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Homilies - Bishop Brendan Leahy

Religion and cultural diversity:  Challenges for the Christian Churches in Europe - 2-6 June 2014 - Minsk, Belarus

Religion and cultural diversity:

Challenges for the Christian Churches in Europe


IV European Orthodox-Catholic Forum

Minsk, Belarus, 2-6 June 2014


 Religious freedom is a path to justice and peace

In 1948, a few short years after the terrible Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated in article 18: “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.”

At the Second Vatican Council, the bishops adopted the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, one of the great documents of the Council. The Declaration says that religious freedom “means that all men and women 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 nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters” (n.2)

The Council went on to affirm that religious freedom is not only freedom from coercion but is a positive freedom. It is one valued within Judaism and also Islam. In his 2012 Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, Pope Benedict wrote:

Religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the person; it safeguards moral freedom and fosters mutual respect. Jews, with their long experience of often deadly assaults, know full well the benefits of religious freedom. For their part, Muslims share with Christians the conviction that no constraint in religious matters, much less the use of force, is permitted. Such constraint, which can take multiple and insidious forms on the personal and social, cultural, administrative and political levels, is contrary to God’s will. It gives rise to political and religious exploitation, discrimination and violence leading to death. God wants life, not death. He forbids all killing, even of those who kill (cf. Gen 4:15-16; 9:5-6; Ex 20:13). (n. 26).

It has been said that “religious freedom is an authentic weapon of peace, with an historical and prophetic mission.”[1] In this paper I want to offer a simple reflection on the theme of religious freedom as the path to justice and peace.

The Roots of Religious Freedom

To understand how religious freedom is the path to peace and justice, it is important to recall its anthropological roots. The right to religious freedom is based not on the subjective attitude of an individual but on the very dignity of the human person as revealed through the revealed word of God and discovered by reason itself.

Every human being is more than his or her materiality. Each person has a transcendent dignity. We are spiritual beings, open to ultimate meaning and Truth. Indeed, we are made for the Absolute, for Truth, for God.

One expression of this deep-rooted openness to the ultimate Mystery of Life is expressed in psalm 8:  “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man, that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than God, and crowned him with glory and honour. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet” (Ps 8:3-6).

Our striving for God is in common with others since every human being is relational. We don’t seek ultimate truth on our own as isolated monads. Whether it is recognised or not, all of humanity is embraced within the overarching plan for unity with the creator and redeemer God and with one another that is God’s plan for humanity (cf. Gen 1; Jn 17:21).

Attentiveness to the spiritual transcendence of each one of us and of all us together provides us with a compass to direct our choices in accordance with the truth. It is what opens us to finding lasting ethical values and principles. In experiencing authentic freedom we find the bases for building a just society.

Some today affirm that we are incapable of seeking truth and goodness or that there are no objective reasons for acting except for contingent interests. And so they propose religion is merely a private option to be exercised at best in the secret chambers of one’s heart but not to be manifested in public. It is said that limiting religious manifestation to the private is best for the promotion of a healthy pluralism. But such a position is to deny what it is to be human. It is a reductive view of each person and our common story. In the long run it leads to moral relativism and, ultimately, to resentment.

In the 2011 Message for the World Day of Peace, we read:

Religious freedom expresses what is unique about the human person, for it allows us to direct our personal and social life to God, in whose light the identity, meaning and purpose of the person are fully understood. To deny or arbitrarily restrict this freedom is to foster a reductive vision of the human person; to eclipse the public role of religion is to create a society which is unjust, inasmuch as it fails to take account of the true nature of the human person; it is to stifle the growth of the authentic and lasting peace of the whole human family (n.1).


Society needs to be organised in a way that facilitates and helps people realise their vocation in full freedom.


Seeking a united, fraternal world characterised by Justice and Peace


Fifteen hundred years ago St. Augustine of Hippo affirmed that the peace that has to be built up in the world is the “tranquillitas ordinis”, the tranquillity of order.[2] Justice and peace are constitutive elements of this tranquillity of order. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed that true peace is “the work of justice” (Is 32:17).

Peace is both a gift of God and at the same time a task that always is before us. The deepest roots of peace are found in our reconciliation with God. Peace “is not the mere absence of war or the result of military or economic supremacy, much less deceptive ploys or clever manipulation”. Rather, it is “the result of a process of purification and of cultural, moral and spiritual elevation involving each individual and people, a process in which human dignity is fully respected.”[3]

Justice is the moral virtue that ensures full respect for rights and responsibilities, and the just distribution of benefits and burdens. There can be no true peace without attentiveness to justice.

Essential to human justice, its completion, as it were, is the forgiveness that heals and rebuilds troubled human relations from their foundations. We see this is small and great situations of life, at the personal and international level. For instance, in Ireland, now almost twenty years after the Peace Agreement, the issue is how to deal with the past, how to restore the tranquillity of order also in terms of the memory of the wounds of the past. Wounds fester in the human heart. Forgiveness is needed.

We need to be able to start all over again in life and not remain locked up in our mistakes and guilt. We want to discover new possibilities of trust and commitment. As Saint John Paul wrote in his 2002 message for peace, “what sufferings are inflicted on humanity because of the failure to reconcile! What delays in progress because of the failure to forgive. Peace is essential for development, but true peace is made possible only through forgiveness”.

Peace, justice and forgiveness are deeply related. But respect for religious freedom is the condition that facilitates the personal and public interaction of the three.

Religious Freedom as the Condition

Religious Freedom creates the necessary basis for attaining a holistic development that keeps the whole person in every single dimension in view. When religious freedom is acknowledged, the dignity of the human person is respected at its root, and the ethos and institutions of peoples are strengthened in a way that serves peace and justice. Without recognition of religious freedom it becomes difficult to guide societies towards universal ethical principles. Religion offers a valuable contribution to the pursuit of shared ethical and spiritual values and to the building of a just and peaceful social order. As Saint John Paul put it: religious freedom is “the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights”.[4]

An unbiased review of how religions have actually benefitted society will attest to the contribution of religious communities. The religious dimension of culture has been very significant. Firstly and fundamentally, people have looked to religions to solve the intimate riddles of their life. As the Vatican II Declaration on Interreligious Dialogue, Nostra Aetate, puts it:

People expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men and women: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going.[5]

Not only do religions help us in dealing with deep existential questions, but through numerous charitable and cultural institutions religious believers have played a constructive role in the life of society. It would be difficult to quantify the community-building and identity-forming institutions, agencies and initiatives that have emerged from the world’s religions – from schools to temples, from pilgrimages to art, from communication networks to social initiatives.

In a globalized world marked by increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, the world religions can serve as an important factor of unity and peace for the human family:  ‘The public space which the international community makes available for the religions and their proposal of what constitutes a “good life” helps to create a measure of agreement about truth and goodness, and a moral consensus; both of these are fundamental to a just and peaceful coexistence. The leaders of the great religions, thanks to their position, their influence and their authority in their respective communities, are the first ones called to mutual respect and dialogue.’[6]

Religion makes an ethical contribution in the political sphere. It provides parameters for reflection, criteria of discernment and principles for action.



Since religious freedom is the path to justice and peace, there are several implications arising for society.

Firstly, we need to keep reminding ourselves and others that religious freedom is the pinnacle of all other freedoms, the condition for lasting peace and justice. Regrettably, over the past fifty years we continue to see many instances of direct persecution of people for their religious belief or, in the West, a subtle form of prejudice and hostility towards believers and religious symbols.  It is not enough for society or a state to affirm religious freedom but then deny the rights deriving from the social and public dimension of the profession of faith and of belonging to an organized religious community. The laws and institutions of a society need to be shaped in such a way as to value the religious dimension of its citizens. Legislation that promotes religious indifference, relativism and religious syncretism, even in terms of tolerance, damages a society in that it is reducing to the private sphere a right that is fundamental to the person’s dignity. On the other hand, a society that knows how to recognise and appreciate the variety of religious traditions benefits greatly.

Secondly, a corollary of respect for religious freedom in its contribution to peace and justice is the right to religious education. Parents must be free to transmit to their children, responsibly and without constraints, their heritage of faith, values and culture. Religious education can offer much to the building of a strong and fraternal social fabric, in which young people can be prepared to assume their proper responsibilities in life, in a free society, and in a spirit of understanding and peace.

Thirdly, religious freedom places an obligation on religious bodies to present their teaching in ways that conform to the requirements of peaceful coexistence and respect for the freedom of each individual. It is important for religious bodies to value those elements of their religion that foster civil coexistence, while rejecting whatever is contrary to the dignity of men and women. We can think of the Golden Rule “Treat others as you would like them to treat you” that is found in many religions. Followers of various religions should express their convictions and organise their specific activities with respect for the rights of those who do not belong to that religion or profess any creed. Religious fanaticism and fundamentalism are practices contrary to human dignity. The profession of a religion cannot be exploited or imposed by force: ‘States and the various human communities must never forget that religious freedom is the condition for the pursuit of truth, and truth does not impose itself by violence but “by the force of its own truth”. In this sense, religion is a positive driving force for the building of civil and political society.’[7]  In his letter to the churches of the Middle East, Pope Benedict remarked: “We know very well that truth, apart from God, does not exist as an autonomous reality. If it did, it would be an idol. The truth cannot unfold except in an otherness open to God, who wishes to reveal his own otherness in and through my human brothers and sisters. Hence it is not fitting to state in an exclusive way: “I possess the truth”. The truth is not possessed by anyone; it is always a gift which calls us to undertake a journey of ever closer assimilation to truth. Truth can only be known and experienced in freedom; for this reason we cannot impose truth on others; truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love”.[8]

Fourthly, it is important for all religious bodies to recognise they are involved in defending religious freedom. Sometimes a religion that finds itself in the majority might forget the need to defend the rights and freedoms of smaller religious communities within a region. There is a need for leaders of the great world religions as well as the leaders of nations to renew their commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedom, and in particular to defending religious minorities. In doing so, they will contribute to spreading a culture of good will, openness and reciprocity that will ensure the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in all areas and regions of the world.

Fifthly, there is a need for a healthy pluralism in countries that, in the name of the rights of non-believing minorities, end up silencing the wealth of religious traditions in those countries. Pope Francis has written: “A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism. The respect due to the agnostic or non-believing minority should not be arbitrarily imposed in a way that silences the convictions of the believing majority or ignores the wealth of religious traditions. In the long run, this would feed resentment rather than tolerance and peace.”[9]

Sixthly, in the promotion of religious freedom, it is important for the Churches to discover their specific call to be a point of dialogue between the followers of the different religions. This year we are celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam that emphasised dialogue. St. Paul writes of Jesus Christ that: “he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall” (Eph 2:14). In Christ we receive a calling to work for the cooperation of all religious communities for the common good. Dialogue has become a highway for this mission of the Church bearing in mind what Thomas Aquinas teaches: “every truth, whoever utters it, comes from the Holy Spirit”. Dialogue helps us promote a culture of religious freedom.


Today, as perhaps never before, the world looks to various religions in matters concerning peace. I was present at the 1986 Assisi meeting of religions for peace. On that occasion the leaders of the great world religions testified to the significance of religion in the search for unity and peace. So often it is said that religions cause divisions and conflict. But the Assisi event reminded us that religions give reasons to hope for a future when all believers will see themselves, and will actually be, agents of justice and peace.

Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick, Ireland


[1] Pope Benedict, 2011 Message for World Day of Peace, n. 15. In this paper I will be drawing particularly on the annual messages for peace, especially the 2011 and the 1988 messages.

[2] Augustine, The City of God, 19, 13.

[3] 2011 Message, n. 15.

[5] Vatican II Decree on Interreligious Dialogue, Nostra Aetate, n. 1

[6] 2011 Message, n. 10

[7] 2011 Message, n. 7.

[8] Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, n. 27

[9] Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 255.