The Place of Religion in the Public Sphere: Speaking the Unspeakable

Andrea Pin is Associate Professor of Comparative Public Law, University of Padua,and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law & Religion Emory University

[S]ecular societies …, when confronted by the tragedies related to the mortal condition of human life, open public spaces for religious celebrations and the symbolic expression of truths. In the face of disasters that wound the civil community, the steadfastness of religious resistance to the nihilism of death appears to all as a fortress protecting the irreplaceable nature of humanity. Those affected in families and communities where justice seems inaccessible and human resources impotent do not lose hope. It is a hope that can only be assured by the justice and the love of the Creator. In such cases, the theme of man’s final destiny becomes also a public question.

Above is an excerpt from paragraph 47 of Religious Freedom for the Good of All – Theological Approaches and Contemporary Challenges, a document issued by the International Theological Commission of the Catholic Church in April 2019. It gets as close to prophesy as anything can.


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Neutrality and “Religious Freedom for the Good of All”

Jeremy Patrick is a Lecturer for the University of Southern Queensland School of Law and Justice

There are many laudable statements in “Religious Freedom for the Good of All.”  The document acknowledges the Church must exist in a pluralistic and multicultural society (para. 10), that individual freedom is the birthright of every human being (para. 37), that coercion is not a legitimate means of religious conversion (para. 41), that the existence of “intermediary bodies” (including religious associations) between the individual and the state is crucial for a well-functioning society (para. 52), and that the free exercise of religion should be limited only when the rights of others or the necessities of public order are infringed (para. 79).  These may not be new positions for the Catholic Church since 1965, but they certainly represent real progress in the Church’s understanding of religious freedom across its long (and in the document, carefully-elided) history (see, e.g., para. 27).

The irony is that they are all also quintessential elements of the self-professedly “neutral” secular liberal democratic state that is repeatedly castigated throughout the document. According to the document, the liberal state is (somehow) simultaneously indifferent to religion (and thus responsible for the rise of “religious radicalization”) but also actively hostile to religion (and thus responsible for a “soft totalitarianism”) (para. 4). The heart of the problem, we’re told repeatedly, is the false idol of state neutrality towards religion (para. 5, 62-65, and 86).


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Individualization of Religious Beliefs, Secularization and Religion-State Relations

A growing trend of religious life in contemporary Western societies is the number of religiously unaffiliated people (also known as “nones”). Some of them believe in nothing, but many others shape religious beliefs with their own, individual understanding of God, the world, and their place in it. They may have specific convictions of what their religion requires or can believe in dogmas of different religions simultaneously, practice spiritual meditation, or sacralize cultural phenomena or ideological concepts.

From a philosophical perspective, the individualization of religion challenges a wide-spread understanding of organized religion (where believers worship God in communion) as the main form of spiritual life. From a law and religion perspective, the questions are how the state should deal with such individualized religious beliefs. Should they be protected under the premises of religious freedom? How will individualization affect religion-state relations?


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