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[LUMSA University, 15-16 November 2018]


The point of departure for every dialogue that truly seeks to be effective is self-awareness. Being open to the other does not mean renouncing one’s own identity and prerogatives. Wherever ‘rights’ are introduced that the Church considers to be likewise incompatible with divine law as with natural law, the Holy See will never cease to raise its voice in defence first and foremost of the human person. It is not a matter of taking a defensive stand, but of defending the harmonious and integral development of the person, since, unfortunately, as Pope Francis noted, “there is a risk” — paradoxically in some aspects — “that, in the very name of human rights, some modern forms of ideological colonization have come into being”, such that some fundamental rights may be damaged in the name of promoting other rights. At the same time the quite legitimate defence of a cultural identity cannot constitute a pretext to exempt oneself from respecting human rights.

In today’s debate, it is good to keep in mind a few elements that are fundamental for the Church in the dialogue with her interlocutors. The first one that I would like to highlight is the universal character of rights. The Declaration of 1948 in fact determined the purpose of formulating statements that would always be valid, in every age, place and culture, because they are inherent to the very nature of the human being. Today one notes a reappraisal, as much in certain spheres of the so-called West as in other cultural contexts, almost as though the profound meaning of human rights may be merely contextualized and applied to certain places and to a certain period, which now seems to be inevitably approaching its sunset. It is important, instead, to recover the objective dimension of human rights, based on the recognition of the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [which] is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.

Without such vision, rights are short-circuited so that from being universal and objective they become individual and subjective, with the paradoxical consequence that “each individual becomes the criterion for measuring himself and his own action”, which “leads to an effective lack of concern for others and favours that globalization of indifference born of selfishness, the result of a conception of man incapable of embracing the truth and living an authentic social dimension”. Only by keeping alive the awareness of the universal value of human rights can one avoid this trend which results in the proliferation of a “number of ‘new rights’ that not infrequently conflict with one another” and, at the same time, open an all-encompassing dialogue, especially in the realm of the United Nations, where most debates on the subject take place. However, it is also important to note that the growing intolerance felt by many parties with regard to International Organizations and to multilateral diplomacy puts discussion on human rights at grave risk. For its part the Holy See fundamentally favours the broadest possible discussion with all people of good will and with those institutions that undertake to protect human rights and promote the common good and social development.[...]

The discussion becomes more complicated above all when it touches the most intimate areas of life and of the human person without an objective anchor. Indeed Christianity refers “to nature and reason as the true sources of law — and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God”. On the contrary, in recent times the prevailing vision seems to be of a fragmented mankind, freed from every bond either with the supernatural as with other people, triggering a mechanism on the basis of which human rights become subjugated to the ‘consensus’ of the majority. In the Church’s reflection, however, there are no rights of ‘a person freed from every bond’; no one is ‘fragmented’ in his or her various social, economic, religious aspects, and so forth, but there is the person in his or her entirety.[...]

In the first place, there is the right to life contained in article 3 of the Declaration of 1948. It is the true basis of all human rights. The multilateral work of the Holy See, in any international forum as well as in its relations with States, is always carried out in defence of this right. Likewise, one cannot forget the Church’s practical commitment through the religious orders and their many charitable works, and also through the numerous non-governmental organizations inspired by Christianity. Alongside the defence of the inception of life and of its natural end, which constitutes the basic premise of the promotion of the right to life, today new challenges are presented in connection with modern biotechnology and at times facilitated by rather permissive legislation. Thorny questions are posed regarding genetic manipulation, organ trafficking and new developments in the ‘hybridization’ of the human person with the genome of other species.

In facing such challenges the Church is committed to emphasizing the unique and incomparable value of every single life, God’s precious gift. “The Christian is continually called” — recalled Benedict xvi — “to be ever alert in order to face the multiple attacks to which the right to life is exposed. In this he knows that he can count on motives that are deeply rooted in the natural law and that can therefore be shared by every person of upright conscience”. Unfortunately, the very right to life seems to be most exposed to the individualism that characterizes Western societies in particular. In the constant attempt to free man from God, life ceases to be a gift and is considered instead as a piece of property, which each person can freely command within the limitations set by the simple consensus of the majority. This makes the dialogue more complex, due to the difficulty of finding a common metaphysical and lexical ground of encounter.

In the context of the defence of life, the Holy See is also actively in favour of universally eliminating the death penalty. It is a commitment that takes into account both article 3 and article 5 of the Declaration of 1948, the latter of which prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. It is an issue particularly dear to the Holy Father, who, on 2 August last, decided to update the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial”, the new formulation states, “was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty party of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, (Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting Promoted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017), and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide”.[...]

With reference to articles 13 and 14 of the Declaration of 1948, the Holy See is committed to promoting the rights of migrants and refugees. In the various crises of recent years, the Holy Father has not failed to make his voice heard in the face of a tragedy of enormous proportions, highly detrimental to human dignity. In this case too, there are many interlocutors, beginning with the international community and thus the United Nations, with which the Holy See has now been working for a couple of years on the definition of the Global Compacts on migrants and refugees, which will be adopted within a year. Unfortunately and regrettably some Countries are withdrawing from the discussion.

For its part, the Holy See — through the Permanent Missions in New York, with regard to migrants, and in Geneva regarding refugees — continues to offer its active contribution to the discussions and in the preparatory consultations, promoting the Pontiff’s vision, centred around four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate. Also during his Apostolic Journeys — the first of which, his visit to the island of Lampedusa, was dedicated precisely to migrants — Pope Francis has not failed to recall the urgency to take care of those who are forced to flee from their own country due to war and persecution, as well as out of hunger and economic hardship. We know that his commitment in the promotion of the dignity of the weakest, especially of children and adolescents who are forced to live far away from their homelands and separated from familial affection, the Pope has at times aroused a sentiment of hostility especially among those who have seen their own territory hard hit by the recent waves of migration.

However, one must not foster misunderstandings. Pope Francis himself has not failed to emphasize that the welcome must be reasonable, meaning it must be accompanied by the ability to integrate and by the prudence of leaders. Thus, affirming the right of the weak to receive protection does not mean exempting them from the duty to respect the place that receives them, with its culture and its traditions. On the other hand, the duty of States to intervene in favour of those in danger does not mean abdicating the legitimate right to protect and defend its own citizens and its own values. In this regard, it should be noted that not rarely in recent years politics has renounced its role of social mediation to build up the common good, giving in to the imprudent temptation to see an easy consensus, and stirring the ancestral fears of the populace.

Also regrettable in the international context is the lessening propensity to cooperate in seeking shared solutions among the States in the face of the prevailing new forms of nationalism. These difficulties do not dismiss the Holy See’s commitment to seek a constructive dialogue with everyone in order to defend the lives in danger, nor the efforts of the Church and her charitable institutions to integrate with civil society in order to foster practical solutions to alleviate the suffering of migrants and protect the lives and work of citizens.

Lastly, I would like to recall article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. As noted, it pertains to a right on which the Church, after a long refusal, has developed her own in-depth reflection beginning with the years of the Second Vatican Council, with the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae, which states that the “human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits”. As Pope Ratzinger recalled, for the Holy See, “we are speaking of the first of human rights, for it expresses the most fundamental reality of the person”. After all, “when religious freedom is acknowledged, the dignity of the human person is respected at its root, and the ethos and institutions of peoples are strengthened. On the other hand, whenever religious freedom is denied, and attempts are made to hinder people from professing their religion or faith and living accordingly, human dignity is offended, with a resulting threat to justice and peace”. In his turn, Pope Francis has explained that “reason recognizes in religious freedom a fundamental human right which reflects the highest human dignity, the ability to seek the truth and conform to it, and recognizes in it a condition which is indispensable to the ability to deploy all of one’s own potentiality. Religious freedom is not only that of private thought or worship. It is the liberty to live, both privately and publicly, according to the ethical principals resulting from found truth”. Indeed, there have been more than a few attempts to reduce religious freedom to the merely private sphere of the person, as well as those that seek to make civil rights depend on religious affiliation. Therefore, the Holy See is on the front line in promoting the right to religious freedom, working on the one hand to prevent the marginalization of religion in civil society, and on the other hand to ensure that in every society the protection of the rights of all citizens may be independent of their religious belief.

Next to religious freedom it is important to affirm the freedom of conscience. “This freedom” — Dignitatis Humanae recalls — “means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power”. In our day, one sees with concern the attempts to reduce this right, a right at risk of being marginalized and limited, above all with regard to conscientious objection on the delicate issues pertaining to life. For the Church, conscientious objection is, instead, a fundamental right because, as Gaudium et Spes states, “conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man”, and thus it cannot be violated without harming the human person itself.


*L'Osservatore Romano, weekly edition, n.47, 23/11/2018