Contemporary Challenges of Religious Freedom: State Neutrality and the Role of Religion in Public Life

Montserrat Gas-Aixendri is a Full Professor of Law and Religion at Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain)

Today, the political, social and cultural context in which the question of religious freedom is posed has significantly changed. In the West, the different forms of religious affiliation affect in a new way the composition of personal identity, the interpretation of social ties and the pursuit of the common good in a structurally interreligious, intercultural and inter-ethnic social context. The International Theological Commission analyzes in the document “Religious Freedom for the Good of All”, the new challenges of religious freedom since the promulgation of the conciliar Declaration Dignitatis Humanae in 1965.

Two key aspects of this new scenario are (1) the interactions between the liberal democratic State and its idea of ​​religious neutrality; and (2) the social role of religious communities. Traditionally, the various forms of religious communities have been perceived socially as important factors of mediation between individuals and the State. Today the relevance of religious communities is compromised against the liberal-democratic model of the State and the techno-economic direction of civil society (para2).

State Neutrality versus Positive Secularism

The separation of the State from religion is rooted in Christian social thought, which distinguishes between civil and religious order, and rejects the theocratic approach, as well as attempts to instrumentalize political or religious power. The document complains the turn taken by the current liberal State—religiously, ethically and axiologically neutral—based on the formation of purely procedural rules of justice, and removing all ethical justification and all religious inspiration.

This model makes neutrality an ideology, imposing the marginalization of religious expression from the public sphere and considering religious affiliation as an obstacle to the admission of individuals to full cultural and political citizenship.Thus, religious communities and religious perspective would be excluded from full participation in the formation of democratic citizenship (para5).

The 2019 Declaration states that this concept of “neutrality” is not actually neutral, but is objectively discriminatory, because considers that only a civil culture that defines its humanism through the suppression of the religious component has legitimacy. It is a neutrality posed as a kind of “civil religion,” in the style of the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Within this civil religion, the State takes “a form of “secular parody”, redolent of a theocratic conception of religion” that “decides on “orthodoxy” and the “heresy” of freedom in the name of a political-salvific vision of the ideal society.” Thus, “political liberalism appears to be closely associated with the limitations of freedom regarding, word, thought, conscience, and religion” (para63).

The document explains the reasons of a just integration between the personal and community application of religious freedom, defending the humanizing role of religions, which provide basic ethical principles for the common good of all. Benedict XVI claimed a positive concept of secularism in the relationship between the political and religious spheres: the expression “positive secularism” designates an understanding of the State open to the contributions of the different religious communities.This proposal is based on the conviction “of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to—among other things—the creation of a basic ethical consensus in society.”

In his famous address to representatives of British society, pope Benedict XVI referred to the role of religions in public life, stating that the role of religion in political debate “is not to propose political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion … but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.”

It is not a question of imposing “confessional values” in the public square, but of contributing to the protection of a common good that does not lose sight of the binding reference of the public sphere to the dignity of human person and human conviviality. The reality of social pluralism cannot mean giving up to the protection of ethical requirements for the common good. In fact, the elimination of religion from public debate has as a consequence for individuals: the renunciation of their freedom of conscience and religious expression (para. 65).

This concept of positive secularism has also been recognized in secular instances. In Spain, the Constitutional Court recognizes religion as a social factor that is part of the common good, as worthy of support as culture or sport can be[1]. Thus, a model of secularism is proposed that is not indifferent or impervious to religion, but requires from the public powers a positive, welfare or benefit attitude that, in the case of the Spanish Constitution, includes a commitment to cooperate with religious confessions[2]. This in no way means that the State imposes a religious ethic on all citizens. Rather, it is about being open to facilitating the legitimate participation of religious groups in the common good.

The role of religions in society

Religions do not constitute a “subculture”, as a certain secularism might suggest. Rather, they are a precious gift of God for all. And religious freedom is a “basic guarantee of every expression of freedom. It is a defense against totalitarianism and a decisive contribution for human brotherhood” (para.26).

When thinking about the role of religions in building social peace, it is necessary to go beyond the simplistic idea that religion is always good, but also the opposite. The political authority has the duty to safeguard public order and must defend citizens against sectarian drifts of certain religious statements (psychological manipulation, economic and political exploitation, isolationism, etc.) (para.70). But, at the same time it must be recognized that religious communities are capable of promoting the transcendent reasons and humanistic values ​​of coexistence, and are therefore a principle of vitality to unite the human family (para.68).

The positive role of religions in social development is connected to the full recognition of theright to religious freedom. Pope Francis powerfully asserts that our witness to God benefits our societies. And the deprivation of religious freedom ends up trampling on the dignity of men and women and the deprivation of their rights (Fratelli tutti, para. 274).


The protection of religious freedom and social peace presupposes a state that not only develops logic of reciprocal cooperation between religious communities and civil society, but is also capable of creating a culture open to religion. Civic culture must overcome the prejudice of a vision of religion that is purely emotional or ideological. Religion in its turn, must seek to explain clearly its own vision of the conviviality of peoples (para.7).

The principle of neutrality of the State constitutes a guarantee so that religion is not exploited by the political power; at the same time, this principle protects the legitimate autonomy of religious communities. However, the secular State must actively cooperate and promote a constructive dialogue between the public powers and religious organizations. It is also necessary to recognize the various groups (without excluding religious ones), the full right of participation in public decisions. To build a more democratic and plural society, it is necessary to create an open space in which all voices can be heard. A secular state must generate at all levels—state, regional, local—spaces for coexistence and participation in freedom, from which religious groups should not be excluded[3].

In the current debate on secularism, the recognition of the legitimacy of the proposals of public ethics from religious confessions is at stake, as opposed to secularism that excludes an ethic in public life connected with religious principles. That is why “the world of reason and the world of faith—the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief—need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization”.

[1] In this sense, see the Judgement of the Spanish Constitutional Court N. 46, 15 February 2001.

[2] Art. 16.3 of the Constitution of Spain: “There shall be no State religion. The public authorities shall take the religious beliefs of Spanish society into account and shall consequently maintain appropriate cooperation with the Catholic Church and the other confessions”.

[3] N. Iglesias Schneider, Religión y participación social, Ministerio de Desarrollo Social, Montevideo 2013, pp. 23 ss.

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