Pope Francis opened an academic conference in Rome last week with a statement on religious liberty and the persecution of Christians. He reflected on the place of religious liberty in Catholic thought and decried religious discrimination across the world, particularly against Christians.
The Pope’s remarks came at a special audience at the Vatican for participants in the conference, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values,” which St. John’s Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored with St. John’s Center for International and Comparative Law and the Department of Law at the Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta. Referring to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration, Dignitatis humanae, the Pope argued that people require religious freedom in order to be fully human:
“Every human is a ‘seeker’ of truth on his origins and destiny,” the Pope said. “In his mind and in his ‘heart,’ questions and thoughts arise that cannot be repressed or stifled, since they emerge from the depths of the person and are a part of the intimate essence of the person. They are religious questions, and religious freedom is necessary for them to manifest themselves fully.”
He called religious freedom “a fundamental right of man.” It is “not simply freedom of thought or private worship,” but “the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly, consequent to the truth one has found.”
“Legal systems, at both national and international level, are therefore required to recognize, guarantee and protect religious freedom, which is a right intrinsically inherent in human nature.”
Religious freedom is also “an indicator of a healthy democracy” and “one of the main sources of the legitimacy of the state,” the Pope continued.
Nowadays, international and domestic law protect religious freedom. Notwithstanding this protection, however, religious discrimination continues. In fact, Pope Francis noted, 1700 years after the Edict of Milan, Christians worldwide suffer disproportionate discrimination and persecution. “The persecution of Christians today is even more virulent than in the first centuries of the Church,” he said, “and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era.”
I’ll have a fuller discussion of the Pope’s statement when the Vatican releases an official English translation. Meanwhile, here’s a video report on the audience in English.