4.4.4 Religious freedom and democracy

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Unit 4 Contents


If there is one keynote in Catholic Social Teaching about democracy, it is participation.  We are almost at the end of Unit 4, and studying it will have made this abundantly clear.

We saw that, in the context of World War II, Pope Pius XII made the ‘defensive’ argument that active participation is necessary because democracy can go wrong: people can be manipulated and abused even by democratically elected leaders. Two decades later, in the context of the Second Vatican Council, participation was assessed positively: free and active participation in the direction of public life is “in full conformity with human nature” (Gaudium et Spes, #75, quoted in 4.3.4).

It does not follow, of course, that any form of participation will do. Rather, the point of being involved in democratic public life is justice and the common good.  This is why the emphasis in CST in the 1990s and 2000s on the inherent connection of freedom and truth is so vital.  What we actively do in public life needs to be premised on a true understanding of the nature of the human person and, therefore, what really makes for justice and the common good.

At the end of the reading set from Centesimus Annus earlier, Pope John Paul’s said:

The Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order… Her contribution to the political order is precisely her vision of the dignity of the person revealed in all its fullness in the mystery of the Incarnate Word. (#47, quoted in 4.3.5)

This is a highly interesting statement.  The first part is almost an implicit endorsement of the ‘transmission theory’ which we looked at just now (4.4.2).  The phrase, ‘the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order’ must mean that citizens as such have political authority and that it is quite proper for them to use it.  It is not for the Church to employ its own authority – a distinct kind of authority, as we have just seen – to over-rule democratic authority.  Rather, what the Church brings to the table is its teaching about the human person, and hence about justice and the common good.  It offers this to citizens as a true basis on which they may freely exercise political authority.

But what is it like for Christians and others informed by CST actually to take part in democratic political life?  In the final unit of Module B we shall address some of the practicalities of this.  This screen and the next enable an initial consideration of this and they form a bridge to that later study.

The short answer to that question is: not easy.  Here we shall focus on one feature of most democratic societies today which makes involvement in political life challenging.



Can you think of an aspect (or aspects) of the cultural context in many countries, Western and other, which makes taking part in public life challenging in a way it has not always been?

I have in mind something that faces everyone, regardless of their religious or philosophical beliefs, but which Christians and adherents of other major faiths might well be more aware of than others.


In response to this ‘reflection’, you might well have come up with a number of points.  If so, you can compare and contrast them with the one we shall look at here.

We gave attention, in the second part of this unit (4.2), to the context, historical and conceptual, in which to think about democracy and to read what CST says about it.  Here we turn to an aspect of the context of democracy now: the fact of great religious and philosophical diversity in many democratic societies.



From study earlier in the module, which statement of CST is most relevant to diversity of religious and philosophical conviction and practice?


Recall that the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’ of the 1960s was effected especially through two documents (see 2.4.6).  Pacem in Terris was one, parts of which you have read in both Unit 3 and Unit 4.  The second was Dignitatis Humanae, also known as the Declaration on Religious Freedom.  This recognized that there is a human right to religious freedom.  This means that each human person has the right to freedom in forming and changing their religious beliefs, in manifesting their religious beliefs together with others in public worship, and in living on the basis of those beliefs (Dignitatis Humanae, ##2-3).  There are limits to the public manifestation of religion – most notably the human rights of others – but these do not nullify the human right to religious freedom.

Dignitatis Humanae emphasised that groups as well as individual persons have freedom of religious practice: “[r]eligious communities also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word” (#4).  Moreover it says that religious freedom extends to advocacy by religious groups of views about social and political life.

[I]t comes within the meaning of religious freedom that religious communities should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity. (#4)

The consequences for public life of recognition of the human right to religious freedom are far-reaching.  Perhaps most obviously, first, if that right is upheld, societies will in fact be religiously plural because none of the diverse religious convictions and practices in them will be suppressed by force.1. In other words, diversity of religious and philosophical beliefs and practices is the usual state of affairs, in this sense normal.  The extent of such diversity tends to grow when, as in recent decades, global levels of migration are high.

Second, the right to religious freedom means that adherents of different stances are welcome as citizens to participate in political debate in the light of their distinct convictions.  They, or rather we, disagree religiously and philosophically, but we enter public debate as free and equal persons, bringing with us deeply held beliefs about social and political life.  The conversation that then takes place is certainly challenging. But it is right and inevitable that this is its nature.

This is why I said above that it is not easy today actually to participate in democratic political life.  It requires joining, even forging, a difficult conversation among people who disagree deeply.   Granted religious freedom, there should be no surprise about, for example, Muslims participating as Muslims, atheistic libertarians participating as atheistic libertarians, Christians participating as Christians, and so on.  In light of the different visions of human fulfilment we hold, we shall have partly different views about what justice is and therefore what governments must do. Commitment to justice and the common good requires open engagement in careful, reasoned argument with others with whom we might find there are profound disagreements.  The only alternative is to fail to have a rational conversation and, with everyone merely talking past each other, for outcomes to be determined solely by a contest for power.

In short, when religious freedom is respected, democracy requires participation in a difficult public conversation.  You might recall that Pope Benedict XVI spoke about this.  Democracy in which freedom is premised on truth “demands the courage … to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate”.2

This is not to say that that there cannot be much common ground. There can be, not least around a range of human rights, even though, as you know, there are in fact competing views of what really count as human rights.

Further, much of the nitty-gritty of governing, and therefore of democratic debate about it, is to do with finding policies that are the most effective means for achieving already established ends.  For example, if there is a widely shared view that high-speed rail lines should be extended in the north of England, questions arise about which routes they should follow.  Or, if we recognize that some forms of social security provision for unemployed people can be better than others at enabling them to develop useful new skills, how do we test this, and which ones should we adopt?  While both these issues can be very controversial, basically they are about the best means to achieve already agreed ends.  Divergent religious and philosophical positions may well cast some light on what is at stake in them, but they will almost never generate conclusions on them. Hence Catholic politicians (for example) will not be able to say: in light of CST, this is the one railways policy, or one form of social security benefit, that we must adopt.

Hence there are many issues on which day-to-day political debate generally does not need to bring in the deep beliefs that Christians or Muslims or atheistic socialists or neoliberals hold and on which they might disagree.

But these two points only qualify the main one made on this page. When religious freedom really is respected, public debate is a difficult conversation because adherents of deeply different positions may quite properly bring these to the table.  All have a right to participate on the basis of their religious or philosophical conception of the human person – that is, of what is true about the human person.

The nature of democratic debate, then, poses a big practical challenge.  The necessary kind of public conversation is not easy. Can we articulate our own convictions in ways others can understand? Can we listen carefully enough to others to find common ground? Can we discern where disagreements really lie?  Do we have the trust in democratic procedures to accept outcomes when our own convictions don’t win the day?



What issues that are controversial in public debate today do you think turn on deep differences of religious or philosophical belief?

Can you envisage yourself participating in public discussion about them?

What qualities do people need to bring to such debate for it to have the possibility of being reasonable and of making progress towards conclusions that are widely accepted, even if not endorsed by everyone?


At the beginning of both Unit 3 and Unit 4, we noted the affirmation in CST of the ‘political vocation’ – that some people are called to participate in politics, to seek political office and to exercise power (3.1.1, 4.1.1).  This has never been an easy vocation to fulfil faithfully and well.  This screen has shown that the religious and philosophical diversity which characterises many democratic societies is both welcome evidence of respect for religious freedom and one feature of our context that makes following that vocation quite a challenge.

Before we move on from this to look at a different area of CST in Unit 5, there is one more page in Unit 4.  This will enable you to learn more about a contemporary version of liberalism which claims, against what this screen has brought out, that religious and political diversity in fact need not affect democratic political life.  This view is influential and we need to be aware of it, especially if we do participate.



End of 4.4.4

Go to 4.4.5 The utopian vision of ‘neutralist’ liberalism

Module B outline

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  1. They will be plural in this way at least until such time as everyone freely becomes convinced of just one religious or philosophical position.  Of course, in principle this can happen and could be perfectly consistent with upholding religious freedom. 

  2. Benedict XVI, address at White House Welcoming Ceremony, 16 April 2008, Washington, DC, quoted on 4.3.8