Religious Liberty Today

(Father Mathew Record, October 1967, pp. 13-14)


The problem of religious liberty is as old as man himself, for, even in his most primitive existence, man has felt within himself an urge to worship someone greater than himself. Aside from philosophical proofs of the existence of God, man, if he reflects, experiences an inadequacy, a certain defectiveness in himself. This has led him to speculate and to ponder on the existence of something which, in some way, is in everything and yet above all things. Once found, man has acknowledged the duty of worshipping and rendering honour to his God.

Enforced Worship a Violation of a Person’s Rights

With the duty to worship God there is a corresponding right. This right is one which belongs to each one personally. No individual human being can presume to dictate to another the manner of his worship. Man must worship God in a manner befitting a man, that is, as a creature endowed with intelligence and free will. To force a person to worship God in a particular way not only violates that person’s rights, but defeats its own purpose, since worship so rendered is not free, is not in fact human, properly speaking. This is true for two reasons. Firstly, the act of faith depends on a free gift from God, and this gift cannot be forced. Secondly, by its very nature, the acceptance by the individual of the grace of God must be free. A truth imposed is not a truth accepted.

Civil, not Moral Freedom

This idea of religious freedom is one which has often been misunderstood in the past. Generally speaking, this misunderstanding arose from a failure to distinguish two very different kinds of freedom – civil and moral. Civil freedom, considered in relation to this problem, means that the State acknowledges the right of the individual to act according to his conscience, and consequently refrains from hindering him in the exercise of this right. It is in this sense that the concept of religious freedom must be understood. Moral freedom means that a person is not bound to follow his conscience. Obviously that is not what is meant by religious freedom. Freedom of conscience is quite a different thing from freedom not to have a conscience.

No absolute Right

The right to religious freedom, therefore, simply means that a person is free to practise his religion publicly and privately, either by himself or in association with others. The way in which this right is exercised is very important to civil authority. Like other civil rights, the right to religious freedom is not an absolute one. Most modern civil Constitutions guarantee freedom of religion, but add in a qualifying clause such as ‘subject to public order and morality.’ This phrase is used in the Irish Constitution. Some people object to this on the grounds that it could be interpreted in such a way as to undermine all the preceding guarantees. We must admit, of course, that it could be interpreted in this way. After all, there is nothing, however good, which cannot be abused. However, to any reasonable person, its meaning is clear. It could only be misinterpreted by those who deliberately desire to do so, and, if such is anyone’s desire, a constitutional device will not stop them. Even in a Constitution, or perhaps we should say especially in a Constitution, a certain measure of trust must be placed in the hands of those on whom the task of its interpretation devolves. No legal document is so foolproof as to preclude any possibility of misinterpretation.

Besides, it is reasonable to ask that if some such clause is not employed, would it not be possible for a religious fanatic, openly and without restraint to insult the beliefs of others. Abuse of the religious convictions of others is not an essential element of any religion, but without this qualifying clause, bigots could claim that they were doing no more than pointing out the falsity of other religions. It is easy to imagine how such a situation could degenerate into a type of religious warfare. This qualification, therefore, is necessary.

The ideal of religious freedom has been upheld by the Church in its Declaration on Religious Freedom, promulgated on December 7, 1965. This document affirms –

‘This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognised in the constitutional law whereby society is governed. Thus it is to be a civil right…. This freedom means that all men are to immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such ways that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.’

Let us hope that this Declaration will help to further the spread of the recognition of man’s desire for freedom.