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The foundation stone of religious freedom

· Heritage for everyone taken from American history ·

Faced with the repetition throughout the world of acts of persecution, the history of the foundation of the United States of America and its experience in the field of the promotion of religious freedom are offered as a heritage for everyone”. The next issue of the journal “Oasis” opens with a piece by the Archbishop of Philadelphia on the theme of religious freedom. The following is an excerpt from his article; the complete text can be found at

The desire for freedom and human dignity lives in all human beings. These yearnings are not culturally conditioned, or the result of imposed American or Western ideals. They’re inherent to all of us.

The modern world’s system of international law is founded on this assumption of universal values shared by people of all cultures, ethnicities and religions. The Spanish Dominican priest, Francisco de Vitoria, as early as the 16th century envisioned something like the United Nations. An international rule of law is possible, he said, because there is a ‘natural law’ inscribed in the heart of every person, a set of values that are universal, objective, and do not change. The natural law tradition presumes that men and women are religious by nature. It presumes that we are born with an innate desire for transcendence and truth.

These assumptions are at the core of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many of the people who worked on that Declaration, like Jacques Maritain, believed that this charter of international liberty reflected the American experience.

Article 18 of the Declaration famously says that “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”.

In a sense, then, the American model has already been applied. What we see today is a repudiation of that model by atheist regimes and secular ideologies, and also unfortunately by militant versions of some religious traditions. The global situation is made worse by the inaction of America’s national leadership in promoting to the world one of America's greatest qualities: religious freedom.

This is regrettable because we urgently need an honest interfaith discussion on the essential elements of the modern democratic state. As a Christian, I would welcome an Islamic public theology that is both faithful to Muslim traditions and also genuinely open to liberal norms.

A healthy distinction between the sacred and the secular, between religious law and civil law, is foundational to free societies. Christians, and especially Catholics, have learned the hard way that the marriage of Church and state rarely works. For one thing, religion usually ends up the loser, an ornament or house chaplain for Caesar. For another, all theocracies are utopian — and every utopia ends up persecuting or murdering the dissenters who can’t or won’t pay allegiance to its claims of universal bliss.

To this day John Bunyan’s major work — The Pilgrim’s Progress — is the second most widely read book in the Western world, next only to the Bible. But the same Puritan spirit that created such beauty and genius in Bunyan also led to the authoritarianism of Oliver Cromwell, the Salem witch trials and the theocratic repression of other Protestants and, of course, Catholics.

Americans have learned from their own past. The genius of the American founding documents is the balance they achieved in creating a civic life that is non-sectarian and open to all; but also dependent for its survival on the mutual respect of secular and sacred authority. This is one of the historic contributions America has made to the moral development of people worldwide. Religious freedom — a person’s right to freely worship, preach, teach and practice what he or she believes, including the right to freely change or end one’s religious beliefs under the protection of the law — is a foundation stone of human dignity. No one, whether acting in the name of God or in the name of some political agenda or ideology, has the authority to interfere with that basic human right. This is the promise of the American model. The American Founders, though most were Christian, sought no privileges for their kind. They would not force others to believe what they believed. Heretics would not be punished. They knew that the freedom to believe must include the freedom to change one’s beliefs or to stop believing altogether. America’s Founders did not lack conviction. Quite the opposite. They had enormous confidence in the power of their own reason — but also in the sovereignty of God and God’s care for the destiny of every soul.

The United States was born, in James Madison’s words, to be “an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every nation and religion”. Right now in America, we’re not acting like we revere that legacy, or want to share it, or even really understand it. And I think we may awake one day to see that as a tragedy for ourselves, and too many others to count.




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 13, 2019