Note on the Catholic Church's Freedom of Institutional Autonomy

"Christians Recognize the Distinction between Reason and Religion"

Vatican City, (Zenit.org) | 1710 hits

Here is the text of the Note given by the Permanent Representation of the Holy See to the Council of Europe regarding the Catholic Church's freedom and institutional autonomy.

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Permanent Representation of the Holy See to the Council of Europe

Note on the Catholic Church’s freedom and institutional autonomy,

on the occasion of the examination

by the European Court of Human Rights

of the Sindacatul "Pastorul cel Bun" versus Romania (No. 2330/09)

and Fernandez Martinez versus Spain (No. 56030/07) cases

The teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the aspects of religious freedom touched on by the two above-mentioned cases may be presented synthetically as based on the following four principles: 1) the distinction between the Church and the political community; 2) freedom in relation to the State; 3) freedom within the Church; 3) respect for just public order.

1. The distinction between the Church and the political community

The Church recognizes the distinction between the Church and the political community, each of which has distinct ends; the Church is in no way confused with the political community and is not bound to any political system. The political community must see to the common good and ensure that citizens can lead a "calm and peaceful life" in this world. The Church recognizes that it is in the political community that the most complete realization of the common good is to be found (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1910); this is to be understood as "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily" (ibid., n. 1906). It is the State’s task to defend it and ensure the cohesion, unity and organization of society in order that the common good may be realized with the contribution of all citizens and that the material, cultural, moral and spiritual goods necessary for a truly human existence may be made accessible to everyone. The Church, for her part, was founded in order to lead the faithful to their eternal end by means of her teaching, sacraments, prayer and laws.

This distinction is based on the words of the Lord Jesus (Christ): "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s" (Mt 22:21). In their own areas, the political community and the Church are independent of each other and autonomous. When it is a question of areas which have both temporal and spiritual ends, such as marriage or the education of children, the Church is of the view that the civil power should exercise its authority while making sure not to damage the spiritual good of the faithful. The Church and the political community, however, cannot ignore one another; from different points of view they are at the service of the same people. They exercise this service all the more effectively for the good of all the more they strive for healthy mutual cooperation, as the Second Vatican Council expressed it (cf.Gaudium et spes, n. 76).

The distinction between the Church and the political community is ensured by respecting their reciprocal autonomy, which conditions their mutual freedom. The limits of this freedom are, for the State, to refrain from adopting measures which could do harm to the eternal salvation of the faithful, and, for the Church, to respect the public order of the State.

2. Freedom with respect to the State

The Church claims no privilege but asks that her freedom to carry out her mission in a pluralist society be fully respected and protected. The Church received this mission and this freedom from Jesus Christ, not from the State. The civil power should thus respect and protect the freedom and autonomy of the Church and in no way prevent her from fully carrying out her mission, which consists in leading the faithful, by her teaching, sacraments, prayers and laws, to their eternal end.

The Church’s freedom should be recognized by the civil power with regard to all that concerns her mission, whether it is a matter of the institutional organization of the Church (choice and formation of her co-workers and of the clergy, choice of bishops, internal communication between the Holy See, the bishops and faithful, the founding and governing of institutes of religious life, the publication and distribution of written texts, the possession and administration of temporal goods …), or the fulfilment of her mission towards the faithful (especially by the exercise of her Magisterium, the celebration of public worship, the administration of the sacraments and pastoral care).

The Catholic religion exists in and through the Church, which is the mystical body of Christ. When considering the Church’s freedom, primary attention should therefore be given to her collective dimension: the Church is autonomous in her institutional functioning, juridical order and internal administration. With due respect for the imperatives of a just public order, this autonomy should be respected by the civil authorities; this is a condition of religious freedom and the distinction between Church and State. The civil authorities cannot, without committing an abuse of power, interfere in the purely religious domain, for example, by seeking to change the bishop’s decision regarding appointment to a function.

3. Freedom within the Church

The Church is not unaware that certain religions and ideologies can oppress the freedom of their adherents; however, for her part, the Church recognizes the fundamental value of human freedom. The Church sees in every human person a creature endowed with intelligence and free will. The Church sees herself as a space for freedom and prescribes norms intended to guarantee that this freedom is respected. Thus, all religious acts, for validity, require the freedom of the one carrying them out, that is, the engagement of their will. Taken together and apart from their individual significance, these freely accomplished acts aim at giving access to the "freedom of the children of God". Mutual relations within the Church (such as marriage and religious vows made before God) are governed by this freedom.

This freedom has a relation of dependence on the truth ("the truth will make you free", Jn 8:32): consequently it cannot be invoked to justify an attack on the truth. Thus, a member of the lay faithful or a religious cannot, with regard to the Church, invoke freedom to contest the faith (for example, by adopting public positions against the Magisterium) or to damage the Church (for example, by creating a civil trade union of priests against the will of the Church). It is true that every person is free to contest the Magisterium or the prescriptions and norms of the Church. In case of disagreement, everyone may exercise the recourses provided by canon law and even break off his relations with the Church. Since relations within the Church are, however, essentially spiritual in nature, it is not the State’s role to enter into this area to settle disputes.

4. Respect for just public order

The Church does not ask that religious communities be "lawless" areas, where the laws of the State would cease to apply. The Church recognizes the legitimate competence of civil authorities and jurisdictions to assure the maintenance of public order. This public order should conform to justice. Thus, the State should ensure that religious communities respect morality and just public order. In particular, it should see to it that persons are not subject to inhuman or degrading treatment, that their physical and moral integrity is respected, including the possibility of freely leaving their religious community. This is where the autonomy of the different religious communities is limited, allowing both individual and collective and institutional religious freedom to be guaranteed, while respecting the common good and the cohesion of pluralist societies. Apart from these cases, civil authorities should respect the autonomy of religious communities, by virtue of which these should be free to function and organize themselves according to their own rules.

In this regard, it should be borne in mind that the Catholic faith completely respects reason. Christians recognize the distinction between reason and religion, between the natural and supernatural orders, and believe that "grace does not destroy nature", that is to say, that faith and the other gifts of God never render human nature and the use of human reason useless, not ignore them, but rather promote and encourage them. Christianity, unlike other religions, does not involve formal religious prescriptions (regarding food, vesture, mutilation, etc.) which, were the case to arise, could offend against natural morality and enter into conflict with the law of a religiously neutral State. In any case, Christ taught us to go beyond such purely formal religious prescriptions and replaced them by the living law of charity, a law which, in the natural order, recognizes that conscience has the task of distinguishing between good and evil. Thus, the Catholic Church could not impose any prescription contrary to the just requirements of public order.

[Original text: English]