Much of the debate surrounding issues of religious freedom today seems to center around the appropriate social role of religion, whether religion is predominantly private or is something that can—or maybe must—extend to all aspects of public life.

This question becomes more critical as new laws highlight existing tensions and create new clashes between the religious rights of individuals and the rights of others. What will be required of a California doctor who wishes not to participate in euthanasia procedures after the passage of the “right to die” law? To what extent must opponents of same-sex marriage participate in gay weddings after Obergefell v. Hodges? What accommodations should be made for service providers like the Little Sisters of the Poor who feel that complying with portions of the Affordable Care Act is against their religion?

Pope Francis offered his insight into the meaning and importance of religious liberty in the public sphere in his opening remarks at the Center’s conference on international religious freedom in June 2014. A complete English translation of his remarks is available here. He said, in part:

Reason recognizes in religious freedom a fundamental right of man that reflects his highest dignity, that of the capacity to seek the truth and to adhere to it, and recognizes in that right an indispensable condition in order to deploy his own potentialities. Religious freedom is not only the freedom of a thought or of a private sect. It is freedom to live according to ethical principles consequent to discovered truth, whether privately or publicly. This is a great challenge in the globalized world, where weak thought—which is like a disease—lowers the general ethical level, and in the name of a false notion of tolerance ends by persecuting those who defend the truth about man and that truth’s ethical consequences.

Legal regimes, national or international, are called to recognize, guarantee, and protect religious freedom, which is a right that inheres intrinsically in the nature of man, in his dignity as a free being, and is also an indicator of a healthy democracy and one of the principal fonts of the legitimacy of the state.


Last month, when the Holy Father spoke at Independence Hall during his visit to the U.S., he highlighted similar themes. (The New York Times published an English translation of his speech here.) After reminding listeners, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, that we were created with inalienable rights, Pope Francis said this about religious freedom:

It is a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own.

Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.

. . . In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.

We live in a world subject to the globalization of the technocratic paradigm, which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity. The religions thus have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such is a precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity and a path to peace in our troubled world.

The Pope’s words challenge lawmakers, individuals, and followers of all religions (and those who are not religious as well) to see religious freedom as essential to a person’s dignity. It seems difficult today to strike a balance between the rights of believers to live according to their faith and the rights of non-believers not to have the faiths of others imposed on them. This increasing tension seems at least partially due to cultural forces that pit the religious and the secular against each other. Fewer people consider themselves to be religious than previously and both the religious and the non-religious become combative and defensive. Too often, the non-religious argue that any display of religion or act of faith is an inappropriate imposition and an attempt to establish religion as the law of the land. The religious on the other hand, claim that there is a war being waged by politicians aiming to eradicate religion altogether. Legislating in light of social and scientific developments while protecting the rights of religious believers requires careful balancing.

Pope Francis insists that relegating religion to the private sphere is not a solution to this conflict, as it would deny people the human dignity of living according to “discovered truths.” Instead, individuals must go beyond labeling those who disagree with them as either immoral or bigoted and governments must prioritize the human right to publicly practice religion and live by religious principles.

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