Redemptoris Missio 8: On Freedom of Conscience

In the modern world there is a tendency to reduce man to his horizontal dimension alone. But without an openness to the Absolute, what does man become? The answer to this question is found in the experience of every individual, but it is also written in the history of humanity with the blood shed in the name of ideologies or by political regimes which have sought to build a “new humanity” without God.(Cf. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra)

To an extent this is true. It is important to remember that bloodshed isn’t unique to godless ideology. People have misinterepreted religion, even Christianity, to impose a “horizontal” system on others. Colonialism comes to mind. That has been more a sin of Western Europe than East. Pope John Paul II’s experience, of course, was with another kind of system imposed from without in his own homeland. The breaking of that system was still fresh in the world’s mind as this document was written, but I don’t think the planet has quite smoothed over the ripples of the Soviet system just yet. Today’s danger is more the imposition of human beings as non-dissenting cogs in the machines of economy. And we don’t need to look much further than the resistance to many aspects of staying-safe-at-home these days.

Pope John Paul II has religious freedom in mind, though this point has its detractors within Catholicism:

Moreover, the Second Vatican Council replies to those concerned with safeguarding freedom of conscience: “The human person has a right to religious freedom…. All should have such immunity from coercion by individuals, or by groups, or by any human power, that no one should be forced to act against his conscience in religious matters, nor prevented from acting according to his conscience, whether in private or in public, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”(Dignitatis Humanae, 2)

This is an important paragraph and its distinctions are often lost in a cloud that confuses proselytizing with evangelization. Pope Paul VI first:

Proclaiming Christ and bearing witness to him, when done in a way that respects consciences, does not violate freedom. Faith demands a free adherence on the part of man, but at the same time faith must also be offered to him, because the “multitudes have the right to know the riches of the mystery of Christ-riches in which we believe that the whole of humanity can find, in unsuspected fullness, everything that it is gropingly searching for concerning God, man and his destiny, life and death, and truth…. This is why the Church keeps her missionary spirit alive, and even wishes to intensify it in the moment of history in which we are living.”(Evangelii Nuntiandi 53)

Vatican II next:

But it must also be stated, again with the Council, that “in accordance with their dignity as persons, equipped with reason and free will and endowed with personal responsibility, all are impelled by their own nature and are bound by a moral obligation to seek truth, above all religious truth. They are further bound to hold to the truth once it is known, and to regulate their whole lives by its demands.”(Dignitatis Humanae, 2)

The search for truth about the absolute things: why we are here, what we are to do, how we are to live–not everyone sees this as the prerogative of the individual, or of the spark of the divine in our making. It is up to the Christian first to show that this is so by our own actions and example. Too many of us get that confused, thinking it is a matter of telling. The writer’s principle, showing instead of telling, may be helpful. We demonstrate the story of Jesus. This is far more vital than imparting information about him. The latter gives no depth, little substance. The former makes all the difference.

This document is available online here and is © Copyright – Libreria Editrice Vaticana


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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