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2009-07-06
A Catholic Perspective on Religious Freedom
Pope John Paul II has said religious freedom is a "cornerstone" of the structure of human rights," an "irreplaceable factor" in both the individual good and the common good, which consists of a just and peaceful social order.(1)
Religious freedom has both a personal dimension -- the freedom of conscience -- and a social dimension - the free exercise of religion.(2)

Freedom of conscience is the freedom to make a personal decision based on one's beliefs free of external coercion and discrimination. Freedom of conscience requires that government policies, the media and other institutions respect religious beliefs and not attempt to destroy or undermine them.

Because human nature is both personal and social, freedom of conscience is tied to the social dimension of religious liberty: the free exercise of religion. Free exercise means that no one may be forced to act contrary to one's beliefs, nor may one be restrained from acting in accordance with one's beliefs. The free exercise of religion may be divided into three interrelated components. Freedom of religious expression and evangelization includes freedom to worship as a community, freedom to publish and to communicate through the media, freedom to educate one's children in their faith, and freedom to address the religious and moral dimensions of social, economic and political quesions. Ecclesial or institutional freedom is the right of religious bodies to internal autonomy, including the right to a legal personality, the freedom to develop and teach religious beliefs, to choose, train, appoint and train ministers, and to obtain and use property. Freedom of religious association affirms the freedom of a person to enter or leave a religious community, the freedom to form religious groups for educational, charitable and other purposes, and the freedom to associate with co-religionists at home or abroad.

A state may restrict or limit religious freedom only for serious reasons, such as when the exercise of religious freedom is violating the rights of others, the public peace or order is threatened, or public morality is at risk.

It is clear from this brief summary that religious liberty is not just a right of the individual believer but is also a right of religious communities. Denial of juridical status to a religious body violates religious liberty just as discrimination against an individual believer does. It is also clear that religious liberty covers a broad range of activities, from freedom of worship to the right to establish charitable groups and to participate in and to seek to influence public affairs. Finally, it is clear that religious freedom is inextricably linked to other human rights, such as freedom of association, freedom of speech, and legal recognition of voluntary associations. The countries in Europe that continue to restrict religious liberty also tend to restrict these other rights, and vice-versa.


Church-State Separation and Religious Freedom
The problem of respecting both the rights of majority and minority religions, is played out most visibly in the area of church-state relations. In general, the historical experience of religions in much of Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe, has approximated one of two models.(3) Through the first part of this century, many countries had a "state" church, which had a monopoly of religion in society and relied on the state both for special privileges and to limit or deny the rights of minority religions and nonbelievers. In communist countries, a second model, the atheist state, which was intolerant of all religion, was the norm. Obviously, the state church and the atheist state model present serious religious liberty problems.(4)

With the transformation of 1989, many in the West hoped and expected that Central and Eastern Europe would quickly adopt a third model, something akin to the American-style of religious pluralism based on a sharp church-state separation and the state's neutrality toward religion. Instead, in some countries, there is a tendency of majority churches to revert to the pre-communist model of a state church, because, among other reasons, it was the model under which the majority church was free and flourishing and, from the perspective of some nationalist politicians, it is a model which can be easily manipulated to serve their interests.

In other countries, majority churches have not reverted to a state church model of the past, nor have they embraced strict church-state separation. Instead, their approach fits better under a fourth model, common in Western Europe, in which the state gives practical preference to the majority church or religion, but the majority church is not a "state church" because it and the state remain independent of each other and no effort is made to restrict minority religions. The Catholic Church in Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania, for example, are opting for a version of this model over strict church-state separation because they see it as more in keeping with their historical and cultural realities. They fear that church-state separation is being promoted, often by former communists, as a way to promote secularism and to exclude the church from public life, effectively marginalizing and privatizing religion. The way church-state separation was misused under communism to repress religion only reinforces this fear.(5)

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church would consider both the church-state separation model and the church preference model acceptable means for protecting religious liberty, depending on the circumstances. Obviously, if one accepts this view, then one will be more tolerant of religious education in state schools (assuming opt-out provisions are available for children of different or no religious background), clergy salaries paid by the state, state funding for religious groups, "Christian" standards for the media, and other policies that might not pass muster under the American system. Religious minorities and nonbelievers often contend these policies are unwise, incompatible with a modern democracy, or discriminatory. Whatever one's view, it is necessary to appreciate the theological and cultural underpinnings of this model of church-state relations if one is to understand majority-minority church dynamics in Central and Eastern Europe.

Source: Religious Intolerance in Europe Today, Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J., Director, Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Catholic Conference (September 18, 1997)
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