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).


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Böckenförde, Religious Freedom and the Open Neutrality of the State

Mirjam Künkler is a Research Professor at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study

Tine Stein is a Professor of Political Theory and History of Ideas at the University of Göttingen

Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde (1930-2019) was one of Europe’s leading thinkers on constitutional history, theory, and questions of Catholicism and public law. Incidentally, it is on the topics of religious freedom and individual conscience that he consolidated his profile as a proponent of inner-Catholic reform in the 1960s. As this blog series focuses on the 2019 Declaration Religious Freedom for the Good of All, issued by the International Theological Commission, a look back is in order at the document the Declaration is meant to update: Dignitatis Humanae, the 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom promulgated during the final days of the Second Vatican Council, which reversed the Church’s long-standing rejection of the legitimacy of the secular state.

Dignitatis Humanae and Catholic Shift in Justifying Religious Freedom: Böckenförde’s View

In 1962, as the Second Vatican Council got underway, Böckenförde published an article titled “Religious Freedom as a Mandate for Christians: A Jurist’s Thoughts on the Discussions of the Second Vatican Council”[1], written to inform the ongoing discussions of the Council. The laity of Catholics had long accepted living in secular-governed, non-Christian states, sharing equal citizenship with non-Catholics and non-believers. But Böckenförde pointed out from the viewpoint of the Catholic magisterium that such positions were still untenable. According to the magisterium, Catholics were still required to live in Christian states, not just nominally Christian-majority states, but states where political authority was Catholic and where Catholic norms were implemented by state authority.


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Religious Freedom and Ecclesial Illiberalism

Mikhail Antonov is a Professor of Law associated with the Law Faculty of the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg

Similar changes in the world today urge different religious denominations to respond similarly. In recent years it was not uncommon for the Catholic Church and the biggest Orthodox Church—the Russian Orthodox Church (the ROC), all their theological differences notwithstanding, to come to close conservative conclusions in the matters of church-state relations, human rights, religious freedom, and some other key problems of political and legal philosophy.

As their credos presuppose the Absolute—the source of absolute truths and values—it comes as no surprise that both churches demonstrate their distrust with ideas and conceptions based on religious pluralism and ethical relativism which are often associated with liberal democracy.


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