Do All Religions Deserve Respect?

The Obama administration’s war on Catholics will continue into 2014 as many courageous Catholic institutions in the U.S. maintain their resistance to its encroachment on their religious freedom through the H.H.S. mandate. In light of this, we can expect that the public debate about religious freedom will also continue into the new year both inside and outside the Church.

A reflection on how we should argue for religious freedom is, therefore, in order. Not legal arguments but arguments of a more general sort will be the focus of this essay, although my comments may not be irrelevant to legal questions. Part of knowing how we should argue for religious freedom (or anything really) involves knowing how we should not argue for it. The following remarks will suggest how not to argue for religious liberty based especially on a close reading of Dignitatis Humanae promulgated by the Second Vatican Council.

Do All Religions Deserve Respect?
A sound argument for religious freedom would not claim that all religions have a right to equal respect. Any argument that included a similar premise would be unsound and rightly ridiculed. Let us call this kind of argument for religious freedom a “universalist argument” since it says that all religions should be treated equally. Although a universalist argument for religious freedom might in many situations appear expedient, when truth is subordinated to apologetics the long-term effects (and often the short-term ones) can be quite harmful.

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But would any Catholic be tempted to make a universalist argument for religious freedom? A certain reading of Vatican II’s teaching on religious freedom in the declaration Dignitatis Humanae might influence Catholics to take this path. Some Catholic authors at times give the impression that Dignitatis Humanae teaches that all religions, Christian and non-Christian, have an equal civil right publicly to practice and teach their beliefs in any political regime and that this position is what sets Dignitatis Humanae apart from pre-conciliar teaching on religious freedom. But this is surely a distortion of the document’s content and an attentive reading would disclose much more continuity with prior Church teaching (which, as is well-known, positively opposed the universalist view) than is sometimes supposed.

Dignitatis Humanae sees the right to religious freedom as rooted in the human person himself, who, if he is to know truth, including the truth about God, must be at liberty to seek and adhere to it. In light of this, Dignitatis Humanae teaches a twofold freedom of religion: not only does it declare the human person’s right to follow his conscience in pursuing the truth about God, it also declares a right to public manifestations of religion. “Religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honor the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.” And again: “Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word.”

Despite statements like those above, limits to religious freedom are noted throughout Dignitatis Humanae. Comments about the state’s obligation to permit religious freedom are regularly qualified by phrases such as “within due limits” and “provided just public order is observed.” So, although some of the more categorically framed statements about religious freedom in Dignitatis Humanae might appear to be in tension with these qualifications, you certainly cannot fault the document for failing to mention (as it repeatedly does) the limits of religious freedom.

But what sort of religious practices or teachings might reasonably lead a government to impose restrictions? Acts of unjust violence committed in the name of religion and teachings that clearly promote such violence are a fairly easy case. No one would hesitate to say that the “due limits” to religious freedom about which Dignitatis Humanae speaks apply here, for the disruption this violence causes just public order is obvious. A much more difficult—and certainly delicate—case to consider with respect to Vatican II’s teaching has to do with the non-violent practice and teaching of false or defective religions. Does the Council think that this cannot be restricted by the state?

When Religious Freedom Can Be Restricted
In the Catholic tradition religion is considered a moral virtue falling under justice. This understanding of religion can be found, for instance, in Aquinas and, more recently, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For Aquinas, religion is fundamentally rendering the true God the honor that is due him. The Catechism sees the moral virtue of religion in a similar way.

As with all virtues, religion has corresponding vices. According to Aquinas, the opposite of religion is superstition, the offering of worship to whomever or whatever does not deserve it. Idolatry, for Aquinas, is a species of superstition. The Catechism too treats the vices of superstition and idolatry, although what Aquinas says about these appears to be dealt with in the Catechism solely under the heading of idolatry. Idolaters, the Catechism tells us, “venerate other divinities than the one true God.”

If religion as a moral virtue honors the one true God, then religions that do not are not truly religions or could justly be called false or defective religions. This is not to say that they contain no elements of truth. It is rather to say that their orthodox practice and teaching, taken as a whole and objectively considered, do not lead to God. To follow or promote religions of this sort would be to act against the moral law. This consideration evidently raises more and deeper problems for religious freedom.

What does Dignitatis Humanae tell us about all of this? Unfortunately, it is a subject that the document addresses only obliquely. But I think it can still offer some guidance. At the beginning of the document the Council fathers announce their “belief that God himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness.” And they then go on to say: “We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men.” If the one true religion subsists in the Catholic Church, then logically we are put in the uncomfortable position—uncomfortable, that is, in our age of ecumenism—of inferring that religions other than the Catholic are false. The Council does not say so much and it would have gone against its general tenor, but it is an inescapable conclusion.

One of the places in which Dignitatis Humanae comes closest to mentioning false religions expressly is when it says that the right to immunity from coercion “continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.” If we can take this line to be about false religions—and it seems that we reasonably can—then, given the qualification that punctuates it, plainly the Council does not advocate that states allow false religions complete freedom of public practice and teaching in all circumstances.

But there is more. The Council fathers also have this to say: “Civil society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion. It is the special duty of government to provide this protection. However, government is not to act in an arbitrary fashion or in an unfair spirit of partisanship. Its action is to be controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order.” For our purposes the first and the last lines are the most important. The first possibly signals again an awareness of the problems that might be caused by false religion. The last tells us that government should be guided in its actions by the “objective moral order.” But if false religions run contrary to objective moral order—as they must if they are moral vices, as we have observed—then, in principle, only prudent toleration could prevent legislation against them. In other words, there is no absolute right to follow and teach a false religion. By “absolute right” I mean one that cannot in any circumstances be legitimately violated. An “absolute right” would be a right that accrues to us simply by virtue of being human persons. You could call it a “human” or “natural right.” Such a right would transcend all cultures and political communities, requiring recognition by all. That can not be true for adherents of false religion.

If false religion is a moral vice, plainly no one has any natural right to practice it, for no one can have a right to do evil. Were there a natural right to do evil, there could not be a natural moral law that bound us to do good. We certainly are not naturally bound to do good if we have a natural right to do evil.

On the Prudential Toleration of False Religion
Obviously, to say that no one has a natural right to vice does not imply anything about whether a given vice should or should not be publicly tolerated. The public toleration of vices is largely a question of prudence, not something that can always be decided in the abstract. Still a good rule of thumb, as Aquinas advises, is “not to impose on the majority of citizens, who will usually be imperfect in virtue, what is already practiced by the virtuous citizens, namely, abstinence from all evil.” So, human law, as Aquinas again suggests, should not “forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grave ones, from which most of the people can abstain, especially those that harm others.”

If Dignitatis Humanae can be interpreted as recognizing any rights of false religions, they could not be natural rights in the above sense but rights of a weaker sort, rights that a given social and political context would seem to call for. In a pluralistic society such as the contemporary U.S., for example, it may be best to allow most peaceful religions freedom to practice and teach publicly. Yet, I would add that the various Christian traditions should be especially honored in this country, given the essential role they have had in shaping the positive dimensions of the American ethos. And Judaism should likewise be particularly honored as a formative influence on these Christian traditions.

In sum, a Catholic argument for religious freedom cannot include among its premises a proposition to the effect that all religions have a right to equal respect. In other words, a Catholic argument for religious freedom cannot be a universalist argument. Indeed, as we should now realize, a universalist argument would be at odds with Dignitatis Humanae. Certain hermeneuts of discontinuity might prefer to read the document as revolutionary with respect to pre-conciliar teaching on religious freedom but the document itself does not support that reading.


  • Joseph G. Trabbic

    Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and is the assistant editor of, a website for the academic study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Trabbic earned his doctorate from Fordham University in 2008.

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