The Catholic Church is not quite 43 years old—at least in “religious freedom” years. In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI termed freedom of conscience an “absurd and erroneous” proposal. In 1895, after praising the unexpected growth and vitality of Catholicism in a Protestant nation, Pope Leo XIII cautioned James Cardinal Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore, not to infer from these blandishments any shift in the Church’s official position toward church-state separation. “For the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and government of your nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance,” Leo acknowledged, in Longinqua Oceani, the encyclical letter addressed to Gibbons. On his first reading of this passage, the Americanist Gibbons must have thought: ‘Finally, Rome gets it!’ Then came the papal reproach: “Yet, though all this is true, it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.” Rather, the Church “would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of public authority.”

The drumbeat of resistance to an official acceptance of church-state separation and the accompanying religious pluralism continued well into the twentieth century. From the 1940s through the early ‘60s, the clerical opponents of John Courtney Murray, S.J., bemoaned a “creeping relativism” that was poisoning the postwar religious environment in the United States. Francis J. Connell, a Redemptorist priest teaching at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., authored dozens of articles for the American Ecclesiastical Review [AER], lamenting the fact that “in present-day America the frequent intermingling of Catholics with non-Catholics is inevitable.” In their “laudable efforts to be broadminded and charitable toward the members of non-Catholic religious bodies,” Connell asked, rhetorically, “are Catholics not becoming unduly tolerant toward their doctrines? Is not the pendulum swinging from bigotry to indifferentism?” Connell’s ally and the editor of AER, Joseph C. Fenton, worried that the emergence “of a kind of mitigated indifferentism,”—the opinion that the supernatural truth claims of specific religious doctrines are less important than their social consequences—was marked by a forgetting “that the Church is essentially God’s kingdom on earth, ever striving for its supernatural objective against the hostile efforts of the world itself.”

Contributing to the problem, these priests contended, was Father Murray’s call for inter-religious cooperation in response to a rising tide of secularism. Ironically, they argued, such cooperation would only accelerate the rate of secularization. Too many American Catholics, Connell warned, are “prone to imagine that the visible Catholic society to some extent shares its functions with other organizations.” For his part, Fenton questioned whether non-Catholics are fully within the Kingdom of Christ. “It is objectively a moral wrong,” he warned, “for any American… to adopt a non-Catholic religion.”

It was only on December 7, 1965, following Murray’s victory at the Second Vatican Council, that the Roman Catholic Church, in the landmark document Dignitatis Humanae [Declaration on Religious Liberty], effectively reversed centuries of teaching: “The Vatican council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.” Furthermore, “[T]his right to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right.” Almost overnight, the Church repudiated its previous exclusive reliance on concordats with states that would protect its previously privileged rights, and began to lobby through civil society for greater cultural as well as legal recognition of “freedom of conscience.” As Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington put it, in reflecting on the global ministry of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005 as pope): Who could have imagined that the world’s most influential and energetic advocate of religious freedom in the last quarter of the twentieth century would be the Roman Catholic pontiff?

Now comes Pope Benedict XVI to the land of liberty, and what is striking is that his repeated, almost routine, invocation and endorsement of democracy, American freedoms and, especially, religious liberty struck no one as extraordinary. Echoing the positive praise of Leo XIII in 1895 and John Paul II more recently, Benedict repeatedly acknowledged the many benefits enjoyed by the Church in the United States, and celebrated the American form of democracy as a privileged setting for the flourishing of religious faith.

In his statements to the Church, per se-to Catholic bishops, educators, seminarians, religious and the faithful who attended one of the papal masses in D.C. and New York-the endorsement of American freedom was somewhat more mixed. Nonetheless, conspicuous by its absence was any warning about the presumed perils of religious pluralism. During his homily during the Mass at Yankee stadium, for example, the pope noted that “authority” and “obedience”… “are not easy words to speak nowadays… especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom“[italics added]. Yet he also insisted that freedom be read ultimately as a gift of God and “the fruit of conversion to his truth.” Elsewhere, the pope seemed to contrast the role of religions, in general, in upholding authentic freedom, with the distortions of freedom introduced by secularists who have forgotten or who ignore its divine foundations.

As for “inter-religious cooperation,” Benedict is all for it—as long as Truth is the inspiration, source and ultimate goal. Back in the forties and fifties, the question was whether and how Christian denominations might interpret, and perhaps build upon, the legacy of wartime pastoral and “logistical” partnership among Christian denominations-a collaboration that was dedicated to providing spiritual care and humanitarian assistance to soldiers and other victims of war. The emphasis was not on deep theological or ecclesiological dialogue—even the Church’s leading ecumenist, Gustave Weigel, S.J., was conservative, by post-conciliar standards, on the question of how far such dialogue could really progress—but, rather, on joint social and cultural initiatives that would strengthen the presumed Christian foundations of American society.

Today, inter-religious cooperation is again focused on addressing the devastations wrought by war and deadly violence, intolerance and hatred. Increasingly dedicated to the task of “religious peacebuilding,” Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh leaders and scholars draw upon the growing number of books, articles, funded research projects, intra-faith colloquia and faith-based NGOs that constitute a cottage industry in religiously-inflected diplomacy, conflict transformation, and humanitarian intervention. In the wake of 9/11 and the debacle in Iraq, even the United States is casting aside an earlier aversion to working with and through religions and religious organizations to promote healing, reconciliation and conflict prevention. On the horizon, one discerns a new wave of projects and alliances, previously unimagined.

While Pope Benedict XVI is not exactly an alarmist with regard to this newer wave of “inter-religious collaboration,” the spirit of Fathers Fenton and Connell hovered over his words of greeting to the representatives of other religions with whom he met on April 17 at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. In keeping with the overarching message of his visit to the U.S.-in short, that the foundation of a just society is political and cultural respect for human dignity, and legal protection of “authentic” human rights and freedoms; and, that this respect and protection, to endure in its fullness, must be rooted in a proper appreciation and understanding of the Truth about humanity revealed by God in Jesus Christ—the pope seemed less enthusiastic about practical collaboration among religions, in which contested or competing truth claims may well be tabled in pursuit of the “common good,” and more concerned with elucidating the Truth underlying any genuinely fruitful collaboration.

Indeed, he pointed to a “growing interest among governments to sponsor programs intended to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue.” These are praiseworthy initiatives, he murmured. “At the same time, religious freedom, interreligious dialogue and faith-based education aim at something more than a consensus regarding ways to implement practical strategies for advancing peace. The broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth. What is the origin and destiny of mankind? What are good and evil? What awaits us at the end of our earthly existence? Only by addressing these deeper questions can we build a solid basis for the peace and security of the human family, for ‘wherever and whenever men and women are enlightened by the splendor of truth, they naturally set out on the path of peace (Message for the 2006 World Day of Peace, 3).'”

How far has the Catholic Church traveled, then, in its almost 43 years as an advocate of religious freedom? Apparently, the journey has brought the Vatican to the brink of allying itself, however cautiously, with all believers whose search for the Truth of God has led them, or may be leading them, to endorse human dignity and human freedom as the basis for world order and cross-cultural, transnational peace. Strange bedfellows? Perhaps not, if agnostic or atheistic forms of secularism—characterized by the pope, in his address to the United Nations, as an unstable basis for a world order based on universal human rights—are now perceived by Rome as the real enemy.

Is the pope “indifferent”? No. Is he pragmatic? Yes.