Religious freedom: a fundamental clarification. Stefano Fontana


Most Rev. Athanasius Schneider makes an important clarification about the way to understand religious freedom in his recently published book “Christus vincit” (Fede & Cultura, Verona 2020).  The Council Declaration Dignitatis humanae sustains that the right to choose a religion has its foundation in the very nature of the human person (cf. ns. 2 and 4). This right would apply to the choice for any religion, albeit within the limits of the public good. Most Rev. Schneider challenges this position, arguing that adhesion to natural religion is one thing, while adhesion to a false religion, for example an idolatrous religion, is something else. Natural religion is not contrary to God, but, if anything, is a prelude to the true religion, while the other religions are contrary to God. According to our author, this is why the Council assertion in question is erroneous and should be revisited by the Magisterium.

Number 4 of  Dignitatis humanae states that religious freedom has its foundation “in the very nature of the person”. Thereby excluded is the fact that the nature of the person is ordered to God (to the God of the religio vera) as its ultimate end. It is thought that this nature is ordered to a generic “supreme being” who may be projected by the various religions, no matter what they may be. The foundation of religious freedom is natural law, but natural law is ordered to God. By removing this ‘ordering’ and thinking it is addressed to each divinity in the religious pantheon, one falls into naturalism, considering the level of natural law to be independent. Lost in this way, however, is the continuity between nature and super-nature.

A simple statement of fact makes this continuity clear. In the final analysis, the idolatrous and false religions also demolish natural law. On one hand, their degree of truthfulness stems from the elements of natural law they contain, while, on the other hand, their rites and their positive beliefs corrode natural law itself and prevent any observance of it. Only in the religio vera does this fail to occur, and this demonstrates that natural law is ordered to the true Catholic religion, and not to every religion.

Human nature founds religious freedom, and at the same time both orders and qualifies it in such a way as to exclude false religions, whose outcome may not be encouraged in a public manner, but, if anything, tolerated within certain limits. Conversely, if human nature is understood only as the foundation, but not as ordering and qualifying as well (this would be tantamount to denying it because a non normative nature wouldn’t even be nature), the evident risk becomes a collapse into modernist-type freedom. The thesis of a nature that founds a nondescript right to religious freedom is therefore contradictory.

In the Declaration of Abu Dhabi, Francis asserted that the plurality of religions is the will of God. In so doing, it was his intention to develop Dignitatis humanae in the sense seen above as erroneous. In Abu Dhabi it was assumed that there is a human nature that founds the duty/right to seek God in general. It isn’t clear how Islam may accept this idea, but it cannot be accepted by the Catholic religion, because the latter would be founded on a human nature as the foundation of a generic and unspecified right to religious freedom, while the need for the true God of the Catholic religion is already present in natural law rooted in human nature.

Thus far the thoughts of Most Rev. Schneider. His line of reasoning may be continued (confirmed and sustained) with reference to the doctrine of the “virtue of religion” presented by St. Thomas in the Summa. Religion is a virtue – says the Holy  Doctor – and disbelief, an example of which is idolatry, is a fault. Why is religion a virtue? Because it is the expression of human nature, and when man works in conformity with the ends stemming from his nature, he is doing good and is virtuous; otherwise, he is evil. Now, human nature does not express a generic invitation to believe, as a result of which any belief in any religion is to be considered virtuous. Human nature naturally drives towards believing in a human manner, in a natural and rational way; in other words, in a way ordered to the True God and not in just any disorderly fashion.

Disbelief is a fault (the reference  here is not to the subject acting, but to the action) because it does not correspond to the requirements of truth that human nature poses to religious freedom. If human nature were  to be the foundation of a generic religious freedom, religion as such would no longer be a virtue, and disbelief would no longer be a fault. The true religion would be equated with other religions, and the choice of one or the others would be comparable. Moreover, they would all deserve equal protection on the part of political authorities that would have no duty towards the truthfulness of religions, just as occurs with indifferentism today.

Stefano Fontana