The president of the Pontifical Council for Culture cautioned that both “direct and indirect religious persecution” is growing in many areas of the world, even in democratic nations.
In remarks addressed to the TEDx conference on religious freedom held April 19 in the Vatican, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi lamented “the tragic and painful lack of religious liberty in different parts of the world today.”
In the modern “globalized world,” where various cultures and religions intermingle, “religious liberty is not a luxury...but an imperative imposed on modern society for congenial living and progress,” he said.
The cardinal pointed to St. Peter’s statement before the Sanhedrin in the Acts of the Apostles: “We must obey God rather than men.” This principle of “conscience as the primary law” provides the foundation for Catholic teaching, he said.
“The true basis of religious freedom lies in man’s endowment as a person, his dignity which is prior and superior to governments and civil laws,” he explained, noting that government therefore does not “grant” the right to religious freedom, but simply recognizes and protects it.
“The basis of a peaceful and harmonious society is respect for the human person,” he said, and this “demands protection of the quest of each human being for higher values and greater aspiration, which very often are embodied in religious beliefs.”
The United Nations also acknowledges this principle, he observed, citing the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which defends “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including the right of each person “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Cardinal Ravasi explained that there are two aspects of religious freedom: the individual “liberty of conscience” and the “liberty of corporate worship,” which includes “fellowship, association and organization” in order to carry out “preaching and evangelization,” as well as “the expression of conscience in social service.”
However, he said, in many parts of the globe, “religious liberty is suppressed, impeded or restricted in different ways and for various reasons.”
Recent studies have indicated that some 75 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high levels of religious restriction.
These restrictions “take various forms,” the cardinal noted, explaining that some countries face “open persecution” of religion, and believers are risking their freedom and sometimes their very lives to practice their faith.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issues an annual report on some of the ways that religious freedom is oppressed throughout the world. These include government censorship of religious activities, suppression of house churches and private worship, anti-blasphemy laws and a failure to protect religious minorities against targeted violence and intimidation.
These restrictions are troubling, Cardinal Ravasi said. However, there is also a growing problem of less conspicuous religious infringements in democratic countries.
He cited a report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that restrictions on religion have increased “not only in countries known for their lack of religious freedom, but also in many countries with a good record.”
“In fact, in modern democratic countries there are also very subtle methods for impinging on religious liberty,” he explained.
As an example, he pointed to efforts to require medical workers to participate in abortions against their religious beliefs, as well as mandates such as the one in the United States that “force religious organizations to pay for free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs in their employee health care plans.”
These restrictions on religious freedom, the cardinal asserted, “are not simply legal or political issues but a direct outrage on the human dignity of persons.”
Such infringements on religious liberty must be swiftly corrected, he urged, and governments should protect the right of believers to practice their faith free from coercion, recognizing that “religion is a fundamental human right and has intrinsic value.”
“Liberty will be at risk unless we are vigilant,” Cardinal Ravasi warned, stressing the importance of imprinting the value of religious freedom “in the hearts and minds of the younger generations.”
This is particularly important in our modern multicultural world, he said, where “religious liberty is not an option but a necessity.”