.... cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power." Powerful words from the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, on religious freedom.
This is the great ideological battleground of our era: those who believed that the battle was won when the Soviet Union, with its State-imposed atheisim, collapsed, failed to see that each new day brings new challenges. The Council Fathers knew this and, under God's guidance and inspiration, they took forward the Church's teaching on religious freedom and gave it a new dimension with a fresh understanding, fostered by the harsh realities of the Soviet tyranny which was raging as they gathered, but already looking ahead to whatever was to follow. Just over two decades after the ending of that great Council, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. But new threats to religious freedom were already arriving, and today the Council's words have a great significance than many who first read them could perhaps have known.
"It is in accordance with their dignity as persons - that is, beings endowed
with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal
responsibility - that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound
by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are
also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole
lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these
obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy
immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the
right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition
of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this
immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation
of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to
be impeded, provided that just public order be observed."
No one, not the United Nations, not any great international consortium, not the Government of any state, has the right to prevent men and women from seeking what is true, and from following their consciences.
And: "There is a further consideration. The religious acts whereby men, in private
and in public and out of a sense of personal conviction, direct their lives to
God transcend by their very nature the order of terrestrial and temporal
affairs. Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life
of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make
provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the
limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are
The Church is firm about the message she gives to her own children: religious groups must not act in any way that seems to coerce people into religious practice. As Blessed John Paul once put it "The Church proposes, she does not impose."