"Healthy Secularity" as a Challenge for Religious Freedom

According to Vatican Secretary for Relations With States

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ROME, DEC. 3, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The understanding and living of a "healthy secularity" is the first challenge faced by religious freedom, says the Vatican secretary for relations with states.



Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo expressed this and other challenges to this fundamental human right when addressing an international conference today, promoted by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

The conference was held at the Gregorian University on the topic "Religious Freedom: Corner Stone of Humanity."

"I would like now to recall some of the principal challenges that the international community must confront today in order to defend the contents of religious freedom as delineated in the reflection of the same international community," the archbishop said.

"Notwithstanding the fact that the society of many countries seems to live with religious indifferentism and that younger generations are made to grow in ignorance of the spiritual patrimony of the people to which they belong, the religious phenomenon does not cease to interest and attract citizens," the prelate said.

"For this reason, the Holy See never ceases to insist that, while respecting the legitimate autonomy and secularity of the state -- Pius XII had introduced the expression "sana laicità" -- the public dimension of religious freedom be recognized," he indicated.

The archbishop summarized this proposal with a phrase from an address John Paul II delivered last Jan. 12 when he received the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See: "A healthy dialogue between the state and the churches -- which are not rivals but partners -- can encourage the integral development of the human person and harmony in society."

"Such a dialogue is necessary, among other reasons, in order to respect the principles of an authentic pluralism and to build true democracy, either on a national or international level," insisted Monsignor Lajolo.

"In today's multi-ethnic and multi-confessional societies, religions constitute an important factor of unity among their members and the Christian religion, with it universal outlook, invites all to openness, to dialogue and to a harmonious working together," he said.

"When the secularity of states is, as it must be, an expression of true freedom," he continued, "then it favors dialogue and, therefore, transparent and regular cooperation between civil society and religious groups, in the service of the common good, and it contributes to building up the international community based on participation rather than exclusion, and on respect rather than on contempt."

The second challenge mentioned by Archbishop Lajolo was respect for "the institutional dimension of religious freedom; hence, the right of every religious confession to organize itself freely, in conformity with the statutes that govern it."

"This aspect found a reference in Article 52 of the European Constitutional Treaty," he recalled.

"Let me point out that it would be out of place to fear that the recognition of such a dimension exonerates religious communities from respecting some fundamental norms of law, thus favoring eventual fundamentalist and extremist groups, or even conniving with terrorist networks," he said.

"Both international and international legislation contain clauses that safeguard and protect human and fundamental rights, such as the respect of public order and national security. The observance of these clauses is imperative," the archbishop said.

The third challenge for religious freedom involved problems posed by some states, which insist on the registration of religious communities "as a prerequisite for enjoying" religious freedom, the Vatican official said.

He continued: "If it is accepted that religious freedom is a right rooted in the very nature of the human person and that, as a result, it is prior to any express recognition on the part of state authorities, then the registration of religious communities cannot be considered as a prerequisite for enjoying such freedom.

"When the registration of religious communities is requested in order to enjoy fully and exercise effectively the right to religious freedom, it cannot be denied by state authorities provided that, obviously, there exist those general basic conditions, required by national legislations and by international standards."

As the fourth challenge cited was the legislation in some countries that denies the right to change one's religion.

It is a right, the archbishop indicated, that is recognized in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the present "international context, marked by an insurgence of religious fundamentalisms, it is more than ever imperative to recall the international ban on coercion, on penal sanctions or on the threat of physical force in order to force adherence to religious creeds or religious communities," he affirmed, adding that in this regard, "several states are seriously deficient."

Furthermore, the archbishop continued, "it is not enough for a state to guarantee such a freedom by means of a constitutional norm, or by means of a corresponding legislation which applies it. The exercise of this freedom must be efficiently protected on the level of lived social relations."

Another challenge to religious freedom involves the erroneous understanding of tolerance, which the Vatican official said would impede believers to express their convictions.

The archbishop recalled that the 1995 UNESCO Declaration on Tolerance "specifies that tolerance does not mean 'a renunciation or a weakening of one's own principles,' but rather 'the freedom to adhere to one's own convictions and to accept that others can do the same.'"

"Those who live with coherence their own religious convictions cannot, as such, be considered intolerant," Archbishop Lajolo said. "They become so if, instead of proposing their own convictions and eventually expressing respectful criticism of convictions other than their own, they intend to impose their convictions and exercise either open or surreptitious pressure on the conscience of others."