The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarifies the Relationship between Truth and Religious Freedom

A few days after the second encyclical was issued 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI on the hope of Christians, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presented a subtly cautious “Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization“ (2008), a very far-reaching and meaningful declaration. Even if it does not have the rank of an encyclical, only the Pope himself can endorse such a Doctrinal Note and ‘mandate its publication.’ Additionally, Pope Benedict was once the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor of the once feared top inquisition authorities, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is still the most important congregation of the Catholic Church, being responsible for doctrine and ethics. And after the choice of the Pope, the appointment of Cardinal William Levada as the Prefect of this Congregation was one of Pope Benedict’s first official acts.

The Doctrinal Note follows the example of the book on Jesus by the Pope and his second encyclical in which he – unlike what was common under John Paul II – formulates in a manner which is commonly Christian in many respects. Every act on the part of the Church has “a foundational evangelizing dimension,” which even applies to its social action. The “missionary command of the Lord” may not go “unheard and ineffective,” for the Church gives up itself and its essence if it stops proclaiming the gospel. This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3) is seen as Christian truth par excellence, which no Christian can deny or subordinate in any situation. The striking parallels and demarcation to the Islamic profession of faith, that there is only one God and Mohammed is his Prophet appears to be deliberate, and the Doctrinal Note can even be understood as a welcome reaction to the letter from 138 Muslim scholars to the Pope and other church leaders.

Even where the indispensability of the Church with respect to missions is described, the formulation is such that a Protestant can also agree. This holds even if the view behind that surely goes unexpressed, i.e., that it is the Roman Catholic Church alone, organized in apostolic succession, which is truly able to fulfill this assignment. Only one of the five sections speaks on a topic entitled “Some ecumenical implications“ and contains formulations in only a few sentences which have led to sharp reactions by Protestant churches. The Congregation has namely defended the rights of Catholics to witness to the Catholic faith to other churches and Christians and the right of non-Catholics to join the Catholic Church. For non-Catholics, however, that is something which is a matter of course. They take umbrage at the fact that this conversion is interpreted as a working of the Holy Spirit, according to which “the fullness of the means of salvation“are offered which other churches apparently do not have. Since, however, every form of ’pressure’ is forbidden and apart from that the formulation is rather invested with common ground, these sections, however, go more into the category of friendly statements over recent years and in the direction of ecumenism.

However, what is truly serious is that the Doctrinal Note takes up the action of an ethical codex for missions without expressly calling it that, on which the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance are working together. The Doctrinal Note clearly and in detail repeatedly espouses religious freedom and issues a condemnation against any mixture of evangelization and political pressure, deception, and any range of advantages offered or other means which do not target conviction or persuasion of the heart. By the way, this also applies when a Christian is enticed away from his faith.

At the same time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes a very meaningful clarification for all churches, for it proclaims clearly and unambiguously that its right to evangelization comes from divine right. Likewise, however, it makes claims for religious freedom in the political arena. For all that, religious freedom only means to coexist peacefully and respectfully with adherents of other religions and for evangelization to renounce force, pressure, threats, and other unfair means. Religious freedom does not mean, however, that Christian revelation is put on the same level with other religions and does not presuppose religious ecumenism.

This should actually unite all churches: Evangelization and the proclamation of truth do not exclude the desire for peaceful and free co-existence with people who think differently. Rather, they are inclusive. One can have both: taking a stand for religious freedom and democracy, all the while clutching unswervingly to the truth of Jesus Christ and the gospel.


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