OPINION by Robin SpeedNews Weekly
Is there a human right to freedom of religion?
, April 25, 2015
Representatives of the English Catholic Church thought the answer to the question, “Is there a human right to freedom of religion?” was “no” when they drafted the Magna Carta more than 800 years ago.
Catholic Archbishop of Sydney
Despite being in a dominant position to demand the right from King John and despite his notorious deviousness and deception, the Church decided not to seek from him the right to freedom of religion.
Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher recently referred to the Magna Carta as a “very religious document”. Indeed it is, but you would not think so from the Charter itself, for the only paragraph which expressly deals with the Church provides:
“We have, in the first place, granted to God and by this our present charter confirmed for ourselves and our heirs in perpetuity that the English Church is to be free and have its rights in whole and its liberties unimpaired.”
The other 64 paragraphs in the Charter deal with rights between humans.
To have a “human right” there must exist a human who has a right to something from another human or humans. When the United Nations Human Rights Council speaks of “human rights” it refers to a right of a human to something from other humans; for example the right not to be discriminated against.
The right must be an obligation of the other human/humans; for without obligation there is no right, but an expectation or hope.
As God does not have obligation in the sense of matching rights, the reference to human rights is a reference to a right to something from another human or humans.
Where there is a right to something and a matching obligation, there is a consensual agreement or one imposed by law; to speak of human rights as if they were independent is therefore meaningless.
Where a human right is claimed but the matching obligation is disputed, there is no human right but an expectation of certain humans; not necessarily all. It is in this area of dispute that reference to “rights” breaks down.
The distinction between “rights” and “liberties”, both in substance and form, was well understood by the men who drafted the Magna Carta 800 years ago.
They carefully chose reference in general to the Church engaging in unspecified liberties under God, while naming specific activities of men and having the king agree not to act in certain ways in relation to those activities.
There is nothing in the Bible, and in particular nothing in what Christ said, which confers this right to freedom of religion or any other right.
References in the Bible to “righteousness” are to God’s righteousness, and not to any “rights” granted to man.
Free will is one of the most sacred truths of Catholic theology; it reflects man’s dignity as a human being.
Free will necessarily involves freedom of reli-gion under God. We are free to choose what we will, including belief in God. It is not a “right”. Adam was created by God and free to eat all things; but he was warned that if he ate from the tree of knowledge he would be separated from God.
Freedom cannot be prescribed, otherwise it is not freedom. But what can be prescribed are specific restrictions on freedom.
The “right” of a human to religious freedom is not a right dependent upon grant or administration by another human. To call this a “right” inverts the position, and leads to endless confusion.
This can be seen in such disputes where a Christian doctor refuses to perform an abortion based on his religious beliefs. The doctor does not seek a right not to perform the abortion – but to exercise his free will.
In his 1904 book Heretics, G.K. Chesterton observed that the right to religious freedom granted by man had done more to suppress religion than had any persecution.
Many years later, in his 1936 Autobiography, he returned to the theme and wrote that, when granted by man, freedom of religionwas “supposed to mean that every-body is free to discuss religion. In practice, it means that hardly anyone is allowed to mention it.”
In celebrating this year the 800th anniversary of the granting of the Magna Carta as the most important document in our democratic history, let us not forget that freedom of religion is an essential part of our free will. It does not owe its source or legitimacy to man.
Freedom of religion is conferred by God, not by any human authority, and the state should not restrict or take away this freedom.
Robin Speed is vice-president of the Magna Carta Committee of Australia. (This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the committee).