· Vatican City ·

Archbishop Gallagher’s address at a conference on ‘Religious Freedom and Integral Human Development’

The first of all human rights

 The first of all human rights  ING-023
07 June 2024

The following is the abridged English text of the address Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States and International Organizations, delivered on Wednesday, 5 June, at the conference, “Religious Freedom and Integral Human Development: A New Global Platform to Change the Conversation”.

It is beyond doubt that the right of religious freedom, in both historical and logical terms, occupies the primacy among the rights of freedom. [...]

Freedom of religion can be considered a prism through which all freedoms can be viewed. [...]

It is therefore clear that the violation of the right to religious freedom has the effect of undermining not just one right, but the entire category of human rights. [...]

It is a matter of concern that, according to some estimates, almost 4.9 billion people live in countries with serious or very serious violations of religious freedom. At least seven out of every ten citizens in the world are currently prevented or harmed in the exercise of their rights in matters of conscience. It is noteworthy that Christians are the most vulnerable in this regard. Over 365 million Christians (approximately one in seven) face high levels of persecution for their faith. Attacks on churches and Christian properties have increased significantly in 2023, with more Christians than ever before reporting violent attacks. [...]

It is thus worrying that the number of people persecuted on account of their religious beliefs is on the rise, in contrast to the general trend observed for other human rights violations. There are a number of factors contributing to the unexpected and significant increase in [...] intolerance, discrimination or even persecution on the basis of the person’s religious beliefs.

First, religious fundamentalism, which is not limited to Islam. It is often mixed with forms of nationalism, which are gradually making explosive realities that were once immune to religious intolerance. The phenomenon does not only stem from public violence, from the non-democratic nature of the state system, but also from the growing violence of private groups expressing religious cultures and beliefs.

These can also arise for political and economic reasons. In this sense, the violence to which Catholics — bishops, priests, lay people — are subjected in various realities is unique, because the Church opposes the spread of an economy of plunder, which favours the widening gap between the (few) rich and the multitude of poor. [...]

Another source is sovereignism, which, in the name of preserving national identities, not infrequently leads to more or less explicit forms of intolerance towards religious minorities. This raises, among other things, the delicate question of the legitimate limits that are, or can be, placed on the exercise of a right that must be balanced with others in a democratic society.

There is also an intolerance that shows its sinister face in the opulent countries of the northern hemisphere, in the West, which prides itself on its achievements in the recognition and protection of human rights. This is a paradoxical situation because, on the one hand, these countries pride themselves on being the “exporters” of human rights, sometimes even of what they erroneously call “rights”: think of the struggles for the universalisation of abortion as a right or, more generally, of so-called reproductive rights; think also of the demands on the subject of gender. On the other hand, they neglect the first of the rights in question, religious freedom.

This is often due to a clear ideological factor, namely the secularism of the State and public institutions. Here, the neutrality of the public apparatus in relation to the free choice of citizens in religious matters is replaced by an ideology intolerant of other beliefs, which are consequently marginalised to the point of disappearing from the public agora.

The absence of any reference to religious freedom in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is indicative of the reluctance of the international community to acknowledge the religious dimension in the lives of individuals. The document fails to address this issue in the context of development [and] religion is regarded as a mere attribute among the numerous characteristics that define the human person. [...]

Religious freedom plays a decisive role in achieving integral human development. Indeed, religious freedom, founded on the dignity of the human person and on the Christological revelation, does not do anything other than provide the matrix of an idea that modernity has defended vigorously. It must be clear, however, that religious freedom is a question of natural law, on which any theological reflection is based, and that both lead to an anthropological understanding of the question at hand.

It is evident that the relationship between religion and society is undergoing a significant transformation. On the one hand, the religious dimension of the human experience has been marginalised. On the other hand, forms of fundamentalism are gaining traction, advocating for the re-emergence of religion in the public sphere, sometimes with elements of fanaticism. In this context, there is a pressing need for an anthropological and political integration between the individual and the collective dimensions of religious freedom. [...]

At the foundation of religious freedom is the capacity of the human person to realize themselves in their relationship with the spiritual interiority. There must be an emphasis on conscience, which every person has a duty to follow. Conversely, no one can force a person to act against their conscience, especially in religious matters. Civil authorities have the “obligation to respect and enforce this fundamental right [...]”.

This demonstrates that religious freedom is not to be equated with the arbitrariness of a conscience devoid of an objective and transcendent reference. The issue is not merely a matter of legal interpretation; rather, it concerns the truth of the human person, which the Church believes it can safeguard as a precious gift received in revelation. Furthermore, this is not to be understood as an attempt to impose said truth on all, but rather as an endeavour to demonstrate it.

The defence of religious freedom can be understood as the defence of the truth of the human person in the face of constraints that might be imposed by fundamentalist religious groups or totalitarian States, as well as a neutrality of the State that is understood as indifference to the contribution that religious persons or groups can make to the construction of social life.

Those who are able to enjoy religious freedom will also be able to achieve their own integral development, and will be agents of development in the wider society.