A historic circuit of great consequence for human freedom will be completed next weekend when Pope John Paul II visits the Basilica of the of the Assumption, Baltimore's Old Cathedral, in whose crypt Cardinal James Gibbons lies buried.
The story begins in Rome on Maryland Day, March 25, in 1887. There, the newly created Cardinal Gibbons, who had been archbishop of Baltimore since 1877, was to take possession of his titular Roman pastorate, the venerable Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Such ceremonies rarely provide the occasion for memorable rhetoric. But on the advice of one of his more adventurous counselors, Msgr. Denis O'Connell, the cardinal decided to preach that day in defense of religious freedom and the American constitutional arrangement on church and state.
A challenge to Rome
In the Roman context of that time, Gibbons' choice of topic could hardly have been bolder. The received theological opinion was that an established Catholic Church in a confessionally Catholic state was the way things ought to be; the American arrangement was, at best, something to be tolerated.
Thus when Gibbons, in his sermon, recounted the amazing progress the church had made in the United States in the previous hundred years and then attributed that success "in no small degree to the civil liberty we enjoy in our enlightened republic," he was respectfully but firmly challenging a position that had dominated Catholic thinking for centuries. At the same time, he was giving voice to the public aspirations of Catholics in America since the Ark and the Dove had landed Leonard Calvert and his fellow-colonists on St. Clement's Island, 253 years before.
The fact that Catholicism flourished in the democratic United States while a vast secularization emptied the churches of western Europe continued to pose a strong empirical challenge to the traditional Roman position on church-and-state throughout the first half of the 20th century. The theological challenge implied in Gibbons' sermon was deepened in the 1940s and 1950s by an adopted son of Maryland, the Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., of Woodstock College.
Murray's historical and philosophical defense of religious freedom as congruent with the principles of Catholic social doctrine was highly controversial at the time; and lacking the protection from ecclesiastical fallout afforded Gibbons by his broad red hat, Murray paid a price for his fidelity and originality. But his work and his intellectual courage paved the way for the efforts of Baltimore's Cardinal Lawrence Shehan and others to get the Second Vatican Council to endorse religious freedom as a basic human right.
And among the "others" most deeply engaged in that project, during Vatican II's third and fourth periods in 1964 and 1965, was the young archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II. Arguing from his own singular national experience, the Polish archbishop's four interventions on the religious-freedom issue nonetheless developed themes similar to those proposed by Murray here in the United States: that the act of faith must be free in order to be genuine; that governments were simply incompetent in theological matters, and that religious tolerance must be completed in a rigorous ecumenical search for truth.
A Catholic Magna Carta
For all that it was sired by men of considerable intellectual accomplishment, Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, is not an abstract text with little purchase on the world of affairs. Quite the contrary: the declaration has become the Magna Carta of a Catholic human-rights revolution whose decisive effects on the politics of the past 15 years are displayed throughout central and eastern Europe, and in other venues as various as the Philippines and Chile.
For Dignitatis Humanae was the breakthrough to a full-bodied Roman Catholic theory of democracy -- now no longer articulated by independent-minded scholars like Murray, but by the highest teaching authority of the church, in the person of John Paul II.
As the former Archbishop Wojtyla has insisted throughout his 17 years as pope, religious freedom is not just one in a long menu of human rights. Religious freedom is the first of human rights. What we call, in legal or constitutional language, "the right of religious freedom" is really the acknowledgment by the state that there is a sphere of freedom inside every human being where state power may not tread.
A state that acknowledges the right of religious freedom is thus, by self-definition, a limited state; and only a limited state can be a democratic state.
Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes hate religious freedom, precisely for this reason. Religious freedom not only makes worship, preaching, religious education and church-based charity possible. Religious freedom makes pluralism possible. And pluralism makes democracy possible.
If one wanted to pick a single date from which to start the countdown to the collapse of communism, it might will be June 2, 1979. On that first day of his historic pilgrimage to his homeland, John Paul II preached to a million Poles gathered in Warsaw's Victory Square. As the rhythmic chant -- "We want God! We want God!" -- interrupted the pope's homily time and again on that extraordinary day, a Baltimorean present might have been forgiven for hearing an echo, in a distinctively Polish accent, of Cardinal Gibbons' Roman sermon of 1887, of Father Murray's writings and lectures, and of Cardinal Shehan's speech to Vatican II on September 20, 1965, defending the Declaration on Religious Freedom as a legitimate development of doctrine.
John Paul II is the first bishop of Rome ever to visit Maryland. But in the state of Gibbons, Murray and Shehan, he is no stranger, but rather a cherished co-belligerent in the cause of human freedom -- at the heart of which is the cause of religious freedom.
George Weigel, a native of Baltimore, is the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.