Religious freedom and the inflammatory power of the Cross

Religious freedom and the inflammatory power of the CrossI was intrigued by two recent controversies over religious symbols. Both involved the Christian symbol of the Cross. In Melbourne, a girl complained that her school had forbidden her to wear a cross. She saw the cross as a sign of her Christian conversion.

In Glasgow, the police gave a warning to the Celtic goalkeeper after an away game with their rivals, the Rangers. The goalie had made a sign of the cross, a normal thing for Polish players. The culturally Protestant crowd saw it as unnatural.

The two cases were interesting because in their defence, the girl and the goalie could invoke two principles that are normally kept quite separate: the right of individual self-expression, and the right of religious freedom.

Initially the girl’s case was presented as a straightforward infringement of self-expression. It was interchangeable with stories of long hair, wrong dress, or boycotting particular classes. The standard photographs of aggrieved yet determined mother and daughter accompanied the story.

This story, however, became a little edgy because it was religious faith that motivated the girl to wear the cross. The preferred form of stories of individual self-expression identify Christian symbols with authoritarian repression of the secular individual’s choice, not with self-expression. To have an apparently secular school council crushing Christian self-assertion is a bit awkward. There was some relief when the Council made clear that its opposition was not to crosses, but to jewellery. It was no longer a story about displaying faith but about flaunting wealth.

Religious freedom and the inflammatory power of the CrossThe story of the Glasgow goalie, Artur Boruc, little reported in Australia, stirred Britain. Catholic Church authorities, Labour Party ministers in England and the Scottish Nationalist party were all concerned that the sign of the cross was considered an inflammatory gesture. Ruth Kelly, the minister, saw it as an issue of self-expression.

The Scottish authorities then issued a clarification. It turned out that Boruc had an arsenal of signs to hand. In addition to the sign of the Cross, he had gestured to the crowd with a V for victory sign, and with an obscene gesture. It seemed a case of three signs and you are out.

They added that they would not countenance formal action against individuals for acts of religious observance, but had to be concerned about behaviour that would encourage civil disorder. This explanation satisfied the Catholic Bishops, and indeed Glaswegians generally. As this became a story of individual self-expression, anger turned to awed disbelief. For a goalie to stir up the Ibrox Park crowd is like a rabbit kicking sand in a lion’s eyes.

In the end, the strands of religious freedom and freedom of individual self-expression in both events were disentangled. In the Catholic understanding of religious freedom that is how it should be: religious freedom has only loose, although necessary, associations with freedom of self-expression. This can be seen in the seminal and bitterly contested Vatican II document on religious freedom.

Religious freedom and the inflammatory power of the CrossThe prevailing position before the Council was that the Catholic Church embodied true religion, and therefore was privileged over "erroneous" religions. Tolerance of other faiths was by privilege and not by right. The slogan that summed up this position was that error had no rights.

This theology caused difficulties in pluralist societies, particularly in the United States. The question facing the Council, then, was how to ground religious freedom in a way that does not endorse religious relativism, and so fail to respect the claim of truth.

In the document, in fact, truth is the basis out of which the argument for religious freedom is made. If we are to seek and embrace truth, including the truth of Christ, our commitment must be freely made. Without freedom, it makes no sense to speak of being committed to truth. So, to maintain the claim that Christianity is true and makes a claim on us, Christians must allow religious freedom to all human beings.

This document assumes, too, that we are not solitary seekers for truth. Our search for, and our recognition of, truth commits us to other people and to a tradition. Religious freedom, then, assumes freedom to associate in a common and received form of religious expression.

Religious freedom and the inflammatory power of the CrossIn this framework, religious freedom rests on our responsibility to follow communally the truth that we recognise, not on our right as individuals to choose our values. But the two principles of the right to individual self-expression and the right of religious freedom do have some common ground. Both see freedom as a central human value. The large freedom to live according to the truth that we recognise depends on a more general freedom to embody what we value.

The right to practise faith communally is undeniable. But the forms in which we give personal expression to faith may be limited by the common good for compelling reasons. The Scottish Crown appealed to that principle, and it is equally accepted by the Vatican II document.

To come back to the two cases with which I began, neither necessarily engages the commitment to freedom of religion. They are personal expressions of religious belief, and not communally central expressions. But in each case the limitation of freedom needs justification. Freedom is in possession until its limitation is shown to be necessary.



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