The Holy See
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Villa Cagnola Congress Centre (Gazzada - Varese)
Friday, 19 October 2007

Your Excellencies,
Eminent Authorities,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to speak at this Congress on Religious freedom, a milestone of the new Europe, in honour of two anniversaries which have united in a special way the history of Villa Cagnola and that of the Apostolic See: the 60th anniversary of the donation of this Villa to the Holy See and the 30th anniversary of the "Fondazione Ambrosiana Paolo VI". I therefore thank Mons. Mistò and the Lombard Prelates for their courteous invitation, and greet with respect the distinguished Authorities and everyone present.

1. Religious freedom in the Church's Magisterium and the European panorama

With the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the Church's Magisterium shed new light on the subject of religious freedom. In fact, it was not a matter of "revolutionizing" - nor of correcting - her previous teaching but rather of developing it. Already in 300 A.D., Lactantius said: Religio sola est, in qua libertas domicilium conlocavit (Lactantius, Epitome Divinarum Institutionum, 54) and the 1917 Code of Canon Law said concisely: Ad amplexandam fidem catholicam nemo invitus cogatur (can. 1351).

I know that Mons. Mistò will later reflect on the Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae. Thus, I limit myself to recalling what it stresses: that religious freedom is rooted in the dignity, hence, in the very nature of the human being (cf. Dignitatis Humanae, n. 2). Consequently, the right to religious liberty is an irrepressible and subjective, inalienable and inviolable right with private and public, individual and collective dimensions and even one that is institutional (cf. ibid., nn. 3, 4).

I would then like to emphasize that religious freedom is not only one of the fundamental human rights; it is far more: it is pre-eminent among these rights. It is pre-eminent because, as Pope John Paul II said on 10 October 2003: "The defence of this right is the litmus test for the respect of all other human rights" (To Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OCSE, 10 October 2003; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 22 October, n. 1, p. 10). This right is pre-eminent also historically because it was one of the first human rights to be claimed; lastly, it is pre-eminent because other fundamental rights are uniquely connected with it. Wherever religious freedom blossoms, all other rights germinate, develop and flourish; when it is threatened, they too are weakened. For this very reason, by antonomasia, the right to religious freedom must be a milestone of the new Europe!

This new Europe has seen very far-reaching transformations: the collapse of Communist regimes, the increase in migration and the accentuation of the multicultural dimension, the weakening of welfare services, the fading of established lifestyles and cultural models under the impact of globalization and by the challenge of a world "on line", in other words, a world that consists of the interdependence, integration and interaction that bind the various systems in a global mosaic.

At the community level, "freedom of religion" is recognized by the European Convention on Human Rights and by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. From the institutional viewpoint, relations between States and religious denominations are based on the presupposition - rendered explicit in certain legal texts and in the future Reform Treaty of the European Union - that the said relations fall within the competence of individual States. The situation in Europe, moreover, is very varied: from the State Church of Greek Orthodoxy to the "Establishment" Churches of some of the northern countries, from French "separatism" to the concordatory and contractual systems of many States, including the Latin ones. This does not mean that in European legislation and jurisprudence no views are expressed on religious freedom. At the present time, this is occurring particularly in certain ethically sensitive areas where Christianity proposes behaviour different from that prescribed or admitted by the transformations in the European legal system. On the whole, therefore, the European discipline of religious freedom is not devoid of wounds to be healed, matter to be removed and guarantees to be extended: the promotion of this fundamental right has yet to be perfected, consolidated and implemented.

In this perspective, I believe it will be useful to reflect on some of the greatest challenges.

2. Openness to transcendence

Perhaps the most radical challenge consists in the denial of the very foundations of religious freedom: the person's openness to transcendence. Contemporary culture usually perceives the need for freedom as a fundamental human need; consequently, culture is built on claims for freedom rather than on truth and justice. Yet, it is becoming ever more obvious that the Kantian solution of guaranteeing equal freedom to all on condition that no harm is done to the "other", is an inadequate and vague clause since the task of establishing who exactly is "the other" is becoming increasingly controversial and arduous, or the person becomes so who is identified as such.

Freedom, therefore, needs foundations that will enable it to develop but without endangering human dignity and social cohesion. Such foundations can only be transcendent, because the transcendent alone is "high" enough to allow freedom to expand to the maximum, and at the same time so "firm" that it can guide and qualify it in any circumstance. On the other hand, these very values, presumed to be most important, fail whenever transcendence is denied or relativized - that is, when God is deemed to be of secondary importance and can thus be temporarily or permanently set aside in the name of values erroneously considered more important. This is demonstrated by the tragic result of the political ideologies of the last century, which, in denying God, violated the truth about man and "chained up" his freedom.

Often, however, God is not denied directly but in the name of an absolute conception of tolerance or of a private vision of religious freedom or else by dismissing religion from reason and relegating it exclusively to the world of sentiment. Consequently, I believe it would also be useful here to say a few words about these challenges.

3. The concept of tolerance

What gives tolerance its value is the sacred nature of the conscience, which always aspires to goodness and truth; hence, in comparison with the latter, tolerance is a secondary value. If, on the other hand, tolerance becomes the supreme value, every authentically truthful conviction that excludes the other values is intolerance. What is more, if every conviction were as good as another, one would end by being tolerant of immorality. Taking this aporia to the extreme, Engelhardt succeeded in formulating the following paradox: "If one does not succeed in demonstrating the immorality of certain forms of conduct, then the health-care assistance provided by Albert Schweitzer and that provided in the Nazi concentration camps will be equally tenable... and the conduct of morally repulsive individuals will be no more or less justifiable than that of saints" (H.T. Engelhardt, Manuale di bioetica, Milan, 1999, p. 22).

Human dignity is based on the human capacity for truth. Absolutizing tolerance, on the other hand, means withdrawing from this dignity. Wherever convictions are outlawed and those who hold them and are not ready to turn them into simple hypotheses are considered unfit for dialogue, then dialogue as such becomes impossible. Indeed, effective dialogue cannot take place if the truth is renounced or relativized in the name of presumed respect for others' convictions. The renunciation of truth and conviction neither unites nor raises human beings but leaves them in the grip of practical or immediate calculations that deprive them of their real stature.

Interreligious dialogue, therefore, must encourage profound respect for others' faith and the willingness to seek in what is seen as strange the truth that can help every person progress. Moreover, the truth cannot consist in helping one another to become better Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists. This would be the most total absence of convictions, in which - with the pretext of convalidating the best in each one - we would not take either ourselves or others seriously and would relinquish the truth once and for all (cf. J. Ratzinger, La Chiesa, Israele e le religioni del mondo, Ed. San Paolo, 2000, p. 73).

4. The dialogue with reason

The highest form of tolerance, therefore, consists in respect for the truth; being based on this respect, freedom of worship is open to the demands of human reason, which is precisely capable of truth. Religious freedom therefore requires discernment: both between the forms of religion to identify those that respond fully to the thirst for truth of each person, and within religion itself in the direction of its truest heights. In fact, we should not hide from ourselves the fact that contemporary man often does not follow reason but lives by instinct. This is a challenge to every religion because it might induce the religion to surrender to these weaknesses in order to satisfy caprices or worse, the selfishness of its faithful. Yet, a "secularized" religion ends by having a "face" so deeply furrowed by the "wrinkles" of human inconsistencies that the divine can no longer shine through it.

Generally speaking, therefore, the protagonists of the new Europe and all its citizens should consider religion for what it is, steering clear of pressures that aim to turn it into a "civil religion" or to reduce Churches to mere agencies of social solidarity. Solov'ev attributes to the Antichrist a book entitled La via aperta alla pace ed al benessere del mondo, whose essential content is the worship of well-being and rational planning. Religion, of course, cannot avoid fulfilling a social function. Yet, this happens first of all by keeping alive the sense of God and of transcendence. Solidarity, acceptance and civil values are therefore essential factors which religion has always promoted, precisely because it lives on the meaning of God. Referring to the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: "The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible.... Yet, at the same time, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper" (Deus Caritas Est, n. 28).

5. The public dimension of religious freedom

This contribution of religion obviously implies recognition of the public dimension of religious freedom. In recent years the Supreme Pontiffs and their Collaborators, as well as authoritative thinkers, even non-believers, have frequently reflected on this.

A healthy secularism calls for a distinction to be made between religion and politics, between Church and State, without making God into a private hypothesis or excluding religion and the ecclesial community from public life. A healthy secularism, therefore, does not systematically proceed at a public level, etsi Deus non daretur. On the contrary, as the then Cardinal Ratzinger suggested several times, it would be more rational for it to be configured as etsi Deus daretur. In the Age of Enlightenment, people sought to assure the foundations of coexistence by preserving the essential values of morality independently of religion. This seemed feasible since the important basic convictions created by Christianity resisted and appeared undeniable. But this is no longer the case. Furthermore, the search for a certainty that would remain uncontested over and above religious convictions has failed.

Therefore, at the famous Conference held in Subiaco the day before the Servant of God Pope John Paul II died, Cardinal Ratzinger said: "The attempt, carried to the extreme, to shape human affairs doing completely without God leads us ever closer to the precipice of the abyss, towards the total dismissal of man. Therefore, we must overturn the axiom of the champions of the Enlightenment and say: even those who do not succeed in finding the way to acceptance of God should nonetheless seek to live and orient their lives veluti si Deus daretur, as though God existed. This is the advice that Pascal had previously given to his non-believing friends; it is the advice that we would like to offer our non-believing friends today. Thus, all our affairs would be able to find the support and criterion that they urgently need" (Joseph Ratzinger, L'Europa nella crisi delle culture, Subiaco, 1 April 2005).

At a recent Symposium organized by the Italian Society of Political Philosophy on "Religion and politics in the post-secular society", even the well-known philosopher Habermas stressed that it was erroneous to confuse the tendency to privatize the religious event with the loss of its importance and influence, whether in the political arena, the culture of a society or in personal conduct.

It should then be added that wherever the burdensome argument etsi Deus non daretur is imposed upon believers, the criterion of civil equality is not respected. Whereas theistic reasons could not be publicly invoked, rationalist and secular arguments could be, albeit with a clear violation of the criterion of equality and reciprocity which is at the root of the concept of political justice.

In a positive sense, I think that a more open and modern concept of secularism, inclusive and respectful of all the authorities, is expressed in article 52 of the European Constitution and has been preserved in the Reform Treaty of the European Union. This measure provides for a constant dialogue between the Brussels institutions and religious communities, recognizing the latter's identity and specific contribution. This dialogue is necessary, among other things, in order to respect the principles of an authentic pluralism and to construct a true democracy. Moreover, did not de Tocqueville emphasize that "despotism may govern without faith, but liberty [democracy], cannot?" (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 1, chap. 17). To safeguard the openness of the article cited to the role of religious denominations, it will obviously be important that they also continue to present their own positions to the community institutions individually. It will moreover be necessary to be properly mindful of their different make-up, just as the differences between the countries of the Union are taken into account in the institutions' voting system.

6. Freedom of education

With regard to the social contribution of religion, I would next like to mention the subject of education on which we are also reflecting at this Congress. The conception of religious freedom as a private matter explains, at least in part, the hostility of certain secular currents of thought concerning Catholic educational institutions, seen as the means with which the Church would maintain her influence in society. This hostility, in fact, has no true reasons to support it, especially due to the broad extension of the school network in all European countries and since they have established general norms which non-State schools, hence, also Catholic schools, must abide by if they wish to be recognized as equivalent to State schools.

The private conception of religious liberty also explains the hostility to religious teaching in public State schools, despite the fact that it is imparted with respect for the wishes of families and children (cf. Carlo Cardia, Le sfide della laicità, pp. 92-100). If, however, education is considered capable of putting the person in a conscious relationship with reality, that is, as a "provocation" of liberty with the truth, it is clear that freedom of education is indispensable, both for a truly free society and for religious institutions, which by antonomasia show a comprehensive and transcendent vision of reality.

7. Multiculturality

Lastly, among the phenomena of our day that call into question the conception of religious liberty as belonging to the private sphere should be listed so-called "multiculturality".

It is well known that globalization impels people to become close to one another and to amalgamate. Europe, in particular, is a region where different cultures and religions meet and this constitutes a new challenge, also to religious freedom. In fact, this Continent must prevent the formation of faith communities which it is possible to join but not to leave. The Continent must also prevent the exclusive right of only a few religions to spread freely while the rights of others to do the same thing are not recognized. Any sound religious tradition requires its identity to be displayed; in other words, it does not wish to remain hidden or be camouflaged. On the other hand, secularism's best side can accept and safeguard the patrimony of spirituality and humanism that is present in the various religions, rejecting anything in them that is in contrast with human dignity.

The new Europe, therefore, must make a clear distinction between the necessary measures for the acceptance of immigrants and full respect for their freedom to practice their religion, and the unjustified concessions that endanger the cultural and religious identity of the host society. It would indeed be strange and contradictory to demand visibility for the symbols and practices of minority religions while simultaneously seeking to hide or relativize the symbols and practices of Christianity, which is the traditional majority religion of this Continent.

I would then like to add that without societies with inner plurality and cohesion by virtue of healthy secularism, entire layers of the population might convince themselves that there is no effective alternative to the conflict of civilization. To safeguard religious freedom, on the other hand, is a guarantee of peace and a premise for development in solidarity: indeed, it weakens the logic of conflict by promoting dialogue and even more, of respect for every person and his or her religious convictions.

8. Christianity and the new Europe

To conclude, I want to mention the conviction of some European citizens with whom the Catholic Church, with her claim to truth, would be incapable of dialogue, and which is even characterized by a certain dose of fanaticism. In reality, the Church is firm on her principles because she believes; in practice, she is always tolerant and benevolent, because despite her members' shortcomings, she loves every individual. Vice versa, the acolytes of secularization are often tolerant in principle, because they do not believe in indispensable values; on the other hand, it can happen that they are inconsistent in practice, because they are not always capable of loving.

If the citizens of the new Europe desire to live responsibly, they must not shirk the effort to seek the truth; in particular, the truth about themselves, hence, about God as the ultimate goal of existence.
Since its birth, Christianity has assumed, elaborated and deepened the best of Greek and Roman wisdom, presenting itself precisely as the victory of human thought over the world of religious mythology and fanaticism. In a certain sense, therefore, rationality in Christianity has become religion: God has not rejected philosophical knowledge but has assimilated it. St Justin, for example, after studying all the systems of thought, recognized Christianity as the true philosophy. He was convinced that in becoming Christian, he had not denied philosophy but indeed only then had fully become a philosopher. The strength that transformed Christianity into a world religion lies precisely in its synthesis between reason, faith and life. This combination, so powerful that it renders the religion that manifests it true, is the same as that which allows the truth about Christianity to shine forth, not only in the new Europe but - more in general - throughout today's globalized world.

Christianity, in fact, is not satisfied with showing "that part of the face which God keeps turned to Europe"; in other words, it does not consider itself to be the "religion of Europeans" but of the world, because it responds perfectly to the desire for truth that dwells in the heart of every human being, regardless of the latitude in which he lives. Therefore, not only is religious freedom the "milestone" of the new Europe: I would like to end by adding that Christianity is also the "route" along which Europe can truly become "new". Indeed, it is Christianity that proposed to Europe the promotion of religious freedom as a measure of civilization and development that could extricate our beloved Continent from a "jungle" of various types of selfishness, an almost impossible task since the "jungle" is not penetrated by the light of human dignity. The Christian "route", therefore, guarantees respect for religious freedom and will make a contribution to building a new Europe.