Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Cardinal Bertone on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights



Knowing that matters Spanish have received some considerable attention on the Mirror of Justice over the past several weeks, I would like to draw the attention of the contributors and the MOJ readership to the address given by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, in Spain on February 5, 2009 commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although the Cardinal’s address was given to a gathering of the country’s episcopal conference, one should not conclude that the intended audience was solely the episcopacy of Spain. The Secretary of State’s words have profound meaning for the world which includes those of us pursuing the development of Catholic legal theory. The Cardinal opened his address (HERE in Spanish, only) by noting that the Declaration must be considered as a “moment of fundamental importance for the development of the moral conscience of humanity.” In this regard, Cardinal Bertone specified that Catholics must be committed to the defense and promotion of the fundamental rights of the human person as they essential to the dignity of each. As I have noted elsewhere on these pages, the dignity of the human person is that which is due each—the suum cuiqe—because he or she is human—regardless of age, size, color, etc.

The address emphasizes a point long made by the Church and the Holy See that the human person needs to be at the center of concern when laws, the workings of society, the development of culture, and the advances of science are under consideration. In his endeavor to explain this, the Cardinal’s address provides nine points to consider and a conclusion.

His first point deals with the contributions of Christianity and the social teachings of the Church to the concept of human rights. While human history is replete with instances in which some denied the rights of others, it becomes evident from the Cardinal’s words that the Church was a harbinger of proclaiming these rights with the advent of modern times during the papacy of Leo XIII. Pope Leo’s work was solidified by Paul VI in 1965 and John Paul II in 1979 and 1995 when they addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations, the body that adopted and approved the Universal Declaration. In this context, the words of John Paul II in his 1995 intervention are most pertinent:



…there are indeed universal human rights, rooted in the nature of the person, rights which reflect the objective and inviolable demands of a universal moral law. These are not abstract points; rather, these rights tell us something important about the actual life of every individual and of every social group. They also remind us that we do not live in an irrational or meaningless world. On the contrary, there is a moral logic which is built into human life and which makes possible dialogue between individuals and peoples.



Most recently, Benedict XVI during his April 2008 address to the General Assembly emphasized the juridical—the legal—role that enables peoples of diverse cultures to acknowledge that regardless of the differences they possess, human rights constitute “the common language” which unites into one human family the pluralism of God’s creative design. If human rights are removed from this context, they acquire a relativistic nature the inevitably supplies the path to their destruction.

The second point offered by Cardinal Bertone considers the Universal Declaration itself. Here the Secretary of State recalls the world’s conditions that set the basis for bringing together delegates from all societies who were charged to address the serious concerns of rights denial during and after the Second World War. With a shared moral awareness, the drafters and their advisors proceeded to consider issues, debate approaches, and craft language that would draw attention to those shared attributes of the human person that must never be forfeited. A genuine human right is not the request for a favor but a demand for recognition that a non-derogable claim is due each human by virtue of his or her being human. It is this point that makes human rights natural, innate, inviolable, and inalienable. In essence, they are the birthmark of everyone who bears the image of the Creator because He, not the State or some other human society, created the person to whom He gave these natural rights. The Cardinal specifies that an essential trait of the Universal Declaration is that it was founded on the law of nations—the jus gentium—which are the laws of humanity and the dictates of public conscience. The Universal Declaration, moreover, reflects the foundation of justice because it establishes what is constitutive of right relationships between and among all peoples.

His third point is a brief discourse on the natural law itself. A number of MOJ contributors have tackled different issues over the years dealing with the natural law and the natural moral law. The Secretary of State (I wonder if he reads the MOJ?) reiterates the natural law’s significant role in identifying and protecting human rights. It is not human consensus or human, i.e., positive, law that formulates and defines human rights. Their origin is the transcendent and objective moral order established by the One who made us all—the natural moral law.

Cardinal Bertone’s fourth point concerns the dignity of the human person. Both the prologue and the first substantive article of the Universal Declaration speak of “human dignity.” But what is it? It is not, in essence, a right, but it is the medium which brings them together through the being and nature of every person that is common and essential to one and all. The Cardinal identifies human dignity as the cornerstone upon which the rest of the edifice of human rights is built. Inherent to human dignity are authentic freedom, justice, and peace. Without these central concepts, the pursuit of human rights can be the quest of each individual in pursuit of what he or she desires without taking stock of what is due everyone else. The Church’s role in the pursuit and protection of human dignity is to exercise the duty “to awaken in society moral and spiritual strength, helping to open wills to the authentic demands of the good.”

His fifth point focusing on the universality, indivisibility, and protection of human rights follows. Even though the Universal Declaration was not itself a binding juridical instrument imposing legal obligations on individuals, states, and international organizations, it has become “the main inspiration” for the movements that have established legal obligations identifying and protecting authentic rights. A major objective of the Universal Declaration must be to serve as the “proper conception of human rights” as understood to be those claims that belong to each solely in virtue of his or her humanity. The rights identified in the Universal Declaration are “indivisible” because they cannot be applied or considered in piecemeal fashion. In other words, it is not logical or coherent to consider some rights while ignoring others. While each State is obliged to protect the rights of those situated in its territory, the international community must be prepared to step in where they are not or cannot be enforced by the proper local authority.

Realizing that in today’s world, some have placed the mantle of human rights on dubious claims, the Secretary of State spends time in his sixth point by addressing the rights that are to be recognized by the Universal Declaration. He notes that there is “an ongoing, radical process of redefining human rights” that affects such crucial themes as the nature of the family, matrimony, and children. Once again, the guiding influence in assessing truth from falsehood about human rights claims is by having and exercising an objective understanding of authentic human nature. It is proper to the effort of the human rights advocate to understand and acknowledge the reality of this nature. Otherwise, falsehood can masquerade as truth and the truth of the nature of the human person can be ignored or even eradicated.

His seventh point dealing with the right to life reinforces his sixth point. Human rights become meaningless unless the right to life and continued natural existence are acknowledged and protected without compromise. The dignity of the human person becomes compromised when the life given to everyone becomes a pawn that can be easily or readily negotiated away by others. To think otherwise is to participate in a deception that compromises the protection of the genuine rights which are due to all. The threats to the right to life can be manifested in a variety of ways; however, their common denominator is the ability to eviscerate all other rights. If the dignity of the person is the cornerstone of human rights, the right to life is the keystone which keeps all others in place. Without this right being guaranteed to everyone as the Universal Declaration exhorts, the edifice constructed by Mrs. Roosevelt and the other drafters is subject to compromise by the caprice of whatever political power happens to be in office.  

This brings us to the eighth point of the Cardinal’s address which deals with the family and education. The Universal Declaration acknowledges that the family is the basic unit or cell of society. Without a healthy and proper understanding of what the family is and what it is not, the health and strength of society are subject to forfeit. It is within this basic social unit that the essentials of education and the wisdom garnered by humans over the millennia are conveyed to our posterity. It is in this vital cell that the individual good and the common good are simultaneously nurtured. Of course, the Secretary of State emphasizes that the family and the life it promotes must be founded on the marriage of one man and one woman who enter a bond—a new being—that is freely entered and open to the conveyance of life to succeeding generations. In spite of the challenges that may confront this basic unit of society, this family has the essential task of conveying love—caritas—to its members and to the succeeding generations that it will produce. The Secretary of State surely had in mind the thoughts of the Universal Declaration’s drafters who were aware of what the totalitarian state attempted in its redefinition of the family and the education that was to be provided for the succeeding generations.

This brings us to the Cardinal’s ninth and final point concerning religious freedom and the Church’s relations with the political community. This is a freedom recognized by Universal Declaration and protected as a non-derogable right in one of its progeny, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Universal Declaration acknowledges that religious freedom is a primary and inalienable right that individually and communally sustains other essential rights. The Secretary of State hastened to add that the Church also has her freedom that must be protected since her mission is to convey the truth taught by God that is essential to the survival and salvation of humanity. The Church has the duty to teach, and the subject of her teaching must be God’s truth, not the “truth” imposed by the State or the political party to the peril of what is genuine about the human person and human nature. He warns that to “try to impose, as secularism does, a practice of faith or religion that is strictly private, is to make a caricature of what the practice of religion actually is.” By peaceful means, the religious person, religious communities, and, therefore, the Church have the right as well as the responsibility to proclaim the truth that will set us free from whatever restrains the human person and the human community from their proper destiny. To silence their voices and to repress their actions is contrary to the flourishing of authentic human rights. It is clear that the religious person and the Church must respect the proper role of the temporal authorities; however, the temporal authorities must likewise respect and protect their voices and independent missions that serve as an important complement to the rights of all members of the human family.

In his conclusion, Cardinal Bertone reiterates that the Universal Declaration expresses the fundamental principles on which the law of nations is established and the dictates of public conscience are implemented. But there remains much work to be done that the author of human life expects from those who are dedicated to the proposition that fundamental human rights exist and must be protected. While the Church rejoices in the efforts that have been made in this regard, she must remain a participant in the both the debate and the work that will ensure the “protection of human rights, which belong to each person in virtue of his or her natural dignity, from the very moment of conception… to natural death.”


RJA sj



Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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