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The Catholic Church Wasn't Always a Fan of Religious Liberty

AP Photo/Girolamo di Majo

Daniel Philpott - published on 06/15/15

Third, by the time of the Second Vatican Council, new and serious threats to religious freedom had emerged, especially where the Church lived under Communism, as it did in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, and China. Such regimes exceeded Jacobinist restriction and replaced it with totalitarian eradication. One of the most eloquent advocates of religious freedom at the Second Vatican Council was Polish Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.  In places like Poland, religious freedom meant the Church’s survival.

Fourth was the United States. There, the Church lived under liberal democracy but had a very different experience than it did in liberal republican Europe. It flourished in an environment of freedom created by the First Amendment’s religious liberty clause.  Doubtless, anti-Catholicism was directed at Catholics, sometimes in the form of violence and discrimination.  By and large, though, the Church grew and could flourish in practicing its faith.  While the lesson came slowly perhaps, the United States taught the Catholic Church that freedom and faith could co-exist in practice.

This coming December, a major conference in Rome will commemorate Dignitatis Humanae by looking at how Christian communities around the world respond to persecution. The very idea of the conference reflects a new reality for the Catholic Church fifty years after the Council.  In countries spanning from China to India to Pakistan, Catholics are now the persecuted rather than the persecuting.  Even in advanced liberal democracies, they are experiencing new restrictions. What does Dignitatis Humanae mean now, then?

Daniel Philpottis Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and Director of The Center for Civil and Human Rights. This article was originally published on the blog Arc of the Universe and is reprinted here with permission.

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