Cultures et foi - Cultures and Faith - Culturas y fe - 4/1996 - Documenta
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Palabras del mensaje del Santo Padre a la XLII Asamblea General «Extraordinaria» de los Obispos italianos —dedicada al «Proyecto cultural orientado en sentido cristiano»— que ha tenido lugar en Collevalenza (Perusa) del 11 al 14 de noviembre de 1996.



«[...] 3. En [mi discurso a] la Asamblea de Palermo, recordando que "el núcleo generador de toda cultura auténtica lo constituye su acercamiento al misterio de Dios", observaba que "la cultura es un terreno privilegiado en el que la fe se encuentra con el hombre" (Discurso, [23-XI-1995] nos 3–4). A la luz de esta constatación, es fácil advertir cuán profundo es el vínculo que une la misión de la Iglesia con la cultura y con las culturas.

«En esta temporada de cambios profundos que está atravesando Italia, y mientras siguen siendo fuertes las corrientes de descristianización que ponen en discusión el fundamento mismo de su gran tradición cristiana, es más oportuno e importante que nunca que la Iglesia conceda una especial atención y prioridad a la evangelización de la cultura y a la inculturación de la fe, haciendo converger en torno a un proyecto preciso, articulado y dinámico, las múltiples energías de sus componentes: desde las parroquias a las escuelas y a los centros de investigación, desde los teólogos al laicado y a los Institutos de vida consagrada».

(Traducido de: «Evangelizzazione della cultura e inculturazione della fede per far fronte alle sfide che travagliano la Nazione. Messaggio di Giovanni Paolo II ai Vescovi italiani» [11-XI-1996], L'Osservatore Romano, 13–XI–1996, p. 6. Cf. L'Osservatore Romano. Edición semanal en lengua española, nº 48 [1457], 29–XI–1996, p. 2 [610].)


30 Years on from Dignitatis humanae

Conference held on December 5, 1995, at the International Congress on Secularism and Religious Freedom, organized by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome.


Over sixty years ago, Aldous Huxley published his novel Brave New World; it was a chilling view of how things might be in a technological utopia. It may seem odd to begin this address by quoting such an unlikely ally, but Huxley showed where his real concern lay by quoting this thought by Nicholas Berdiaeff at the beginning of the novel:

Utopias are possible. Life is marching towards utopias.
Perhaps a new age is beginning, an age where intellectuals
and the cultured class will dream of ways of avoiding utopias
and returning to a non-utopian society
which is less perfect and more free.

This century has revealed – as no other century has been able to – that all sorts of things are possible, but some of them are not at all desirable. Huxley wanted to point out the real dangers in letting technology run wild, above all the dangers to the human race. One of the chief dangers he feared was a loss of freedom in a totalitarian world. The early nineteen-thirties were years when the reality of life in the Soviet system had become clear, and years when other equally inhuman forms of totalitarianism were about to take the stage. So Huxley's fears were by no means just theoretical. Human freedom was in danger. But it is also true that some distorted views of freedom hold sway in our world today, and the Church keeps calling us back to understand what freedom really is.

It is a pleasure and an honour to address you at the beginning of a congress which speaks of freedom, particularly religious freedom in a secular world. The starting point is the thirtieth anniversary of the promulgation of a singularly important document in the magisterium of the Catholic Church. I am personally very glad that the Pontifical Council for Culture, whose president I am, should give its support to this event, because what is being discussed here over the next few days is very much part of the task the Council has been given by the Holy Father. In March, 1993, Pope John Paul merged the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers with the Pontifical Council for Culture. He said that the work of the new Council for Culture is to foster an encounter "between the saving message of the Gospel and the cultures of our time, often marked by disbelief or religious indifference, in order that they may be increasingly open to the Christian faith, which creates culture"; he stressed that the very existence of the Council "expresses the Church's pastoral concern in the face of the ... rift between the Gospel and cultures". The Holy Father said the Council would promote study and discussion of these problems, "inquiring into the causes and the consequences for Christian faith, in order to offer adequate support to the Church's pastoral activity in evangelizing cultures and inculturating the Gospel" (Motu proprio Inde a pontificatus, 25 March 1993: Atheism and Faith 28 [1993/2] 84-86).

This work was begun in response to the desire expressed in the Second Vatican Council to discern the signs of the times, and to enter into dialogue with the world around us. The document on religious freedom – Dignitatis humanae – is one of the clearest examples of how the Catholic Church has developed its understanding of its relationship to society and culture. I am convinced that it is also prophetic, for we have been given a new challenge by democratic pluralist society, especially in view of changes in Eastern Europe. In this new context, we can look afresh at the question of relationships between Church and State (cf. Paul Poupard, "Conclusioni", in: Cristianesimo e Cultura in Europa. Memoria, Coscienza, Progetto, double issue of Il Nuovo Areopago 10 [1991/3-4] 358-362). It has even been said that this was the most innovative of the documents of Vatican II. Much has changed since it was written – there are, indeed, different signs of the times – but its principles still need to be applied. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have both restated what Dignitatis humanae teaches, and both have used it as a basis for much of what they have taught. In Redemptor hominis no. 12 the Holy Father emphasizes that "the Church in our time attaches great importance to all that is stated by the Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on Religious Freedom".

I should like to take a brief look at some of the main points in Dignitatis humanae. Cardinal Hamer will say much more on this, so I shall try not to steal his thunder. Then I shall indicate two elements of secularism which have affected attitudes to religious freedom in the modern world. But some remarkable changes have come about in recent years; so I shall finish by suggesting that there are signs of real hope in our world, challenges for the Church as we come closer to the end of the second Christian millennium. But I must not forget to thank the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty for inviting me to speak today, and I am grateful to the Legionaries of Christ for hosting this congress. This Athenaeum is dedicated to Mary, the Queen of Apostles: it is a comforting thought, for those of us called to continue the work of Christ's apostles, that we have her as our patron and guide.


The Catholic Church was not asking for any privileges in Dignitatis humanae, because it stated quite clearly that the basis for religious freedom is the dignity of the human person: in fact, it is presented as a document on the right of the person and of communities to social and civil liberty in religious matters. This document was a response to people's growing awareness of their dignity as human persons, the awareness that it is good to use one's initiative in responsible freedom. It also emphasizes that God has made everyone able to know the truth, which all are obliged to seek. This search for truth is aided by what God has revealed through Christ. The three aspects of freedom mentioned here are constantly brought to mind in the Church's teaching over the last thirty years. Freedom worthy of the name is based on the dignity of the human person; genuine freedom is also responsible freedom; and real freedom is linked to the truth.

Dignitatis humanae appeals to States to recognize religious liberty in their laws. People should be free from constraint and coercion of any kind, so that they are not forced to act against their conscience, or prevented from acting in accordance with what their conscience demands; this applies to individuals and all religious groups, because their rights to organise and develop their lives should be respected – in this sense the State needs to be truly pluralistic (cf. Dignitatis humanae, 2; 4). Freedom always has limits, so the Church cannot use a State to impose its position, and members of all religious communities are to respect the requirements of law and public order. The State, in turn, is bound to protect and promote human rights; Pope John XXIII had explained this two years earlier: truth, justice and freedom are the driving forces in society, and the State is meant to develop them, as well as promoting the rights of citizens in the fields of economy, society, politics and culture (cf. Dignitatis humanae, 6; Pacem in terris, 37; 61-65; 77). No doubt other speakers will deal with this topic, but history has shown that this is a particularly tricky and sensitive area.


1. Tolerance and intolerance

Dignitatis humanae spoke to a world where many cultures had less and less space for God and for spirituality; some cultures were dominated by systematic atheism. African and Asian cultures were still largely open to spiritual values, but often in belief-systems alien to Christianity. It seems clear that most of the Western world was, and still is, dominated by secular conceptions of the world and of humanity. Surely one of the most appealing aspects of secularist thought is the doctrine of tolerance. But it is also a very ambiguous one. Let me quote a verse from Ogden Nash which a fellow-Cardinal recently mentioned:

Sometimes with secret pride I sigh
To think how tolerant am I;
Then wonder which is really mine:
Tolerance, or a rubber spine?

(Quoted by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in "Tolerance in Society and Church", in: Australasian Catholic Record, July 1995, 365.)

The Holy Father himself has suggested that intolerance and violence on the part of the Church on some occasions in the past should be a cause for repentance (Tertio millennio adveniente, 35). We have to respect everyone's freedom, including people's right to their religious beliefs. But we do not have to have a rubber spine. What is most curious about tolerance is what happens when it admits its limits. A respectable English dictionary refers to one of the meanings of "tolerance" as "an allowable amount of variation in the dimensions of a machine or part". In relations between people, the important thing to know is who decides what amount of variation is to be allowed, and how this decision is made. Some of the great promoters of tolerance admitted that a State could not tolerate atheists, because belief in God was fundamental to social order; and tolerating Catholics would be recognition of the authority of a foreign prince. States could tolerate whatever did not threaten their tranquil progress.

Here is the clue to a problem with tolerance. Since it is impossible to tolerate everything, there have to be criteria for deciding what is not tolerable. Usually, this has nothing at all to do with a thing's intrinsic value or meaning; it is a question of how it fits into the general picture. Whether a thing is true or good is far less significant than whether it is convenient. You are free to believe what you like, and I am free to believe what I like; the important thing is not to bother each other. Such polite tolerance is not concerned whether something is true; indeed, Pascal was appalled that people could happily remain in such an atmosphere of indifference and confusion: "mais ici où il va de tout!" – "anything goes" (Pensées, Rombaldi, Paris 1943, no. 226); he was appalled because, in such an attitude, there was no respect for the truth, and for Pascal this was a sure sign of human weakness and sinfulness. For him the only alternative to respect for the truth was indifference to it. Freedom which is indifferent to the truth of things is not the sort of freedom envisaged in Dignitatis humanae, either. It is easy to say that those who make statements about objective truth are intolerant; but it is equally easy to forget that, if I say that what you think is your business, I also imply that what you think does not really matter to me. In a sense, I say that you do not matter to me. Freedom can be very lonely, in this sense.

Our modern ways of thinking can also be very intolerant. A great deal of faith is placed in technical progress, and the wisdom of the ancients is little more than a curiosity. Tolerant modernity can be quite impatient with those who went before, as Newman said, obviously with real feeling:

A number of reflections crowd upon the mind in surveying
the face of society, as at present constituted...;
the irreverence towards antiquity, the unscrupulous and wanton
violation of the commands and usages of our forefathers...,
the growing indifference to the Catholic creed,
the sceptical objections to portions of its doctrine...;
what do all these symptoms show, but that
the spirit of Saul still lives?

(John Henry Newman, Oxford University Sermons IX [Wilfulness, the sin of Saul] – December 2, 1832.)

The sin of Saul was wilfulness, which Newman saw in the rationalist liberal attacks on Christian dogma which the Anglican church was experiencing. Cold reason, not rooted in respect and love for one's origins, can quickly pulverize everything. If rationality alone is our tool for dealing with the world, we can be left quite rootless, even friendless.

2. Spirituality, morality and happiness

(Cf. Paul Poupard, What will give us happiness? Veritas, Dublin 1992, part two: Happiness in Contemporary culture, 43-78.)

The modern world praises tolerance, even though it is hard to practise it, because the prime reality of that world is the individual subject and his freedom, autonomy and independence. But what kind of individual has modern culture produced? What really stands out about individuals today? I am sure Bishop Donal Murray, who is a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, will not mind if I quote something he discovered in a newspaper five years ago, when Europe was excited with change and new possibilities:

Western Europe is the most secular place on earth
now that the suburban Sunday rules from Cork to Prague.
The question is: what will happen to Eastern Europe
when our style of individualism goes to work...?
What happens when our freedom begins to corrode their belief?
What, they may well ask, is our freedom worth
if it leaves them believing so little?

(Michael Ignatieff in The Observer, Sunday 15 April 1990, quoted in: Bishop Donal Murray, Secularism and the New Europe, Dublin 1990, 22.)

The bishop was writing about attitudes in a very secular culture, which he described as closed, individualistic, immediate and illusory. It seems inevitable that secularism will produce individuals who are closed in two ways: first of all, many people seem closed to transcendence: it is so difficult for many people to recognize anything beyond their own experience that it is just as if God has disappeared from the horizon of their lives (John Paul II to the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers, 5 March 1988, in: Atheism and Dialogue, 23 [1988/2] 114). Even for Christians who are very secular in their outlook, God's will is different for each of us; there are as many gospels as there are believers. This has obvious consequences for morality and aesthetics: relativism is the order of the day, and it attracts a peculiarly irrational conformism!

The modern, secular world's individualism closes people in a second way: it would be quite wrong to imply that secular ethics are not compassionate or altruistic, but quite often people's way of life lacks the responsibility and dignity which are so prominent in the image of freedom portrayed in Dignitatis humanae. Individuals have become experts in asserting their rights: the right to work, the right to strike, the right to a decent home or education, the right to do what they want with their bodies – even if this means destroying an unborn child – or the right to "die with dignity". The list is endless. Such an approach to life can mean that individual lives become atomic, lonely, separate or parallel – unless there is a balanced recognition of other people's rights and my responsibilities. My rights express my dignity and my freedom, but what this implies for others must always be taken into consideration. It is alarming that many young teenagers these days are quite prepared to admit that honesty and loyalty are quite low on their list of priorities: they know what they want and they think they are free to do anything to get it. What kind of society will this produce? It seems to militate against the solidarity and mutual respect which would allow religious freedom to flourish in future generations.

The pursuit of some rights in a very individualistic atmosphere is bound to impede other people's freedom to express their religious beliefs. To take away the right to display religious symbols is rarely an innocent act. Today in Bavaria there is controversy about crucifixes in schools. The fact that they are there is said to infringe the right of non-religious people to be free from religion. Religion should be practised at home, some say. It is seen as a private option which should not be allowed to touch the lives of anyone else. But international humanist organizations freely admit that this is part of a larger battle. Mexico and other countries have been through similar experiences. More threatening, perhaps, is the appeal made by distributors of pornographic films in the United States against a decision to restrict who can see them. The film distributors claim this is an infringement of their right to freedom of speech. But many religious communities – and concerned parents – would question whether that is an absolute right, because there is also a responsibility to guard children and morally weak people from what is contrary to their beliefs and morals. "The weakest have the right to protection, care and affection on the part of those near to them and a right to the support of society" (John Paul II, Address to the Council of Europe, 8 October 1988, no. 7. in: AAS 81 [1989] 679). But how free are religious groups to defend their standards in such circumstances? It is surely no accident that some people's assertion of their rights has an adverse effect on the credibility of religion, or on the possibility of practising religion openly. How should societies react when such conflicts of rights occur?

3. Changes in the atmosphere

The State, according to Dignitatis humanae, has a duty to develop and promote the well-being of its citizens, including their rights. The days are gone, in most of the world, where a State will pursue an open policy of anti-religious propaganda or total hostility. But there are subtle ways in which real pluralism can be absent in a society. When a secular State is neutral rather than aggressive, it can sin by an excess of tolerance, abdicating its rôle as a supporter of values; a State which "sits on the fence" in moral matters eventually gives approval to bizarre forms of behaviour. In these cases tolerance can clearly work against true freedom (cf. Fr. Gaston Piétri in the Bulletin of the French Bishops' Conference, no. 14, Tolérance et Liberté, October 1995, 10). It is undoubtedly good that the State does not interfere directly with religion, but this can operate in different ways in different places. In some countries there is a relatively happy coexistence. But in many societies there is what has been called a "systematic desuetude", a deliberate neglect of religious communities in such a way that they have no social influence and hardly any cultural impact. This may be easier to understand in Anglo-Saxon countries, where the State can claim to be an impartial observer. But this can be a real trap in a modern democracy: it is meaningless for a State to say that all are free to practise their religion, unless the State is prepared to support that freedom. I am reminded of an article by Doctor David McLellan, a consultor of the former Secretariat for Dialogue with Non-Believers. He wrote that it is perfectly true that everyone has the right to dine at the most expensive hotel in town every night. But such a right is utterly meaningless for somebody who does not have the financial means to exercise it. States seem to be less hostile to religion, but at the same time many governments act in ways which compromise the beliefs of many citizens. At the recent United Nations women's conference in Beijing, a rather sinister hint emerged from a representative of the European Union, that medicine is no place for ethics: it is simply a science. A State which sanctioned such a suggestion would certainly not be supporting or protecting citizens who wish to exercize their right to religious liberty.

The most dramatic change in recent times has been the demise of the political system inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology, which pursued a systematic policy for the eradication of religion. But the situation remains complex. "Walls have crumbled. Borders have opened. However, enormous barriers still stand between the hopes of justice and their realisation, between wealth and wretched poverty, while rivalries are reborn as long as the struggle to possess overrides respect for the person". The moral confusion in some countries liberated recently from atheistic communism shows how difficult it is to learn how to use freedom, particularly religious freedom. Quite a serious problem in those countries is in the political leadership, which has not been renewed in a way which guarantees that the old order will not return. The frustrations of bringing a free market economy into place have made many think nostalgically of former certainties. In those cases, as in many others in the world, "the spiritual void that threatens society is above all a cultural void and it is the moral conscience, renewed by the Gospel of Christ, which can truly fill it" (John Paul II to the Pontifical Council for Culture, 12 January 1990, and 10 January 1992, in: Church and Cultures, no. 13 [1990] 5-6, and no. 17 [1992] 6-7).

Another phenomenon of recent times is a return of spirituality. But it is a mixed blessing. There is certainly a search for meaning, a search for love and a search for hope; more and more people seem dissatisfied with a purely materialistic life-style, and seek something more satisfying and human. But if you go into a book shop in any city in the Western world you will notice how large the shelves are which deal with mysticism, Eastern and Celtic religions, oriental wisdom, magic and various therapies, all labelled loosely as "New Age" material. It is alarming for me to notice how small the shelf on Christianity is! There seems to be a desire to "tune in" to cosmic reality, but it seems such a diffuse reality, because there is so much choice available. This choice gives people a remarkable freedom in religion, but it is not the sort of religious freedom defined in Dignitatis humanae: there freedom is linked with truth, and truth can certainly not be parcelled out in the way New Age offers. If there is a truth, as we believe there is, it is not a Smörgåsbord, where one may pick and choose at will: that is more like the proud confusion which was such a scandal to Newman, as we heard.

In many areas of life, the modern era seems to have disappointed people's great hopes. Pope Paul VI recognized that creative visions of the future are part of the driving force of humanity, but he criticized the false promises of many utopian schemes which seem to omit "the mystery of man discovering himself to be a child of God" at the heart of the world, in a struggle between constraint and freedom, between sin and the breath of God's Spirit (cf. Octogesima adveniens, 37). The Promethean aspirations of science have been unmasked, as human misery remains in so much of the world. People all over the world have become bold in revealing how fearful they are of the destructive powers of nuclear weapons. Rootlessness created by the abandonment of our past has led to fear about the future, particularly because the absence of clear moral guidelines for life has certainly led to confusion and distress for many.

There is a terrible loneliness in modern society: Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We was a prophetic portrayal of human beings known by numbers rather than names, who had no awareness of belonging to each other or having any significance for each other. As well as loneliness, there is anger on the scene. Both ecological awareness and the women's movements throughout the world show a great frustration and feeling of injustice: in both these cases, there are positive and negative challenges to the Church. A close relation of these movements seems to be the preoccupation with political correctness: again, this is both positive and negative. Positively, it refines sensitivity to vulnerable groups. Negatively, it sometimes hampers genuine discussion and can obscure the truth: in this latter sense, it certainly impedes true religious freedom. Anger is also, sadly, at the heart of nationalist and ethnic struggles in various parts of the world today. These struggles could have lasting effects on people's freedom to practise their religion. A delicate issue in this area is how tolerant different religions actually are towards each other. This is particularly important in countries whose laws absolutely forbid practice of anything but the State religion. Dignitatis humanae offers a fundamental challenge here, since it bases religious liberty on the dignity of every human person.

Post-modernism has been the reaction in the intellectual realm to the failures of modernity. Philosophy and music and literature have all expressed an urge to return to basic meanings and elemental expressions of reality, and there is a certain tendency to irrationality rather than great visions, which are treated with suspicion. "The optimistic trust in progress, of an Enlightenment kind, is on the wane; humanity is troubled by poverties and anxieties for which the myths of science and secularisation no longer offer answers" (Giandomenico Mucci, "Religione, Laicismo e Postmodernismo" in: La Civiltà Cattolica No. 3422, Roma, 16 January 1993, 137). The search for certainties, together with mistrust of rationality, is a potentially explosive sign of our times. It is a sign of the bewildering contradictions of our day.


What is to be done? In every age the Church has different opportunities of speaking of God to the world, though often the obstacles seem great. What can free the Church to speak more effectively today?

This last decade of the second Christian Millennium has offered the world an amazing array of opportunities of communication, with sophisticated technology available to an increasing number of people. This has enormous potential dangers, especially to the young and the morally weak, but if the Church is absent from this media revolution, far fewer people will hear what she has to say. Many messages are communicated which really do enslave people, but the Church could do so much good by being a confident community, proud to be seen and heard alongside some very powerful voices. Not all countries would grant such freedoms, but contemporary communications technologies go far beyond national boundaries. A Christian voice and image would make a tremendous difference to any future supra-national culture.

There are also undeniably good points in modernity. The modern age brought a great awareness of human rights, and in recent years care for the earth and concern for peace and social justice have become more widespread. This is all evidence of a growing awareness of the dignity of men and women, and a developing sense of solidarity and people's responsibility for each other. The best way for the Church to build on all of this is to say, with her Lord, Veritas liberabit vos. The truth will set you free (Jn 8,32).

The Church is committed to dialogue. Clearly, without such a commitment, the Church has no hope of living in freedom alongside the men and women of good will in the world. I am convinced that this should be a loyal dialogue with a solid basis in objective knowledge of cultures which differ from our own. It is not a matter of making facile compromises; nor is it a matter of being obstinate and intransigent. It is essential to be persevering in discerning the good – and not so good – aspects of what is under discussion; and as Christians we are obliged to be faithful to the faith which has been handed down to us. I believe the best dialogue is when we are able to be ourselves, to be modest and to be clear in all we say: "always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have. But give it with courtesy and respect" (1 Peter 2,18. Cf. Tertio millennio adveniente, 46 and Paul Poupard, Église et cultures. Jalons pour une pastorale de l'intelligence, Paris 1980, 215-219).

As this congress proceeds much will be said about what limits people's religious liberty in various parts of the world (cf. La liberté religieuse dans le monde. Analyse doctrinale et politique, sous la direction de Joël-Benoît d'Onorio, Éd. Universitaires, Paris 1991). The days of open hostility against religion have gone for many people; but it is clear that equally hostile but extremely subtle influences can and do chip away at people's freedoms every day. More and more it is a question of struggling to be seen and heard in society. There are many ways of doing this. Whichever is chosen, one thing is sure: as time goes by, it will become more difficult to speak of freedom as something involving the dignity of the person, responsibility for self and others, and fidelity to the truth as it has been revealed to us. So those who are prepared to struggle for genuine freedom will need the same courage that such people have always needed. Let me finish by returning to the beginning, to that most unlikely of allies, Aldous Huxley. In the foreword to Brave New World, he included this very polite but powerful warning:

The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished,
not by doing something, but by refraining from doing.
Great is the truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view,
is silence about truth.

I think that speaks for itself. Thank you.