Francis Inspires Religious Freedom, But Challenges Within the Church Remain

by vaughn_admin  //  

July 19, 2016

This post was written as a response to Nicholas Fedyk’s previous post, “Pope Francis and the Power of Ideas,” which can be found here.

By: Paul Elie

A few weeks ago, several dozen of us Georgetown faculty members and students met in the large conference room at the Berkley Center and watched Pope Francis’s address to a joint session of Congress. A lively discussion followed, although I was forced to duck in and out to reply to a raft of messages that came in after Francis put forward Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton—protagonists of my first bookThe Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage—as “representative Americans” in their striving for the common good. 

Now the Religious Freedom Project’s Nicholas Fedyk and I are picking up a thread of that day’s conversation and trying to carry it forward. On Cornerstone, Nick has posted a piece about the so-called “Francis effect” in world politics, and here I am following through with a reply.   

Taking off from Stalin’s famous quip—“How many divisions has the Pope of Rome?”—Nick cites Francis’s charisma and moral authority among world leaders to suggest how profoundly the political order has changed since Stalin’s time. Under John Paul II, and now under Francis, he declares, “The Church is eagerly reasserting its role in world affairs. Defying realist calculations of power, it relies on the force of ideas, not army divisions.”    

In particular, these popes have played the role of advocate for the idea of the common good and the idea of human dignity that underlies it:

“Constructivists have argued for the power and salience of norms for decades, including the value of human dignity. Many scholars, in fact, partially attribute the fall of the communism in Eastern Europe and Latin America to the dynamic leadership of John Paul II. More support for the common good lies in the increasing push for humanitarian action, which is spelled out in numerous international treaties and has formed the basis for a number of interventions—most notably in Kosovo, Libya, and Syria. There is a solidifying norm against the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. States are even making efforts to limit emissions and industrial waste. All of these examples suggest that states may share an awareness of the common good.”

Nick goes on to emphasize their role as advocates of religious freedom, and it’s in this that I think there’s a further point to be made.   

“How many divisions has the pope of Rome?” Stalin asked. The implied answer was, and is, “None.” Obviously, the Pope and the Church have something else. What it has, Nick rightly suggests, are ideas.     

So far, so good. But the power of its ideas derives from the fact that they are affirmed freely by well more than a billion people through countless individual acts of faith, conscience, and discernment. Francis, and the Church he leads, commands respect precisely to the degree that people bind themselves to the community of faith freely, without coercion, out of no state, ethnic, or other obligation—called there by an inner disposition (a movement of the spirit, if you will) that in the end it falls to them to discern and meet in response.     

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship to the emerging idea of religious freedom is checkered at best—and this must be kept in mind always as Catholics take the lead in campaigns for religious freedom. So must the fact that in the Church’s recent history in this country—I mean the crisis of priestly sexual abuse and the cover-up by the bishops—church officials have used the idea of religious freedom as a means to evade public scrutiny, to duck pastoral and legal responsibility, and to resist censure and prosecution.    

So must the fact—clear from recent history in Western Europe—that people in free societies are free to change their religious “elective affinities” at any time and for any reason, and that many do so. In Western Europe, for example, two world wars and the sense that religion was, at best, ineffectual in ameliorating them and, at worst, a covert sponsor of the conflict, led tens of millions of Western Europeans to stand aside from the religious ideas that had animated Europe for a thousand years. This happened in a period when the Church in Europe enjoyed the very prerogatives of religious freedom—even religious domination—that are now said to be fatally imperiled in the United States.      

This truth, it seems to me, is the basis for an argument for greater freedom within religions—within the Roman Catholic Church, for example. It’s a commonplace that the Church is not a democracy. But what Francis has made clear, through his public statements and especially through his direction of the recent synod on the family, is that the Church is a community in which different people see things in different ways and that such freedom as the Church celebrates depends vitally on the ability of reasonable people to disagree, and then to discern the common good by reasoning together.       

In other words, the Church’s efforts for greater religious freedom in society depend on the integrity with which it allows and indeed sponsors reasonable disagreement internally as a means of discernment. Of course, there is a need for discipline and internal coherence, to a degree. But to what degree? Francis, with his profound appeal to Catholics and people of good will—people of distinctly different backgrounds and points of view—has left that question open, so that he and we, going forward, might answer it together. 

This piece was originally authored on November 2, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.