Renowned legal scholar speaks about religious liberty
BELMONT — "Religion is a basic aspect of the well-being of a human being, and therefore it is the kind of thing that is protected by a right to religious liberty," said Dr. Robert P. George in the annual Cuthbert Allen Lecture at Belmont Abbey College. "In its fullest and most robust sense, religion is a human person's being in right relation to the Divine, the more than merely human source of meaning and value."
In his Oct. 4 lecture to a packed house at the Abbey Basilica of Mary Help of Christians, George reflected on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962, and focused on the Church's understanding of religious liberty as a universal right, not a privilege that is exclusive to Catholics.
From that council came a declaration on religious freedom which broadened the Church's understanding of faith and religious liberty.
"The Council has fundamentally shaped our religious life, not just for Catholics," George said. "The engagement of Catholics with the broader world, the ecumenical and inter-faith implications of the Council have been profound. So, we should mark and celebrate this 50th anniversary.
"But, of course, there was a time before the Second Vatican Council, and for much of that time the Church did not fully embrace a robust conception of religious freedom, one that honors not only the right to be uncoerced in faith, but – even as the Church now acknowledges as a result of the teachings of the fathers of the Second Vatican Council – the civil right to give public witness and expression to sincere religious views even when erroneous, and that is set forth in the document 'Dignitatis Humanae' of the Second Vatican Council.
"The fathers of the Second Vatican Council did not embrace the idea that error has rights. They noticed, rather, that people have rights, and they have rights even when they are in error."
This understanding of ecumenism in light of Vatican II is especially relevant as Benedictine Father Cuthbert Allen, the monk for whom the lecture is named, was very active in ecumenical affairs.
"He was widely known as a pioneer in ecumenical relations," explained Dr. Grattan Brown, professor of theology at Belmont Abbey College, in his introduction. "For example, he arranged for a local Baptist pastor to accompany Abbot Walter Coggin to one of the sessions of the Second Vatican Council as an accredited observer."
In gratitude for his work in defense of the Church's moral teachings, the College conferred an honorary doctorate upon George.
"As a Christian thinker, you have fought valiantly for the inviolable dignity and the immeasurable worth of every human life from conception to natural death," said Benedictine Abbot Placid Solari, abbot of Belmont Abbey Monastery. "Through your example, you have reminded us of the difference one human being can make. You have shown what convictions courageously held, cogently demonstrated, and charitably presented can accomplish."
Replied George, "This degree is very special to me because this college decided to stand in the gap in defense of religious liberty, not only for itself, its faculty and its students, but for everyone in the entire country. God bless you for what you have done. I am proud to be an alumnus."
George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He has served on the President's Council on Bioethics and was a presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
He is a former Judicial Fellow at the U.S. Supreme Court, and he is a signer of the Manhattan Declaration. A graduate of Swarthmore College and Harvard Law School, he earned a doctorate in legal philosophy from Oxford University.
—Mary B. Worthington, correspondent