The Vatican Secretary for Relations with States has affirmed Church support for human rights at a major conference in Rome.
However, reformers within the Church say that it still remains challenged to grant genuine dignity and freedom to those within as well as without the institution.
Archbishop Dominique Mamberti was speaking at the gathering organised by the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown University, Washington DC, and the Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
He gave a presentation on the links between religious freedom and Christianity, within the scope of the conference theme, “Christians and religious freedom: historical and contemporary perspectives”.
The Archbishop claimed that “the concept of human rights itself originated in a Christian context” and offered as an example Thomas More, “who at the price of his own life bore witness to the fact that Christians, in the light of reason and by virtue of their freedom of conscience, are called to reject every form of oppression”.
“The link between Christianity and freedom is thus original and profound”, he continued. “It has its roots in the teaching of Christ himself and Saint Paul appears as one of its most strenuous and brilliant defenders. Freedom is intrinsic to Christianity, for it was, as Paul says, for freedom that Christ set us free”. While the Apostle referred to interior freedom, this “naturally also has consequences for society”.
“This year marks the one-thousand-seven-hundredth anniversary of the Edict of Milan, which crowned the expansion throughout society of that interior freedom of which Saint Paul spoke. At the same time, from an historical and cultural standpoint, the Edict represented the beginning of a process which has marked European history and that of the entire world, leading in the course of the centuries to the definition of human rights and the recognition of religious freedom as 'the first of human rights'”.
However, the Vatican secretary's suggestion that Emperor Constantine's creation of a Christian empire extended religious and civic freedom is vigorously contested by Anabaptists and other Christians who reject a 'church of power' Christendom model, also known as Constantinianism.
“The proper exercise of religious freedom cannot prescind from the interplay of reason and faith," the Archbishop continued. "This also provides a bulwark against both relativism and against those forms of religious fundamentalism which, like relativism, see in religious freedom a threat to their own ideological dominance”.
Archbishop Mamberti concluded by commenting that when the Second Vatican Council set forth the principle of religious freedom, “it was not proposing a new teaching. Rather, it was restating a common human experience: namely, that 'all human beings ... endowed with reason and free will, and therefore bearing personal responsibility, are impelled by their nature... to seek the truth ...' It is in the truth, seen not so much as an absolute which we already possess, but as the potential object of rational and relational knowledge, that we encounter the potential for a sound exercise of freedom. And it is precisely in this connection that we discover the authentic dignity of the human person”.
* Human rights 65 years after the Universal Declaration: an Ekklesia briefing - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19635