Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Liberal Democracy, the Right to Religious Freedom, and the Roman Catholic Church

This paper, to be published soon in a symposium issue of Notre Dame's Review of Politics, may be of interest to MOJ readers.

Liberal Democracy and the Right to Religious Freedom

Michael J. Perry
Emory University School of Law; University of San Diego - School of Law and Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies (2009-2012)

The Review of Politics, Vol. 71, pp. 1-15, 2009

The Roman Catholic Church was famously late to embrace the right to religious freedom. Some have plausibly argued that when the Second Vatican Council, in 1965, overwhelmingly adopted the Declaration on Religious Freedom - known by the first two words of its official, Latin version: Dignitatis Humanae - the Church betrayed one of its most traditional and established theological teachings. Did the Church, at Vatican II, capitulate to, or at least compromise with, "liberalism?"

The right to religious freedom, according to international law, rests in part on respect for the "inherent dignity" of every human being. Thus there is a prima facie link between the liberal-democratic justification and the Church's 1965 justification. But as I argue in this essay, the appeal to human dignity is not an exclusive preserve of modern liberal democracy. Indeed, we can imagine a government that refuses to affirm the right to religious freedom because it wishes to save souls, and this precisely out of respect for human dignity of every human being. Such a view was proclaimed by the the pre-Vatican II Church. Thus the appeal to human dignity is not evidence of a fundamental shift by the Church. What then does account for the Church's undeniable U-turn - its undeniable change of direction?

Respect for human dignity by itself cannot provide the fundamental justification for the right to religious freedom. Another ingredient is needed: distrust, born of long historical experience, of government competence to adjudicate contested questions of religious truth. The Church in Dignitatis Humanae finally came to accept this lesson of history - a lesson available to believers of various faiths, including Catholics, as well as to nonbelievers.

[The paper can be downloaded here.]


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