This is a translation of the speech on religious liberty made in the ecumenical council by Josef Cardinal Beran of Prague, Czechoslovakia, on Sept. 20.
The declaration on religious liberty, which in a wide sense is valid for all forms of true freedom of conscience, is of great moment both theologically and practically.
It is clearly stated in Sacred Scripture that “all that is not from faith” — that is, according to the context of the Epistle to the Romans, which does not flow from a sincere conscience — “is sin” (Rom. 14, 23). Therefore, he who compels a person to act against his conscience by physical or moral force leads him into sin against God. Even for us, venerable brothers, the exhortation of St. James is valid: “So speak and so act as men about to be judged by the law of liberty” (James 2, 12).
These principles are confirmed even by experience. And here I humbly dare to add my testimony.
From the very moment in which freedom of conscience was radically restricted in my country, I witnessed the grave temptations which, under such conditions, confront so many. In my whole flock, even among the priests, I have observed not only grave temptations to faith, but also to lying, hypocrisy and other moral vices which easily corrupt people who lack true freedom of conscience.
If this repression of conscience is knowingly directed against true religion, the gravity of such a scandal is evident to every Christian. However, experience shows us too that such procedures against liberty of conscience are pernicious, morally speaking, even if through them the good of the true faith is intended or pretended.
Everywhere, and always and always, the violation of liberty of conscience gives birth to hypocrisy in many people. And, perhaps, one can say that hypocrisy in the profession of the faith is more harmful to the Church than the hypocrisy of hiding the faith, which, anyway, is more common in our times.
So, in my country, the Catholic Church at this time seems to be suffering expiation for defects and sins committed in times gone by in her name against religious liberty, such as in the 15th century the burning of the priest John Huss and during the 17th century the forced reconversion of a great part of the Czech people to the Catholic faith under the rule “the people of a territory follow the religion of its ruler.”
By such acts, the secular arm, wishing or pretending to serve the Catholic Church, in reality left a hidden wound in the hearts of the people.
This trauma was an obstacle to religious progress and offered, and offers still, facile material for agitation to the enemies of the Church.
So history also warns us, that in this council the principle of religious liberty and liberty of conscience must be enunciated in very clear words and without any restrictions, which might stem from opportunistic motives. If we do this, even in the spirit of penance for such sins of the past, the moral authority of our Church will be greatly augmented for the benefit of the world.
Even those, who today suppress liberty of conscience to the detriment of the Church, will find themselves, in our times, quite alone, ashamed before the eyes of all men of good will. This shame could become salutary, even a beginning of a recognition of error. And this council will acquire a greater moral force toward intervention in favor of the persecuted brothers with hope of success.
Therefore, I ask you, venerable brothers, not to diminish in any way the strength of this declaration and also to add at the end of this declaration these or similar words:
“The Catholic Church requests:
“That all governments in the world extend to all citizens, to those who believe in God too, an effective liberty of conscience and cease from any and every suppression of religious liberty;
“That they free immediately priests and laymen who, for their religious activities, have been held in prison over so many years under pretext of other charges;
“That they permit the many bishops and priests who are impeded from fulfilling their office to return to their flocks;
“That the Church be guaranteed internal autonomy and practical communication with the See of Peter in those states where, by unjust laws, she is left to the mercy of hostile state offices;
“That these states desist from placing obstacles in the path of young people who wish to embrace the priestly or monastic life;
“That they permit again the life common to religious orders and congregations of men and women;
“That, finally, they grant all the faithful an effective liberty to profess the faith, to propound and to explain, at least in a positive way, the revealed truths and, moreover, to educate their children into the faith.”
Thus truly will be accomplished a work of peace, so needed in our day.