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Cardinal Parolin: Fundamental Rights and the Conflicts Between Rights

Intervention at 8th International Symposium in Rome

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Hosted at LUMSA (Mary Most Holy Assunta Free University) of Rome was the 8th International Symposium on the theme “Fundamental Rights and the Conflicts between Rights” (November 15-16, 2018), organized by the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation in collaboration with LUMSA University, on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the 20th anniversary of the conferring of a Doctorate Honoris Causa, by the University, on the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Here is a translation of the intervention of the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, given in the course of the Symposium.
* * *
Intervention of the Cardinal Secretary of State
Reverend President of the Ratzinger/Benedict XVI Foundation
Distinguished Speakers,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I thank the organizers, especially Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, President of the Ratzinger/Benedict XVI Foundation, for his kind invitation to take part in this Symposium, which precedes the conferring of the Ratzinger Prize. Particularly significant is the theme of this year’s Convention, with the thought-provoking title “Fundamental Rights and the Conflict between Rights,” totally dedicated to human rights on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man of December 10, 1948.
Human rights are, undoubtedly, a great topical subject, complex and not rarely controversial. The reports of these days offer important and significant further reflections, which make evident key aspects of the discussion, beginning with the origin and foundation itself of human rights, their hierarchy, and mutual interaction, to the limitations that they can and should meet. The subject entrusted to my treatment intends to address the field of research from a different perspective, reflecting especially on the Holy See’s interlocutors in the realm of human rights and, therefore, on the dialogue it establishes with the International Community.
We certainly cannot forget that the Church’s attitude and her propensity to dialogue on the subject, has evolved over the centuries since the expression appeared at the dawn of the French Revolution, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, of August 26, 1789. As is known, from the beginning it was a refusal of all possible dialogue, in this regard, with society. Human rights were perceived exclusively as the attempt to reverse authentic Christian values, on which civil coexistence was based,[1] and the will to create a society at whose base was a regulatory framework freed from religion.[2] Therefore, the rights of the citizen appeared as “widespread misleading propaganda of one who intended, in reality, to subvert every good ordering of collective life, while real “human rights” consisted in obedience, according to the dictates of the Church, of duties inculcated by the Natural and Divine Law and translated into the positive law.”[3]
The language of rights entered slowly in the life of the Church with the development of the Social Doctrine. Leo XIII’s Encyclical Rerum Novarum mentioned the right to property, linking the concept of private property to the Natural Law and reminding that “civil laws [ . . . ], when they are just, derive their authority and efficacy from the Natural Law itself (Cf. S. Th. I-I, q. 95, a. 4), confirming this right and ensuring it with public force.”[4]
Following the tragic events of World War II and with the establishment of a new relationship with modernity in the years of Vatican Council II, the Church abandoned the initial dialectic and made herself promoter of fundamental human rights while not, however, giving up stressing the prerogatives of the Divine Law. Gaudium et Spes affirms that “No human law is able to ensure the personal dignity and freedom of man as the Gospel of Christ, entrusted to the Church. This Gospel, in fact, announces and proclaims the freedom of the children of God, it rejects all slavery, which stems in the last analysis from sin, honors as sacred the dignity of the conscience and its free decision, admonishes ceaselessly to redouble all human talents at the service of God and for the good of men, and finally, recommends all to the charity of all. [. . . ]Therefore the Church, by virtue of the Gospel, entrusted to her, proclaims human rights, and recognizes and appreciates a lot the dynamism with which in our days such rights are promoted everywhere. However, this movement must be permeated by the spirit of the Gospel and must be protected against all sorts of false autonomy. We are exposed, in fact, to the temptation of thinking that our personal rights are fully safe only when we are released from every norm of Divine Law.”[5]
If, therefore, on one hand in the course of time a profitable confrontation opened between the Church and society on the subject, on the other hand, noted not rarely are distances regarding the content and the language adopted. In her approach, the Church starts from the words of the Apostle: “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Therefore, she feels free to reach every possible interlocutor, even beginning from the most distant positions. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that the point of departure of every dialogue, which wishes to be really effective, is the awareness of oneself. To open oneself to the other does not mean to give up one’s own identity and one’s prerogatives. Wherever “rights” are proclaimed, which the Church considers incompatible both with the Divine Law as well as the Natural Law, knowable with right reason, the Holy See will not cease to raise her voice in defense, first of all, of the human person him/herself. It is not about entrenching oneself behind preconceived positions, but about defending the harmonious and integral development of man because, unfortunately, as Pope Francis noted, “there can be the risk  — for certain paradoxical verses — that, in the name of human rights themselves, modern forms are established of ideological colonization,”[6] so that some fundamental rights are harmed in the name of the promotion of other rights. At the same time, even the legitimate defense of a cultural identity, cannot constitute a pretext to exempt oneself from the respect of human rights.
In today’s debate, it’s good to keep present some elements that are fundamental for the Church in the dialogue with her interlocutors. The first, I would like to stress, is the universal character of rights. The purpose intended by the 1948 Declaration was to formulate enunciations that would always be valid, in every age, place, and culture, because they are inherent to the very nature of the human person. Noted today is distancing, both in some ambits of the so-called West, as in other cultural contexts, almost as if the profound meaning of human rights can be contextualized and applicable only in certain places and at a certain time, which seems by now irremediably on the wane. Instead, the objective dimension of human rights must be recovered, based on the recognition of the “inherent dignity of all members of the human family, [which} constitutes the foundation of freedom, of justice and of peace in the world.”[7] Without such a vision, a short-circuit of rights is established that from universal and objective become individual and subjective, with the paradoxical consequence that “each one becomes the measure of himself and of his action,” one becomes “essentially heedless of others and that globalization of indifference [is fostered], which is born of egoism, fruit of a conception of man incapable of accepting the truth and of living a genuine social dimension.”[8]
Only by keeping alive the awareness of the universal valence of human rights, can such decline be avoided, which results in the proliferation of a multiplicity of “new rights,” not rarely in opposition among themselves”[9] and, at the same time, enter into an across the board dialogue, especially in the United Nations ambit where the majority of the discussions are held. However, it should also be noted that the growing intolerance, which is perceived in many quarters in the confrontations of International Organizations and of multilateral diplomacy, puts in serious danger today the interlocution on human rights. For its part, the Holy See considers it fundamental to foster the broadest possible confrontation with all men of good will and with those institutions that do their best to protect the rights of man, and to promote the common good and social development. Pope Francis spurs us continually to build bridges, and bridges can be built with multiple interlocutors, be it in the multi-lateral field or in the bilateral field both with States as well as with NGOs, with religious interlocutors, as well as with lay and a-confessional subjects.
In this connection, the diplomatic ambit is privileged, because it makes possible the development of personal contacts and relations through which the Holy See can reach the most remote lands and the most distant human sensibilities. Therefore, it’s not necessary to give up creating occasions of an encounter, in the line of that happy intuition that the then Substitute of the Secretariat of State had, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini when he gave life to the Circle of Rome, which was an extraordinary platform and a privileged seat of international relations. It was able to offer an opportunity for mutual knowledge and collaboration at the cultural and diplomatic level, promoting among other things studies on international problems. Today also there are points of contact, in which each one can make his original contribution in respect of others’ opinion. Unfortunately, noted not rarely is how some preconceptions and commonplaces towards the Church make a serene discussion more difficult. Interlocution is more complicated, especially where more intimate ambits of life and of the human person are touched without an objective anchorage. Christianity, in fact, refers “to nature and to reason as true sources of rights, [. . .] to harmony between objective and subjective reason, a harmony that presupposes, however, being both founding spheres in the creative Reason of God.”[10] In recent times, on the contrary, it seems that a fragmented vision of man prevails, loosed from any link, both with the supernatural as well as with other men, so that a mechanism has been triggered on the basis of which human rights are subjected to the “common feeling” of the majority. In the Church’s reflection, however, there are no rights of “one man loosed from any link,” there isn’t a “fragmented man” in his various social, economic, religious, etc. aspects, but a man in his entirety.
Therefore, the Church approaches human rights from their universality, rationality, and objectivity. In this perspective, one understands the concrete commitment of the Holy See in defense of some specific rights to which it pays particular attention and to whose promotion it is committed.
In the first place, there is the right to life contained in Article 3 of the 1948 Declaration.[11] It is the true basis of all human rights. The multi-lateral activity of the Holy See, in any international forum, as well as in its relations with States, is always geared to defending this right. Likewise, one must not forget the concrete commitment of the Church through the Religious Orders and their multiple charitable works, as well as through numerous organizations of a non-governmental character, inspired by Christianity. Next to the defense of life from its beginning to its natural end, which constitutes the fundamental premise of the promotion of the right to life, new challenges present themselves today linked to modern bioethics and sometimes fostered by permissive legislation. Thorny questions are posed around genetic manipulation, trafficking in organs and new developments of “hybridization” of the human person with the genome of other species.
In face of such challenges, the Church is committed to stressing the unique and unrepeatable value of each single life, precious gift of God. “Continually –Benedict XVI reminded — a Christian is called to mobilize to address the many attacks to which the right to life is exposed. In this, he knows that he can count on motivations that have profound roots in the Natural Law and which, therefore, can be shared by every person with a right conscience.”[12] Unfortunately, the right to life seems to be the most exposed to the individualism that connotes, particularly, Western societies. In the constant attempt to free man from God, life ceases to be a gift and is considered, instead, the same way as a property, of which each one can dispose in the limits put by the simple consensus of the majority. This renders the dialogue more complex, because of the difficulty to find a common metaphysical and lexical common ground on which to meet. In the context of the defense of life, the Holy See is also active in fostering the universal elimination of the death penalty. It’s a commitment that takes into account both Article 3 as well as Article 5[13]of the 1948 Declaration, which prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments. It’s a question that is particularly dear to the Holy Father, who last August 2 decided to update the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “For a long time — reports the new formulation — recourse to the death penalty by the legitimate authorities, after a regular process, held an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable means, even if extreme, for the protection of the common good. Today the awareness is ever more alive that the dignity of a person isn’t lost, not even after committing very grave crimes. Moreover, a new understanding has spread of the meaning of penal sanctions on the part of the State. In fine, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which guarantee the onerous defense of citizens but, at the same time, do not take away definitively from the offender the possibility of redeeming himself. Therefore, in the light of the Gospel, the Church teaches that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it attempts against the inviolability and dignity of the person” (Francis, Address to the Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, October 11, 2017), and she commits herself with determination to its abolition in the whole world.”[14]
In this realm the Holy See interjects, be it with organizations that promote abolition of the death penalty, supporting the action — among which must be mentioned especially the European Union, with which there is profound harmony on the question –, be it where there is the possibility, with those countries that still retain it, stressing the scarce deterrent effect is has, as well as the anachronism of recourse to such punishment in States that in their complex are equipped to protect adequately the security of their citizens. On the other hand, the Pope reminded also that “caution, in the application of the punishment, must be the principle that rules the penal systems, and the full validity and operability of the principle pro homine must guarantee that the States are not qualified juridically, or resorting to subjecting the respect of the dignity of the human person to any other end, also when one succeeds in attaining some sort of social utility. Respect for the dignity of the person must not only operate as a limit to arbitrariness and the excesses of the agents of the State but as criterion or orientation for the pursuit and repression of those conducts that represent the most grave attacks on the dignity and integrity of the human person.”[15]
In regard to Articles 13 [16]and 14[17] of the 1948 Declaration, the Holy See is committed to promoting the rights of migrants and refugees. In the various crises of the last years, the Holy Father has not failed to make his voice heard in face of a tragedy of enormous proportions, strongly detrimental to human dignity. In this case, also, the Interlocutors are many, beginning with the International Community and, therefore, with the United Nations, with which the Holy See has now been working for a couple of years in the definition of the Global Compacts on migrants and refugees, which will be adopted within the year. Unfortunately, it is painful to see how some countries are withdrawing from the discussion.
For its part, he Holy See, through the Permanent Mission in New York, in what concerns migrants, and in Geneva in regard to refugees, continues to offer its active contribution to the discussions and the preparatory consultations, promoting the Pontiff’s vision, focused on four verbs: receive, protect, promote and integrate.[18] In the course of his Apostolic Visits also, the first of which was, in fact, dedicated to migrants, with the visit to the Island of Lampedusa, Pope Francis did not fail to remind of the urgency of taking care of  those constrained to abandon their own land because of wars and persecutions, as well as hunger and economic constraints. We know that his commitment in the promotion the dignity of the weakest, especially children and adolescents that are forced to live far from their land of origin and are separated from family affections, has procured to them sometimes a feeling of hostility especially among those that have seen their own territory heavily affected by the recent migratory waves.
However, one must not indulge in misunderstandings. Pope Francis himself has not failed to stress that the reception must be reasonable, or must be accompanied by the capacity to integrate and by the prudence of the rulers.[19] To affirm the right of one who is weak to receive protection, does not mean, therefore, to exempt him from the duty to respect the place that receives him, with its culture and its traditions. On the other hand, the duty of States to intervene in favor of one who is in danger does not mean to abdicate the legitimate right to watch over and protect their own citizens and values. In this connection, it’s important to highlight that politics in recent years has not rarely renounced its role of social mediation to build the common good, yielding to the imprudent temptation of the quest for an easy consensus and riding the population’s ancestral fears. In the international context also, it is sad to see the least propensity to collaborate in looking for solutions shared among the States against the prevailing new forms of nationalism. Such difficulties don’t remove the Holy See’s commitment in seeking a constructive dialogue with all to defend lives in danger, nor the effort of the Church and of her charitable institutions to interact with the civil society to foster concrete solutions, which alleviate the suffering of migrants and protect the life and activities of citizens. Of the latter, I’d like to recall Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, or “the right to freedom of thought, of conscience, of religion; such a right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or creed, and the freedom to manifest, in isolation or in common, in public or in private, one’s religion and one’s creed in teaching, in practices, in worship and in the observance of rites.” As is known, it’s a right on which the Church, after a long rejection, has elaborated her own profound reflection beginning from the years of Vatican Council II, with the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae, which affirms: “the human person has the right to religious freedom. The content of such freedom is that human beings must be immune from coercion on the part of single individuals, social groups and of any human power, so that in religious matters no one is forced to act against his conscience or is impeded, within due limits, of acting in conformity to it, privately or publicly, in an individual or associated way.”[20] As Pope Ratzinger recalled, for the Holy See “it’s about the first of the human rights because it expresses the most fundamental reality of the person.”[21] On the other hand, “when religious freedom is recognized, the dignity of the human person is respected in its root, and the ethos and peoples’ institutions are reinforced. Vice versa, when religious freedom is denied, when an attempt is made to impede the profession of one’s religion or one’s faith and to live in conformity to it, human dignity is offended and, at the same time, justice and peace are threatened.”[22]In his turn, Pope Francis has explained: “reason recognizes in religious freedom a fundamental right of man, which reflects his loftiest dignity, that of being able to seek the truth and adhere to it, and it recognizes in it an indispensable condition to be able to display all his potentiality. Religious freedom is not only that of thought or private worship. It is the freedom to live according to the ethical principles consequent to the truth found, be it privately or publicly.”[23] Not few, in fact, are the attempts to reduce religious freedom to the merely private sphere of the person, as also those to make civil rights depend on religious membership. The Holy See is, therefore, in the front line in promoting the right to religious freedom, doing its best, on one hand, to avoid the marginalization of religion in the civil society, and on the other, <to see> that in every society the rights of all citizens are protected, regardless of their religious creed.
Next to religious freedom, it’s important to affirm the freedom of conscience. “The content of such freedom — recalls Dignitate Humanae — is that human beings must be immune from coercion on the part of single individuals, social groups or any human power.”[24] In our days we witness with concern the attempts to reduce this right, which risks being marginalized and limited, especially in what concerns conscientious objection on delicate questions regarding life. For the Church, instead, conscientious objection is a fundamental right because, as Gaudium et Spes affirms, “the conscience is the most secret nucleus and man’s sanctuary,”[25] and, therefore, it cannot be violated without damaging the human person himself.
Distinguished Speakers,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In concluding this brief review I would like finally to put in evidence the fundamental element for the Church in her interlocution in the ambit of human rights.  I do so beginning with an image that I draw from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan who helps a hapless man along the road that goes across the Judean Desert, a strange and hostile land for him. One who has been able to go on that stretch of the road understands the difficulties: the steep descents and the suffocating heat accompany the wayfarer in the close to one thousand meters gap that separates Jerusalem from Jericho. Luke tells us about a man that, going down by that impervious way, stumbles upon brigands that reduce him to the end of life. Neither the priest nor the Levite take care of him, rather, seeing him, avoid him, marking almost deliberately a distance. Only a foreigner does not fear to approach the hapless man; he takes care of him, accompanies him to a close by Inn and provides for his maintenance until he is completely healed.
In this parable, which provides for the enunciation of the commandment of love, we can find expressed the inspiring idea of human rights.  I express it with a paradox: at the origin of human rights there is no right, much less so is there a duty. There isn’t the right of the wounded wayfarer to be taken care of nor of itself the duty of one of the passers-by to assist him. At the origin there is only compassion and gratuitousness — in Christian terms, we say charity — of one man who is aware of another in danger. To look at man, regardless of his physical, psychic, ethnic or religious characteristics, as a person with his innate dignity is precisely the novelty that Jesus introduces in the world with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this connection, the concept itself of human right bears inscribed in its DNA evangelical charity, which completes and– we can say — sublimates the very nature of man. With this, I don’t intend to affirm a coincidence between the evangelical message and human rights. There is a profound and radical difference, because the latter appeal to reason and to the Natural Law, whereas the former to divine revelation. However, there is no coincidence, and even less so opposition, when man is at the center, in his rational, effective and social integrality, and the rights are understood and deepened according to right reason. The Church, therefore, approaches human rights positively, because through them the whole of humanity assumes awareness about the dignity of every human person. In this perspective, the Holy See does all it can for a serene, advantageous and honest debate. This requires — as I mentioned above — making evident the possible difficulties and the misunderstandings that are born when the interlocution is founded on a liquid language, such as the contemporary, in which words assume ambiguous meanings.
In hindsight, the words are not so much ambiguous as is the underlying anthropology, which has marginalized, perhaps a bit too hastily, the Judeo-Christian contribution to Greek philosophy and to Roman law. If on one hand, in fact, the concept of human rights arises in the French revolutionary ambit in opposition to the Church, one cannot be silent, however, <about the fact> that it pays an undeniable tribute to Christian sensibility in which the extensors of the 1789 Declaration were formed. The difficulty of our time does not lie so much in the attempt to free human rights from a bond with Christianity — this is not what worries us –, but rather the loss of the philosophical and juridical anchorage of the rights themselves, so that, in a continuous evolution eager for novelty, Western thought ends up by maiming the very architecture of the right it has enunciated. Without a clear anthropological vision, every right calls other rights, which end up by swallowing and suppressing one another.
The modern temptation is to accentuate a lot the word “rights,” neglecting that more important <word>: “human”. If rights lose their link with humanity, becoming only expressions of interest groups and, as Pope Francis affirms, “a conception of the human person [prevails] detached from every social and anthropological context, almost as a ‘monad’ ever more insensitive to other ‘monads’ around it.”[26] Likewise, as I mentioned, the duties also fall that are related to them and so, in affirming the rights of the individual, <the fact is> no longer taken into account that “every human being is linked to a social context, in which his rights and duties are connected to those of others and to the common good of society itself.”[27]
In the debate on rights, the challenge for the Church and, therefore, also for the Holy See in the various international forums, is not that of defending positions or of “possessing spaces,”[28] as the Pope would say, but rather of proposing in a simple and transparent way her vision of man: not the solitary product of chance, but the child of a solicitous Father, who “gives to all men life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). It is a demanding way that certainly merits to be followed.
Thank you.
[1] Cf. D. Menozzi, Church and Human Rights, Il Mulino, Bologna 2012, 28.
[2] This resulted particularly evident in the French Declaration. The subject of rights already appeared some years earlier in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, which, however, keeps a reference to God the Creator. Cf. Declaration of Independence of the United States of America: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
[3] D. Menozzi, Church and Human Rights, cit., 39.
[4] Leo XII, Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum , May 15, 1891, 8.
[5] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution “Gaudium et Spes” on the Church in the contemporary world, December 7, 1965, 41.
[6] Francis, Address to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, Sala Regia, January 8, 2018.
[7] Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, December 10, 1943. (Below: DDU), Preamble.
[8]Francis, Address to the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, November 25, 1014.
[9] Francis, Address to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, cit.
[10] Benedict XVI, Address to the Bundestag, Berlin, September 22, 2011.
[11] DDU, Art. 3: “Every individual has the right to life, liberty and the security of his own person.”
[12] Benedict XVI, Address to the Participants in the General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Sala Clementina, February 24, 2007.
[13] DDU, Art. 5: No individual can be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
[14] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267.
[15] Francis, Address to the Delegation of the International Association of Criminal Law, Hall of Popes, October 23, 2014.
[16] DDU, Art. 13, n. 2: “Every individual has the right to leave a country, including his own, and to return to his own country.”
[17] DDU, Art. 14: “1. Every individual has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecutions. 2. This right cannot be invoked when an individual is really sought for non-political offenses or for actions contrary to the ends and principles of the United Nations.”
[18] Cf. Francis, Address to the Participants in the International Forum “Migrations and Peace,” February 21, 2017.
[19] Cf. Francis, Press Conference during the return flight from Ireland, August 26, 2018: “There is the openness of heart for all, to suffer; then, integration as condition to receive; and then the prudence of rulers to do this.”
[20] Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, Declaration “Dignitatis Humanae,” 2.
[21] Benedict XVI, Address to the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, Sala Regia, January 9, 2012.
[22] Benedict XVI, Message for the 44th World Day of Peace (January 1, 2011), December 8, 2010, 5.
[23] Francis, Address to the Participants in the International Congress “Religious Freedom According to International Law and the Global Conflict of Values,” Hall of the Consistory, June 20, 2014.
[24] Dignitatis Humanae, cit., 2.
[25] Gaudium et Spes, cit., 16.
[26] Francis, Address to the European Parliament, Strasbourg, November 25, 2014.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium,” November 24, 2013, 223.
[Original text: Italian]  [ZENIT’s translation by Virginia M. Forrester]

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