also violate them in our own country.” Of course, this does not mean that political authorities should not insist on obtaining conditions of reciprocity.

In Italy, would you put the Catholic Church, Islam, and Buddhism on the same level?
For reasons of historical tradition, considering the importance that a religious confession has had and still has in the life of a certain country, it can request and press for a particular–in a certain sense “favored”–status, as long as this does not limit the freedom of the members of other denominations and the denominations themselves. Let me clarify, though, that our Constitution does not say all religious denominations are “equal” before the law; it says that they are “equally free.”

And when religious freedom clashes with some principle of the State?

We must say that religious freedom, both in the case of the individual and in that of the community, is not without limits. It must meet the limits inherent in man’s exercise of his rights. The Council spoke of a “just natural order.” For example, if a religious confession involves human sacrifice, you can’t expect to practice it. Respect for human dignity, democracy, and equality are unequivocal.
So the Catholic Church acknowledges the fact that the State can set limits to religious practices?
Dignitatis Humanae, the Council document, expressly says so.

Today, many people in Italy urge for a more decisive separation of Church and State.
A net separation isn’t possible, but a distinction of spheres is. Church and State are two independent and sovereign realities, but since they both essentially concern the same people, they must establish a healthy collaboration for the promotion of man and the good of the country. They can’t ignore each other. The fact that a state isn’t confessional–and it needn’t be so–does not at all mean that it must be indifferent, or even opposed to the religious phenomenon. Rather, the State must guarantee its freedom, and enhance it for all that can be useful and constructive for social coexistence.

Do you think that today there’s a risk of Catholic fundamentalism taking root?

Even as early as the Acts of the Apostles, when the Sanhedrin forbade Peter to speak of Jesus Christ, he rebelled, saying, “Obedience to God comes before obedience to men” (Acts 5:29). It was the assertion of the primacy of the conscience over civil authority and even religious authority, as with the Sanhedrin.

Do you mean that the Christian asks for autonomy even in the face of established religion?
Catholic doctrine says that the ultimate criterion is man’s conscience, as long as it has been formed correctly. We have to admit that there have been manifestations of fundamentalism in the history of the Church as well. But it is precisely this absolute recognition of the dignity of the individual human person that keeps an authentic Catholic position from taking on such an approach. The respect that must be given to the dignity of each person puts the Church in a position of attention to and appreciation of anybody.

This is what the Pope is saying, it seems to me. In recent years, he hasn’t simply pronounced himself against war, but has been the only person on the international scene to speak in defense of everyone.

The Christian’s task is to help the walk of humanity, according to all the articulations and conditions in which it finds itself.

Religious freedom, lived fully, would defend not only Christians, but man.
And would seek dialogue with all religious men, at least those of good will.