Your Excellency, Shaikh Abdullah Bin Ahmed bin Abdullah al Khalifa,
Your Excellencies, Esteemed Religious Leaders,
Honorable Public Servants, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very pleased to be with you this morning to examine together the important theme of religious pluralism and tolerance, with a special focus on the role of the United Nations and other political bodies and a particular look toward the example being set in the Middle East by the Kingdom of Bahrain.
The Kingdom of Bahrain, with its constitutional protections for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and the freedom to celebrate religious rites, is a beacon for religious pluralism and tolerance in a region where such openness is not ubiquitous. Bahrain has shown a particular hospitality for the Christians of the Middle East. In 2012, in a magnanimous gesture toward the Catholics living in Bahrain and in the northern Arabian region, King Hamad Bin Isa al Khalifa and the royal family awarded 9,000 square meters of land in Awali for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia to build its headquarters and Cathedral to serve the two million migrant Catholics in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Shaikh Abdulla, I would be most grateful if you convey to the King and the Royal Family the renewed gratitude of Pope Francis, of the Catholic Church in general and of the migrant workers in the region in particular, for this shining example of the Kingdom’s religious and cultural openness.
Religious pluralism and tolerance is a theme very dear to the Holy See and to Catholics in general. A few months ago, at the end of 2015, the Catholic Church celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of two important declarations of the Second Vatican Council: Nostra Aetate, which concerned the relations of the Church with other religions; and Dignitatis Humanae, which was dedicated to the theme of religious freedom. In these declarations, the Church articulated several crucial principles at the root of the Catholic approach to religious pluralism and tolerance. I’d like to highlight four.
The first principle is a genuine respect for those of other religions. The Council affirmed that not only does the Catholic Church not reject anything that is holy and true in other religions, but “regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and life, those precepts and teachings that, though differing in many respects from the ones she holds and sets forth, … often reflect a ray of the light of Truth that enlightens all men” (NA 3).
The second principle is the promotion of an authentic fraternity as the foundation on which authentic pluralism and tolerance could be built. “We cannot truly call on God the Father of all if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God” (NA 5). One immediate consequence of this is the Church’s rejection of any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between person and person or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.
The third principle is the call to engage in “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions” so that together we can jointly “preserve and promote the things that are morally and spiritually good” (NA 3). The Catholic Church has been participating in vigorous ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, a conversation that has taken place not just intellectually among theologians, but existentially among believers on the ground, especially with regard to cultural and charitable collaboration and the advancement of peace.
The fourth principle is the fundamental right to religious freedom and the right to freedom of conscience that undergirds it. The debate on religious freedom, including the right to change one’s religion or belief as enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, still needs to take place in some religious contexts. This right involves the right to be “immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such a way that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits” (DH 1-2). In this respect, the Catholic Church calls on States and Governments to respect and protect the rights to religious freedom and freedom of conscience based on respect for the dignity of the person and his or her social nature.
These are principles the Catholic Church seeks to promote across the world, especially through its 222,000 parishes, 95,000 elementary schools, 44,000 high schools, and tens of thousands of colleges and universities across the world, where it forms Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the respect for the dignity of every person; educates them to become promoters of human rights and fundamental freedoms, treating others as they would seek to be treated; and trains them to be catalysts of ssa culture of encounter, solidarity, and fraternity.
When Pope Francis addressed the United Nations last September, he emphasized the importance of respect for religious freedom, conscience, pluralism and tolerance for peace in the world and for holistic, sustainable development. “Government leaders,” he affirmed, “must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimal spiritual and material means to live in dignity and to create and support a family.” At a material level, he said, this involves at least “lodging, labor and land” and at a spiritual level, it involves “spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and all other civil rights.” He said that the best indicator of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda would be access to these material and spiritual goods.
At Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Pope Francis called religious freedom the “fundamental right that shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own. The ideal of interreligious dialogue, where all men and women, from different religious traditions, can speak to one another without arguing, this is what religious freedom allows.”
He went on to say that religious freedom does not mean merely “the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate,” because “religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.” It means the freedom to live by the principles of faith in public. This true notion of religious freedom, he said, provides a limit to the claims of governments or others to absolute power, because it recognizes an authority above the State, which is one of the reasons why, Pope Francis affirmed, the worst atrocities of the twentieth century began with despotic governments’ attempting to relegate religions to the private sphere or ban them all together. It also means, in the context of aggressive secularist ideologies, that the faith of religious believers cannot be reduced to a “subculture without right to a voice in the public square.” Challenging all of us to preserve and cherish “freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of each person, each family, each people” as the foundation for all other rights, he called on all believers to practice a healthy pluralism that respects differences and value them as a “precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity… and [promoting] the path to peace in our world.”
With respect to religious pluralism and tolerance, Pope Francis in his own life has often mentioned the principle of “caminar juntos,” of journeying together, convinced that once people of different religions and cultures, neighborhoods and nations, begin to walk together in fraternity and friendship, they will begin to recognize how much humanity they have in common, how much beauty and goodness exists in each other, and how much wisdom is imbued in the way the other approaches the most important questions of human life.
This is why a culture of pluralism and tolerance is so important not just for individual believers, but for the world whose good the United Nations seeks to promote: for without a healthy mutual respect, fraternity and friendship, we won’t be able to save present and future generations from the scourge of war; we won’t be able to achieve integral and sustainable development; we won’t witness the protection and advancement of human dignity and rights; we won’t find respect for the rule of law that protects the rights of others; and we won’t be able to obtain so many of the other noble goals the United Nations was founded to achieve.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.