The document invites theologians to come up with a conception of religious freedom adequate to our times: “the correct elaboration of the thought on religious freedom in the public sphere calls Christian theology to an in-depth study of the cultural complexity of today’s civil order in order to stop, from a theoretical point of view, the regression toward theocracy” (par. 13). In defending religious liberty for all, the Catholic Church is not simply pursuing its own institutional interests or seeking special advantages; in fact, it refuses to be identified “as the subject of a private interest that competes to affirm its privileges” (par. 52–53). The church is not a lobby.
The document calls on its readers to be aware of the influence on religious liberty of new media and social media, which often use religious identity to manipulate people, playing one group off another (par. 55). There is also a reminder that in Jesus’ own teachings we find a distinction between civil political authority and religious leadership. The document cautions us to avoid simplifying Augustine’s thought about the state and politics: “Far from denigrating the state, with the idea that the supreme commitment of the state to guarantee temporal peace is connected with the destiny of peace promised by God in eternal life, Augustine restores to the state the integrity of its function” (par. 59).
The sections devoted to the role of the state provide a substantial critique of the liberal order, taking aim at that order’s “obsession of a perfect neutrality about values” (par. 45). The commission calls this “a form of ‘soft totalitarianism’ that makes the public sphere vulnerable to the spread of ethical nihilism” (par. 4). The document rejects both theocracy and a model of agnostic multiculturalism that deprives religions of their legitimate function of mediation in civil society (par. 53). The commission emphasizes the internal contradiction between the supposed neutrality of the state and secularism: “the state tends to assume the form of a ‘secular imitation’ of the theocratic conception of religion, which decides the orthodoxy and the heresy of freedom in the name of a political-salvific vision of the ideal society: deciding a priori the perfectly rational, perfectly civil, perfectly humane identity of society. Absolutism and relativism of this liberal morality here enter into a conflict with the effects of illiberal exclusion in the public sphere, within the alleged liberal neutrality of the state” (par. 63).
Notwithstanding its critique of liberal modernity, the document does not invite Catholics to look back to Christendom with nostalgia: “the constraint of a state religion, which was proposed at a certain point in European history to stem the excesses of the so-called ‘religious wars,’ seems to have been superseded in the current evolution of the principle of citizenship, which implies freedom of conscience” (par. 70). Indeed, the document emphasizes the role of the state in protecting religious liberty, but also in protecting citizens from the abuses of religious liberty: “it is up to the political authority, guardian of public order, to defend citizens, especially the weakest, against sectarian tendencies of certain religious claims (psychological and emotional manipulation, economic and political exploitation…). Among the just demands of reason, in its juridical-political implications we can include—in recent years—the peaceful reciprocity of religious rights, including that of freedom of conversion” (par. 70). This is a new problem, one Vatican II did not anticipate: “It is no longer a question of applying religious freedom only with respect to the religion of others, but also to the criticism of one’s own. This situation poses delicate problems of balance in the application of religious freedom” (par. 80).
In seeking to promote this balance, the document rejects both confessionalism and French-style laïcité: “The state cannot be theocratic, or atheist, or ‘neutral’…rather, it is called to exercise a ‘positive secularity’ [laicità positiva] toward the social and cultural forms that ensure the necessary and concrete relationship of the rule of law with the effective community of those entitled to rights” (par. 86). The rights to religious liberties (plural) of different religions must be held in balance with the common good: “The state cannot just accept different understandings of religious liberty, transforming them into law, without scrutinizing their impact on the common good” (par. 44).