Bishop Athanasius Schneider on religious liberty

By Robert Duncan
Catholic News Service

Bishop Athanasius Schneider is an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Astana, Kazakhstan. On a recent trip to the United States, he granted an interview to Catholic News Service.

Bishop Schneider who was born in the former Soviet Union, recalled how atheism was taught to him in kindergarten and atheistic ideas permeated all strata of society.

Within that context, Bishop Schneider said, the Second Vatican Council’s document on religious liberty (“Dignitatis Humanae”) could be properly understood. Though the government didn’t believe in God, at least both Christians and the communists could dialogue “to save the human dignity,” and thereby promote religious liberty.

But the council’s document was not properly understood by everyone. Interpretations of the document that suggested a “rupture” with previous church teaching were many, the bishop said.

“Even human societies have to serve the Creator. … It is not always possible because of the consequences of original sin and the activity of the devil, but in theory we have to say this, and this is not a contradiction with ‘Dignitatis Humanae.’ We have to reconcile this.”

The bishop also said that in Catholic-majority countries, it is a matter of justice and also of democratic principle that the government respect this majority.

“It does not mean that other religions will be persecuted or discriminated, but it is an issue of justice for the majority,” Bishop Schneider said.

In Catholic countries, the bishop also said that the proselytizing actions of “false religions and sects” may be curbed.

“For example, in Latin America, the aggressive Protestant proselytisms (are) destroying large Catholic populations. We cannot as Catholics be content with this and cannot say this is an application of religious liberty. … In these cases we must defend Catholics,” Bishop Schneider said.

That defense is first the responsibility of the bishop and clergy through preaching, but the bishop did not rule out political defenses as well.

“When there is (a Catholic majority) then false religions and sects have not the right to make propaganda there.” That doesn’t mean that governments can “suppress them, they can live, but (governments) cannot give them the same right to make propaganda to the detriment of Catholics.”

Robert Duncan is a multimedia journalist in the Catholic News Service Rome bureau.