Religious Freedom

God calls human beings to serve him in spirit and in truth. Hence they are bound in conscience but they stand under no compulsion. God has regard for the dignity of the human person whom he himself created; humans are to be guided by their own judgement and they are to enjoy freedom (cf DH 11). Before moving further let’s understand first What does religion mean?

What does it mean?

Religious freedom as declared by the Second Vatican Council means that a person has a natural right not to be coerced by other persons into acting against one’s conscience, nor to be prevented from acting according to one’s conscience in religious matters (cf ccc 2106, 2108, 160).

“Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others” (DH 2).

Religious freedom, therefore, means freedom from exterior compulsion. It does not mean that we have no inner natural obligation to worship God, or that it is indifferent which religion one holds. We have the duty to seek the truth and to follow it when we have recognized it.

Does religious freedom have a solid basis in reason?

The ultimate basis of religious freedom is the dignity of the human person (cf ccc 1731, 1741).

“It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore bearing personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth.”

“But men cannot satisfy this obligation in a way that is in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy both psychological freedom and immunity from external coercion” (DH 2).

  1. Therefore, since religious freedom is based on the very nature of the human person and not on the personal characteristics of individual people, religious freedom must be observed even in the case of those individuals who do not seek the truth or who do not adhere to it when they find it.
  2. We must seek truth in accord with our nature. By nature we are free. Therefore, we must seek the truth in freedom which does not rule out the use of assistance or instruction by others, because this is one of the ways in which we freely seek the truth.

Religious freedom is especially important because “the practice of the religion of its very nature consists primarily of those voluntary and free internal acts by which a man directs himself to God. Acts of this kind cannot be commanded or forbidden by any merely human authority” (DH 3).

Is Religious freedom enjoyed also by religious communities as well as by families?

“The freedom or immunity from coercion in religious matters which is the right of individuals must also be accorded to men when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the nature of man and of religion itself” (DH 4).

The reason is that humans by their very nature, are social beings. Therefore, they must have the same rights when acting in social groups as when acting as an individual.

“Also included in the right to religious freedom is the right of religious groups not to be prevented from freely demonstrating the special value of their teaching for the organization of society and the inspiration of all human activity. Finally, rooted in the social nature of man and in the very nature of religion is the right of men, prompted by their own religious sense, freely to hold meetings or establish an educational, culture, charitable and social organizations” (DH 4).

Every family has the right freely to organize its own religious life in the home under the control of the parents who can decide the form of religious upbringing and education of their children. The civil authority must recognize this right (cf DH 5).

Who is to safeguard religious freedom?

All of us are responsible in varying degrees. Safeguarding religious freedom is “the common responsibility of individual citizens, social groups, civil authorities, the Church and other religious communities” (DH 6).

In exercising their rights individual and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect for the rights of others, their own duties to others and the common good for all. Therefore, if a part or the whole of society is being harmed by the abuses of a religious group or individual, society has the right to correct the abuse (cf DH 7). It is necessary to educate people for the use of their freedom (cf DH 8).

Is there any basis for religious freedom in divine revelation?

Though there are no explicit statements in Revelation about religious freedom, it provides sufficient basis for it, by disclosing “the dignity of the human person in all its fullness” (DH 9).

Catholic teaching, contained in the word of God and the teachings of the Fathers, it that human’s response to God by faith ought to be free (cf DH 10).

  1. Jesus Christ called human beings with patience and kindness, asking of them the free act of faith. He forced no one. “He supported and confirmed his preaching by miracles to arouse the faith of his hearers and to give them assurance, but not to coerce them” (DH 11).

“He recognized civil authority and its right when he ordered tribute to be paid to Caesar, but he gave clear warning that the higher rights of God must be respected: ‘Render therefore to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’ (Mt. 22:21)” (DH 11).

  •  The apostles, too, acted in the same way, spreading the faith by their preaching and teaching but forcing no one, instead, exhorted everyone how ‘each of us shall give an account of himself to God’ (Rom. 14:12)” (cf DH 11).

Is the Catholic Church affected by Religious freedom?

The Catholic Church is also affected by this teaching. She claims freedom for herself in human society and before the civil authority to live according to the demands of the Christian faith (cf DH 13).

Why is the declaration of the principle and the exercise of religious freedom so important today?

It is so important today because of the development of humankind to a greater sense of personal responsibility, human dignity and the demand for the exercise of their own judgement than ever before. At the same time they demand norms that will prevent the government to restrict the rightful freedom of individuals and associations in the practice of religion in society (cf DH 1).