The Church and Human Rights

Author: Ernesto Gallina


Ernesto Gallina

In the universal Declaration on the rights of man, on 10th December 1948, it is explicitly affirmed that the recognition of the dignity and the rights of man is the foundation of freedom justice and peace, and that disregard and contempt for them are acts of barbarousness that offend the conscience of mankind.

The dignity of man is the peace of the world. Christmas is about to come round again. When God became man, to save every single man, the joyous announcement of the angels rang out: Peace on earth to men of goodwill! And the Church, in the course of the centuries his had the task and carried out the mission of ensuring that the rights of man should be recognized, respected and promoted, and or diffusing the new commandment of love: love among individuals, love among groups, love among peoples.

We should have to write a great deal if we wished to illustrate the complete role played by the Catholic Church, the chief figure in every effort to promote and protect human rights. It is, in fact , no exaggeration to affirm that the question of human rights was driven home to history particularly by the Christian ideal, that their vicissitudes followed throughout the centuries the curve of the thought and events of the Catholic Church, and that her teaching and initiative were decisive for them.

Christianity his worked for the recognition of the values or the human personality in international law, with gradual pressure in three directions: by making a powerful contribution to the affirmation of the rights of the human person; by basing this affirmation on the irrepressible claim of natural law; and by coupling also the nucleus of international law with this law. And a posteriori counter-proof of the goodness of the Church's message is offered by its translation into works made in the course of the centuries. Faithful to the Gospel, right from the beginning the Church has tried to mitigate human sufferings, diminish social differences, rehabilitate woman, alleviate the hard fate of slaves, serfs, the oppressed, prisoners, the poor.

Due recognition should be given to the Church for its work to abolish slavery, for the human and Christian revaluation of work, for the spreading of education and culture; for her care of the sick; her many initiatives of charity; the heroic adventures of Catholic missionaries; the glorious and moving episodes of the unarmed but indomitable resistance put up by the Church to the blows and oppression of Nazism and Communism...

The rights of man in time

The recognition of the rights of man has never been a free gift of time; on the contrary it has been the fruit of a difficult, desperate struggle, now against the tyrants of antiquity, now against emperors, the powerful, dictators...

Every century has had its own degree of civilization; and the most valid criterion to measure this civilization and make it a term of comparison is that of respect and development of the "rights of man".

Leaving aside the historical development of this awareness, we will say that, with the birth of U.N., international action for the codification and protection of human rights organized and coordinated its initiatives. The United Nations and the specialized Agencies under its control have done a great deal to defend the rights of each person, not as a citizen of a specific State, but as a member of the human family; to improve the condition of the human person in society; and to look, in some cases, for a solution to the problems afflicting particular groups or categories of persons.

The Work of International Organizations

We can recall here, in addition to the universal Declaration, the six Declarations adopted on the initiative or under the auspices of U.N. (on the rights of the child, on territorial asylum, on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, on the elimination of discrimination as regards women, on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples, about the promotion among the young of the ideals of peace, mutual respect and understanding among peoples); the twenty-five Conventions or Protocols or Agreements or Regulations (for the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, for the elimination of all forms of discrimination, for refugees and stateless persons, on slavery, for the repression of the slave trade in women and the suppression of the exploitation of prostitution, on drugs, for the treatment of prisoners, on the political rights of women, on the nationality of the married woman, on marriage, about information, about tourism).

As regards the specialized Agencies, we will recall the initiatives of UNESCO the Declaration of principles on international cultural cooperation; nine Conventions (on copyright and the so-called "neighbouring rights", against discrimination in the field of education, to facilitate the circulation and exchange of educational, scientific and cultural material and of publications, for the protection of cultural goods in the case of an armed conflict...);

the initiatives of the International Labour Organization: from its first session in 1919 to 10th June 1967, the International Labour Organization had approved 128 conventions and 131 recommendations, which now constitute an imposing "International Labour Code", which in practice covers all aspects of labour. Among them special mention should be made of the two conventions of 28th June 1930 and 25th June 1957 on forced labour and its abolition, and the convention of 25th June 1958 against discrimination in the fields of employment and professions;

the "International Health Regulations", prepared by the World Health Organization;

the "Campaign against hunger", launched by FAO as early as 1st July 1960;

the efforts of the Universal Postal Union and of the International Telecommunication Union, for freedom of postal transit through the countries, and to ensure secrecy of international correspondence.

What the U.N. and the specialized Agencies have done and promoted on the world plane, regional intergovernmental organizations have also carried out on more limited planes, perhaps with greater incisiveness and effectiveness.

We will just mention some important affirmations contained in the treaty setting up the Western European Union (on 17th March 1948), in the North Atlantic Treaty (4th April 1949), in the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (25th May 1963), in the Charter of the common African and Madagascar Organization (27th June 1966), in the South East Asia Treaty (8th September 1954).

An enormous and important work has been carried out by the Council of Europe: as many as thirty-one Conventions can be enumerated: the famous European Convention for the protection of the rights of man and of fundamental freedoms, with its five additional Protocols; the European social Charter; the conventions on child adoption, for social security, for social and medical care, for the settlement of persons and of societies, for the free circulation of persons, for points of great importance in. the medical and judicial fields, for questions of great interest in the cultural field.

On their side, the European Communities of the Six have undertaken important initiatives, particularly for the free circulation of workers, for their social security, for the elimination of discriminations based on nationality and sex.

The organization of American States has approved the American Declaration on the rights and duties of man and the American international Charter of social guarantees; and various conventions for the recognition of the rights of woman, on asylum and extradition, on the rights and duties of States...

There are evident and close connections between the rights of man and the humanitarian protection promoted by the International Red Cross in its century-old activity. Up to now it has sponsored twenty international conferences (the last one in Vienna in 1965) and approved thirteen conventions (for the wounded and sick and shipwrecked in the Armed Forces, for the protection of hospitals, for banning gases, for the treatment of prisoners of war, for the protection of civilians in wartime ... ).

A valid contribution to this international consecration of the rights of man has been made also by the nongovernmental international Organizations, collaborating with the intergovernmental organizations, suggestions and solicitations, and not infrequently leading the way.

This has been a very rapid survey of the achievements already realized by international organizations for the affirmation and the defense of human rights.

The world of international organizations was born yesterday, and will be the world of tomorrow: mankind is finally becoming convinced that, in order to guarantee peace, solidarity among States is necessary. The latter will have to renounce something of their monopolistic sovereignty. And in this new world the Church is present, in the front row. Mankind is also becoming convinced that man, with his dignity and his fundamental rights, must be placed at the centre of collective life. And the Church has always been, by mission and vocation, an active champion of the defense of man.

A new world, founded on world collaboration and on respect of the human person: it seems a dream, and is, on the contrary, the surprising discovery of the international community, which—perhaps without realizing it—has thus found itself in the arms of the Church.

The Teaching of the last Popes

As regards the contribution of teaching given by the Church for the affirmation of human rights, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and Vatican II have uttered golden words, which can never be forgotten. We will collect only a few expressions, hoping to kindle the desire for a more complete knowledge.

Pius XII

— in the Christmas Address on 24th December 1939 he condemned "contempt for dignity, freedom and human life, which leads to acts that cry out for God's vengeance";

— in the Message on 1st June 1941 for the 50th anniversary of "Rerum Novarum"; "To protect the inviolable field of the rights of the human person and facilitate the fulfilment of his duties, should be the essential task of every public authority";

— in the Christmas broadcast of 24th December 1942: "Those who wish the star of peace to rise and stop over society, should contribute to restoring to the human person the dignity that was granted by God right from the beginning";in the Address to the new Cardinals on 20th February 1946: "Bent as she is over man with unceasing attention, listening to every beat of his heart, the Church knows all his riches, and perceives all his aspirations with that clear-sighted intuition and penetrating subtlety, which only the supernatural light of the doctrine of Christ and the supernatural warmth of his divine charity can give".

John XXIIIfrom "Pacem in Terris", 11th April 1963: "An orderly and fruitful social life is based on the principle that every human being is a person, that is, a nature endowed with intelligence and free will; and therefore is subject to rights and duties that derive immediately and simultaneously from his very nature: rights and duties which are, therefore, universal, inviolable, inalienable. If one goes on to consider the dignity of the human person in the light of divine revelation, then it will appear incomparably greater, since men have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, and with grace have become sons and friends of God and the heirs to eternal glory".

Paul VI

— in the Address on 4th October 1965 to the general Assembly of the United Nations: "For you proclaim the fundamental rights and duties of man, his dignity, his freedom, and in the first place religious freedom. Again We feel the higher sphere of our wisdom interpreted, and We add: Its sacredness. For it is a. question above all of the life of man: and the life of man is sacred: no one can dare to offend it... It is not only a question of feeding the hungry: it is also necessary to ensure for each man a life in conformity with his dignity. And this is what you are trying to do... We know how eagerly you are endeavouring to overcome illiteracy and to spread culture in the world; to give men an adequate and modern health service, to put at the disposal of man the marvelous resources of science, technique, organization: all this is magnificent, and deserves the praise and support of everyone, including Ours";

— on 26th Match 1967, in "Populorum Progressio", which was called the Magna Carta of development, the manifesto of the third world, the Pope affirmed: "With a mere effort of his intelligence and will, every man may grow in humanity, be worth more, be more... But every man is a member of society: he belongs to the whole of humanity. It is not just this or that man, but all men are called to this full development"; and he explained that true development consists in passing, one and all, "from less human to more human conditions";

— in the autograph Message addressed to the President of the Conference on the rights of man, convened by the United Nations at Teheran from 22nd April to 13th May 1968: "Who does not see what a long way there is still to go to carry out these declarations of intention, to put principles into practice, to eliminate so many numerous and constant violations of the principles rightly proclaimed universal, inviolable and inalienable... May all feeling men unite peacefully to ensure that the principles of the United Nations are not only proclaimed, but put into practice... The vastness and the urgency of the action to be carried out call for the united contribution of all. How can we see to it that international resolutions be applied among all peoples? How can we ensure the fundamental rights of man, when they are mocked? How can we intervene, in a word, to save the human person wherever it is threatened? How can we make those in charge realize that it is a question of an essential heritage of man that no one can harm with impunity, on any pretext, without making an attempt on what is most sacred for a human being and thus ruining the very foundations of social life? All these are grave problems and we cannot make any mystery of the fact: it would be useless to proclaim rights if at the same time we did not do everything in our power to ensure the duty of respecting them, on the part of everyone, everywhere and for everyone".

Vatican Council

Vatican II: in the "'Declaration on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions": "We cannot in truthfulness call upon that God who is the Father of all if we refuse to act in a brotherly way toward certain men, created though they be to God's image. The ground is therefore removed from every theory or practice which leads to a distinction between men or peoples in the matter of human dignity and the rights which flow from it. As a consequence, the Church rejects, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, colour, condition of life, or religion";

— in the "Declaration on Religious Freedom": "A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man. And the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty";

— in the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world": "Since all men possess a rational soul and are created in God's likeness, since they have the same nature and origin, have been redeemed by Christ, and enjoy the same divine calling and destiny, the basic equality of all must receive increasingly greater recognition... every type of discrimination, whether social of cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent. For in truth it must still be regretted that fundamental personal rights are not yet being universally honoured..."

The Church does not offer only the contribution of her doctrine, but takes part in the common effort also with a direct action.

She has played an active part in the world campaign against hunger and disease, and in general for the development of backward parts of the world. For this purpose she wishes to promote knowledge and interest in the painful and dramatic problem, for her own members to consciousness of the obligation to help the poor countries, encourage direct initiatives of assistance (as for example the social works of the missionary Church), stimulate collaboration with the international organizations, promoting in every way, for example, the "World Campaign against hunger", launched on 1st July 1960 by FAO.

The Holy See participated, as a full member, in the first and second "U.N. Conference for trade and development" (UNCTAD), held respectively at Geneva in 1964 and New Delhi in 1968.

In April 1968, there was held in Beirut, Lebanon, a "Conference on world cooperation for development", on the initiative of the "exploratory Committee on society, development and peace", created in July 1967 by the Pontifical Commission "Justice and Peace" and by the World Council of Churches. It was a historic meeting: for the first time the whole of Christendom, forgetting all differences and every cause of division, found itself united in the resolution to carry out constructive action, marking the beginning of a vast programme to mobilize public opinion in favour of concrete action to fill the gap between rich and poor nations,

But the especial contribution of the Church has been to the "world Campaign against illiteracy", promoted by UNESCO. Whereas in the battle against hunger, disease, etc., the contribution of the Church is practically limited to encouragement and exhortation of Catholics and to indicating policies, in the campaign against illiteracy the Church can give and has pledged herself to give an important contribution of her own in persons and works. This pledge was reconfirmed by the delegates of the elimination of illiteracy, held at Teheran in September 1965, and in the regional Conference on the planning and organization of literacy programmes in Latin America and in the region of the Caribbean, held at Caracas from 30th May to 4th June 1966.

The struggle against illiteracy is certainly a particular aspect of the problem of assistance to the developing countries. The Church is taking part in it with all her might, giving a further evident testimony of the importance she attributes to everything that can lead to the intellectual and moral elevation of mankind.

We have already synthesized the imposing collection of declarations and conventions carried out by the international Organizations. Here, too, there is an echo of the concern of the Church. In the long preparatory phases a great deal of work was done by the official delegates of the Holy See or of the State of Vatican City, or by exponents of international Catholic Organizations, or by Catholics in the different countries, or by organs of public opinion, in order to hasten the conclusion of studies and debates, introduce some improvements, eliminate some points not deserving approval, and improve others. This work has led to frequent successes, even if the final result of compromise has sometimes left motives of justified reserve, as well as motives of satisfaction.

Delegations from the Holy See or from the State of Vatican City have taken part in international conferences on human rights (for refugees and stateless persons, for legal action abroad for the exaction of alimony, against drugs, for the treatment of prisoners, for tourism, trade and development, for copyright and the so-called "neighbouring rights", for the importation and circulation of special material, for the protection of cultural goods, against illiteracy ... ) and in nine Conferences of the International Red Cross.

The Holy See or the State of Vatican City has also given its adhesion to international conventions on human rights (on the status of refugees, on legal action abroad for the exaction of alimony, for the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, on copyright, for the protection of cultural goods in the case of in armed conflict ... ) and to the Conventions of the Red Cross in 1864, 1925 and 1949.

In his memorable address to the general Assembly of U.N., on 4th October 1965, Paul VI defined U.N. "the obligatory way to modern civilization and world peace", and added:

"The edifice you have constructed must never fall into disrepair, but must be improved and brought into line with the requirements that the history of the world will present. You mark a stage in the development of humanity, a stage from which there must be no falling back, but an onward march..."

The Pope went on to exalt the achievements already realized and to indicate further goals. He felt authorized to do so in his capacity as an "expert in humanity": the education of humanity to peace; gradual establishment of a world authority, able to act effectively on the juridical and political planes; promotion of the brotherly collaboration of peoples; proclamation of the fundamental rights and duties of man, of his dignity, his freedom and, in the first place, religious freedom; acceleration of the economic and social progress of peoples; the battle against hunger, disease and illiteracy and for the diffusion of culture; the application of the marvelous resources of science, technique and organization in the service of man.

And he concluded: "This edifice that you are building, has not only material and earthly foundations; for then it would be an edifice built on sand; but it is based above all on our consciences..."

Paraphrasing the Holy Father's words, we can attempt to give an overall judgment on the work carried out so far by, the International Organizations.

Cause for satisfaction

There is cause for satisfaction, and there is cause for expectation.

The International Organizations have succeeded so far in blocking the gravest outbreaks of new conflagrations of war, either with direct intervention, or through the mediation of their exponents, or with the weight of their own resolutions and invocations, or—if in no other way—by offering a place of meeting or at least of bloodless encounter between the opponents: to give people an opportunity of giving vent to their feelings is already to disarm them a little. These are the causes for satisfaction.

But we are still far from a just and secure international settlement, founded on law and. not on violence, on respect for all peoples, and not on oppression; we are still far from the realization of our dream of a world authority, able to impose international legality on the world community. This is where the expectation comes in (and only God knows how long it will take, unfortunately).

A great deal has been done by the international Organizations for the development of the depressed countries, to help them to emerge from their miserable state of hunger, disease and ignorance. As the Director general of UNESCO declared on 4th November 1968, "more has been done for the third world in ten years of cooperation than in fifty years of colonization". This is a cause for satisfaction.

But the aid given so far, the solidarity manifested so far, have been insufficient: today, still, 80% of world resources are at the disposal of two-tenths of the population of the globe; the other eight tenths are struggling with poverty and hunger; today, still, 150 billion dollars are spent every year on armaments, and only ten billion on cooperation in the social field. And there is still so much hunger, so much poverty, so much illiteracy. Here, again, is expectation.

The work of codifying human rights has been impressive, and has engaged the competence and skill of so many scholars and internationalists, the political will of so many delegates and statesmen, the passion and the stimulus of so many warm-hearted persons. This is cause for satisfaction.


But there is the delay of many countries in ratifying the conventions prepared; there is the thoughtlessness of others in violating their spirit and even their content, with, sometimes, the added mockery of interpretations in the Delphic style, so that while lip service is paid to human rights, they are actually trodden underfoot. A stronger guarantee is needed and more effective means of ensuring respect for them, possibly with the proposed creation of the office of a High Commissioner of the United Nations for human rights, or of an international Court on the rights of man, along the lines of the European one already existing; it is desired to intensify the struggle against racial discriminations, to accelerate the progress of the movement for the rights of women, to suppress religious intolerance and anti-religious persecution, to obtain from all States effective recognition Of the full exercise of the freedom of association and of freedom of opinion and of speech. This is what we are still waiting for.

There is still a long way to go, and on this way the world will continue to be accompanied by the Church. The concrete contribution the Catholic Church has made and will continue to make to the development of international initiatives, is certainly of great importance.

The Holy See, considered either as the central government of the Church or as the government of the State of Vatican City, has its recognized place in the world of international Organizations. And from this place it carries on its precious activity, both to encourage inter-governmental organisms in every activity with aims of peace and solidarity, and to contribute directly to every work that has as its goal the progress of mankind.

As in the past, it will therefore be a contact and a continual spur for U.N., for the specialized Agencies, the regional Organizations (particularly the European ones); it will be an opportune diplomatic action to prevent or solve the conflicts between peoples; it will be the defense of the fundamental rights of man; it will be participation in the world campaigns against hunger, disease and illiteracy...

And the Catholics, organized on the international plane in their many agencies, will continue to make the beneficial influence of the Christian voice heard in the many problems that society has to cope with today.

Operating among and with the international Organizations, the Catholic Church brings to the world today, and will bring to it also tomorrow, the force and light contained in the evangelical Message.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 December 1968, page 6

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