Religious Liberty: Adventist Makes Presentation to a Catholic Conference

The following is the news report and the full text of Dr. Bert B. Beach's presentation to a Roman Catholic Conference on the subject of religious liberty and special consideration of minority church rights and problems.

Dr. Bert B. Beach

Catholics Invite Adventist Church Leader to Discuss Religious Liberty

Weingarten, Germany ... [ANN] Seventh-day Adventist leader Dr. Bert Beach participated in an inter-church Ďfirstí as an invitee to a Roman Catholic conference of canon law experts, judges, and university professors meeting in Weingarten, southern Germany, November 27-29.

Beach, director of Inter-Church Relations at the Seventh-day Adventist Church World Headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA, was a specially-invited speaker to the conference. He was asked to address the meeting on the subject of religious liberty from a non-Catholic perspective, giving special emphasis to the rights and problems of minority churches.

"The meeting was an opportunity to deal with such issues as minority church rights in the international agreements and documents, the use of pejorative terminology, proselytism, the Catholic Churchís claim to statehood, and the question of seventh-day Sabbath observance," said Beach.

The theme of the conference dealt with human rights and church law. Beachís lecture will be published by the Catholic Academy of Stuttgart-Rottenburg. [Jonathan Gallagher]







Introductory Remarks

I feel both very honored and humble at being invited to address this distinguished audience of scholars and specialists. While I am very much interested in religious liberty, my expertise is limited when it comes to Catholic canon/church law and the specifics of the German situation. Finally, as you are about to notice, my knowledge and especially practice of German ist sehr begrenzt. I would have much preferred to speak in English or French. I am also handicapped by the fact that all my documentation is in English and donít have the German wording of some of the UN or other documents I quote and have had to provide my own, unofficial translation. But since this is a conference regarding human rights and freedom of religion, I believe I can count on your tolerance and some form of Catholic "indulgence."

I hope you will bear with me, if I refer from time to time, to a personal experience. One of the great days of my life was December 7, 1965, when I was able to witness in Rome the acceptance by the Roman Catholic Church, at the close of Vatican II, of a "Declaration on Religious Liberty." And since then there have been very significant changes in the religious liberty situation in Catholic countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal.


A Wealth of International Human Rights Instruments

During the second half of the 20th century there has been a general upsurge of human rights documents in general and religious liberty and minority rights in particular. There are literally scores of international instruments. All this has happened since I graduated from college half a century ago. We have numerous documents from 1) the UN 2) UNESCO 3) International Labor Organization 4) Regional Conventions, such as those coming from the Council of Europe 5) Conferences on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Process), 6) National constitutions, legislation and judicial decisions 7) other miscellaneous documents. All this has been made more real and less hypocritical by the collapse of totalitarian Communism in Europe, not least in eastern Germany.



RCC Accepts Religious Liberty

It is in this historical setting that Vatican II accepted religious liberty and in so doing produced a changed situation. It is obviously easier to control in an autocracy than in a free and voluntary society, but coercion has really no place in a religious society; force should be alien to Christianity. The atmosphere of liberty in belief, worship, and expressing oneís religious convictions is the most auspicious milieu for the affirmation, growth, and diffusion of religious truth and church organizations.

It is thus, from a Protestant viewpoint, pleasing to notice that the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law represents some liberating changes from the 1917 Code. The section which prohibited "publishing, reading, keeping, or selling certain large categories of religion-related writings" has been entirely eliminated, though the section on prior censorship of books has been kept "in a modified and attenuated form."

All this has come as a natural consequence of Vatican II accepting religious liberty in civil society. After all, churches do not live in a vacuum.

A Negative Right

One aspect of the Vatican II teaching regarding the right to religious liberty, I find not very often mentioned. I refer to its negative nature. This right involves "immunity

from coercion in society," in such a way that 1) a person is not to be forced to act against conscience--absolute principle 2) nor "be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience:--not an absolute principle, for this right is limited by "public order." (justice, morality, peace). Without going into the matter of the elasticity and ambiguity of public order, I would like to mention that the religious liberty defined here is a negative right. It is not the right to follow the dictates of oneís conscience and fully profess oneís religion, but immunity from coercion in religious matters. From a Protestant viewpoint a positive formulation is more desirable.

Fortunately, in his advocacy of religious liberty, Pope John Paul II has advanced beyond the negative formulation of Vatican II--freedom from constraint--to positive affirmation of religious liberty (e.g. in his 1988 World Day of Peace message).

The Basic Right

Before going on to some other points, may I just briefly touch upon the relationship of religious liberty to human rights in general. In fact, the very topic of this conference recognizes such a relationship. There is no doubt that religious liberty and certain human rights do overlap each other. For example, freedom of speech, assembly, press, education. So much so, that some people say we should not be promoting religious liberty as such, but human rights in general. I would agree that a good human rights situation is conducive to religious liberty. However, I think it is misguided to see religious liberty as simply one of the human rights. It is sui generis. Human rights generally have only a horizontal --person to person--dimension. Religious liberty has not only the horizontal dimension, but also the vertical dimension--the human-divine relationship. On this basis, religious liberty is not just a human right, but it is the fundamental human right which undergirds all human rights.

Dignity, Equality , and Non-Discrimination--Some Theological Considerations

There are three key words (among others) that are basic to religious liberty. The first is dignity--that is the dignity of the human person. The UN documents, and even more clearly Vatican II, recognize the dignity of the human person as the basis for religious liberty. For us Christians, this dignity is based on the fact that human beings are created in the image of God. God gives liberty. He says in effect "I have set before you life and death" (Deut. 30:19). Of course, God wants us to choose the good which leads to life, but the choice is ours and so are the consequences.

The dignity of the human person requires us to respect the conscience of others. You will recall the New Testament controversy regarding eating foods previously offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:4-13). The majority said it was alright to eat such food, but a minority objected for reasons of conscience. While Paul sided with the majority, and considered the conscience of the majority as objectively correct, he also stated that the church must take into account, respect and protect the unenlightened conscience of the minority. If this is to be the case in the church, then it is all the more imperative in todayís pluralistic society.

The second word mentioned is equality. Certainly we are equal before God, because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Furthermore, equality of all human beings is a concept that now receives universal acknowledgment in theory, if not always in practice. Equality before the law is a well-accepted juridical concept.

Equality of individual people should have as its logical corollary, the civil equality of their religious beliefs and churches. No legal difference should be made between churches and denominations, large or small, old or young, popular or disliked.

The third word is non-discrimination. This is, of course, linked to equality. Religious liberty declines as equality decreases and discrimination increases. It is interesting to note that the concept of non-discrimination is anchored in the very charter of the United Nations, which is to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to ... religion."

Respect for Godís Sovereignty and Judgment

Actually, it seems to me that the use of doctrines or historical traditions as a justification for religious discrimination of people belonging to another church or belief, is absolutizing one view over another--a form of idolatry. Equality and non-discrimination involve respect for Godís sovereignty by placing no limitations on Godís freedom to communicate to man through man. From this viewpoint, religious liberty and non-discrimination deal not so much with the freedom of man, as with the freedom of God to speak to and through all human beings.

Finally, religious liberty respects Godís day of judgment. Both the Old and New Testaments highlight Godís day of judgment. The apostle Paul says: "Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come" (1 Cor. 4:5). For individuals to act as inquisitors, to assume the right to judge motives, to oppress those that have the "wrong" belief, is a sort of usurpation of divine authority that God will exercise on the day of judgment. Is it not a form of quasi idolatry to make absolute claims of rightness and try to establish a doctrinal or juridical platform to judge fellow human beings, thus providing justification or at least a basis for religious discrimination and even persecution? Is this not, to say the least, "eschatological impatience"? We must not forget that in Jesusí parable, the good wheat and the tares grow together until the day of final harvest.

Rights of Minority Churches in International Instruments

Few would doubt the rights of majority or established churches. However, minority churches also have rights. In fact, on the basis of equality and non-discrimination, one can make the case that the rights of minorities should be much the same as those of majorities. On the other hand, it is inherent in democratic societies that the majority wins and rules in the political sphere. Nevertheless, democratic societies generally recognize that there are fundamental human rights, including the right to religious beliefs, that are not to be inteferred with, and are thus beyond the reach of the majority.

It must be pointed out that the rights of minorities, including religious minorities are now deeply ingrained in various international instruments. Let me mention a few:

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, defines genocide as including acts committed with the intent of destroying a religious group in whole or in part, such as deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the groupís physical destruction, in whole or in part.

The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Article 27 states that religious minorities should not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group "to profess and practice their own religion."

The Concluding Document of the 1989 Vienna Conference on Security and  Cooperation in Europe in its Principle 16, presents quite a list of rights, with a view to support the liberty of the most basic minority, the individual person, to practice his religion. Principle 19 says that the participating states will protect and create the conditions to promote the religious identity of national minorities, "and ensure their full equality with others."

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) in Article 30 states that a child belonging to a religious minority shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his group, to profess and practice his or her religion. This seems an obvious right, but is not always so in practice.

The 1990 "Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe" , affirms in Principle 32 that no disadvantage may arise from exercising the choice or right of belonging to a national minority. Principle 33 goes even further and says that the participating states are to protect the religious identity of national minorities, create conditions for the promotion of such identity, and take measures to that effect. These measures are to "be in conformity with the principles of equality and non-discrimination with respect to the other citizens."

Principle 36 then goes on to say that a climate of mutual respect, understanding, cooperation and solidarity, without distinction as to religion, is to be promoted by the states. Principle 40 condemns discrimination against anyone and the states are to take measures to protect against violence based on religious discrimination.

The 1990 "Charter of Paris for a New Europe" makes a fundamental statement: The rights of national minorities are "part of universal human rights." As a result, the religious identity of national minorities are to be protected "without any discrimination and in full equality before the law."

We also have the 1992 "Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities." Article 1 states unequivocally that these persons have the right to profess and practice their minority religion "without interference or any form of discrimination." This means that minority persons have the right "to participate effectively in... religious... and public life" and not be subject to discrimination or disadvantage when exercising minority rights. States are to take measures required to create favorable conditions for persons to express their minority religious characteristics in full equality before the law, "except where specific practices are in violation of national law and contrary to international standards". You will note that it is not sufficient to be in violation of national law, but this violation must also be contrary to international standards. This is a new concept. This new concept is further enlarged in Article 8 by the principle that measures taken by states to ensure effective minority rights "shall not prima facie be considered contrary to the principle of equality contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

This is rather important, because on occasion authorities in refusing minority religious rights, will use the argument that granting such a right violates the principle of general equality.

The World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993 reaffirmed the obligation (not just the desirability) of states to ensure minority rights in accordance with the already mentioned 1992 Declaration on these rights. The UN Commission on Human rights is called upon to examine ways and means to both promote and protect effectively minority rights including, of course, those of religious minorities.

Finally, there is a strong statement from Pope John Paul II in his 1989 World Day of Peace Message. He emphasized the need to "respect minorities" and especially their religious liberty. He said: "Religious minorities must be able to worship as a community, according to their own rites. They must also be in a position to provide religious education through appropriate teaching programmes." He then states that government authorities should ensure religious freedom "especially when, alongside the great majority who follow one religion, there exists one or more minority groups of another faith."

Some Problems

While there appears to be a broad theoretical consensus regarding religious liberty in general and minority religious liberty rights in particular, there are some problems that exist and can trouble church-state and inter-church relations. I mention a few; not necessarily in order of importance.

1. Issues of Terminology:

I think that all churches have sins to confess in this area, including minority churches. Fortunately, since the ecumenical movement and Vatican II, we have been less prone to think of the others as dangerous heretics, schismatics, blasphemers and so forth, and more as separated brothers and sisters, nevertheless brothers and sisters in Christ.

There is one term that is quite easily bandid about by majority churches and that is the term sect. Interestingly enough, my church is never a sect but only other churches are!

While, at least in English, the term sect, when used by sociologists is at times appropriate, when used by churchmen it has definitely a pejorative meaning and should be avoided when referring to smaller or newer minority denominations.

In German or French or other languages, the situation is even worse. In English we have the word cult -- another "four letter word" -- to use when we really want to stigmatize another religious group. However, in German and other languages there is only the word sect and it is used to include what would be called cults in English. It seems to me the proper thing is to follow the ecumenical principle of referring to religious groups by the terminology they use for themselves. This may not be possible in all instances, but at least we should use respectful terminology and not systematically put minority churches down.

2. Issue of Ignoring Minority Churches

Some church leaders have a great burden to preserve the religious status  quo at all cost, perhaps especially when their church is experiencing amembership or financial decline. One way to do this is simply to systematically ignore--at least publicly--other religious groups, especially those that might bring a little theological or other controversy into the public debate. This is an oft-used devise by politicians running for reelection. "Donít mention the other candidates. This will only make them better known." Sometimes silence can be the kiss of ecclesiastical death. Let me give you three illustrations from my own experience. These are just illustrations and Iím not trying to disparage anyone or any country. In 1962, I was in Rome observing the opening of the Second Vatican Council. I approached one of the Spanish bishops and asked him: "We are now hearing a great deal about the Ďseparated brethrení. Can you tell me what is the relationship in Spain between the Roman Catholic Church and the separated brethren?" His answer was: "Oh, there is a good situation. In Spain we have no Ďseparated brethrení!"

Then, several years later in 1975, my own church was having its world assembly in a neighboring country to Germany. It was a rather big meeting lasting ten days, with some 15000 people in attendance, providing it would seem, legitimate public interest. However, prior to the assembly the leading church figure in that country called a meeting of representatives of various churches and suggested that they ignore this assembly and ask the press to do likewise. This strategy was quite successful in several ways.

In contrast, when we had our last world assembly (it takes place every five   years) in Utrecht, in 1995, the Cardinal Primate of the Netherlands actually came and attended the assembly for several hours. He obviously did not believe that Ďignorance is bliss", as the English saying goes.

3. Access to the "Public Square" and Media

One of the difficulties faced by minority churches, related to the point we have just made, is access to the "public square" and to the mass media, especially television. This varies from country to country. I have been told that this is a problem in Germany, as it is for minority churches in many countries. Principle 16 of the Concluding Document of the 1989 Vienna meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe lists as one of the rights allowing for the profession and practice of a personís religion, participation by religious communities in the public dialog, includingr through use of the mass media. States are specifically asked to adopt a positive and favorable attitude toward this participation by religious communities. It would seem to me, however, that it is not only necessary for the states to have in this regard a positive and helpful attitude, but it is important to urge the majority churches to be less jealous and protective of their status in public affairs and in the use of the media, and more willing to and even desirous of sharing public time and platforms with the religious minorities. It would seem that it should be possible to solve this and other problems "through," what the already  mentioned 1990 Copenhagen Document called "dialogue based on the principles of the rule of law."

4. The Issue of Proselytism

This is not a simple problem. There is little doubt that evangelism - preaching the Christian gospel - to every nation, kindred, tongue and people (Rev. 14:6) - is a Christian imperative. A non-evangelistic church is an emasculated - probably even dying - church. In terms of the traditional dictionary definition  of proselytism, all evangelism is a form of proselytism. It is at this point that we have a problem. The English dictionary defines proselytism as conversion from one belief to another. This seems to be quite in harmony with the great New Testament gospel commission to go and teach all people. Minority churches--at least those that are growing--are active in evangelistic outreach,and therefore accused by the more sedate churches of "proselytism," or to use the more lurid expression, of "sheep stealing."

The problem with the term proselytism is that it has various meanings, most of them quite different from the original dictionary meaning, and people, when using the expression, should make clear in what way they are using proselytism.

There is the definition of the World Council of Churches: corrupt witness, that is using false, improper methods, such as offering financial inducements, providing untrue or misleading information. The 1997 WCC statement "Toward Common Witness" offers a characterization of proselytism that involves such things as "unfair criticism," "caricaturing the doctrines of another church" and exploiting peopleís loneliness, illness, distress or even disillusionment with their own church to convert them. Wrong methods.

We have the definition of the Orthodox: proselytism is not so much using   wrong methods as using the wrong address. Anyone baptized, even though that person would seem to have no living, active relationship with Christ, is off limits. Wrong person.

Then we have a Catholic definition used by Bishop Pierre Duprey, Secretary of the Vatican Council on Christian Unity: An organized effort to enlarge oneís church at the expense of another church. When there is awrong motivation you have proselytism.

It is obvious that minority churches that have a missionary spirit are not going to stop witnessing, nor should they. However, it would be helpful to get them involved in dialog and endeavor to reach agreement on what the French call a "code de bonne conduite." Some orthodox have called for a "missionary pact of non-aggression."

5. Church-State Issues

While the international instruments deal extensively with human rights issues, they do not treat very much church-state issues in general, nor the question of church-state separation in particular. The reason for this, is presumably because there are many models of church-state relations, varying from country to country. In other words, there is no international consensus concerning these matters. In some countries churches are subsidized by the state, in others this is considered unconstitutional. In some countries religion is taught in the schools and in others this is not the case. Some countries practice strict separation of church and state, while in others church and state are essentially one.

If there is some theoretical international consensus emerging, it is in the area of equality and non-discrimination. Should not religious minorities enjoy the same privileges given to majority churches and to citizens belonging to  these churches. The 1990 Copenhagen meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe states that belonging to a minority should not result in a disadvantage for the person making that choice and that states should protect religious minorities by adopting measures which "are in conformity with the principles of equality and non-discrimination with respect to the other citizens" (Principle 38).

In harmony with this thinking it would seem out of place for certain states to require individuals to belong to a certain religion or confession in order to serve in public office (e.g., to be head of state). It seems discriminating, for example, for bishops of the church of England to sit in the House of Lords, but not leaders of other churches. If a state grants financial subsidies to churches, then these should be available to all, not just to privileged religious groups. If religion is taught in schools, then all religions should have the right to teach religion to their children.

In this connection, the question arises regarding the Kirchensteuer. Is it not discriminating for certain churches to receive large funds via the state, while others receive nothing? I have asked regarding the rationale for using Caesar to collect money from church members to be given to their church.

The justification for this practice that I have heard is "if we did not have the Kirchensteuer we would get less money." If this is true, does this bring into question the spiritual vitality of the church and the persuasion of the formal members?

There is one delicate church-state issue that I hesitate to raise, but I believe it cannot be indefinitely ignored. I am referring to the Holy See (that is the Pope and Curia of the Roman Catholic Church) claiming and receiving the status of a political state. It is in practice impossible to differentiate between the Pope as head of the Roman Catholic Church and as head of the Vatican City State. In fact, diplomatic relations are not with Vatican City, but with the Holy See. An ambassador to the Holy See is, in essence, an ambassador to the head and governing body of the Roman Catholic Church.

With all due respect, it seems to me that from a New Testament perspective the concept of Christís church being a state is troubling. From the viewpoint of minority churches--in fact all other churches--this arrangement seems discriminatory and runs counter to the pluralistic principle of equality before the law of all religious bodies. This issue is not only a theoretical one, but has practical results of a discriminatory nature. For example, at the United Nations the Holy See sits with non-member states, while other Christian churches, including the World Council of Churches, sit in the back as non-governmental organizations. In the United States, for example, the Catholic Church through the papal pronuncio has direct access to the State Department and the White House; other churches do not have this diplomatic channel. I find it strange, though rather interesting, to receive mail from the Vatican through diplomatic pouch, rather than the regular international postal service.

Despite the significant international role of the current pope in promoting peace and human rights, it would seem to this Protestant onlooker that sooner or later the Vatican is going to have to face up to the implications of the Holy See as a state, not to mention the economic burdens of financing a costly world-wide diplomatic service.

6. A Problem of a Minority Church - Day of Rest and Worship

In closing I would like to mention one problem faced by the members of a specific free church. I mention it, because Iím personally acquainted with it, since it deals with my own church. It is one problem that illustrates, no doubt, numerous problems that are specific to other churches. I refer to the day of religious worship and rest. As you know, Seventh-day Adventists are out of step with most other Christians, in that they worship and rest on the Biblical Seventh-day Sabbath, not on the traditional Sunday. You can well understand that this often causes problems, even hardship, for Sabbath keepers.

When I was a child, it was quite normal for a Seventh-day Adventist to loose his job and for Seventh-day Adventist children and their parents to have frequent problems regarding the required school attendance on Saturday, including examination schedules. Young people had problems with military service on Sabbath.

Fortunately, I can say that the situation is generally much more favorable today, including in Catholic countries like Italy, Spain and Poland. The growth of the concept of religious liberty has helped. So have some international instruments. I refer to just two: 1) The 1957 Convention No. 106 Concerning Weekly Rest in Commerce or Offices (Art. 6) says that "The traditions and customs of religious minorities shall, as far as possible, be respected." 2) The 1981 "Declaration on the Elimination of all forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief" states (in Article 6, section h), that every person has the right to observe days of rest in accordance with the precept of his religion.

It is important for majority churches in promoting Sunday observance and legislation favoring their right to a day of rest and family worship, to remember and help protect the rights and needs of minority churches who worship on a different day.


We have come a long way since the days of the Inquisition, the burning or execution of heretics by both Catholics and Protestants, and the systematic oppression of and discrimination against minority churches. There is today the beginning of a consensus emerging regarding basic human rights and religious liberty. However, there are dark clouds on the religious liberty horizon: 1) The free profession of the Christian religion is not accepted in Muslim countries, 2) The growth of religious fundamentalism and extremism is inimical to tolerance and religious liberty; 3) The rise of nationalism and a religious territorial and cultural mentality is once again endangering the rights of religious minorities in certain countries. When these various forces--religious fanaticism, political nationalism and cultural religious imperialism--combine, you have indeed an explosive mixture which can very well blow religious liberty into oblivion or at least badly damage it. A conference like this one helps remind us that the price of religious liberty is always eternal vigilance.

Bert Beverly Beach



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