On natural law, human rights,
and the Church's social doctrine
The Holy Father Monday received participants in the current plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences at the Consistory Hall of the Apostolic Palace.
The session is meeting May 1-5 on the theme "Catholic social doctrine and human rights". After a greeting from Mary Ann Glendon, President of the Academy, the Holy Father delivered the following address in English:
Very rarely, we are provided with the text of the words addressed to the Holy Father by the ranking member of any group that has a private audience with him, and ZENIT has done this service for Prof. Glendon's opening address on this occasion
Dear Brothers in the Episcopate and the Priesthood,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
As you gather for the fifteenth Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, I am pleased to have this occasion to meet with you and to express my encouragement for your mission of expounding and furthering the Church’s social doctrine in the areas of law, economy, politics and the various other social sciences.
Thanking Professor Mary Ann Glendon for her cordial words of greeting, I assure you of my prayers that the fruit of your deliberations will continue to attest to the enduring pertinence of Catholic social teaching in a rapidly changing world.
After studying work, democracy, globalisation, solidarity and subsidiarity in relation to the social teaching of the Church, your Academy has chosen to return to the central question of the dignity of the human person and human rights, a point of encounter between the doctrine of the Church and contemporary society.
The world’s great religions and philosophies have illuminated some aspects of these human rights, which are concisely expressed in "the golden rule" found in the Gospel: "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Lk 6:31; cf. Mt 7:12).
The Church has always affirmed that fundamental rights, above and beyond the different ways in which they are formulated and the different degrees of importance they may have in various cultural contexts, are to be upheld and accorded universal recognition because they are inherent in the very nature of man, who is created in the image and likeness of God.
If all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, then they share a common nature that binds them together and calls for universal respect.
The Church, assimilating the teaching of Christ, considers the person as "the worthiest of nature" (St. Thomas Aquinas, De potentia, 9, 3) and has taught that the ethical and political order that governs relationships between persons finds its origin in the very structure of man’s being.
The discovery of America and the ensuing anthropological debate in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe led to a heightened awareness of human rights as such and of their universality (ius gentium).
The modern period helped shape the idea that the message of Christ – because it proclaims that God loves every man and woman and that every human being is called to love God freely – demonstrates that everyone, independently of his or her social and cultural condition, by nature deserves freedom. At the same time, we must always remember that "freedom itself needs to be set free. It is Christ who sets it free" (Veritatis Splendor, 86).
In the middle of the last century, after the vast suffering caused by two terrible world wars and the unspeakable crimes perpetrated by totalitarian ideologies, the international community acquired a new system of international law based on human rights.
In this, it appears to have acted in conformity with the message that my predecessor Benedict XV proclaimed when he called on the belligerents of the First World War to "transform the material force of arms into the moral force of law" ("Note to the Heads of the Belligerent Peoples", 1 August 1917).
Human rights became the reference point of a shared universal ethos – at least at the level of aspiration – for most of humankind. These rights have been ratified by almost every State in the world. The Second Vatican Council, in the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae, as well as my predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II, forcefully referred to the right to life and the right to freedom of conscience and religion as being at the centre of those rights that spring from human nature itself.
Strictly speaking, these human rights are not truths of faith, even though they are discoverable – and indeed come to full light – in the message of Christ who "reveals man to man himself" (Gaudium et Spes, 22). They receive further confirmation from faith.
Yet it stands to reason that, living and acting in the physical world as spiritual beings, men and women ascertain the pervading presence of a logos which enables them to distinguish not only between true and false, but also good and evil, better and worse, and justice and injustice.
This ability to discern – this radical agency – renders every person capable of grasping the "natural law", which is nothing other than a participation in the eternal law: "unde…lex naturalis nihil aliud est quam participatio legis aeternae in rationali creatura" (St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I-II, 91, 2).
The natural law is a universal guide recognizable to everyone, on the basis of which all people can reciprocally understand and love each other. Human rights, therefore, are ultimately rooted in a participation of God, who has created each human person with intelligence and freedom. If this solid ethical and political basis is ignored, human rights remain fragile since they are deprived of their sound foundation.
The Church’s action in promoting human rights is therefore supported by rational reflection, in such a way that these rights can be presented to all people of good will, independently of any religious affiliation they may have.
Nevertheless, as I have observed in my Encyclicals, on the one hand, human reason must undergo constant purification by faith, insofar as it is always in danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by disordered passions and sin; and, on the other hand, insofar as human rights need to be re-appropriated by every generation and by each individual, and insofar as human freedom – which proceeds by a succession of free choices – is always fragile, the human person needs the unconditional hope and love that can only be found in God and that lead to participation in the justice and generosity of God towards others (cf. Deus Caritas Est, 18, and Spe Salvi, 24).
This perspective draws attention to some of the most critical social problems of recent decades, such as the growing awareness – which has in part arisen with globalisation and the present economic crisis – of a flagrant contrast between the equal attribution of rights and the unequal access to the means of attaining those rights.
For Christians who regularly ask God to "give us this day our daily bread", it is a shameful tragedy that one-fifth of humanity still goes hungry. Assuring an adequate food supply, like the protection of vital resources such as water and energy, requires all international leaders to collaborate in showing a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the natural law and promoting solidarity and subsidiarity with the weakest regions and peoples of the planet as the most effective strategy for eliminating social inequalities between countries and societies and for increasing global security.
Dear friends, dear Academicians, in exhorting you in your research and deliberations to be credible and consistent witnesses to the defence and promotion of these non-negotiable human rights which are founded in divine law, I most willingly impart to you my Apostolic Blessing.
'Academy focus has always been
the dignity of the human being'
by MARY ANN GLENDON
President, Ponitifical Academy of Social Sciences
Your Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences comes before you this morning with immense gratitude for the encouragement you have given us, as we strive to be ever more useful to the Church in the development of her social teachings.
Over the years, no matter what aspect of economics, law, sociology or political sciences claimed our attention, there has been one central theme, one golden thread that has stitched all our work together. Our central focus has always been on the dignity of the human person and the common good.
This week, Your Holiness, our Plenary Session has been entirely devoted to the way that theme has found expression in the concept of universal human rights.
In so doing, we have been mindful of the Church's long engagement with human rights, of her own decisive contributions to the dignitarian vision of rights embodied in so many human rights instruments, including a Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and of the Holy See as a fearless champion of that vision in international settings.
That engagement has been characterized by a prudent recognition that the modern human rights project, like all human enterprises, constantly needs to be called to what is highest and best in its aspirations.
We have also been mindful of the fact that in today's world, ironically, many threats to the dignity of the person have appeared in the guise of human rights.
As you pointed out in your memorable speech to the United Nations last year, there are mounting pressures to "move away from the protection of human dignity towards the satisfaction of simple interests, often particular interests."
Accordingly in these days, with the help of experts in all the social sciences, we have reviewed the long reciprocal relationship between Christianity and human rights ideas.
We have explored the expanding circle of human rights protection in an effort to discern how new rights claims are, or are not, conducive to human flourishing.
We have paid special attention to rights that are currently under assault such as the right to life, the right to found a family, freedom of conscience and religion, and to rights that have too long awaited fulfillment such as the right to decent subsistence.
Then building on our previous studies of globalization, we have taken up the question of the proper roles of states, private actors, and international entities in bringing human rights to life.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you on behalf of all our members for your teachings on faith, hope and charity that provide an unconditional foundation for human rights, and for the example you set in the difficult Petrine mission to which Providence has called you.
We are deeply grateful for your constant solicitude towards our Academy, which is also manifested in the appointment of our new Academician Lubomir Mlcoch.
It only remains for me, dear Holy Father, to ask you to bless this Academy and all those who have generously shared their wisdom with us over the past few days. We thank you most sincerely for the gift of this encounter.
[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/5/2009 12:58 PM]