By Rory Gray, Alliance Defending Freedom Litigation Counsel
As Pope Benedict XVI retires from public life, it is time to pay tribute to his contributions as one of the greatest champions of religious freedom in our age. Pope Benedict XVI, throughout his time in office, proclaimed loudly what few in our time have dared to speak: “Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith.” And he refused to accept the status quo, characterizing it as “unacceptable,” “an insult to God and to human dignity; furthermore, it is a threat to security and peace, and an obstacle to the achievement of authentic and integral human development.” Few religious leaders have been so bold. But Pope Benedict XVI spoke out in the face of “the deliberate promotion of religious indifference or practical atheism on the part of many countries.” He clearly proclaimed that efforts to “curtail the proclamation of [religious] truths, whether constricting it within the limits of a merely scientific rationality, or suppressing it in the name of political power or majority rule, … represent a threat not just to Christian faith, but also to humanity itself and to the deepest truth about our being and ultimate vocation, our relationship to God.”
For Pope Benedict XVI harbored no doubts that “the most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion” was under attack. He spoke out against efforts to deny religious persons “the right of conscientious objection” and the “worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.” And he explained that the “Church has a critical role to play in countering cultural currents which, on the basis of an extreme individualism, seek to promote notions of freedom detached from moral truth.” Pope Benedict XVI clearly saw religious freedom as “an essential good” and he declared eloquently that “each person must be able freely to exercise the right to profess and manifest, individually or in community, his or her own religion or faith, in public and in private, in teaching, in practice, in publications, in worship and in ritual observances.”
To respect this basic “[h]uman right,” Pope Benedict XVI declared that civil authorities must “give space to viewpoints inspired by a religious vision in all its dimensions, including ritual, worship, education, dissemination of information and the freedom to profess and choose religion.” Because, as he explained, “[it] is inconceivable … that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves—their faith—in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.” For “[t]he right to religious freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person, whose transcendent nature must not be ignored or overlooked.” Thus, as Pope Benedict XVI made clear, when “religious freedom is acknowledged, the dignity of the human person is respected at its root.” “[T]he moral legitimacy of every social and legal norm” therefore depends upon respect for “the right to life and the right to religious freedom.”
Expressions of sincere thanks and appreciation for Pope Benedict XVI’s leadership in the religious freedom arena are both necessary and appropriate. But perhaps the best tribute to Pope Benedict XVI’s public ministry is to heed his moving words describing religious freedom as “an essential element of a constitutional state,” a right that “cannot be denied without at the same time encroaching on all fundamental rights and freedoms, since it is their synthesis and keystone. It is the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights.” Alliance Defending Freedom works every day to uphold religious freedom in all of its forms. And we invite you to join us in this effort, so valiantly championed by Pope Benedict XVI.