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Benedict XVI Eloquently Defended Religious Liberty

NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER - Andrea Picciotti-Bayer and V. Bradley Lewis - JAN 7, 2023

COMMENTARY: It is our responsibility to work toward the fulfillment of his vision.

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd as he joins U.S. President George W. Bush in an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House April 16, 2008, It was the Pope's 81st birthday. During his welcoming ceremony's address, he praised the Founding Fathers of the U.S. for instituting a “positive secularism.” (photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

No pope in history has defended religious freedom with such eloquence and authority as Benedict XVI. His understanding of this complex subject wonderfully clarified the relationship between religion and freedom, as laid out in Vatican II’s declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

And it is by virtue of the two parts of his teaching on religious liberty — the freedom of the person to believe and worship in accordance with conscience and the freedom of believers to bring their faith into the public square — that the Church can effectively contribute to forming culture and political life.

To the Roman Curia in a pre-Christmas address in 2005, Pope Benedict spoke of the martyrs of the early Church. They “died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one’s own faith — a profession that no state can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God’s grace in freedom of conscience.”

During his visit to the United States in 2008, for example, Benedict applauded the Founders for instituting what he called a “positive secularism” — the idea that the proper relationship between the Church and the state is marked by respect toward religion. Such respect, he said at the welcoming ceremony at the White House, “demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.”

During his address to U.S. bishops for their ad limina visit on Jan. 19, 2012, Benedict again praised America’s history of religious freedom and the way it has allowed religion to influence the culture. At the same time, he warned that policies like the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act threatened that freedom by limiting conscience rights, noting that “it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.”

In his 2008 address before the General Assembly of the United Nations, Benedict continued to promote an understanding of religious freedom that went beyond the freedom to worship. He asserted that it must also include the “public dimension of religion and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order.” By this, he meant that the Church, through its members, must inform culture and political morality — not juridically, but in an apostolic way, by boldly articulating and living out the Gospel.

It is Pope Benedict’s message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, 2011, that offers the most accessible primer on his understanding of religious freedom. Delivered just a month after a horrifying attack on the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad, Iraq, where more than 50 people were killed as they gathered to celebrate the Holy Mass, the Holy Father assured those grieving of his closeness to them in their suffering. He also implored all people of goodwill to recommit to defending religious freedom as the “path to peace.”

He proposed a capacious understanding of religious freedom — one that is essential not only for the individual but also for the common good. Consistent with his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Benedict cautioned that “without the acknowledgment of his spiritual being, without openness to the transcendent, the human person withdraws within himself, fails to find answers to the heart’s deepest questions about life’s meaning, fails to appropriate lasting ethical values and principles, and fails even to experience authentic freedom and to build a just society.” The capacity to “transcend one’s own materiality and to seek truth,” he urged, “must be acknowledged as a universal good, indispensable for the building of a society directed to human fulfillment.”

Referring to his remarks to the United Nations, Benedict repeated a point that is deeply relevant to us today: “It is inconceivable that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves — their faith — in order to be active citizens.” And if these words weren’t clear enough, he added: “It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.”

Finally, Benedict contrasted support for religious freedom with both religious fundamentalism and the hostility toward believers found in secularism. The two “are alike in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity. Both absolutize a reductive and partial vision of the human person, favoring in the one case forms of religious integralism and, in the other, of rationalism.”

Instead of imposing religion or suppressing it, we should recognize that “God beckons humanity with a loving plan that, while engaging the whole person in his or her natural and spiritual dimensions, calls for a free and responsible answer which engages the whole heart and being, individuals and communitarian.”

Indeed, religious freedom is, as Benedict called it, “an authentic weapon of peace.” Throughout his pontificate, he urged world leaders to wield this weapon for the common good and prayed fervently that “all men and women, and societies at every level and in every part of the earth, soon be able to experience religious freedom, the path to peace!” His prayers were not answered during his lifetime, but then he did not expect them to be: It is our responsibility to work toward the fulfillment of his vision.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is the director of the Conscience Project and a fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology.
V. Bradley Lewis is an associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America and a scholar at the Institute for Human Ecology.

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