Liberal Democracy and the Right to Religious Freedom

16 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2009 Last revised: 10 Mar 2020


The Roman Catholic Church was famously late to embrace the right to religious freedom. Some have plausibly argued that when the Second Vatican Council, in 1965, overwhelmingly adopted the Declaration on Religious Freedom - known by the first two words of its official, Latin version: Dignitatis Humanae - the Church betrayed one of its most traditional and established theological teachings. Did the Church, at Vatican II, capitulate to, or at least compromise with, "liberalism?"

The right to religious freedom, according to international law, rests in part on respect for the "inherent dignity" of every human being. Thus there is a prima facie link between the liberal-democratic justification and the Church's 1965 justification. But as I argue in this essay, the appeal to human dignity is not an exclusive preserve of modern liberal democracy. Indeed, we can imagine a government that refuses to affirm the right to religious freedom because it wishes to save souls, and this precisely out of respect for human dignity of every human being. Such a view was proclaimed by the the pre-Vatican II Church. Thus the appeal to human dignity is not evidence of a fundamental shift by the Church. What then does account for the Church's undeniable U-turn - its undeniable change of direction?

Respect for human dignity by itself cannot provide the fundamental justification for the right to religious freedom. Another ingredient is needed: distrust, born of long historical experience, of government competence to adjudicate contested questions of religious truth. The Church in Dignitatis Humanae finally came to accept this lesson of history - a lesson available to believers of various faiths, including Catholics, as well as to nonbelievers.

Suggested Citation

Perry, Michael John, Liberal Democracy and the Right to Religious Freedom. The Review of Politics, Vol. 71, pp. 1-15, 2009, San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 09-027, Emory Public Law Research Paper No. 09-72, Available at SSRN:

Michael John Perry (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-712-2086 (Phone)

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics