previous arrow
next arrow

6 March 2023

In July 2022, foremost thought leaders on religious liberty gathered in Rome, Italy, for the Religious Liberty Summit organised by the University of Notre Dame. The unanimous observation of these experts is that religious freedom is under attack across the globe.

Samah Norquist, a fellow at the Wilson Centre in Washington, said that ‘Religious violence has risen to historic levels over the past decades affecting nearly all religious groups.’

‘Believers of nearly all faiths – Christians, Muslims and Jews, Buddhists, Yazidis, Baha’i – have faced discrimination, harassment, repression, and, of course, persecution by state and non-state actors, as well as ideological movements,’ he adds.

Indeed, the very concept of religious liberty is being lambasted by, for example, LGBT activists because it has been allegedly used as a legal tool by religious conservatives to discriminate against their community and trample upon their rights.

Yet religious liberty is enshrined in the constitutions of most countries in the world ever since the principle was promulgated by the United Nations nearly seventy years ago. This includes the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, where it is stated that ‘Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and to propagate it (Article 15).

In what is justifiably regarded as a milestone document in the history of human rights, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, enshrines religious liberty as a basic human right.

Article 18 of the UDHR states that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Although the UDHR tries scrupulously to be religiously neutral to ensure its inclusive nature, its view of human rights is profoundly rooted in the Judeo-Christian understanding of the human being and human relationality. After all, the chief architect of the document is the great Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian, Jacques Maritain.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated what remains to be the most important Christian statement on religious liberty in the modern post-war era, whose scope is truly ecumenical: Dignitatis Humanae (Of the Dignity of the Human Person).

Although DH is the shortest document of the Second Vatican Council, it was the most controversial, generating heated debates and undergoing several revisions before it was finally approved by the fathers of the Council.

However, the interesting and convoluted history of this document need not detain us. In what follows, I would like to briefly discuss the salient aspects of DH with an eye on its enduring relevance today, almost sixty years after it was promulgated.


DH begins with the fundamental principle which says that the dignity of the human person necessarily implies that human beings must be allowed to act in a way that is free from external coercion. This means that they should ‘act on their own judgement, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty’ [DH 1].

Freedom in human society, the Council insists, must mean ‘in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society’ [DH 1]. The Council therefore categorically declares that ‘the human person has the right to religious freedom’ [DH 2], thus underscoring the fact that religious freedom is a fundamental or basic right which all human beings, without exception, possess.

Religious freedom, the Council argues, is grounded in ‘the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself’ [DH 2]. The Council here stresses the basic truth that religious freedom is not only accessible by faith, but is also plainly evident to human reason.

By making human dignity the very foundation of religious freedom, the Council wishes to stress that the latter cannot be subjectivised – reduced to psychological states or personal preferences. ‘[T]he right to religious freedom,’ the Council asserts, ‘has its foundation not in subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature’ [DH 2].

Put differently, human freedom in general and religious freedom in particular has an ontological basis, grounded in the kind of creatures God has made human beings.

The freedom to exercise faith, the Council points out, is found in the way in which God himself relates to those whom he has made in his image. Although Scripture does not address the topic of religious freedom directly or explicitly,

it gives evidence of the respect which Christ showed toward the freedom with which man is to fulfil his duty of belief in the word of God and it gives us lessons in the spirit which disciples of such a Master ought to adopt and continually follow [DH 9].

Because the concept of religious freedom is thus firmly grounded in divine revelation, ‘Christians are bound to respect it all the more conscientiously’ [DH 9]. The Council states this dictum clearly and unequivocally thus: ‘It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is forced to embrace the Christian faith against his will’ [DH 10].


The Council stresses that truth is not something than can be imposed on anyone who is reluctant to receive it. Truth powerfully but non-violently convinces the mind to accept it for what it is – namely, that it is the truth. But it has to be accepted in good conscience or else it is not accepted at all.

This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power [DH 1].

In a similar vein, the search for the truth must be free and uncoerced. To be sure it can be guided by teaching and dialogue. But it should not – because it cannot – be forced.

Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order to assist one another in the quest for truth [DH 3].

One of the reasons why the Council saw the need to belabour this point is because in its history, the Church has not always understood this very well.

Even its most esteemed theologians such as Augustine (354-430), the bishop of Hippo, have provided (theological and moral) justifications for the use of force to convert pagans to the Christian faith.

Augustine thought that it was unjust for Christians not to coerce pagans into accepting Christianity because unbelievers would suffer eternal damnation as the consequence of their inaction. Augustine therefore thought that it is the moral duty of the Christian to force unbelievers to convert to Christianity. As the eminent philosopher and Augustine scholar John Rist explains:

[Augustine] thought that in certain circumstances it is not only unjust not to coerce (because the uncoerced will be injured precisely in being uncoerced), but also morally dangerous – and liable to incur the wrath of God – for the coercers if, possessing the power and apparent duty to coerce, they do not, in fact, coerce.

In stating so plainly that ‘man’s response to God must be free’ and that no one must be ‘forced to embrace the Christian faith against his will’, the Council is clearly stressing that the approach of the great Augustine – a theologian who is revered in the Latin Church – though noble, is in fact sorely mistaken!


DH signals a clear departure from the first Vatican Council’s position on the relationship between the Church and the State and between religion and politics. It advocates the separation of the Church from the State, and underscores the responsibility of the government in ensuring religious liberty in an increasingly plural world.

‘The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man ranks among the essential duties of the government. Therefore, government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, buy just laws and by other appropriate means’, it declares [DH 6].

The government must not favour any religion in particular over the others. Rather it is to ‘see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens’ [DH 6].

This applies to the government in Catholic countries as well, which must allow different faith communities to freely hold on to their beliefs and practice their religions as long as they do not break the law or disrupt public order. In fact, DH challenges governments to go even further and seek to create a conducive environment for these faith communities to thrive:

Government is also to help create conditions favourable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfil their religious duties … [DH 6].

The State or the government, however, should not interfere with the religious practices of the faith communities. This is an important aspect of religious liberty of communities which must not be stifled or hindered by external intrusions and dictates.

In relation to the Church, the government must – to use an expression associated with the Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder – ‘Let the Church be the Church!’ Thus, the Council declares that the ‘Church should enjoy that full measure of freedom which her care for the salvation of men requires’ [DH 13].

It elaborates on the freedom that the Church claims as her own thus:

In human society and in the face of government the Church claims freedom for herself in her character as spiritual authority, established by Christ the Lord, upon which there rests, by divine mandate, the duty of going out into the whole world and preaching the Gospel to every creature. The Church also claims freedom for herself in her character as a society of men who have the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith [DH 13].

Be that as it may, the Council recognises that religious freedom that is exercised in the context of human sociality must be subjected to regulatory norms. Thus, DH plainly states that

The right to religious freedom is exercised in human society: hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms. In the use of all freedoms the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed [DH 7].

In fact, the Council acknowledges that religious liberty can and has sometimes been abused by some as the basis for challenging the civil authorities. ‘[Not] a few can be found who seem inclined to use the name of freedom as the pretext for refusing to submit to authority and for making light of obedience’ [DH 7].

The Council here strikes the careful and delicate balance between rights and responsibility – a balance that is lost in the frenzied contemporary discourse which absolutizes rights.

These norms must never be established solely by the courts – however important laws on religious liberty may be – or by the government. They must be arrived at by the religious communities themselves, as they recognise how conflicting rights must be negotiated responsibly for the good of all parties.

In the instructive and pertinent words of the Council:

These norms arise out of the need for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care for genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality [DH 7].

The profound relevance of this document, promulgated more than fifty years ago, to our contemporary situation where religious liberty has become somewhat marginalised, and the contestation of rights has become more intense and toxic, is undeniable.

It continues to merit careful study by governments, society in general, religious communities, and of course, the Church.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.