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Religious Freedom: A Fundamental Human Right


The Second Vatican Council committed the Catholic Church to the promotion of religious freedom. The declaration Dig-nitatis Humanae explains in its subtitle that it intends to pro-claim “the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in religious matters”. In order that this freedom, willed by God and inscribed in human nature, may be exer-cised, no obstacle should be placed in its way, since “the truth cannot be imposed except by virtue of its own truth”. The dignity of the person and the very nature of the quest for God require that all men and women should be free from every constraint in the area of religion. Society and the State must not force a person to act against his conscience or prevent him from acting in conformity with it. Religious freedom is not a moral license to adhere to error, nor is it an implicit right to error.

Freedom of conscience and religion “concerns man both individually and socially”. The right to religious freedom must be recognized in the juridical order and sanctioned as a civil right; nonetheless, it is not of itself an unlimited right. The just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority through legal norms consistent with the objective moral order. Such norms are required by “the need for the effective safeguarding of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also by the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men {and women} live together in good order and in true justice, and finally by the need for a proper guardianship of public morality”.

Because of its historical and cultural ties to a nation, a religious community might be given special recognition on the part of the State. Such recognition must in no way create discrimination within the civil or social order for other religious groups. The vision of the relations between States and religious organizations promoted by the Second Vatican Council corresponds to the requirements of a State ruled by law and to the norms of inter-national law. The Church is well aware that this vision is not shared by all; the right to religious freedom, un-fortunately, “is being violated by many States, even to the point that imparting catechesis, having it imparted, and receiving it become punishable offenses”.

Ref: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: By Pontifical for Justice and Peace.