The Church and human rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations 50 years ago has had immense influence. Our correspondent in Paris takes pride in the record of France in promoting the concept. He records how the Catholic Church has come to terms with it ? and now makes it a foundation for church action in the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948. The whole of the coming year will be devoted to the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of this milestone in human history.
The UN Charter had already proclaimed its faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small. But in 1948 the assembly wished to go further by drawing up an International Bill of Rights, consisting of a declaration, two covenants and measures of implementation. The declaration was indeed adopted (with eight abstentions) by the General Assembly in New York in 1948, though it was not till 1966 that the assembly adopted the two international covenants (one on economic, social and cultural rights, the other on civil and political rights), completed in 1954, and their ratification by the 35 states necessary for their entry into force was even more recent.
The 30 articles of the declaration, largely inspired by the French lawyer Ren? Cassin, vice-president of the commission which drew up the declaration and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968, are a political interpretation of mankind?s right to life and freedom. They advocate: equality before the law; protection against arbitrary arrest; the right to a fair trial; the right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; and freedom of peaceful assembly and association. They insist above all on the fact that the State does not have the right of life and death over its citizens. That is why the declaration not only condemns slavery and torture but insists on the right to freedom and dignity.
Of course this declaration is not the first of its kind to concern itself with human rights understood as a consequence of a higher law inscribed in nature. The idea of the inalienable rights of the human being was known to poets, philosophers and politicians in antiquity. When Antigone, heroine of Sophocles? play of the same name written about 442 BC, says to King Creon, But all your strength is mere weakness against the immortal unrecorded laws of God, she is invoking the natural rights of man. This link between the natural law and the natural rights of man is found in the writings of the Stoics, both Greek and Roman, of early Christianity, St Thomas Aquinas and later theologians. It reappears in the seventeenth century, in the works of Hugh Grotius, the Dutch founder of modern international law, and of John Milton and John Locke, the ideological architects of the Glorious Revolution.
In European history, rights were usually transferred from the sovereign to his subjects, first the nobles and then the common people, as a result of a power struggle. In Spain in 1188, the Cortes, the feudal assembly of the Kingdom of Leon, obtained a series of rights from King Alfonso IX. Similarly in Hungary in 1222, King Andrew II was induced to sign the Golden Bull. In England the barons forced King John to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, granting them a series of rights. Parliament forced Charles I to sign the Petition of Rights in 1629, and the Habeas Corpus Amendment Act was passed in 1679. And when William and Mary accepted the English throne in 1688, they signed the Bill of Rights a year later, which prohibited the monarch from suspending or abusing the laws of the land, and from raising money or troops by his sole prerogative, and guaranteed freedom of speech and of elections and of the right of petition.
Human rights usually refer to the two major texts formulated in the last decades of the eighteenth century, born of the American and French Revolutions. In America?s famous Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, he stated: 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 rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by the Constituent Assembly in France in 1789 and incorporated in the French Constitution in 1791, is a further statement of certain inalienable rights: the right to liberty, property and security, and freedom of speech and of the press.
The novelty of the 1948 declaration, however, is that the rights it defends transcend national boundaries. There had been international agreements on the question before. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) laid down equality of rights for Roman Catholics and Protestants in Germany. The Peace Treaty of Paris (1814) decreed a worldwide prohibition of the slave trade. And the Congress of Vienna (1815) defended the free exercise of religion. But the United Nations? Bill of Rights addressed people everywhere: which is why Ren? Cassin preferred the term universal to international, since he wished to stress the individual responsibility of each member of the human race, rather than that of the member states who signed the declaration.
In the past the Churches adopted an ambiguous stance on the question. Pius VI condemned the French Declaration of Human Rights in 1791 because it advocated religious freedom and refused to recognise France as a Catholic kingdom. In the nineteenth century Gregory XVI condemned liberalism and rejected freedom of conscience as a mad idea, while in 1864 Pius IX drew up his famous Syllabus of Errors, a catalogue of 80 principal errors of our time, including socialism, liberalism and all forms of democracy.
But the rights of conscience remained alive in the Church despite creeping infallibility ? Cardinal Manning remarked that he would like nothing better than to find a new infallible statement of the Pope every morning with his Times. The centralisation of the Church?s authority culminated in the definition of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council in 1870.
Yet in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875) Cardinal Newman made his famous remark: I will drink to the Pope by all means, but to conscience first! The United Nations 1948 declaration elicited no official reaction from the Holy See, however, while the Vatican newspaper, L?Osservatore Romano, criticised the fact that the human rights were not said explicitly to be founded on God?s law.
It was necessary to wait for the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to find an entire chapter of its constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, devoted to human rights. In his encyclical Pacem in Terris, published in 1962 between the first two sessions of the council, John XXIII states clearly that one of the most important acts accomplished by UNO was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and asserts that we consider this declaration to be a first step towards the establishment of a legal and political organisation for the world community. John Paul II?s whole preaching to the world is based on a human rights platform. He has declared that human rights are clearly expressed and taught by the Gospel message itself.
The Bible indeed repeatedly defends human rights. The Lord . . . has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to heal broken hearts, promising the release of captives and the opening of prison doors (Isa. 61:1). No more Jew or Gentile, no more slave or freeman, no more male or female; you are all one person in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:28). For I was hungry, and you gave me food, thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you brought me home, naked, and you clothed me, sick, and you cared for me, a prisoner, and you came to me. . . . Believe me, when you did it to one of the least of my brethren here, you did it to me (Mt. 25:35-40).
On one of his trips to France, Pope John Paul II went so far as to say that the French revolutionary slogan, Libert?, ?galit?, fraternit?, is a Christian one. A statement to make Pius VI turn in his grave! The postconciliar Church has stated that the Gospel message implies the pursuit of justice in the world. As the international synod of bishops in 1971 spelt it out: To work for justice and participate in transforming the world seems to us without doubt to be an integral part of the Gospel message and, which comes to the same thing, of the Church?s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from all forms of oppression.
The most striking example of this new approach is that of the Society of Jesus. In 1974 the 32nd General Congregation?s fourth decree, The service of faith and the promotion of justice, defined the fundamental criteria for Jesuit action today and placed a preferential option for the poor at the heart of its reform. This phrase, the preferential option for the poor, was coined by the liberation theologians and affirmed by the Medell?n and Puebla conferences in Latin America, though there is a risk of its being emptied of its meaning by those in the Church who equate liberation theology with heresy and Marxism.
Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, wrote: The Church has a duty to announce the liberation of millions of human beings, of whom a large number are her spiritual sons; she has a duty to further this liberation, to bear witness and to do everything in her power to realise it fully. For a Christian, human rights are not optional, they are a constituent part of the Gospel.