In Western democracies the contemporary debate about religious freedom often revolves around philosophical differences over the parameters between church and state, and between secular and religious values. By contrast, for millions of others, including many of the world’s Christians, the issue of religious freedom has long been defined by real-world experience of persecution. The 20th century saw more Christian martyrs than the previous 19 centuries combined. For of the world’s six billion inhabitants, more than half live in countries where being a Christian could cost you your life. Contemporaneously, 9/11 and the London bombings of July 2005 threw into sharp relief the ongoing challenge of peaceful co-existence in a religiously plural world.
Forty years ago, differing perspectives about the how religious belief can persist in a free society were addressed and reconciled by the Council Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Their seminal document, Dignitatis Humanae, one of whose principal proponents was a young Polish bishop, led to a fundamental change in the Catholic understanding of religious freedom and the role of religion in the world. By insisting on each person’s inalienable right to search for religious and spiritual fulfillment, and by asserting the centrality of the proclamation of human dignity, the Council shaped a coherent and intellectually sustainable approach. It was offered as a touchstone for Christian anthropology and Christian statecraft. In these troubled times it has a prophetic resonance.
Dignitatis Humanae, particularly when read alongside Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope: The Pastoral Constitution on The Church In The Modern World) lights the dark passages of the last four decades. It helps both believers and non-believers to understand the role of the Church in confronting the dictatorships of Marxism, materialism, and fascist military regimes while also criticizing the seemingly advanced democracies for their use of manipulative technologies to promote eugenics and the dehumanizing practices of euthanasia, abortion, human embryo experimentation, and human cloning.
The Council insisted that the dignity of the human person is always to be taken as the primary consideration and the starting point for understanding religious freedom. While Dignitatis Humanae reiterates the duty of the religious believer to search for Truth, it simultaneously articulates the duty to disavow any form of coercion. After three public debates, 126 speeches, and some 600 written interventions, article 2 of Vatican II’s final text on religious freedom asserted that:
This Vatican synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of the individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. The Synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the Revealed Word of God, and by reason itself. This right of the person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed. Thus it is to become a civil right.[i]
Article 3 adds the recognition of the beneficial role that religion can play in society, insisting that:
Injury, therefore, is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society when the just requirements of public order do not so require…. Government ought to take account of the religious life of the people and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common good. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power were it to presume to direct or inhibit acts that are religious.[ii]
Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes were part of the Council Fathers’ determination to abandon the quietism that had come to haunt the commentaries of the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. Such quietism was no longer an option for them: they had learned a great deal from the horrific violence of the first half of the 20th century. They were well aware that the abandonment of Christian quietism would lead to confrontation, but they set out the way in which the religious believer should handle the clash of conflicting beliefs. They prevailed over those who wanted the Church to dilute or entirely abandon both documents (with the Roman Curia not playing a particularly distinguished role).[iii]
Of course, the debate itself was not a new one. The apostles had wrestled with how to interpret Jesus’ Great Commission to go out and spread the gospel and how to render unto Caesar what was properly his while withholding what was not. In Jerusalem, Paul won the argument about whether the gospel was also intended for the gentiles, becoming the first Christian to engage with the world outside the synagogues. That decision created the universalism which is synonymous with the word “catholic”—but it also created the circumstances in which Christians would be thrown to lions, nailed to crosses, and hunted down in subterranean catacombs.
To this day, Roman Catholic liturgies celebrate and remember the sacrifices of those early martyrs: Peter and Paul, Clement, Calixtus, Sebastian, Cecilia, Felicity, Agatha, and the many others. Their refusal to capitulate to the civil authorities in matters of religious belief brought them a martyr’s crown. Tertullian would observe with accuracy that this blood of martyrs would become the seed of the church. Dignitatis Humanae cites the Acts of the Apostles (5:29) that “we must obey God rather than men,” and reminds us that “this is the way along which countless martyrs and other believers have walked through all ages and over all the earth.”[iv]
The Council also set out the terms for religious evangelization. In Chapter 2, Article 10, the declaration states: “It is one of the major tests of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free. Therefore no one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will.”[v]
This should not just be a test for Catholic evangelization or for Christian missions more broadly. It should also be measured against attempts to forcibly convert to Islam the peoples of countries like Sudan and Nigeria through bombing campaigns, siege, abduction, and enslavement. Over the past two decades, in an attempt to impose shari’a law in Southern Sudan, some two million Christians and Africans of traditional animist religions were killed. Simultaneously, any Muslim freely seeking Christian baptism faces execution, imprisonment, or torture. In other words, although some Vatican II teachings are articulated in specifically Christian terms, the general principles are of wider application—and are urgently needed in our contemporary context of clashing civilizations.
Persecution: The Seed of Vatican II
When, in October 1962, the Council Fathers came together for the 21st ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, it was played out against the brutal history of the 20th century. The continuing persecution of the Church (particularly in the Soviet Bloc and the Marxist regimes of the Far East) was reflected in Pope John XIII’s opening speech to the Council where he reflected on the “damage and danger” inflicted by “the princes of this world” on the Church: “We confess to you that we feel most poignant sorrow over the fact that very many bishops, so dear to us, are noticeable here today by their absence, because they are imprisoned for their faithfulness to Christ, or impeded by other restraints.”
As Archbishop Angello Roncalli, John XXIII had personally witnessed the depredations and atrocities committed at the behest of secular ideologies against vulnerable religious minorities. Although Dignitatis Humanae would not be published until December 7th 1965, by which time Paul VI was pope, the Decree on Religious Freedom emerged from Pope John’s experiences and those of a suffering church. It became the Council’s response to the erupting challenges of the time.
In 1925 Roncalli had been appointed as apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, told him, “Everyone seems to be fighting with everyone else, the Muslims with the Orthodox, the Greek Catholics with the Latins, and the Latins with each other. Could you go there and find out what is really happening?” During the next decade he did precisely that.
By mule he visited remote Christian communities who “don’t even have oil to light the lamps in the chicken-coops we use as chapels.” He met with the Greek Catholics and wrote: “As I joined with them in singing their grieving lamentations, which were the echo of centuries of political and religious slavery, I began to feel myself more catholic, more truly universal.”[vi] Roncalli entered into their suffering and their persecution.
His understanding of religious persecution took on a new dimension when in 1927 he met and forged a deep friendship with the octogenarian Archbishop Stepanosse Hovagnimian, Patriarch of the Bulgarian Armenians. Archbishop Hovagnimian had escaped the Turkish massacres of the Armenians in 1896 and survived the genocide of 1915. During his address to the Council’s Observers in October 1962, the then Pope John would refer to how this friendship had stirred deep emotions within him.
If Pope John had been deeply affected by the plight of the ancient churches,[vii] additional profound influences on the shaping of Dignitatis Humanae include his experiences with anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and Islam. In 1935 Roncalli had been moved to Istanbul as the Vatican’s representative. Ataturk’s government had imposed tight police restrictions on all Christian activities. Roncalli’s first duty on arriving in what had been Constantinople was to report to the police. Within a month his diocesan newspaper had been suppressed. Then Ataturk enacted laws prohibiting the wearing of religious habits and Christian schools were suppressed. He was of course in an Islamic country that had decided to reject religious Islam and denounce all religious belief as outmoded. In a letter to a friend Roncalli mused that Turkey might follow in the steps of Mexico where priests were being hunted down and shot.
In his first public address in Istanbul, at the church of the Holy Spirit in whose courtyard stands a statue of Pope Benedict XV (revered in Istanbul for his role in World War One as “protector of the East”), the future Pope gave a foreshadowing of what would form the ecclesiology of Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes. Roncalli said
“Our Lord has built his Church on the foundation of the Apostles, to whom he gave the command to preach the Gospel to everyone. The Church is not bound to this or that nation; but all nations, without distinction, are called to rally to its standard.… Having created it, he sent it forth to win over the world.”[viii]
Here is the genesis of the great impulse of the Second Vatican Council to see the Church as the living people of God, as lumen gentium—a light to the nations. Without this light there could be no true freedom. Even as he was writing these words, in 1935, the world was already becoming darker and sliding into chaos. In Russia, Stalin was murderously crushing all dissent and brutally suppressing the Orthodox Church. In Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini were seeking to impose their secular ideologies and the Jewish people were facing annihilation.
On the eve of War, and before the death of Pius XI in February 1939, Roncalli had his final meeting with the Pontiff. The Pope told his legate: “I am not afraid for the future of the Church. She only wants to be free. I know well what fate may well await her—sorrow and persecutions: but she will always have the last word, because she embodies the divine promises. But on the other hand, I tremble for the nations.” He contrasted the determined nature of the totalitarian regimes with the weakness and lack of conviction within the democratic nations.
Having returned to Istanbul, Roncalli met with a group of fleeing Polish Jews who gave him an account of what the Nazis were doing in Poland. He gave them practical help to aid them on their way to Israel and wrote in his Journal: “The world is poisoned by morbid nationalism, built up on the basis of race and blood, in contradiction with the Gospel. In this matter, which is of burning topical interest, ‘deliver me from the men of blood O Lord’.”[ix] Sworn testimonies of those who saw his subsequent work to help Jewish refugees stated that Roncalli personally “helped 24,000 Jews with clothes, money and documents.”
In 1944 he met with Isaac Herzog, the grand rabbi of Jerusalem, and intervened forcibly on behalf of 55,000 Jews in Transnistria. Rabbi Herzog wrote to Roncalli: “The people of Israel will never forget the help brought to its unfortunate brothers and sisters by the Holy See by its highest representative at this the saddest moment of our history.” He responded with a promise to “always be at your service and at the service of all the brothers of Israel.”[x]
Israel celebrates Roncalli’s memory as one of “the righteous Gentiles.” Still, the man himself must surely have meditated on the failure of the Church to prevent the unleashing of the hatred that led to the holocaust.
As Roncalli prepared to leave Istanbul, in another part of Europe a recently ordained Polish priest, with a fresh personal experience of the Nazi occupation of Poland, was coming to terms with his own experience of the holocaust and the subjugation of religious belief in a Stalinist communist state. As Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, the future Pope John Paul II, specifically urged the Council to include within the Declaration the belief that human dignity involves a “moral obligation to see the truth, especially religious truth.” He argued strongly that freedom must be used as a force for good, not as a libertarian option for selfish gratification.
He insisted that real freedom was inextricably bound up with the search for truth. Freedom is not about taking a neutral fence-sitting position where meaningless rhetoric about personal choice eclipses the idea of absolute truth. Wojtyla was never going to live in a spiritual Switzerland. With the English Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, he shared the belief that “to admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.”[xi]
As Pope John Paul II he said:
It is clear that the issue of human freedom is fundamental. Freedom is properly so called to the extent that it implements the truth regarding good. Only then does it become a good in itself. If freedom ceases to be linked with truth and begins to make truth dependent on freedom, it sets the premises for dangerous moral consequences, which can assume incalculable dimensions. When this happens, the abuse of freedom provokes a reaction which takes the form of one totalitarian system or another. This is another form of the corruption of freedom, the consequences of which we have experienced in the twentieth century and beyond.[xii]
Prophetically, he asserted in Fides et Ratio that, “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.” He passionately argued that much that passes for freedom has been constructed over the edifice of a lie.
Wojtyla’s experiences in Poland meant that when, in 1978, he succeeded to the See of Peter he came as a true son of the Council, deeply imbued by his belief in human dignity—the sacredness of man because man is made in the image and likeness of God, the Imago Dei—and in a “personalism” that always puts the upholding of human dignity as the starting point. How could it be otherwise, coming, as he put it, “from the country, on whose living body Auschwitz was constructed?”
In Witness to Hope, George Weigel records an address which Wojtyla gave to the Council in 1965 and says he “concluded with his personalist principle in its most condensed form—the closer human beings come to God, the closer they come to the depth of their humanity and to the truth of the world. Christian faith is not alienating; Christian faith is liberating in the most profound sense of human freedom. That was what the Church should propose to the modern world.”[xiii]
His first-hand Polish experiences and the philosophy that shaped Dignitatis Humanae gave John Paul a mandate which he used powerfully. We see it played out in the founding of Solidarity, in the confrontation with the Soviet bloc, in his denunciation of military dictatorships, and in constant exhortation to see the resolution of conflict.
The Post-Vatican II Catholic Response to Religious Persecution
As we review, 40 years later, the experiences and thinking that led to the proclamation of Dignitatis Humanae, it is clear that this document speaks forcefully to our own times. It is the single conciliar document that is addressed to the whole world—believer and non-believer alike. It speaks volubly to contemporary totalitarian regimes in countries like China and North Korea and to radical Islamist states such as The Republic of Sudan. It reminds the secularist that God wants no compulsory conversion and that no government has the right to suppress the freedom of religious profession and practice.
We must also ask, however, whether the Church’s doctrinal embrace of religious freedom has translated into practical action over the last four decades. Has the orthodoxy of religious freedom been matched with an orthopraxy of solidarity with, and action for, the persecuted?
In my view, the record is mixed—but, on the whole, still encouraging. On the one hand, since 1965 there have been instances where the Church has failed, through the inaction or errors of individuals or collective failure by the institution. Consider, for instance, the recent record of the Roman Catholic Church in Africa. In Rwanda I visited some of the prisons and met Hutu genocidaires who participated in the genocide of one million Tutsis. Of course, there were notable examples of individual Christians who refused to collaborate, and these are detailed by Antoine Rutayisire of African Enterprise in his book Faith under Fire. But Rutayisire also told me that “the position of the church is very complex: it has taken many different positions and reconciliation is not a popular concept. It often sits on the fence.”
During the genocide individual pastors, priests, and Christian leaders either collaborated in the killing or failed to speak out prophetically against the slaughter. The Church was party to a long process of over-identification with particular ethnic groups and failed to actively seek equal freedom for all. Moreover, it failed to inform individual believers and parishes of the duties that go with Christian citizenship.
On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church’s role in other African contexts has been far more in keeping with the principles of universal human dignity proclaimed at Vatican II. For instance, the bravery and prophetic quality of the Church in Sudan is quite striking. Cardinal Garbriel Zubeir Wako, Archbishop of Sudan (who is often simply known as “Father Courage”) has called for “a new Sudan—the kind of Sudan in which violence, injustice, discrimination find no place, because people’s hearts and minds have been filled with all the that brings and holds them together.”[xiv] Cardinal Wako and his people have seen huge loss of life and endured great suffering, but through it all have been a force for compassion and healing. Likewise, the Catholic role in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where up to 3.7 million have died in the past decade, has been praiseworthy.
More broadly, the positive legacy of Vatican II for the Roman Catholic Church’s engagement of religious freedom can be seen in its rejection of simplistic quietism in the face of today’s two most prominent sources of persecution: authoritarian communism and jihadist Islam. While the Church still exercises nuanced diplomacy and is not ignorant of complex geopolitical realities, the sound philosophy of Dignitatis Humanae has stiffened the resolve of the Church when it comes to its response to gross violations of human rights.
The nature of this response will, of course, vary depending on the context. In China, for instance, Pope Benedict XVI continues to make strenuous efforts to heal the breach between the Vatican and the Communist authorities. About five million Catholics belong to the Government-controlled “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.”
Millions more belong to underground churches and their bishops, priests, and believers regularly endure detention, imprisonment, beatings, and torture. In addition, many Catholic families have particularly suffered as part of the Government’s coercive one-child policy—with lack of compliance resulting in forced abortions and sterilization. While in some countries the voice of the Church on behalf of these victims is somewhat muted (e.g., in my own country of Britain), in others it is strong in defence of human dignity (e.g., in the U.S.).
In the case of militant Islam, the Roman Catholic Church’s response has largely been one of “calling a spade a spade.” That is, it has shown greater resistance than most to today’s culture of “political correctness” when it comes to candid truth-telling about the present condition of the Islamic world—and the profound implications for human rights of Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
Based on a profound understanding of human dignity, it is essential to affirm the goodness of many fine Muslims but also to criticize those things which are being done by radicals in the name of Islam. For the sake of the persecuted, we must take the long view. For those radical Muslims who adhere to the precept of the holy war, the military advance of Islam was merely halted at the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and at Vienna (1683). Jihad has now manifested itself in a modern form and is adhered to by adherents of Al Quaeda, Hamas, Laskar Jihad and other radical groups.
The Roman Catholic Church shares in the sufferings that jihadism inflicts on so many. The abuses range from outright murder, such as the slaying of the Bishop of Orano in Algeria in 1996, to persecution-by-law, such as the existence and capricious use of Blasphemy Laws in many Muslim contexts to suppress and intimidate.
Although “diplomatic considerations” will always have to be taken into account, neither silence nor special pleading only on behalf of one’s own religious tradition is justified in the face of global persecution. The Roman Catholic Church understands this imperative more clearly as a result of Vatican II teachings. The fear that speaking out might “make a bad situation worse” was the argument erroneously deployed by the European quietist tendency of the 1930s—the Council Fathers, and John Paul II, knew the error of that approach.
By rooting religious freedom in the dignity of the human person, the claim for religious freedom becomes a universal one securing the freedom of all people of conscience—Christian or not—to embrace the religious belief of their choice. In turn, the elevation of religious freedom brings great bounty to society in the working out of charitable endeavor and the deepening of the common good. And perhaps—in the context of the challenges to which I have referred—this denotes the greatest benefit and reason why all governments should be seized by the importance of promoting freedom of religious belief.
The first of the two chapters of Dignitatis Humanae ends with this telling admonition to the lawful authorities:
Let them form men who will be lovers of true freedom—men who will come to decisions through their own judgment and who, in the light of truth, will govern their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive after what is true and right, willing always to join with others in co-operative effort. Religious freedom, therefore, ought to have this further purpose and aim, namely that men may come to act with greater responsibility in fulfilling their duties in community life.
A society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched; one which doesn’t will decay.
[i] “The Documents of Vatican II”, page 678, Geoffrey Chapman, London 1967 (ital)).
[ii] (ibid, page 681 ((ital)).
[iii] Perhaps the proximity of the tomb of Peter, a recollection of the circumstances of the role of the State in his death in 64 AD, and a recollection of the apostle’s response to the Quo Vadis question put to him in a vision by the Lord, as he tried to walk along the Via Apia away from Rome, gave them the courage to address the central question of their own time.
[iv] (Article 11, ibid (ital)).
[vi] Hebblethwaite, Peter and Geoffrey Chapman, John XXIII, Pope of The Council (London, 1984).
[vii] Today the remaining Armenian Christians in Turkey continue to experience hardship, while all over the Middle East the ancient churches—from the Copts of Egypt to the Syrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholics—are embattled and beleaguered remnants whose plight is too frequently overlooked. Elsewhere I have documented graphic examples, such as the massacre of 21 Coptic Christians in the Egyptian town of Al-Kosheh. Many were literally hacked to death. Two hundred sixty Christian homes and businesses were gutted and looted. The authorities brought no one to justice. See “Passion and Pain,” Jubilee Campaign 2003.
[viii] Hebblethwaite and Chapman, John XXIII.
[ix] Journal of A Soul: Pope John XXIII
[x] Hebblethwaite and Chapman, John XXIII.
[xii] Memory and Identity, Wiedenfeld, 2005.
[xiv] “Roll Back the Stone of Fear” Aid To the Church In Need, 2005.