Religious Liberty: A Common Challenge for Catholic-Muslim Dialogue

Article excerpt

Comparing the struggles of the Church on the subject of religious liberty with those in course of progress within Islam may be conducive to greater interreligious understanding. It is not by chance that Muslim and Christian scholars have adopted this approach on more than one occasion. (1) Even Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to the Roman Curia at the end of 2006, seemed to implicitly acknowledge this fact when he stated that "the Muslim world today finds itself facing an extremely urgent task ... very similar to the one ... imposed upon Christians beginning in the age of the Enlightenment" (2): namely the task of recognizing the freedom of faith and finding appropriate solutions in this regard. Starting from this presumption, the present paper will be divided mainly into two parts. Part I will briefly illustrate the positions of the Church before and after the Second Vatican Council. Part II will delve into the positions of some modern Islamic Organizations, countries, and scholars on the civil right to religious freedom.


To begin with, it must be recalled that the journey of the Catholic Church towards the full proclamation of human rights has gone through at least three phases: rejection, discernment, and finally, proclamation. (3) The phase of initial rejection--which lasted roughly from the Papacy of Gregory XVI to that of Pope Pius XII--was mostly driven by the fear that the language of rights, as first portrayed by the 1789 French Declaration and then by the 1948 U.N. Declaration, might lead to indifferentism and relativism.

"The Church saw the French [R]evolution as proclaiming a 'liberty' that was total and without limits." (4) More precisely, the right to religious liberty--as conceived by the French revolutionaries--had not been simply understood as the right to be free from any political or external coercion in matters pertaining to Faith, (5) or as what we now define a legal right as pertaining to, or regulating the external forum. Rather, it was understood in ethical, relativistic terms as the right to think and believe whatever one wants, and even to be free from any religion.

Against this background, Pope Leo XIII stated that "the eternal law of God is the sole standard and rule of human liberty." (6) Going as far as saying that "the liberty of worship"--which is a specific instance of modern freedom--"is so opposed to the virtue of religion." (7)

The sub-titles of the Papal Encyclicals issued during this period are all quite evocative of the general suspicion of the Catholic Church with respect to religious liberty. Mirari Vos. On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism (1832), Quanta Cura: On Condemning Certain Errors (1864), Immortale Dei: On the Christian Constitution of States (1885) all reacted against the 'absolutist' notion of freedom portrayed by the French Declaration.

Likewise, the 1948 U.N. Declaration was initially passed under silence by Pope Plus XII. This Document had been drafted with the help of communist countries, a fact which in itself constituted a motive of suspicion. Secondly, the Document did not mention either the word God or natural-moral law--two notions which the Vatican Observer to UNESCO (who then became Pope John XIII) had pressed the Human Rights Committee to include, but without success.

For such reasons, the Church believed once again that human rights, including the right to religious liberty as then portrayed, (8) might be conducive to the idea that all religions are the same, and that even error has its rights. Whereas Pope Pius XII subscribed to the view that "that which does not correspond to truth or to the norm of morality objectively has no right to exist, to be spread or to be activated." (9)

A turning point in history was the acquisition, starting with the papacy of Pope John XXIII, of the distinction between the legitimate content, on the one hand, and the ambiguous intention, on the other, of human rights rhetoric) (10) With Pope John XXIII, the phase of discernment of the Church on the subject of human rights and religious liberty begins. …