Vatican City, 16 January 2013 (VIS) - Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, secretary for the Holy See's Relations with States, was interviewed by Vatican Radio on the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in several cases relating to freedom of conscience and religion.
"On 15 January, the European Court of Human Rights published its judgements on four cases relating to the freedom of conscience and religion of employees in the United Kingdom. Two of these cases concern employees’ freedom to wear a small cross around their neck in the workplace, while the other two concern the freedom to object in conscience to the celebration of a civil union between persons of the same sex and to conjugal counselling for couples of the same sex."
Some time ago, the Holy See’s Mission to the Council of Europe published a Note on the Church’s freedom and institutional autonomy. The archbishop explained the context of the Note as "the issue of the Church’s freedom in her relations with civil authorities," which "is at present being examined by the European Court of Human Rights in two cases involving the Orthodox Church of Romania and the Catholic Church. These are the Sindacatul 'Pastorul cel Bun' v. Romania and Fernandez Martinez v. Spain cases. On this occasion, the Permanent Representation of the Holy See to the Council of Europe drew up a synthetic note explaining the Magisterium [official Church teaching] on the freedom and institutional autonomy of the Catholic Church."
"In these cases," the archbishop said, "the European Court must decide whether the civil power respected the European Convention on Human Rights in refusing to recognize a trade union of priests [in the Romanian case] and in refusing to appoint a teacher of religion who publicly professes positions contrary to the teaching of the Church [in the Spanish case]. In both cases, the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression were invoked in order to constrain religious communities to act in a manner contrary to their canonical status and the Magisterium. Thus, these cases call into question the Church’s freedom to function according to her own rules and not to be subject to civil rules other than those necessary to ensure that the common good and just public order are respected. The Church has always had to defend herself in order to preserve her autonomy with regard to the civil power and ideologies. Today, an important issue in Western countries is to determine how the dominant culture, strongly marked by materialist individualism and relativism, can understand and respect the nature of the Church, which is a community founded on faith and reason."
Faced with this situation, "the Church is aware of the difficulty of determining the relations between the civil authorities and the different religious communities in a pluralist society with regard to the requirements of social cohesion and the common good. In this context, the Holy See draws attention to the necessity of maintaining religious freedom in its collective and social dimension. This dimension corresponds to the essentially social nature both of the person and of the religious fact in general. The Church does not ask that religious communities be lawless zones but that they be recognized as spaces for freedom, by virtue of the right to religious freedom, while respecting just public order. This teaching is not reserved to the Catholic Church; the criteria derived from it are founded in justice and are therefore of general application.""Furthermore, the juridical principle of the institutional autonomy of religious communities is widely recognized by States that respect religious freedom, as well as by international law. The European Court of Human Rights itself has regularly stated this principle in several important judgements. Other institutions have also affirmed this principle. This is notably the case with the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and also with the United Nations Committee for Human Rights in, respectively, the 'Final Document' of the Vienna Conference of 19 January 1989 and 'General Observation no. 22 on the Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion' of 30 July 1993. It is nevertheless useful to recall and defend this principle of the autonomy of the Church and the civil power.