It’s a sad fact that the 21st century is full of hotspots of religious persecution. Neither the Church nor secular institutions saw this coming. As a result, they aren’t prepared for the horrifying reality of life in Nigeria, Nicaragua, many parts of the Middle East and South Asia, Pakistan and China: constant surveillance, false imprisonment, kidnapping, arson, trumped-up charges of “blasphemy,” and assassination.
This is not something we can ignore or pass over with pious platitudes. Defending the persecuted and promoting religious freedom isn’t a political project; there’s nothing optional about respecting an inviolable right of the human person and the common good of society.
As Catholics, we have at our disposal the richness of Catholic social teaching to help us understand the importance of religious freedom.
At the end of 1965, for example, the Second Vatican Council issued its declaration on religious freedom. Dignitatis Humanae made clear that all men and women instinctively seek the truth, which is revealed in its fullness in the teachings of God’s Holy Catholic Church, and roots religious freedom in the Church’s perennial teaching on human dignity.
As the website for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains, Dignitatis Humanae “teaches that religious freedom is the cornerstone of a society that promotes human dignity; it is a fundamental human right, which follows on the duty of all people to seek the truth about God.”
Ordering our “whole lives in accord with the demands of truth,” as the Council advised us, means that religious freedom is more than just the right to worship. It also entails the right to live our entire lives consistent with our beliefs. And for the Church to fulfill her divine mission — which is, of course, the salvation of souls — religious freedom must not only be proclaimed in words and incorporated in law but also be given sincere and practical application. We must defend the autonomy of the Church, Church-run institutions, and the faithful’s ability to meet the needs of those in our midst consistent with Catholic teaching.
For those who are unfamiliar with or even hostile to Catholic teaching, Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at Notre Dame, offers a “fresh defense” of religious freedom. Philpott, a strong advocate for global religious freedom and former co-director of the Under Caesar’s Sword project, which researched Christian responses to persecution around the globe, has written an upcoming article in the American Journal of Jurisprudence entitled “Why Religious Freedom Is a Human Right.”
Philpott notes that, as a matter of law, religious freedom has strong standing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, for example, defines the nature of religious freedom in Article 18 as follows: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” And recent surveys show that about 90% of the world’s state constitutions, including our U.S. Constitution, include religious freedom as a guarantee.