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Homilies - Bishop Brendan Leahy

The Iona Institute and The Irish Catholic Newspaper

“The Meaning of Religious Freedom”

Speaking Notes of Bishop Brendan Leahy

Strand Hotel, Limerick, June 17th, 2014

I am grateful to the Iona Institute and The Irish Catholic newspaper for their invitation to offer a reflection on “The Meaning of Religious Freedom”. Though the suggested title for this talk is straightforward, the topic itself is multi-faceted. Indeed the theme of religious freedom has been described as “an explosive one, both historically and at present”.[1] I want to tread warily and respectfully as I offer my reflection on the basis of the Catholic Church’s teaching as found especially in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae and most recently in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhoration on the Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium.

The topic of religious freedom has gained prominence globally in recent times. Studies have shown a rise in religious persecution. A report by Grim and Finke indicated that between 2000 and 2007 there were as many as 123 countries with some kind of religious persecution.[2] Pope Francis has recently commented how persecution of Christians is stronger now than it was in the first centuries.

Europe too struggles with the issue of religious freedom and states have different arrangements regarding religious bodies and the expression of religious beliefs. Some years ago we had the controversy in France regarding the law banning the wearing of Muslim headscarves and other visible religious symbols in state schools adopted by the French parliament and upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. It caused quite a stir among human rights groups and others who challenged the law as a violation of the right to manifest religious belief free of coercion. In some places the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas has been discouraged. Religious freedom in some states risks being reduced merely to freedom of worship without guaranteeing respect for freedom of conscience or the recognition of the public dimension of religious belief.

In Ireland too we are at a time of reflection regarding questions that impinge directly or indirectly on the place of religion and religious freedom in our state. Is belief merely a private option? What impact should our religious beliefs have on our civic engagement? Is professing a religion something like an overcoat that you should hang up in the cloakroom before entering into the halls of economics and social policy, healthcare and politics, culture and education? What version of religious freedom should we carve out for Ireland?

It is good to reflect on these issues. I recognise they are complex. They involve consideration of other freedoms and rights and their interaction. I cannot claim to do justice in this paper to all the dimensions that arise. I hope, however, my few reflections will contribute to a spirit of dialogue on this important topic.

As a final introductory remark, it is not without significance that we are gathered this evening here in Limerick during the year when this lovely city has been designated the national city of culture. Saint John Paul, a freeman of this city, spoke here in Limerick about the responsibility of Christians to bring the Gospel and, by implication, of all people to bring their beliefs about life’s meaning, to bear on what he called ‘the great forces that shape our world – politics, the mass media, science, technology, culture, education, industry and work’. Our openness to the transcendent is at the heart of culture and the rights that society upholds. As Saint John Paul put it on another occasion, religious freedom is “the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights”.[3]   

My paper will proceed in four steps. Firstly, it is important to review briefly the origins of the Christian experience of freedom and religious freedom. Secondly, I will focus on the Second Vatican Council. Thirdly, I will refer to some issues that arise in the Irish context. Fourthly, I will suggest a few implications regarding living religious freedom today in Ireland.

Religious freedom and the Origins of the Christian Experience

“For freedom you have been set free” says St. Paul in the Letter to the Galatians. Freedom was and is a central tenet of the new religious community that came to life through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

In his own life on earth, Jesus Christ, in whom God communicated himself and his ways to us, refused to be a political messiah, ruling by force. In striving to proclaim God’s loving plan for all those he met he promoted the freedom of his brothers and sisters. In Dignitatis humanae we hear Jesus Christ’s ministry of freedom described as follows:

(He) bore witness to the truth, (see Jn 18:37) but He refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it. Not by force of blows does His rule assert its claims. It is established by witnessing to the truth and by hearing the truth, and it extends its dominion by the love whereby Christ, lifted up on the cross, draws all to Himself (see John 12:32). (no. 11)

It’s always important for Christians to recognise that we follow the Crucified Christ. The initial proclamation of the First Christians was precisely this: we have experienced a new inner freedom from the encounter with the Crucified-Risen Christ. And they understood faith as an act of freedom in response to this encounter.

Having entered through the door of freedom, the encounter with Christ opens up a new way of looking at everything and the first Christians wanted to offer the Gospel vision with a view to contributing to a reconciled world. In the light of the Christ event, the first Christians built on the universal striving for Truth and offered in dialogical fashion (see Paul in Athens) the light of their dynamic Tradition. They appreciated that everyone is endowed with conscience and its freedom (2:14-15 and 3:19-20 and 1 Cor 10:29).

The first Christians remembered that with his teaching “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”, Jesus had indicated that as well as our duty to submit to lawful government authority, there is a higher law and duty that we owe to God (Mt 22:21). Within the realm of conscience and its alignment to truth, as St. Paul wrote in Rom 13, we are to obey lawful authority, while always recognising that we have been created to put God in the first place in our lives and offer the Gospel message that provides a “soul” for society.

From the Edict of Milan (313) to Vatican II (1965)

The Edict of Milan of 313 marked an important moment in the promotion of religious freedom. With this Edict the emperor Constantine decreed that Christians were to be treated benevolently in an empire that previously enforced an imperial cult that included worship of the emperor. The Edict has been described as ‘the very first emergence in history of the two phenomena that today we call “religious freedom” and “the secular state”.’[4] The fourth century Archbishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, is famous for both calling on Christians to be loyal to civil authority and yet also teaching that civil authority must guarantee freedom to citizens on the personal and social level.

While we could review the evident limits and failures along the way of the Church’s history and point to struggles of church and empire, inquisitions and religious wars, nevertheless it is important to recall that at the level of its doctrine, the Church always held that the act of faith is an act of freedom. It cannot be forced. And this was affirmed in a new and radical way at the Second Vatican Council both in its document on revelation Dei Verbum and in its Declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. It clarified that our notion of religious freedom involves not simply toleration of other religions but genuine recognition of the freedom of everyone to follow their conscience in the search for truth and adherence to that truth as they perceive it.

The contexts of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom are worth recalling. Firstly, we are talking about a Declaration made just 20 years after the Nazi, Stalin and Mussolini regimes that saw drastic violations of religious freedom. Secondly, the Declaration is part of the Catholic Church’s renewed self-understanding. At the Council, the Church presented an updated ecclesial “selfie”, as it were, that revealed the Church as a sign and sacrament of unity with God and of humankind.[5] As such the Church is to be a people of dialogue, outreach and civic engagement for the up-building of society in all its dimensions. The theme of dialogue emerged very strongly. And this was the framework for the Church’s underlining of the principle of religious freedom that the bishops adopted, not without considerable debate. During the Council, in a private audience with Bishop Emile-Joseph De Smedt of Bruges, Pope Paul VI commented: “This document is crucial. It sets the attitude of the Church for the next few centuries. The world is waiting for it…”.[1]

The Declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, echoing the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states that “the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men and women are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” (n.2)[6] The sense of the Declaration is that freedom of religion has two dimensions. It is both a positive freedom for religion, e.g. the freedom to practice, manifest and share one’s religious commitments, and a negative freedom from religious coercion.[7]

The Church understands that the function of government is “to make provision for the common welfare” (see no. 3). As the Declaration clarifies, freedom of religion is “within due limits”, that is to say, as clarified in no. 7, taking into account that,

…the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individuals and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all.

What is clear, however, is that the state is not entitled to interfere in the personal religious sphere. That resides intangibly in the conscience of each human person with conscience defined as “our most secret core and sanctuary. There we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths”.[8] Conscience is not just a private matter. Given the social nature of human beings, conscience can and must necessarily be expressed in a communitarian form and so the government has also to take care in how it promotes freedom of conscience also in the public sphere.

The Council explains where it is coming from in terms of the dignity of the human person created “in God’s image and likeness” (see Gen 1:26) with a capacity for the Absolute, for God. Every human being is endowed with reason and freedom enabling him or her to establish a living relationship with the Good, with Truth and with Justice. The link between freedom and truth occurs in and through our historicity, our socio-cultural traditions, and our social relations. All of these are dimensions in and through which we express and realize ourselves. This explains why the Declaration emphasises the importance of the transmission of values through teaching, communication and dialogue. We help one another seek truth.

Religious Freedom – The Irish Experience

The theme of religious freedom has a long history in Ireland. We see it affirmed to some degree in the initial clauses of the Magna Charta of 1215 to which, by the way, the Archbishop of Dublin was a signatory. We know that our history indicates only too well the pain that violation of religious freedom can cause. We can, however, be rightly proud that Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution of Ireland, in art. 44 affirms the right of religious freedom. When we consider it was written at a time when in Europe there were dark clouds regarding religious freedom, Bunreacht na hÉireann appears as a beacon of light.

In recent years, however, social and cultural changes have brought us to a new place in Ireland. We now have many migrants with their varied religious traditions living among us. There are an increasing number of people who declare they have no explicit religious affiliation. The shocking revelations of horrible deeds of the past carried out by individuals and bodies that profess religious values have bewildered many. In literature and popular narratives, Ireland is often portrayed as a country where religion was imposed. For instance, in Limerick we can recall Frank McCourt’s work Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir of a Childhood in which he describes his religious education,

The master… tells us we have to know the catechism backwards, forwards and sideways. We have to know the Ten Commandments, the Seven Virtues, Divine and Moral, the Seven Sacraments, the Seven Deadly Sins. We have to know by heart all the prayers, the Hail Mary, the Our Father, the Confiteor, the Apostles' Creed, the Act of Contrition, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary… He tells us we're hopeless, the worst class he ever had for First Communion but as sure as God made little apples he'll make Catholics of us, he'll beat the idler out of us and the Sanctifying Grace into us. Brendan Quigley raises his hand… Sir, he says, what's Sanctifying Grace?  The master rolls his eyes to heaven. He's going to kill Quigley. Instead he barks at him, Never mind what's Sanctifying Grace, Quigley. That's none of your business. You're here to learn the catechism and do what you're told. You're not here to be asking questions. There are too many people wandering the world asking questions and that's what has us in the state we're in and if I find any boy in this class asking questions I won't be responsible for what happens. (1997, pp. 129-130).

Because of the baggage that comes from memories of schooling or the socio-cultural context of their upbringing, a number of people today not only reject affiliation of a religious body but also react against the public role of religion. I don’t want to judge them in their personal decisions. Indeed, it is an expression of their religious freedom. But, in a backlash against the sins of the past of the Church there is a risk that we might end up interpreting in a reductive manner what are actually very fine provisions for religious freedom in our Constitution. The foundational text of our state promotes a facilitative form of religious freedom. For instance, it affirms that the state shall provide “for” education and then allows for Catholics, Anglicans, Jews, Muslims, people of non-religious conviction to establish schools. We can be grateful for the positive constitutional arrangement that affirms that schools must support the moral, spiritual and religious development of children.

The Constitution is certainly far from promoting constitutional indifference to religion or abstract exclusive neutrality that marginalises religion to the private sphere. To do so would be to the detriment of all. Legislation that promotes religious indifference, relativism or religious syncretism, even in terms of tolerance or pluralism, damages a society in that it is subtly reducing to the private sphere a right that is fundamental to the person’s dignity.

In promoting pluralism we need to be careful not to fall into the trap, in the name of tolerance or equality, of emptying religious freedom of any meaningful content and bleaching Ireland of the valuable contribution of religious traditions and perspectives. As Pope Francis writes:

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]

In Ireland, to say we have a “secular state” is not necessarily a negative judgement on our constitutional arrangement. It is something else, however, to say we should be secularist. That is to espouse a particular ideology and let it guide choices. In a secularist vision, the state is bleached of the contribution of religions and the vision of the human becomes very bland. The weather of our lives, as John Mc Gahern might put it, would be very grey indeed.

Religions help us in dealing with deep existential questions. They can serve as an important factor of social cohesion. They make an ethical contribution in the political sphere. Religions offer values and vision.

We need to recall Ireland has a deeply spiritual ecology. It is part of who we are. We neglect that factor at our peril. What Solzhenitsyn says about art and literature could easily be applied to an essential part of Ireland’s spiritual ecology, its religious experience that is transmitted not only through the synchronic line of encounter and exchange, but also through the diachronic line of the transmission of tradition from generation to generation:

There is another immensely valuable channel along which literature conveys human experience, in condensed and authoritative form: from one generation to another. Thus literature becomes the living memory of a nation. But woe betide that nation whose literature is interrupted by the interference of force. This is not simply a violation of the “freedom of the press”: it is the locking up of the national heart, the carving up of the national memory. Such a nation does not remember itself, it is deprived of its spiritual unity, and although its population supposedly have a common language, fellow-countrymen suddenly stop understanding each other.[10]


We are meaning-seeking people and religion is central in our collective memory. In recent years, however, issues have arisen especially in the world of education and health care relating to religious freedom.[11] It is clear that we need to be in dialogue with one another concerning the various rights that need to be balanced. But we need to avoid tendencies that would interpret religious freedom in a narrow reductive sense that effectively marginalises religious freedom and religion from the public square. It was, perhaps, a sign of the times when freedom of conscience had to be recalled last summer when the Catholic Bishops of Ireland issued a statement entitled, “A time to uphold the right to life” in which they said:

Freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right.  A State that truly cherishes freedom will respect the conscience of its citizens, including its public representatives, on such an important human value as the right to life. It is ethically unacceptable to expect doctors, nurses and others who have conscientious objections to nominate others to take their place.  Neither should any institution with a pro-life ethos be forced to provide abortion services.

The serious issue that arises regarding the right to make a decision on the basis of conscience is dramatically illustrated in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, in the discussion between More and his wife Alice:

Alice: Be ruled! If you won’t rule him, be ruled!

More: I neither could nor would rule my King. But there’s a little…little area…there I must rule myself. It’s very little, less to him than a tennis court…

And he explains further to his daughter Meg just how much our moral identity is saved or lost by following our conscience:

More: When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his whole self in his own hands. Like water (cups hands), and if he opens his fingers then…he needn’t hope to find himself again.


Living Religious Freedom today

In the final part of this paper, I would like to suggest some implications for all of us as we reflect on religious freedom in Ireland.

In the first place, it is important for Catholics to make sure that the first message we are heard proclaiming is that we are very much in favour of religious freedom. It’s a conviction that comes from Jesus’ own example and life. He never forced anyone to faith. His way was always that of mercy, freedom and peace. We need to give testimony in our attitudes and words to our respect for others. Our proclamation is a respectful one.

Linked to this first point is the way we view people of other religious convictions and none. It is important to see them as allies in our common commitment to peace and justice, the promotion of life and ecology. Pope Francis points out that “as believers, we also feel close to those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition, yet sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty which we believe have their highest expression and source in God. We consider them as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation”.[12] Catholics are people of dialogue. We offer our insights and beliefs and are very clearly open to learning from others.[13]

In the contemporary socio-cultural climate, when a vision of life inspired by faith can subtly but effectively be deemed not politically correct, it is important for us to recognise the public role of religion and not be afraid to speak up. We do so in terms of the dignity of the human person as endowed with spiritual antennae for truth and goodness. After all, every legal system leans on a certain vision of the human person. People of religious convictions need to contribute to informing that vision. Recently I met a man who told me of a conversation he had the previous evening at his local Golf club where the discussion had come around to the place of religion in society. He had spoken up for the need to be alert to its importance because if we neglect it what we will be offering future generations will be very poor.

In an address to the Fourth International Human Rights Commission, Séamus Heaney quoted what he called Dante’s “affirmation of the privileges and elevated destiny of the our species” in the words spoken by Ulysses in the 36th Canto of The Inferno: “Remember who you are, what you were made for; Not to live like brutes, but for the quest of knowledge and the good”.[14] Heaney writes: “In this episode of The Divine Comedy, Ulysses is urging his crew to sail with him beyond the borders of the known world, and in doing so he becomes one of the great voices speaking on behalf of human dignity and human spirit, a representative of the capacity of our species to transcend the boundaries of pettiness and self-interest.” It is this transcendent openness that provides ethical foundations for our decisions. We need to keep alive this essential aspect of our spiritual ecology in Ireland. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity contributed to the difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. In economics and politics the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore.[15] People of religious convictions need to dig deep in their spiritual resources and promote the ethical dimension that comes from the light of their religious traditions.

In terms of our spiritual ecology, it cannot be denied that Ireland is one of the countries in the world with the longest tradition of Christianity. It has provided cultural landmarks. Our roots sink deeply into the terrain of divine revelation in Jesus Christ. Most people in Ireland still profess religious belief and also acknowledge affiliation in some form to Christian denominations. The Christian vision is central to the spiritual ecology we have inherited. It is important to be mindful of this at a time when, as Paul Ricoeur wrote, the “masters of suspicion”, Marx (religion as the opium of the people), Nietzsche (a slave religion) and Freud (infantile delusion), have cast suspicion on Christianity, intimating that it distorts what it is to be human, restrains our exercise of authentic freedom a