The Pope, Persecution, and Religious Freedom
The bluntness of Francis’ speaking of actual persecution of Christians on the scale that it is occurring is most encouraging
By James V. Schall, S.J.
Danish translation: Paven, forfølgelse og religionsfrihed
Source: Catholic World Report, July 20, 2014
Published on August 13, 2014

A worshipper holding a rosary and crucifix prays during a July 4, 2014. Mass celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on the final day of the U.S. bishops' Fortnight for Freedom campaign. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

“Persecution against Christians today is actually worse than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era. This is happening more than 1700 years after the Edict of Constantine which gave Christians the freedom to publicly profess their faith.”
—Pope Francis, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values,” (Conference, L’Osservatore Romano, English, June 27, 2014)


The photo in the June 27th edition of L’Osservatore Romano shows the Holy Father with a layman in suit and tie. Standing to the side are another layman and a cleric who looks like he might be a bishop. None are identified. The tall layman and the Holy Father are seen holding out a basketball jersey on which is the name “St. John’s” along with the number “10”. It turns out that St. John’s University and Roman Libera University were holding a joint conference on religious freedom, and Pope Francis delivered an important, if brief, address to those gathered.

“The debate over religious freedom,” the Pope began, “has become very intense.” He recalled that the basic document for Catholics on this matter is Dignitatis Humanae, on religious liberty from Vatican II. “Every human being,” he said at the start, “is a ‘seeker’ of the truth of his own being and of his own destiny.” Thus, Francis began his reflection, as it were, from within each human person. “In the person’s mind and in the ‘heart’, thoughts and questions arise, which cannot be repressed or smothered, such that they emerge from a person’s intimate essence. They are questions of religion and, in order to fully manifest themselves, require religious freedom.”

Religious freedom thus is not a top-down matter but one that rises out of the facts of human existence seeking meaning. Religious freedom allows such reflections to flourish. As such, even though a chaos of differing and often contradictory views arise, we must have some object standard by which we can judge the validity of the vast differences of views.

If these questions of meaning were not asked, a “darkness” would engulf our history and existence.

The Pope called religious freedom a “fundamental right.” One has to be careful with this word “right.” It can have many meanings, some of which would even undermine what Francis is driving at.

Many Muslims consider a “right to religious freedom” to mean a world totally under the control of Allah—only in subjection to Allah is anyone “free.”

The word “right” itself has voluntarist roots. That is, a voluntarist right could always mean the opposite of what it affirmed without any need to justify itself.

But the Pope’s point is that one should be free to pursue the truth of one’s being. We are not free just to be free. “Religious freedom is not only that of private thought or worship.” Needless to say, it is precisely this view of religious freedom that is assumed in the policy of the Obama administration. Freedom of religion only means freedom to do what one wants within the walls of a church—but not in public. Anything done in public has to be controlled by the state, which can provide no aid to any religion.

Thus, Francis said that religious freedom means the ability to live one’s religious life in public “according to ethical principles of found truth.” Implicitly, the Pope acknowledged a “religious freedom” that is not based on “ethical principles of found truth.”

The Pope noted the influence of a doctrine of “tolerance” that is open to anything except religion itself, which is held to be, by nature, intolerant because it seeks the truth. Tolerance, ironically, can and often does “end up persecuting those who defend the truth about man and its ethical consequences.” Persecution in the name of “tolerance” is fast becoming a major concern of believers everywhere. Tolerance comes to mean the acceptance of any view except that which claims to be true, as such claims are considered fanatical and not to be tolerated.


Religious freedom needs to be grounded in law, either national or international, in order to be freely practiced. A state is legitimate if it protects religious freedom. While it is often held that democracy and religious freedom go together, this is not always the case. “Democracy” can come to mean simply majority rule. What the majority wills or wants is the law and thus the only criterion of what is valid. Religious freedom is seen as a threat to unity. But the Pope thinks there is a healthy relationship between religious expression and the common good. These reflections on religious freedom are based on reason and confirmed by revelation. They seem, when observed, to indicate a civil progress to a better society.

Yet with all this high-sounding theoretical background, the situation of religious liberty is not at all encouraging, even in so-called “democratic” states—sometimes especially there. Something has radically changed. The state itself has come to recognize no higher law than itself. No basis of law is found other than its own or the will of the majority. “It is incomprehensible and alarming,” said Francis, “that today discrimination and restriction of rights continue for the single fact that one belongs to and publicly professes an unwavering faith.”

Actually, this turn of things is not so difficult to understand if we remember that for many thinkers and politicians (following classical modern thought where the idea originated) the term “rights” means, not some inalienable quality of the human person, but the will and freedom to do whatever one wants.

There are two rhetorics of “rights” that are in fact incompatible with each other and constantly confuse discussions about religious liberty. One view says “rights” are based on reason; the other claims they are based on will. Both use the same term, and in so doing, usually become incomprehensible to each other.

It is at this point that Francis acknowledges the vast number of Christians in our time who are being killed. He is not referring to those persecuted under Nazi or Communist regimes in the last century. Nor does he specify who is doing the killing, though any careful reading of contemporary news shows that many Catholics and Christians are killed in Muslim lands where there is no real religious freedom in effective civil law. Indeed, Christians are by definition second-class citizens in most of these states. The best that can be hoped for is some kind of minimal protection by police and army. I remember seeing a tape of the shooting of five or six Christians recently in Iraq. They were kneeling down and shot one by one in the back of the head. Their only crime was “being Christian.”

There are also, besides in Muslim areas, persecutions of various types in China and India, along with the growing civil discrimination in democratic states. When talking of actual martyrs and persecution, it would be useful to be more specific about names and places, about who is responsible. Organizations like Freedom House and others do keep track of those actually killed.

But Christians often seem indifferent or unconcerned to the repeated killings of fellow Christians. It seems almost as if they are not supposed to say anything. But it seems certain that if they make no issue of these killings, they will go on letting the killers know that they have nothing to fear.

The Pope, no doubt, is caught in something of a bind in this matter. If he would protest the specific killings of Catholics in more detail, that would likely just increase the persecution and kill more people. He, not those who commit the crimes, could be blamed for imprudence. But the bluntness of Pope Francis’ speaking of actual persecution on the scale that it is occurring is most encouraging. Until there is immediate and widespread condemnation of each specific death, they will go on as themselves manifestations of a religion that often sees in such deaths, not martyrs, as we do, but the destruction of enemies of Allah.

This realization brings us back to the question not only of religious freedom, but what sort of religion it is that demands freedom. Benedict XVI touched on this issue in his “Regensburg Lecture”. It is in this sense that the state must concern itself with what a religion actually stands for when it demands “freedom”. When this freedom means the forcible imposition of belief on others, then it must be itself restricted in the name of religious freedom.

Yet, if it is the state itself that is intolerant and disallows religion to live at peace in public, then we are already in a totalitarian state imposed, not by external tyrants, but by our own unlimited “freedom” to do what we “will” as our “right”.

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.