The Thinking 

Benedict on Religious Freedom

February 27, 2013



In honor of the conclusion of the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, a lecture about his work is in order. This short lecture given by Dr. Nicholas Healy of the John Paul II Institute, comes at a critical point in our age. (Scroll down near the bottom of the page to find The Reception of Dignitas Humanae in John Paul II and Benedict XVI on Friday at 9:00 am, beginning at 39:30 minutes) Dr. Healy discusses Pope Benedict’s view of religious freedom, which he shares with Blessed Pope John Paul II and The French School of Catholic theologians. He contrasts this with the perspective of the American School of Catholic theologians. Pope Benedict recognizes that “the unity of truth and freedom has its roots in the order of nature,” and he “grounds religious freedom in the human person’s obligation to seek the truth.” Dr. Healy gives the answers by both the French School and the American School to the following three questions:

1)      What is the meaning of freedom?

2)      What is the meaning of truth within the political order?

3)      What is the nature and end of political authority?

The American School represents the view that “religious freedom does not concern the personal relation to truth” and posits “total incompetence of the state in regard to religion.” This reduces the role of the Church in society to a bystander and the meaning of religious freedom to permitting the faithful to attend church and worship anytime, but otherwise requiring the faithful to cooperate with laws that are founded on falsehood. Furthermore, their suggestions that “truth is indifferent to freedom,” and “freedom is the capacity to act on one’s own initiative,” run contrary to the teachings of the Church Fathers, even to the words of Christ Himself.

The French School, recognizing that laws are meant to teach, would have the Church influence the government only so much as to insist that it create laws based in truth. “The ontological foundation of religious freedom is the very obligation to seek the truth–a principle with a foundation in the nature of man.” Personally and communally people must seek the truth. A person does this through thoughts, words, and deeds, and the community, through laws.

The French School suggests that if the laws of the state prevent a person from seeking the truth, or require him to act in accordance with falsehood, religious freedom is denied. Pope Benedict says, “Openness to truth and perfect goodness, openness to God is rooted in human nature; it confers full dignity on each individual and is the guarantee of full, mutual respect between persons. Religious freedom should be understood, then, not merely as immunity from coercion, but even more fundamentally as an ability to order one’s choices in accordance with truth.”

Dr. Healy points out that the juridical or constitutional approach developed by the American School, “would seem to allow the Church to make peace with modernity’s liberal institutions while granting Her the freedom to resist problematic aspects of liberal ideology… but the liberal institutions of modernity are not neutral; they presuppose and aggressively impose a vision of the human person in relation to God as well as a metaphysical account of the relationship between freedom and truth.  The Church is called to offer resistance not simply by requesting a sphere of life where we can still hold fast to our private beliefs and quaint practices. The defense of religious freedom stands or falls with the truth of the human being who is created in the image of God and made for communion.”

Pope Benedict states, “Having deciphered the components of the human being, man is now capable, so to speak, of constructing man himself, who thus no longer comes into the world as a gift of The Creator but as a product of our action, a product that therefore can be selected according to the exigencies established by ourselves.  Thus the splendor of being an image of God no longer shines over man—which is what confers on him his dignity and inviolability.”

Dr. Healy continues, “The eugenics project, taking control of and directing human conception and birth has continued to gather momentum, now accompanied and supported by the attempt to redefine marriage.  In our time, defending religious freedom requires defending the truth about human marriage, conception, and the gift of new life. Without self-transcendence, which involves a response to something good, true, and beautiful that precedes my will, there is no real freedom.”

“The reason why our modern age devotes so much energy to deconstructing marriage and the meaning of conception is that these realities provide a touchstone for recognizing and communicating the original truth and goodness of human existence and by analogy the truth and goodness of Creation as a whole. In its defenseless beauty and dependence on others, a child is a concrete symbol of human dignity and human freedom in its constitutive openness to God.”

He concludes, “A crisis of marriage and family means a crisis for civilization… The family is grounded in the plan and fidelity of God… The Eucharist is the perfect expression of freedom in relation to truth.”

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