Milan (AsiaNews) - Religious freedom is the basis for ensuring social peace. This statement by Cardinal Angelo Scola, is reiterated every day in the news we publish on AsiaNews, in which we speak of Pakistan, China, India or the Middle East. The Archbishop of Milan dealt with the issue of religious freedom in his masterful speech for the first vespers of Saint Ambrose on December 6 last. Inspired by the 1700 years since the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed the end of persecution for Christians in the time of Emperor Constantine, Card. Scola illustrated the dimensions of religious freedom, which can not be reduced to freedom of worship, but also include the freedom to witness and operate in society. He also puts the finger on a contemporary problem of the State, which instead of ensuring freedom of religions claims to be "neutral" and by doing in fact marginalizes the contribution of the religious to civil and political society. This judgment affects many Western societies, but also many Asian societies, such as China and Vietnam. Not for nothing, Benedict XVI, in his message for the World Day of Peace 2011 compared the threat of statism to that of fundamentalist terrorism.
The cardinal also highlights that religious freedom is now "the index of a much larger challenge: that of the elaboration and practice at a local and universal level, of a new anthropological, social and cosmological basis of coexistence of civil society in the third millennium".
Given the immense value of this address, we have decided to publish it in full for all our readers (translated into English by AsiaNews).
The Edict of Milan: Initium Libertatis
1. The XVII centenary of the Edict of Milan
"The Edict of Milan in 313 has an epochal significance because it marks the initium libertatis of modern man." This statement by a distinguished scholar of Roman law, the late Gabrio Lombardi, allows us to highlight how the measures, signed by the two August Emperors Constantine and Licinius, determined not only the progressive end to persecution of Christians but, above all, the act of the birth of religious freedom. In a sense, with the Edict of Milan the two dimensions we today term "religious freedom" and "secular state" emerge for the first time in history. These are two crucial aspects for the proper organization of political society.
An interesting confirmation of this fact can be found in two important teachings of St. Ambrose. On the one hand the archbishop never hesitated to call Christians to be loyal to the civil authority, which, in turn - this is the second lesson - should guarantee citizens freedom, both personal and social. Thus, the horizon of the public good, to which citizens and authorities are called, was recognised.
It can not be denied, however, that the Edict of Milan was a "false start". The events that followed, in fact, opened up a long and troubled history.
The historic, improper mingling of political power and religion can offer a useful key to understanding the different stages traversed by the history of the practice of religious freedom.
The situation changed profoundly with the promulgation of the declaration Dignitatis humanae. What is the fundamental novelty of this council teaching? The Council, in the light of right reason confirmed and illuminated by divine revelation, said that man has a right not to be forced to act against his conscience and not be prevented from acting in accordance with it.
In this way, with the Council declaration rendered obsolete the classical doctrine of tolerance to recognize that "the human person has a right to religious freedom," and that this right "continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it" (DH 2). According to Nikolaus Lobkowicz, former rector of the University of Munich Bavaria and president of the Catholic University of Eichstätt, "the extraordinary quality of the Dignitatis humanae consists in transferring the issue of religious freedom from the notion of truth to the rights of the human person. If the error has no rights, a person has the rights, even when he's wrong. Clearly it is not a right in the sight of God; it is a right with respect to other people, the community and the State. "
2. Religious freedom in practice and thought today
However, approaching religious freedom in today's world means facing an emergency that is increasingly taking on a global character. According to the careful study by Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, in the period between 2000 and 2007, some form of religious persecution was registered in 123 countries, and unfortunately the number is constantly increasing.
This data, which is a worrying expression of a serious malaise of civilization, urges a redoubling of efforts in the examination of the issue without neglecting debates, at times heated but never dormant, on the nature, the correct interpretation and necessary assimilation of Dignitatis humanae.
First of all, the theme of "religious freedom", which at first glance gives rise to a very broad consensus, has always possessed a far from obvious content. In is caught up, in fact, in a rather complex knot, which intertwines at least three serious problems: a) the relationship between objective truth and individual consciousness, b) coordination between religious communities and State power and c), from the Christian theological point of view, the question of the interpretation of the universality of salvation in Christ faced with the plurality of religions and world visions ("substantive" ethical visions).
Secondly, today there are new, no less decisive issues that must be added to these, so to speak, classical problems of the interpretation of religious freedom.
I will indicate three. The first is the relationship between the personal search for the religious and its community expression. Often the question is raised: to what extent may religious freedom be limited to a purely individual expression? On the other hand, we must ask under what conditions a "religious group" may claim public recognition in a pluralistic, interreligious and intercultural society. We face the delicate question relative to the power of a legitimately established public authority to distinguish between a bona fide religion and what it is not. The facts thus confirm that the distinction between political power and religions is not as obvious as it may appear at first glance.
The problem of distinguishing between religions and "sects" has similar characteristics: it is a theme as old as the Roman notion of religio licita, but recently has become more acute in character for a number of reasons: the fragmentation and proliferation of "community" within the Christian world, the agnostic position of most legislation in the face of religious phenomena.
Finally, it is important to note that today one of the most important issues in the debate on religious freedom is its link with the freedom to convert.
For all these reasons, religious freedom in practice and thought is much more difficult in today's world than one would expect, especially after the council declaration.
3. Problems to be solved
In this context, two considerations are pertinent to resolving certain problematic issues.
The first concerns the relationship between religious freedom and social peace. Not only the practice, but also several recent studies have shown that there is actually a very close correlation between the two. If abstractly speaking one might imagine that a law capable of reducing the scope of religious diversity were also able to reduce and/or eliminate any conflict that may ensue, in reality the exact opposite occurs: the more the State imposes constraints, the more conflicts of a religious origin increase. This result is actually understandable: imposing or prohibiting by law religious practices, in the obvious improbability of also changing corresponding beliefs, does nothing but increase those resentments and frustrations that subsequently manifest themselves, in the public arena, as conflicts.
The second problem is even more complex and requires a more articulated reflection. It regards the connection between religious freedom and the orientation of the state and, to varying degrees, of all state institutions, against religious communities in civil society.
The evolution of liberal-democratic States has progressively changed the traditional balance of political power. Up until a few decades ago it was substantial and explicit reference was made to generally recognized anthropological structures, at least in a broader sense, as a constitutive dimension of religious experience: birth, marriage, generations, education, death.
Since this reference, religious in origin, was questioned and considered unusable, decision-making procedures that tend to towards unconditional self-justification have progressively become part of an absolutist politics. This is confirmed by the fact that the classic problem of moral judgment on the law is increasingly becoming an issue of religious freedom. The United States Bishops' Conference explicitly describes the HHS Mandate as an injury to religious freedom. The Obama health care reform requires various types of religious institutions (especially hospitals and schools) to offer their employees health insurance policies that include contraception, abortion and sterilization procedures.
The theoretical basis of evolution mentioned above refers, in fact, to the French model of laicité that seemed the most adequate response to ensure full religious freedom, especially for minority groups. It is based on the idea of in-difference, defined as "neutrality" of State institutions with respect to the religious phenomenon and at first glance, this appears suitable to building a good platform for the religious freedom of all. It is now a widespread concept in European legal and political culture in which, however, in hindsight, the categories of religious freedom and the so-called "neutrality" of the State increasingly overlap, to the point that they are almost indistinguishable. In fact, for various theoretical and historical reasons the French laicité ended up becoming a model ill-disposed towards the religious phenomenon. Why? First of all, the very idea of "neutrality" proved problematic, because it is not applicable to a civil society, that precedence of which the State must always respect, limiting itself to merely govern rather than manage it.
Now, respect for civil society implies recognizing an objective fact: today in Western civil societies, especially in Europe, the deepest divisions are those between secular culture and the religious phenomenon, and not - as it is often mistakenly thought - between believers of different faiths. By disregarding this very fact, the just and necessary non-confessional nature of the State has arrived at the point of concealing, under the idea of "neutrality", State support for a world vision based on the secular and godless idea. But this is one of the various ("substantive" ethical) cultural perspectives that inhabit pluralistic societies. In this way the so-called "neutral" State, which in fact it is far from being neutral, appropriates a specific culture, secular culture, which in turn through legislation becomes the dominant culture and ultimately has a negative power in relation to other identities, especially religious ones, present in civil society. It tends to marginalize, if not expel them altogether from public life. The State, by substituting civil society, slips, albeit unintentionally, into that founding position that laicité aimed to respect, once occupied by the "religious." A culture strongly marked by a secularized vision of man and of the world, without openness to the transcendent, is hidden and is spreading under a semblance of legislative neutrality and objectivity. In a pluralistic society it is in itself legitimate, but only as one culture among others. However, if the State appropriates it, it inevitably ends up restricting religious freedom.
How can we overcome this serious state of affairs? By rethinking the question of the non-confessional State as part of a renewed thinking of religious freedom. A State that, without appropriating a specific vision, does not interpret its non-confessional nature as "detachment", as an impossible neutralization of world visions that express themselves in civil society, rather a State that opens spaces where each person can bring their personal and social contribution to building the common good.
We should all ask ourselves: is requesting liberty of religion for different communities, respect for the "peculiarities" of their minority moral sensibilities the best way to deal with this delicate situation? This single request, although mandatory, is likely to strengthen the idea in the public arena that religious identity is made up of nothing but by now obsolete content, mythology and folklore. It is absolutely necessary that this just request be inscribed in a wider horizon of purpose, equipped with a well-structured hierarchy of elements.
These fleeting references show not only the complexity of the issue of religious freedom, but also lead us to recognize that, now more than ever, that this issue represents the most sensitive litmus test of the degree of civilization of our pluralistic societies.
In fact, if religious freedom is not a realized and placed at the top of the ladder of fundamental rights, the entire ladder collapses. Religious freedom today is the index of a much larger challenge: that of the elaboration and practice at a local and universal level, of a new anthropological, social and cosmological basis of coexistence of civil society in the third millennium. Obviously, this process can not mean a return to the past, but it must comply with the pluralistic nature of society. Therefore, as I have said on other occasions, it must begin with the practical common good of being together. Then by leveraging the principle of communication, properly understood, the personal and social subjects living in civil society must speak and be spoken for in a mutual, organized recognition for the good of all.
4. On a common journey
In this regard, I would just like to mention one essential condition, in my opinion, to this arduous, but indispensable journey.
Learning from the teaching of Dignitatis humanae as well as that initium libertatis so positively inaugurated by the Edict of 313, that adherence to truth is only possible on a voluntary and personal basis and external coercion is contrary to its nature, we must recognize that this double condition is in fact often impossible. Why? Because, at the same time, "that duty, and therefore the right to seek the truth" (DH 3) that removes from every correct affirmation of religious freedom all suspicion of being another name for that religious indifference, that can not but arise, at least in practice, as a specific world vision which, in the current historical juncture, always tends to assert the hegemony of one particular world vision on others, it is not pursued.
What can be said with regards the objection of those who do not fulfil the obligation to seek the truth and adhere to it? First of all it must be emphasized that this is in any case always the choice of a world vision that has citizenship in a pluralistic society, but that can not be surreptitiously taken as the foundation of a non-confessional State.
Yet what is even more decisive is the free invitation addressed to them to consider what constitutes such an obligation.
Augustine, an expressive genius of human restlessness, grasped the secret, as Benedict XVI reminds us: "it is not we who possess the Truth after having sought it, but the Truth that seeks us out and possesses us". In this sense, it is the same truth through the significance of relationships and circumstances of life in which every man is the protagonist, to serve as the "serious case" of human existence and human coexistence. The truth that he seeks is documented in the irrepressible yearning with which man aspires to it, "Quid enim fortius desiderat anima quam veritatem?". And this yearning respects the freedom of everyone, even those who call themselves agnostic, atheist or indifferent. Religious freedom would otherwise be an empty word.
5. The anniversary of the Edict, opportunities for Milan
The city of Milan and the Lombard lands are and will be increasingly inhabited by many new Italians (immigrants of first, second and third generations). They will be called upon to deal with the historical process (I emphasize the historical process and not syncretistic project) of the hybridisation of cultures and civilizations, to show their ability to respect the freedom of all, to build up the body of the Church and a good social fabric by transmitting faith and memory.
Our lands are and will be forced to deal with the development of a civil society of increasingly varied contours. A civil society that risks increasing fragmentation in the presence of corporate interests, whose actual centers of power are and will increasingly be dis-located "elsewhere ", in Europe and around the world; powers, that are never neutral and which are growing in their ability to present themselves as social actors and pressure groups or lobbies.
The celebration of the anniversary of the Edict of Milan comes at a time in history when the Ambrosian Church, along with all the churches of our country, is called to work for the transformation of its presence in a pluralistic society. After decades of dispute announcing the end all public forms of Catholicism (many thought so in the 1970s in Milan), Christians can testify to the importance and usefulness of the public dimension of faith. Ambrosian popular Catholicism - while not without profound weakness in assimilating Christ's teaching, in the sacramental practice and in the Christian meaning of life - shows itself capable of innovative resources for social life, there were unimaginable in the forecasts of a few decades ago. The concrete Ambrosian fabric of Christian life, perhaps a cultural minority, is in fact looking for new ways to remain widely rooted in the extensive territory of the diocese. It does so through networks of solidarity, hospitality, finding answers to basic needs, building bonds with wider society, education in the faith and culture, from the explicit proclamation of the beauty, goodness and truth of the event of Jesus Christ present in the community, to the proposal of all its most human anthropological, social, and relational implications with creation.
6. A common task
Ours is a time that demands a new, broad social and the political culture. The many ecclesial and civil fragments which already today anticipate the Milan of the future are called to allow everything transpire. The entirety must shine in each fragment for the benefit of the Christian community and all civil society. Good life and good governance go hand in hand.
 G. Lombardi, Persecuzioni, laicità, libertà religiosa. Dall'Editto di Milano alla "Dignitatis humanae", Studium Rome 1991, 128
 Lobkowicz, Pharaoh Amenhotep and Dignitatis Humanae, in Oasis 8 (2008) 17-23, here 18
 The Price of Freedom Denied. Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century, Cambridge University Press, New York 2011
 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty. A Statement on Religious Liberty, 12.04.2012
 Cf A. Scola, good reasons for living together, Mondadori, Milan 2010, 16-17
 Benedict XVI, General Audience, November 14, 2012.
 AgUSTINE, "What does man desire more powerfully if not the truth?, Comment on the Gospel of Saint John 26,5.