Skip to main content

Religious Freedom: The Catholic Approach

  • David O'Mahony (a1)

I should make plain at the beginning that I am neither a theologian nor a church historian, and I do not represent the Catholic Church. What follows is merely my understanding of the key documents and some of the key interventions by the Church on the topic of religious freedom over the last fifty years. In writing this comment, I have used a collection of the Church's statements on religious freedom published by the Caritas in Veritate Foundation in Geneva. This foundation is concerned with the social doctrine of the Church and seeks to support the work of the Holy See and other Roman Catholic bodies at the United Nations. Anybody interested in the Church's position on this and related issues will find some useful material on the foundation's website.

Hide All

2 Caritas in Veritate is also the title of Pope Benedict's last encyclical and translates as ‘Charity in truth’.

3 See <>, accessed 11 October 2016.

4 Tertullian, To Scapula, ch 2.

5 This prohibits the US Government from substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the Government ‘demonstrates that application of the burden to the person— (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest’ (s 3) and that the Government's burden is a substantial one.

6 The full speech, delivered in 1983, is available at <>, accessed 1 October 2016. The opening paragraphs read: ‘More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened. Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.’

7 Dignitatis humanae, para 2, emphasis added; available at <>, accessed 11 October 2016.

8 Ibid, emphasis added.

9 Ibid, para 4 states: ‘However, in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonourable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one's right and a violation of the right of others’ (emphasis added).

10 Ibid, paras 6 and 7.

11 Ibid, para 10.

12 Address of John Paul II to the participants in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, 10 October 2003, available at <>, accessed 1 October 2016.

13 Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2011, available at <>, accessed 1 October 2016.

14 Statement by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Permanent Representative of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, 23 March 2010, available at <>, accessed 11 October 2016.

15 S Tomasi, ‘International religious freedom: an imperative for peace and the common good’, keynote address, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, 12 September 2012, available at <>, accessed 11 October 2016.

16 Pope Benedict's address, Westminster Hall, 17 September 2010, available at <>, accessed 1 October 2016.

17 Address of John Paul II (see n 12).

18 Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI (see n 13).

19 Ibid.

20 Pope Paul VI, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, 4 October 1965, available at <>, accessed 11 October 2016.

21 Pope Benedict's address, Westminster Hall (see n 16).

22 Address of John Paul II (see n 12).

23 Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI (see n 13), emphasis in original.

1 This Comment is based on the text of a paper given at the Conference of the Ecclesiastical Law Society on 12 March 2016.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ecclesiastical Law Journal
  • ISSN: 0956-618X
  • EISSN: 1751-8539
  • URL: /core/journals/ecclesiastical-law-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed