|Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi of Trieste, Italy|
* * *His Holiness Benedict XVI focused attention anew on the theme of freedom of religion in the recent Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente”, especially dedicating paragraphs 25 and 27 to it, with which we must also consider paragraphs 29 and 30 dealing with laicity and fundamentalism. On the basis of these teachings of the Holy Father and his predecessors I would like to offer some food for thought and discussion.
Freedom of religion is undoubtedly a natural right of the human person. The Magisterium of the Church has repeatedly taught that in a certain sense it is the first natural right and the principal one. To say it is a natural right means it ‘precedes’ the choice for one or another religion. Each person has the right to choose his/her religion, the one he/she deems to be the “true religion”. This entails a peril, since it may induce people to think that the choice of one religion or another is indifferent with respect to the freedom of religion, and that this freedom remains such and is both conserved and confirmed regardless of the choice for one religion or another. Freedom of religion would exist prior to and independently from the concrete choice a believer may make later on for one religion or another, and therefore the choice, let’s say, for Christianity or Buddhism would have no repercussions on the freedom of religion, which would be confirmed in both cases.
Arguing this thesis – that being the indifference of the choice of one religion or another with respect to the freedom of religion – also means giving up the “truth” of religions. If man remains free in any case and regardless of the religion chosen, it means all religions are equally true. In fact, all of them respect his freedom. If chosen, there are no religions that would undermine human liberty or in any way pollute or limit it. “The truth will make you free”: but if freedom of religion exists prior to both the encounter with religions and the concrete choice for one of them, the truth of the religion chosen cannot be what makes us free.
Christian doctrine has always drawn a distinction between “free will” and “freedom”. The former is the faculty to make a choice. The latter is the concrete choice for good. In fact, whomsoever chooses evil is no longer free, even if his free will remains the same. It can be said that such a person becomes a slave to himself. The choice of good, that being the exercise of true freedom, can be made in the light of reason. Pertaining to Revelation is the idea that man has this faculty: in his rational conscience he finds the light of good and evil. This light, however, often wanes, and in the wake of the fall of our distant forefathers it falls into error and leaves the straight road. Without the Christian faith it is lost. In other words, reason on its own is not able to give man that freedom he has by virtue of his selfsame nature. Needed in order for this to take place are revelation and the faith.
As we see, it isn’t possible for religions to be equivalent in their ability to confirm and bolster true human freedom. Preserved in the choice of one religion over another is the exercise of free will, but not true freedom. This is because not all religions are equally true, and only one of them is “true”. And this alone truly permits man to be free. In fact, we are free only according to truth.
Let us return to the problem raised at the outset. Freedom of religion does not mean the choice of just any religion confirms and validates the freedom of religion. This would be tantamount to the religious relativism clearly decried by Benedict XVI also in “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente”. It means that freedom of religion is a natural right and hence no one religion can be imposed upon people by the force of might. But that natural right is not merely free will and does not exist regardless of truth; it draws nourishment from truth and good, with respect to which only the true religion may respond in full. It alone renders man truly free. While on one hand it is right and just to acknowledge freedom of religion, it must be recognized on the other hand how, once chosen, there are religions that are detrimental to freedom of religion.
If freedom is considered only as the exercise of free will, freedom can be exercised even without any relationship with truth. If, however, freedom is considered as a right whose exercise is linked to good, then freedom does not exist outside the relationship with truth. If freedom does not exist outside the relationship with truth this means it has to do with truth from the very outset and not at a hypothetical later stage, and hence also has to do with God and therefore religion. The truth-religion link exists from the very outset, and with it the bond between freedom and true religion.