The threats to Freedom of Religion, Conference by G. Puppinck in the Vatican

The threats to Freedom of Religion

By Grégor Puppinck1491983016555

An international conference, entitled “Prospects for service to integral human development: fifty years since Populorum Progressio”, was held on the 3rd and 4th of April in the Holy See for the 50th anniversary of the "Populorum Progressio" encyclical and for the creation of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Grégor Puppinck, director of the ECLJ intervened on the theme of “freedom of conscience and religion, a fundamental human right in the perspective of integral human development” in front of more than 300 people.

Numerous personalities came from worldwide to take part in this event. Cardinal Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery, and Cardinal Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as the French Mgr D’Ornellas and Fabrice Hadjadj were there.


H.E. Mgr Silvio Tomasi, Secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. 


Hereafter is the text of Dr Puppinck’s intervention.




Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is an honour to be able to express myself in front of you today. I would like to particularly thank His Eminence cardinal Turkson as well as His Excellency Monsignor Tomasi.

I have been working for numerous years on the defence of freedom for Christians and Church in particular in Strasbourg, with the European Court of Human Rights, at the OSCE within the panel of experts on freedom of conscience or religion and in Geneva at the United-Nations. It allowed me to work on the different aspects of freedom of conscience and religion.


Based on this experience, I hope I will be able to bring you some useful reflection.

Preparing this conference. I have decided to tell you what I think is important for the future of freedom of conscience and religion, beyond the usual consensual speech.


I will start with a quick reminder of the place of freedom of conscience and religion within Human Rights.

Human Rights protect the exercise of the abilities through which man is a man, though which he becomes human, lives and improves. They are a development of the natural moral law and guarantee people the ability to answer their natural tendencies as a being-alive-social and spiritual. These rights guarantee everyone the ability to keep and give life, to live in society and to look for the truth. This is the heart of the fundamental rights of the human being: a legal translation of the natural moral law, with the underpinning idea that the person takes precedence over society. Among these rights and freedoms, religious freedom is of particular importance. It is often defined as the “cornerstone” of the human rights, for it protects the very origin of dignity and human rights: the privilege of human nature, our opening to the transcendent.

Freedom of religion has a conflictual past, both on practical and theoretical grounds, and even on the theological one. I think that freedom of conscience and religion is under threat again in numerous regions of the world and that the Church can answer these threats.


Freedom of conscience and religion is threatened because the social conditions necessary to its proper comprehension are hardly met. I would like to say a few words on these preliminary necessary conditions.

There are practical and theoretical conditions.


The practical dimension of freedom of conscience and religion

The first condition to preserving freedom of conscience and of religion is practical; it is the most important one. It is that of keeping in the society the memory and horror of religious persecutions.

Before any theoretical consideration and controversy, freedom of conscience and religion finds its true strength in the rejection of violence. In 1648, it was after a war of 30 years that a religious freedom was accepted in Europe.

Three centuries later, in 1948, it is also after a war and in the context of the soviet persecutions that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted. The memory of the dead and the rejection of totalitarianism were the best arguments to adopt this declaration and to recognize the right to freedom of conscience and religion.

Freedom of conscience and religion is first and foremost a freedom that is a practical issue and aims at social peace. It relies less on strict justice than on tolerance and dialogue.

Nowadays, new persecutions are committed massively under our eyes; they do not only constitute serious violations of human rights but the indifference that is seen in some countries as regards the sufferings of people persecuted because of their religion is a bad omen for the future and testifies of a weakening of the social importance of the freedom of conscience and religion.


Another threat is theoretical: it is just as deep and aims the very legitimacy of the freedom of conscience and religion. Numerous people would like to reduce this freedom, for fail to remove it from the Human Rights.


An old dispute against this freedom comes from religious and/or totalitarian backgrounds and societies, which do not conceive individual freedom as making it possible for a person to legitimately allow her to refuse to accept or be submitted to her Creator or to the State. This argument is old and well known; I shall not insist on it today.


I wish to insist on another dispute, antireligious this one, of the freedom of conscience and religion, which rises more and more within the Western countries. This dispute is a phenomenon whose extend is quite new.



Nowadays, one can perceive a will among people who are opposed to religion, to say things clearly, to go as far as disputing the very raison d’être of the freedom of conscience and religion. They reproach it to be a privilege offered to some and allowing them to escape the application of common law. They would want to dilute this freedom in the other freedoms: freedoms of opinion, expression, association and teaching would be enough, they say, to guarantee freedom of conscience and religion. There would be no need, in practice, to give a privileged protection to people and groups who believe in God and perceive natural moral. Moreover, the development of the principle of non-discrimination which prohibit between others the differences of treatment because of religion or convictions guarantees in principle the equality of believers.

Indeed, the protection offered by the combination of existing rights and freedoms is enough to guarantee freedom of conscience and religion, if one has an immanent, and not transcendent conception of God and moral.

In societies marked by secularisation and relativism, the question of the raison d’être of the freedom of conscience and religion is asked again. Not only is this freedom absurd in such societies, and is at the best a tolerance, but it is the tolerance of an “anti-freedom” and of a privilege sometimes perceived as a cause of social disorder contrary to the common good.


From a Christian point of view, we could also wonder, for, contrary to what we were lead to believe or desire, guarantying freedom is not enough to ensure the triumph of truth. Generally, it is not enough to guarantee freedom of conscience and religion for people to discover by themselves the truth and concur with it.


Right to autonomy v. right to heteronomy

Another threat: the freedom of conscience and religion is in competition with the right to autonomy, also called right to selfdetermination.

The subjectivist individualism of the Western society carries, by definition, an immanent conception of moral and divinity. This subjectivist conception fits the conceptual and legal frame of the new right “to autonomy”, issued of the right to respect for the private life.

This right to selfdetermination is opposed to the right to freedom of conscience and religion, which is a right to heterodetermination to heteronomy: a right to comply with a superior order. The right to autonomy spreads considerably to cover numerous fields of life; it is often associated with the principle of secularism of which it constitutes a form of implementation on the individual level.

The question of the prohibition of the wearing of religious items, such as the Islamic veil, in public gives an example of the rejection of heteronomy for autonomy: during the debates in France, the question was less on the veil itself than on the question of whether women were autonomous or submitted to an external norm. It is because the veil is religious that it is suspected to be contrary to freedom. It is in the name of women’s autonomy that religious freedom was sacrificed.

Freedom of conscience and religion risks to be progressively erased by the right to autonomy, for, without God, there is no external telos, end, to which one can order oneself and hence draw moral norms from it. Hence the social negation of God and of moral will end into making freedom of conscience and religion a mere modality of autonomy, depriving from protection the religious and moral need to order oneself to a good that exceeds the individual and the society.


Hence, concretely, one of the conditions to defend freedom of conscience and religion is to assert that this freedom does not find its cause only in the individual, but also and foremost in God and in the universal moral sense that imposes itself to conscience.


Rejection of the exteriorisation of religion and moral

Another point. We are currently experiencing a rising rejection of external manifestations of religion and conscience. Religion has often become a stranger in our Western society, and that applies twice as much for that of foreigners.

This social rejection aims precisely the exteriorisation of religion and moral and forces people to lock these within the relativism of their subjectivity. Western society barely stands the exteriorisation of the divine and natural law, for that exteriorisation testifies of its objectivity.


An answer consists in testifying not only of the transcendence of the human spirit, but also and in particular of the externality, namely of the objectivity of nature, of the divine law and of the moral law. The sufferings and sacrifices endured by conscientious objectors and by all those who testify of their faith make the reality and value of God and moral perceptible.[1]


Objectivity or externality is the cause of heteronomy, contrary to the trancendance of the spirit, the latter liking to give itself its own norms, as an expression, by the bye, of its transcendence.

Concretely, an answer is to defend the specific object of freedom of conscience and religion that is heteronomy, the ability to conform to moral and religious convictions prescribed by our conscience: it is the heteronomy that results from the objectivity of moral, and the heteronomy of religion which results from the objectivity of the revelation.[2]


A necessary prerequisite is to affirm the epistemological legitimacy of religion, asking the contemporary society to have the honesty to recognize the limits of the scientific knowledge and its inability to answer the question of the existence of God.


The refusal of incarnation

The refusal of the objectivity or of the externality is first a refusal of incarnation, a refusal of the incarnation of the soul and of God. We are indeed here in the theme of this session regarding the “body–soul” relation. Against subjectivism, which disembodies the person in reducing her to the individual will, one of the answers consists in incarnating moral and religion. It implies to not reduce religion to spirituality, nor moral to moralism.

Incarnation takes the form of valuing the social dimension of religion, of liturgy, of the external and collective forms of piety, by the public testimony of Christians.

Incarnating is first rooting conscience and religion as much as possible in reality. In the contemporary world of cyberspace and all-powerful will, reality has become our shelter; this is the reason why a practical approach more than a theoretical one is safer as regards freedom of conscience and religion, and that it is necessary to avoid using some concepts excessively.

Hence it is better to insist on the diversity of religions and to speak about the plural “religions” than to use the singular “religion” which covers far too different realities for them to be treated identically, in practice. Likewise, it is better to talk of “freedom of consciences”, a wording that is sometimes found in the Magisterium, than to speak of “freedom of conscience” (singular).

The incarnation is the properly Christian answer to subjectivism; the modern individual is a disembodied person ignoring the soul and mistaking spirituality with the will and rejection of matter. It is important to distinguish the soul, which is received, incarnated, from the spirit, which, for the contemporary world, leaves the flesh and opposes it. From the point of view of the spirit, the body would be a prison, while, for the soul, it is a temple. This is why one must avoid reducing the protection of freedom of conscience and religion to the sole “spiritual life”, but remind that it first relies on “religious and moral life”. The modern contemporary world does not ignore the spiritual dimension of the person. What it refuses is religion and moral as submissions.


Confusion between conscience and religion

Another threat against the intelligibility of freedom of conscience and religion is the confusion between conscience and religion. This freedom protects both and indistinctively conscience and religion, which fuels the confusion between religion and moral. This confusion is detrimental to moral, which risks to lose its own objectivity because of the confusion with irrational religious beliefs. If moral conscience is not recognised within its specificity, the very possibility of justice is jeopardised.


Consciences and nature

Another source of difficulty that is to come for consciences concerns our relationship to nature.

Nature is losing its natural moral authority as man widens its grasp on it. The idea of respect of nature is not enough anymore to prohibit a practice. Hence the refusal de take part in “unnatural” practices has no value anymore as soon as nature is supposed to be deprived of wisdom and entirely submitted to man’s grasp.

The objectors to some biotechnologies or to unions between people of same sex will have trouble establishing the rationality of the conviction at the heart of their objection and will often be considered religious and irrational objectors.

Once again, the answer consists in reminding that nature is received, that it is good. The incarnation of the soul and of Christ testify of the dignity of nature and matter.


To conclude, while the modern world separates and opposes the soul and the body, while it separates and opposes faith and reason, while the world disembodies man to reduce him to his sole will, it is the duty of Christians to rehumanise individuals, to restore people in reuniting body and soul, faith and reason, and in giving them their future back, the supernatural perspective of beatitude which is the sense and aim of the full human development.


 [1] It is legitimate, but not enough, to defend the ascendant movement through which the individual transcends himself, for this movement can be but subjective; it is more important to defend the descending movement through which nature, moral law and religion are made present to man through giving him his aim and the means to aim at it. In this descending movement, man is raised up by someone higher than him, while in the ascendant movement, it is man that tries –helplessly– to raise himself up.

[2] A legal translation could be to keep Freedom of Conscience and Religion to the protection of heteronomy, and to protect the freedom of atheists in the sole ambit of the protection of individual autonomy.


Translation by BMG

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