Pope Benedict XVI: A Witness to Religious Freedom

January 3, 2023

My wife Kristin and I named our six-year-old son, our first-born child, after Pope Benedict XVI. Years before the Holy Father died, we agreed that I would go, if possible, to his funeral. She is sacrificially shepherding our three young children without me so I can be at the Mass of Christian Burial in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on January 5.

There are many reasons why our family loves “Papa Benedict,” misses him, and has looked to him so much as a point of reference. The Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) is likewise grateful for his life — especially as a witness to religious freedom. RFI draws personnel and collaborators from different religious traditions. Yet we are held together by much of what bound the life of Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict.

“Truth in Charity” was more than the title of the third encyclical that Pope Benedict wrote. It exemplifies his seven decades as priest, bishop, cardinal, pope, and pope emeritus. He insisted that God is the source of truth and that truth is objective; accessible; reasonable; beautiful; and essential for authentic happiness, freedom, and flourishing. 

We should always conform our lives to truth, no matter the worldly cost or ideologies of the day, he exhorted. The “Declaration on Religious Freedom” of the Second Vatican Council, where then-Father Ratzinger was a theological advisor, speaks of the “duty, and therefore the right,” to follow conscience. That declaration, and his reflections on conscience — especially two addresses later published as the book On Conscience — underscore that conscience, correctly understood, presumes truth.

As a young German in the 1930s and 40s, Joseph Ratzinger saw what happens when secular ideology dominates: dehumanization, coercion, attacks on conscience, ascendent totalitarianism, and violence. Religion untethered from reason and respect for the intrinsic, God-given worth and dignity of every human person, can lead to the same effects, he later warned with a corresponding insistence that majority religions must fully protect the freedom of minority religions. However, over the years he rightly noted that worshiping and following the self — individually or collectively — instead of God, has been, is, and will be far more destructive.

Many people who engaged with the man over the years testify that he was always charitable with them. This included people from a range of faith traditions. One of his greatest legacies is modeling how to respect people, take their views seriously, and engage with their arguments — always firmly rooted in what he professed and in fraternity. This love for others radiated throughout his public life, well beyond these private encounters. Some people showed hate for him, often in sad, coarse ways, because he affirmed the truth about life, marriage, family, human sexuality, and the human person. To have such a global religious figure respond to loathing with love has served religious people, of all faith traditions, and religious freedom immeasurably.

Although religious freedom is inalienable to everyone, America’s patrimony of religious freedom is unique, and has advanced this fundamental human right for people around the world. In mid-April 2008, Pope Benedict made an apostolic journey to the United States. Throughout his stay, the pope spoke admiringly about the centrality of religion and religious freedom in the American story, most fully in his remarks on the South Lawn of the White House: 

From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the ‘self-evident truth’ that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations

May these same truths continue to animate people dedicated to exercising and advancing religious freedom in America and the world over. May our brother Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, rest in peace.  

Nathaniel Hurd, Director of RFI’s North America Action Team and Senior Fellow for Public Policy