What’s in a word? Plenty when it comes to religious liberty

Religious freedom cannot be reduced to freedom of worship.

That’s the subtle, but essential point at the heart of Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the annual World Day of Peace. For nearly 50 years now, the Holy See has designated New Year’s Day as a special day to pray for peace. Each year the Holy Father selects a theme for his annual message, and for 2011 he selected religious liberty.

It is a timely choice, and not just because of growing anti-Christian violence in various parts of the world. It’s timely because leading voices have recently been shrinking the concept of religious liberty down to “freedom of worship.”

American foreign policy under the current administration has adopted the narrower concept, with both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking about “freedom of worship.” When welcoming Benedict to Scotland last September, Queen Elizabeth II spoke of Britain’s long history of “freedom of worship.”

Whatever the historical accuracy of that claim, the rhetorical shift is novel. Going back to the Magna Carta, the first liberty guaranteed was religious liberty, or the freedom of the Church. It’s the first freedom, because religious liberty touches upon the inner sanctuary of man’s conscience, and if he is not free there, none of his other freedoms are secure. Both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the American Bill of Rights guarantee religious liberty as the first liberty. It is an individual liberty to be sure, but not only an individual liberty. After all, one cannot practise one’s religion alone.

“Religious freedom, like every freedom, proceeds from the personal sphere and is achieved in relationship with others. Freedom without relationship is not full freedom,” writes Benedict. “Religious freedom is not limited to the individual dimension alone, but is attained within one’s community and in society, in a way consistent with the relational being of the person and the public nature of religion.”

The public nature of religion includes the right to establish proper institutions — parishes, seminaries, schools, universities, hospitals, social service agencies, catechetical institutes and fraternal groups. It includes the right of religious groups and leaders to participate as full citizens in public life, including politics and culture. Freedom to worship is part of religious liberty, but only part.

For example, China could argue that Catholics have freedom of worship — they are allowed to freely worship if they belong to the “patriotic association,” the state bureau for Catholics. But religious liberty includes the freedom of the Church to govern herself according to her own principles, which is forbidden in China. In various Islamic countries too there is freedom to worship. Christians are allowed to have services but there are limits on participation in public life. The government of Turkey permits the Patriarch of Constantinople to worship freely, but otherwise perpetrates outrageous limitations on his ability to shepherd his flock.

That’s why the language matters. When Western leaders speak of freedom of worship, do tyrants detect a retreat on human rights in general and religious liberty in particular? Those tyrants are not only abroad, but at home. In Canada, America and the United Kingdom recent cases have all highlighted how religious liberty can be restricted in areas other than worship. The case of the Knights of Columbus in British Columbia, fined for not renting their hall to a lesbian couple for their “wedding” reception, has already demonstrated that religious liberty can be eroded without touching freedom to worship. Quebec parents forced to teach their children religious syncretism now know that all too well.

“With due respect for the positive secularity of state institutions, the public dimension of religion must always be acknowledged,” writes Benedict. The point is crucial: A secular state cannot banish religion to an ever-shrinking private sphere if it is to claim that it respects religious freedom.

“Religion is defended by defending the rights and freedoms of religious communities,” concludes the Holy Father.

There is a particularly Catholic dimension to this issue. Catholics belong to the Church — in fact, they cannot be Catholics without a prior act by the Church. Baptism is conferred by the Church, reflecting the theological reality that God fashions for Himself a people. No one makes himself a Catholic, even if it requires free consent. This theological reality has implications for social life. Religious liberty cannot limit itself to the individual, for the Church herself is a prior reality who therefore has a liberty of her own.

There are plenty of spectacular threats to religious liberty abroad today. Benedict’s message reminds us not to ignore the more subtle threats at home.