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"Religious Freedom – the Path to Peace"
by Fr Rob Esdaile


Our society seems uncertain how to proceed when it comes to freedom of religion. Yes, of course, people must be free to believe what they wish to believe; yet organised religion is often viewed as the root of conflict, rather than as a means to find healing for our world. The major fault-lines in global politics are conveniently attributed to the influence of different faith-traditions, rather than (for instance) competition among the major industrial nations for oil and other commodities. Within our own country, whole faith-communities are sometimes regarded with suspicion, even monitored by the security services for possible subversive activities. And there is sometimes a suggestion that it would be much easier if those who have a religious faith kept it entirely private.
On Peace Sunday this year (16 January 2011) Pope Benedict has asked us to reflect on the theme of ‘Religious Freedom – The Path to Peace’. He, of course, isn’t suggesting that believers need quietly to ignore each other or to try not to get noticed by others. His line of thought is, rather, that the spiritual dimension is an essential part of our humanity, and that, unless we attend to this, listening to the inner voice of conscience and becoming people of prayer, we cannot hope to attain peace, either personally or as societies and nation-states. Indeed, without developing our religious life we cut ourselves off from the well-springs of peace and from the possibility of being freed from the destructive patterns of past behaviour.
The Catholic approach to the matter is as follows: we believe that all are children of God, bearing the divine image and likeness (see Gen 1.26-27), whether or not they have a religious faith; and if the love of God is our origin, that same love is also our destination. So history is not simply a matter of chance. It is also the story of Salvation, the place of encounter between creatures and their Creator. Here and now the Spirit of God is at work, speaking to the heart and inviting our response.
We believe that God speaks, not just in the Church but in the whole of Creation, and that Revelation has reached its climax in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Here the Word has truly taken flesh. Here God dwells among us, transforming history from within. But, precisely because we believe this, we must be committed to dialogue, seeking the presence of God in our nonChristian neighbours and in secular culture, too; seeking the signs of the action of the Spirit in our world; looking for allies in our search for God’s Kingdom and God’s Justice in our broken world.
Of course, Christians, and Catholics in particular, have not always been champions of freedom. We still live with the scars (and the hostilities) caused by the Crusades, by the Inquisition, by ‘Christian’ AntiSemitism. Yet one of the great fruits of the Second Vatican Council has been, for Catholics, the commitment to religious freedom and to dialogue with people of other faiths and none. Today the Pope calls on us humbly to use our religious freedom, firstly to deepen our own faith; secondly, gently to witness to that faith to others while also patiently listening to their insights; and thirdly, together with them, to pursue the peace that the world so craves but which our humanity can only achieve by attentiveness to the Spirit of God.
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