In the Heart of the Church

Declaration On Human Rights:
"Exalts the Liberty and Membership of the Human Family"
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone
Paul VI Hall, Vatican
December 10, 2008

The following is the address given by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Pope Benedict XVI's secretary of state, at a concert held in Paul VI Hall to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Eminences, Excellencies,
Most Appreciated Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am happy to address you in this solemn celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations. It is a significant moment to which the Holy Father Benedict XVI will join himself personally to underline, yet again, the importance that the Holy See assigns to the recognition and tutelage of the fundamental rights of the human person. Still alive in us is the echo of his word addressed to the U.N. General Assembly last April 18, which indicated the Declaration as "the result of a convergence of religious and cultural traditions, all motivated by the common desire to put the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and interventions of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, of religion and of science."

I would also like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino and to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace for the organization of this significant event.

1. At the moment it was adopted, the Universal Declaration expressed the primacy of liberty against oppression, of the unity of the human family in regard to ideological and political divisions, as well as to differences of race, sex, language and religion. The intention was to defend the person from the idolatry of the state, which totalitarianisms had in fact divinized, proposing an ulterior way to build the "city of men," basing it on the conviction that "recognition of the inherent dignity of all the members of the human family, and of their equal and inalienable rights, constitutes the foundation of liberty, of justice and of peace" (Preamble, Universal Declaration).

In fact, the Universal Declaration attests to a renewal of the hope to make of the human person the sign of a future capable of freeing itself from the weight of the past, as though wishing to purify the memory of the human family. Some 60 years or so ago, in fact, the victims of barbarism, the horrors of war, the acts of genocide were all contradictions to be overcome in order to seek in international relationships and in the internal life of states that necessary balance capable of projecting humanity toward a future worthy of man.

2. In proposing an ensemble of the person's rights and faculties, the Declaration exalts the liberty and membership of the human family, reconciling the idea of justice with the affirmations of the primacy of life, the idea of sociality, the appreciation of the democratic methods understood as an ensemble of rules, institutions and structures able to express and convey values.

We are not just faced with a proclamation, but rather with a new consideration and placement of human dignity by the international community and the various political communities that animate it, up to now little inclined to admit the person as protagonist. An approach that is still valid and not replaceable because it calls the person to live his rights with an attitude of sharing the other's rights, and of looking at others not in terms of opposition or limit, but in recognizing their "essential equality" and determined to live in a "spirit of fraternity" (cf. Universal Declaration, article 1).

3. The Church, which for her part considers with great respect all that is true, good and beautiful that is found in the community of mankind (cf. "Gaudium et Spes," 42), has seen in the Declaration a "sign of the times," regarding it as "an important step in the path to the juridical-political organization of the world community" (encyclical "Pacem in Terris," 75), an act able to synthesize the meaning of human liberty by reconciling present-day needs with immutable principles, capable of offering guidelines founded anthropologically and juridically so as to respond to the most profound human needs.

The idea itself of fundamental rights has a profound root in the Christian tradition since the initial proclamation of the Good News, which enriches the precepts of the Decalogue with the invitation to be sympathetic to every person (cf. Matthew 25:35-36), without any distinction: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

In the doctrine of the Church, then, the tutelage of the human person evokes subsidiarity as ruling principle of the social order and that, beginning with the person, guarantees individual rights and liberty as well as those rights connected with the community dimension, including the liberty to associate, to give life to social formations, to intermediary entities, up to the reality of the state and, therefore, to the international community with its institutions.

4. The Supreme Pontiffs have expressed on many occasions the Church's appreciation for the great values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of Dec. 10, 1948. I would like at least to recall here the teachings of Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the occasion of their interventions before the U.N. General Assembly. On Oct. 4, 1965, Paul VI expressed himself thus before the representatives of nations: "For you who proclaimed the fundamental rights and duties of man, his dignity, his liberty and, first of all, religious liberty."

John Paul II spoke twice before the U.N. Assembly. The first time, on Oct. 3, 1979, in connection with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he affirmed: "This document is a milestone on the long and difficult road of humankind. We must measure humanity's progress not only with the progress of science and technology, of which all the singularity of man stands out in confronting nature, but contemporaneously and even more so with the primacy of spiritual values and with the progress of the moral life."

In the second intervention, on Oct. 5, 1995, John Paul II described the Declaration as "one of the highest expressions of human conscience of our time" and underlined forcefully how "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. If we want a century of violent coercion to be succeeded by a century of persuasion, we must find a way to discuss the human future intelligibly. The universal moral law written on the human heart is precisely that kind of 'grammar' which is needed if the world is to engage this discussion of its future."

Benedict XVI, speaking in his turn to the United Nations Assembly on April 18, 2008, and recalling explicitly the event that we celebrate today, namely the 60th anniversary of the Declaration, said: "It is evident, though, that the rights recognized and expounded in the Declaration apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history. They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks."

5. Today, in face of a worrying global picture that is above all the reflection of economic structures that do not respond to man's value, basic rights seem to depend on anonymous, uncontrolled mechanisms and on a vision that is enclosed in the pragmatism of the moment, forgetting that the code of the future of the human family is solidarity.

We are asked, then, if it is the economic structures and their recent changes that are the cause of the denial of rights, or if it is not, rather, the abandonment of the vision of the person that from subject has become ever more an object of economic conduct, often reduced to claiming the only rights linked to his function of consumer and not of person.

6. In face of the global dimension that characterizes our era, the universality of the person, as the Holy Father reminded at the U.N. is the criteria that furnishes to human rights the characteristic of being universal, and thus to avoid partial applications or relative visions. This means that every political community "called to realize the contents of the Universal Declaration by analyzing objectively its own situation, but being clear that that act is not deprived of force because it was adopted and elaborated in a different social, political or juridical content from that in which we operate today: thus it brings all its permanent efficacy of "innateness" to the history of every human person.

The lack of tutelage of human rights that is often evidenced in the attitude of so many institutions and functions of the authority is the fruit of the disintegration of the unity of the person about whom thought is given to proclaim different rights, of constructing ample spaces of liberty that, however, remain deprived of every anthropological foundation.

Sixty years having passed now since that Dec. 10, 1948, it does not seem possible any more to guarantee rights if their indivisibility is neglected and if the conviction is not abandoned that the tutelage of civil and political rights passes through a "not doing" of the institutional apparatus, while the commitment to those that are economic, social and cultural is to be considered only pragmatic.

7. The Church feels that particular attention should be given to a return to religious liberty, which article 18 of the Universal Declaration made explicit in meaning and limits, foreseeing likewise the rights and situations that are connected to such liberty. The object of that right is not the intrinsic content of a determined religious faith, but immunity from every coercion, virtually a zone of security able to guarantee the inviolability of a human space in which the individual believer and the community in which he expresses his own faith are free to act, without external pressures from individuals, social groups or any other authority.

It is an altogether evident fact that the religious event has a direct influence on the unfolding of the internal life of states and of the international community. This notwithstanding, perceived ever more are indications and tendencies that seem to want to exclude religion and rights from the possibility to contribute to the construction of the social order, also in full respect of the pluralism that marks contemporary society.

Religious freedom risks being confused only with freedom of worship or in any case interpreted as an element belonging to the private sphere and increasingly replaced by an imprecise "right to tolerance." And all this while ignoring that religious liberty as fundamental right marks the overcoming of religious tolerance, which was solidly anchored to a relative vision of truth and to individualism without limits.

Similarly, the international perspective itself allows the tendency to emerge of relegating the religious event to the dimension of culture and to associate it with traditional practices and knowledge which are not strangers to a syncretistic vision, forgetting that religion, and the liberties and rights connected with it, are an experience of life, an indication of the most profound aspirations that the person wishes to reach through his action.

8. An aspect on which it is necessary for us to turn our attention is that of the exact nature of the rights that the Declaration derives from the dignity that is common to every human being, an aspect to which it is necessary that claims, thoughts, proposals can converge to give them an order, without making the demand for rights spread in every direction. To defend fundamental rights means, in fact, not to confuse them with simple and often limiting contingent needs. To be able to go back to the original position of the Declaration including the new situations is possible and could be a path to follow to give renewed vigor to man's cause.

Moreover, once recognized and finally fixed in an eventual convention, human rights are always in need of being defended. They are in need of fidelity on our part, because they can be lost from view, reinterpreted in a restrictive way or actually denied. The pedagogy to which we owe their formulation is the same with which they need to be preserved. The Holy Father often reminds us that humanity's moral progress always needs to be undertaken again. Not being a material fact, it cannot happen by accumulation. This is also true for human rights, which every day need to be confirmed, re-founded in our consciousness and relived.

9. To respect and reinvigorate the fundamental rights will be a concrete way to oppose the various and diffused forms of abandonment of the foundations of moral order in social relations, from interpersonal dimensions to that of international relations. In fact, it is ever more difficult to foresee an effective and universal tutelage of rights, without a connection to that natural law that fecundates the same rights and is the antithesis of that degradation that in so many of our societies is interested in questioning the ethics of life and of procreation, of marriage and family life, as well as of education and the formation of the young generations, introducing only an individualistic vision on which to arbitrarily construct new rights that are not more precise in content and juridical logic.

Rights, therefore, cannot be containers that, according to the historical, cultural and political moments, are full of different meanings and elements. In fact, it is the absence of values to which to link the rights that is the principal cause of their inefficacy and their violation. The natural law, instead, allows all to find a common root, also in face of positions that, although having a different ethical foundation, are not prepared to yield in face of the abandonment of that truth that is common to the human species.

Only a weak vision of human rights can hold that the human being is the result of his rights, not recognizing that the rights remain an instrument created by man to give full realization to his innate dignity.

10. The Declaration of 1948 is a point of arrival. It must also always be a new point of departure; it still maintains all its potential that is not consumed, rather, it requires a greater sharing so as to be translated into concrete acts. In fact, the Universal Declaration is called not only to defend liberty and its rules, but also to impede that they degenerate into the negation of the primacy of the human being.

Among the human rights, in the rigor of terms, there is no hierarchy. They are all together one, they are as only one right: the right to be able to become man or, as Paul VI wrote, to be able to become more man. The Church, along with political and juridical wisdom, has always held the principle of the indivisibility of human rights: each one of them reflects all the others and refers to them as complementary and irreplaceable elements of itself. Its insistence on the importance of the right to life and the right to religious liberty does not derive, therefore, from the desire to insert some division among man's rights, a hierarchy. The insistence is born, rather, from the need to make explicit the fact that the rights themselves are not founded by themselves, but are expressions of the face of the human person and of his dignity.

To have received life as a gift and to be able to thank the Author of life are the first two human rights. This does not mean to put the other rights on an inferior level, rather, with this all human rights are indivisibly raised to be expressions of a dignity received out of love and not produced by human techniques. The discourse can also be upside down. We see that when there is a failure to recognize the right to life and to religious liberty, respect for other rights also vacillates.

All the rights of mankind are upheld together, "simul stabunt, simul cadent," but even in their violation, unfortunately, they are upheld together. The principle of indivisibility is true whether in good or in evil. The Church affirms that the reasons of those who struggle for the right to life and to religious liberty should be enlarged in order to also understand all the other rights and affirms that those who are sensitive to any other right cannot be indifferent to that of life or the right to religious liberty. They cannot divide between their human rights, choose ideologically the one preferred, or attribute to one or the other political connotations.

In the addresses pronounced at the United Nations that I have briefly recalled, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI specified that the ultimate and fundamental reason why the Church has human rights at its heart is of the ethical-religious order and refers to its own mission. Thus the Church expresses to the international community in a way that is yet more multi-form her contribution to the promotion and respect of human rights.

As Benedict XVI confirmed last Sunday, "For the populations worn out by poverty and hunger, for the ranks of refugees, for all those who suffer grave and systematic violation of their rights, the Church places herself as watchman on the high mountain of faith and proclaims: 'Behold your God! Behold, the Lord comes with might'" (Isaiah, 40:11).

For the believer, and for all those who put their faith in human dignity, the full tutelage of rights cannot but coincide with a model of life and of social order in which the expectation is realized of that new heaven and new earth in which justice finds a stable dwelling (cf. 2 Peter 3:13). This is our common hope.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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