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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Editorial: Religious freedom and human dignity

It was rather
rich to see Saudi Arabia sponsoring a United Nations conference last
week on religious tolerance. This from an Islamic nation that maintains
a national police force to enforce strict Wahhabi orthodoxy. As one
dissident Saudi Shiite Muslim put it, that’s like having a U.N.
conference on racial harmony put on by apartheid-era South Africa.

Arabia is not the only Islamic nation with problems tolerating other
religions. Bahais are persecuted by Iran. Religious intolerance abounds
in Iraq. Egypt is grappling with similar issues. Even the Palestinian
territories, previously known for strong Christian-Muslim relations,
are experiencing a rise in tension.

Religious intolerance is not
just a Muslim thing. Last week, authorities in India arrested nine
alleged members of a radical Hindu terror cell in connection with a
bombing that killed six Muslims. And Hindu extremists also have been
intensifying their deadly attacks on India’s tiny Christian minority.
The persecution has gotten so bad that a coalition of U.S. Christian
leaders petitioned President George Bush last week to intervene with
the Indian government.

As it happened, Mr. Bush spoke at the U.N.
summit, where he called on nations “to understand that religious
freedom is the foundation of a healthy and hopeful society.” True, that.

imperfect, America is a prime example of a modern nation of religious
vitality in a broad culture of religious tolerance. It’s difficult for
Americans to appreciate how unusual this is.

Religions make truth
claims about reality. They may all be wrong – an atheist would
certainly affirm that – but they cannot all be right. For the truly
devout, religious orthodoxy is the most important thing imaginable,
because it involves ultimate truth.

When competing religious
truth claims clash in America, we typically agree to disagree. But
throughout human history, and in much of the world today, religious
conflict often turns violent. Religious tolerance cannot exist if one
believes that to tolerate another’s faith is to diminish one’s own by
accepting an untruth.

Is there a way out? In the 1960s, the Roman
Catholic Church, which had long denied religious freedom to
non-Catholics with the teaching that “error has no rights,” reconciled
religious orthodoxy with modern pluralism. The Second Vatican Council
declared that indeed error has no rights, but humans do. In other words, people have a God-given right to be wrong about God.

that simple but revolutionary formulation – based on the groundbreaking
work of the American Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray – the Catholic
Church opened the door to genuine respect and tolerance for
non-Catholics, while preserving its own truth claims.

In that new
understanding, to deny religious freedom is to affront the dignity of
humans created in the image of God, and in turn, to offend God. It may
not be as easy for theologians in other faiths to find grounds within
their particular traditions to justify religious tolerance, but God
knows they should try.