The Church, Freedom, and Hate Crimes
Next year, 2022, will mark a Golden Anniversary for the Faith Movement. When the Movement was founded in 1972, the Church was wrestling with the confusion of the immediate post-Vatican II era.
No one in the West, then, knew much about Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, or recognised the significance of the part he had played in what had been a major issue at Vatican II and would be one of the most important issues for the future – the emphasis on religious freedom and on truth. He was not known in Britain at all and rarely, if ever, got a mention in Britain’s Catholic press or the secular media. Enthusiasms were focused elsewhere. The Catholic Left was veering towards Liberation Theology, and angry booklets and fringe pamphleteers of the far Right included stories – does anyone remember this? – that Paul VI was an impostor (you could tell, it was announced, by looking carefully at his ears) and that the real Pope was imprisoned in a Vatican dungeon…
Religious freedom, for people in the West, did not seem to be an issue at all in the 1970s.
No one specifically felt that the Church was a voice for freedom, or that she needed to be: it was simply assumed that if a Chris tian – especially one holding public office
– wanted to speak out on a topical issue, that was normal. The Church had, perhaps, something of a reputation for having at one time been more on the side of seeking to silence debates rather than to encourage them. But it was also recognised, certainly in Britain, that this had changed: The Catholicism that was revived in the 19th century in what Cardinal John Henry Newman described as a ‘Second Spring’ did not have or seek the power to urge secular author ities to punish heresy by burning people, but instead was opening up new debates in new ways.
In fact, the Church was developing a new role that of authentic champion of freedom, and Newman’s words and inspiration were at the core of this.
At the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Wojtyla spoke with deep philosophical and theological insights, and with the practical knowledge drawn from his experience in Poland, about the importance of religious freedom. He saw it as linked to truth. God created man to seek truth. God reaches out to man – we do not need to seek truth through a fog of ignorance, for God wills to make Himself known and loved. This is because He loved us first – our search for truth is in fact our response, whether we are at first aware of this or not, to His reaching out to us. Therefore, the truth is not something that needs to be imposed, for example, by the authority of a national legislature.
Coercion in religious matters denies the reality of truth.
The Church requires only freedom under the law and, in speaking out for this and defending religious freedom, she speaks for human dignity and for the reality of what it means to be human. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church would later put it, citing Vatican II’s Dignitatas Humanae, religious liberty is “a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e. immunity, within just limits, from external constraints in religious matters by political authorities”.1 It is not just for Catholics: it extends even to those “who do not live up to their obligation of seeking truth and adhering to it”.2
It was powerful stuff, and it was annoying to the Communist rulers of Eastern Europe because it tackled the question of religious freedom at a spiritual level. They could no longer depict the Church as simply protecting its own space or its social or economic power. Archbishop Wojtyla’s approach placed the Church on the side of those who sought truth for truth’s own sake, who struggled and debated and stretched the boundaries of discussions. The Communist sloganizing since 1917 had rested on the notion that the Church crushed debate, imposed lockdowns on people’s legitimate enquiries into the deep meaning of things, and fossilised all discussion.
But at Vatican II and subsequently he had, in fact, been prophetic, and his particular emphasis – opposing all forms of coercion in religion, seeing the Church as a voice for freedom and identifying freedom as an essential part of man’s dignity – gave Christians a new way of approaching all of this, which is now exactly what we need. We can speak with authority and confidence.
Today John Paul is revered and loved as a saint. His emphasis on religious freedom needs to be seen not just as an attractive and heart-warming notion, but as a powerful statement of truth about the human person, created in God’s image. We are made to seek truth in freedom, coercion in spiritual matters is wrong, and all
of this is the basis on which a healthy and thriving society can be achieved.
In the 1980s, some in the West who watched developments in Eastern Europe were mildly patronising about the role played by Christianity in the unravelling of the Communist empire. It was acknowledged that Poles were Catholics and that this was naturally a focus for them, but the full relevance of this was not grasped. The Church’s power seemed unimportant because it lived in people’s courage, not in political structures.
We in the West are facing threats to our freedom now, threats that were foreseen by John Paul II and also by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, who famously spoke of the dangers of a “dictatorship of relativism”. The Church, as custodian of truth, upholds the duty of human beings to affirm and teach truth, and not to submit to accepting that it cannot be found or perhaps should not even be sought.
As 2021 opened, a campaigning group calling itself “Humanists UK” denounced the appointment of a Member of Parliament, Fiona Bruce, as the Prime Minister’s new Special Envoy on the Human Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief, because she is an opponent of same-sex marriage. She voted against the idea that the law should re-invent marriage to make it the union of any two people including those of the same sex. “Humanists UK” claim that in some way Mrs Bruce has offended against human rights, and seem to be opposed to her being allowed to make her own contribution, as a Member of Parliament, on the legal status of marriage. They do this while officially claiming that they support the right of every person to “speak and believe as they wish”. It’s a right they evidently do not think should be extended to Mrs Bruce.
This is a matter of human dignity. The attack on Mrs Bruce is not an isolated incident. Today it is the case that an expression of support for marriage as the union of a man and a woman, or an exploration of the truth about the biological differences between men and women, could be denounced as a “hate crime” and bring real problems for the person who has spoken. Legislation in Scotland is not the only concern – there is also the possibility of being randomly “silenced” with a web page deleted on the internet or of an organisation being denied the right to hire premises or to gather people in a public space. We must be confident, large-minded, and robust when we speak up for Christian truth, and reach out in new ways to people who are actually hungry for the truth and will respond well
if they are offered it in a way that attracts. We might remember the motto of St John Henry Newman – often described as the father of Vatican II – Cor ad Cor Loquitor: Heart speaks to heart.
A language for defending freedom
The Church has, thanks to Vatican II and St John Paul, a language with which to defend freedom – her own and that of people generally. We must use this language. Her children have the right and privilege of speaking with her voice – it is a voice that rings through the history of our country and of the West generally. We claim this as part of our common humanity and we also hold up our schools – and indeed the foundation of our country’s great universities, our care for the poor and the ill and the marginalised, our glorious traditions in art and music and architecture and so much else – as the heritage that we nurture and to which we add year by year for the good of all. Christians have a right to teach and to preach, to speak out and to celebrate the truth that has been revealed to us by God. We add, too, that this heritage includes martyrdom, understood as witnessing to the truth even at the cost of life itself. That, too, rests on a saying popularised by St John Paul and rooted in the words of Christ himself: “Do not be afraid!”