Pope Benedict XVI: Religious Freedom is Path to Peace

by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

The Vatican released the World Peace Day message for 2011 yesterday in which Pope Benedict declares Christianity to be the most persecuted religion in the world and calls upon leaders to realize the vital role religious freedom plays in bringing about just and peaceful societies.

Entitled “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace,” Pope Benedict begins the message with a lament for the massacre of Christians in Iraq this past year, saying that “in some areas of the world, it is impossible to profess one’s religion freely except at the risk of life and personal liberty.”

He goes on to say that “Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith.” Intolerant secularism is to blame, as well as its “mirror image” – fundamentalism. This is the fault of the politicization of religion and the imposition of state religions, he says, and calls the idea that relativism leads to peaceful coexistence an “illusion.” Relativism “is actually the origin of divisions and the denial of the dignity of human beings,” he writes.

The Pope points out that religious freedom, like all other human rights, is not dependent upon recognition by the state because it pre-exists the state and is based on the natural dignity of the person.

” The right to religious freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person, whose transcendent nature must not be ignored or overlooked. God created man and woman in his own image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:27). For this reason each person is endowed with the sacred right to a full life, also from a spiritual standpoint.

“Without the acknowledgement of his spiritual being, without openness to the transcendent, the human person withdraws within himself, fails to find answers to the heart’s deepest questions about life’s meaning, fails to appropriate lasting ethical values and principles, and fails even to experience authentic freedom and to build a just society.”

When this freedom is denied or restricted, it stifles the growth of the authentic and lasting peace of the whole human family, he says.

The Holy Father also stresses that religious freedom is at the origin of moral freedom because it gives a person “the ability to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth.” This is important because freedom and respect are inseparable he says, and cites Dignitatis Humanae which states that “in exercising their rights, individuals and social groups are bound by the moral law to have regard for the rights of others, their own duties to others and the common good of all.”

If religious freedom is the path to peace, he goes on to say, religious education is the “highway which leads new generations to see others as their brothers and sisters, with whom they are called to journey and work together so that all will feel that they are living members of the one human family, from which no one is to be excluded.”

This fact highlights the importance of the family which, when founded on the marriage of a man and a woman, teaches children how complementarity should work, lessons that will play an important role in their social, cultural, moral and spiritual formation.

“Parents must be always free to transmit to their children, responsibly and without constraints, their heritage of faith, values and culture,” he writes.

The message also stresses that religious freedom is not just something that concerns Christians, but extends to the “whole family of the earth’s peoples.” Calling it an essential element of a constitutional state, it cannot be denied without encroaching upon fundamental rights and freedoms. Therefore, religious freedom is “the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights.”

The Pope also calls for a healthy dialogue between civil and religious institutions as well as between followers of different religious.

“For the Church, dialogue between the followers of the different religions represents an important means of cooperating with all religious communities for the common good. The Church herself rejects nothing of what is true and holy in the various religions. She has a high regard for those ways of life and conduct, precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”

However, he warns: “The path to take is not the way of relativism or religious syncretism. The Church, in fact, ‘proclaims, and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6); in Christ, in whom God reconciled all things to himself, people find the fullness of the religious life.’. Yet this in no way excludes dialogue and the common pursuit of truth in different areas of life, since, as Saint Thomas Aquinas would say, ‘every truth, whoever utters it, comes from the Holy Spirit’.”

The Pope firmly condemns all forms of religious intolerance, from physical violence and loss of personal freedom to “more sophisticated forms of hostility to religion which, in Western countries, occasionally find expression in a denial of history and the rejection of religious symbols which reflect the identity and the culture of the majority of citizens.

These forms of hostility do nothing more than foster hatred and prejudice and are :inconsistent with a serene and balanced vision of pluralism and the secularity of institutions, to say nothing of the fact that coming generations risk losing contact with the priceless spiritual heritage of their countries.”

He concludes by saying that “the world needs God. It needs universal, shared ethical and spiritual values, and religion can offer a precious contribution to their pursuit, for the building of a just and peaceful social order at the national and international levels.”

The World Day of Peace is celebrated on January 1.

Click here to read the entire message.

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