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Address given at the International Federation of Married Catholic Priests held July 28-Aug. 1, 1999




Human rights are the first of all of the rights that mankind has universally secured through the ages. They are religious rights in the degree that believers see in them the image of mankind that the Son of Man has sought to reveal to us. We must look on mankind's history and Christ's revelation as interconnected. To separate and oppose them would be a great mistake

In the recently published letter of the French bishops, it was pointed out that "we have learned that, between God and man, there is never a relationship of force but rather a relationship of freedom. We don't have to choose between human rights and God's rights. We know by human and historical experience that, whenever genuine human rights are scorned, the invocation of God is hypocrisy."


Human rights have revealed themselves through the slow progress of civilization since mankind's origin some four million years ago. We know very little about the different steps of humanization that succeeded one another since the Australopithecus (to which "Lucy's" body belonged) some three million years ago, to Homo Habilis, then to Homo Erectus, and to Homo Sapiens today.

The only trace that we have from these prehistorical times is the Paleolithic wall art which bears witness to the first manifestation of consciousness of primitive man. Through this art, primitive hunters affirmed their human perception of art over the events it depicted

It was through the discovery of writing around 3000 BC, that the Sumerian civilization developed its conception of human rights. We know about this through the archives of tablets that preserve their pictographs and ideographs. The Sumerian prince, Ouroukagun, of the city of Lagash in Mesopotamia, is the first legislator and he created a formula that is a model of the rights of humankind: "To defend the rights of the widow and the orphan, those who are especially vulnerable to oppression by the powerful." Later, around 1800 BC, Hammurabi, the founder of the Babylonian Empire, formulated his famous code to protect the weak.

In the Middle Egyptian Empire, thirteen centuries before Christ, Pharaoh Amenophis IV, known also as Akenaton, announced one god who would rule with justice and equity for everyone. He pointed out the right of foreigners to enjoy fraternal hospitality, a right that every human being can claim. Less than one hundred years later, Moses laid down in the decalogue the ten commandments that are pillars of justice and wisdom.

In India, eight centuries before Christ, the Upanishads affirm the universal respect that each man has the right to ask for himself. Then the teaching of Buddha, in the sixth century before Christ, asked every man to seek to suppress the suffering of fellow humans. The unifying King of Indian Buddhism, Ashoka, in the third century before Christ, called for mutual tolerance among his subjects in their daily behavior.

The teaching in the China of Confucius, in the fifth century before Christ, just as with Socrates at the same period of time in the Greek world, followed by his disciples, the Stoics during the Roman period in the final years before the Christian era, solidified this position. Human beings have a right to respect and to just treatment.

In recent times, UNESCO has undertaken an important work of collecting the oral and written traditions, which confirm that everywhere in the world -- in Africa as well as in the Pacific and the Americas - the same human rights have been asserted in all civilizations of different ages and despite broad cultural differences.

Jesus' teaching has been a revelation that the Creator-Father has placed universal love in the heart of every person. He is a Father who is continually working to strengthen their love, within all the limits and contradictions of human beings who are free and responsible for their acts.

The Catholic Church, that is to say the universal church, has sought through the ages to comprehend this message of the son of man. Its efforts have often been clumsy but with a perseverance that deserves praise, even though this does not excuse its infidelities to the gospel message. Nevertheless Catholicism, enriched by the study of its theologians, has captured the foundation itself of human rights, that is, "natural law."


All thinking on human rights can be summarized in this way: "Human beings from their birth share the same nature which can be fully realized only within a human community." The Greek philosophers, Plato and especially Aristotle, have had a beneficial influence on catholic thinkers. During the Renaissance, they contributed to a better understanding of the divine meaning of mankind.

Saint Paul, in the first century, had already affirmed that any human being is our brother or sister. It is a pity that the apostle did not more strongly demand the end of slavery. Slavery is a true crime against human rights. It is a barbarian practice that continues for millions of people at the end of the 20th century.

In the primitive Church through the 4th century, the gospel message never lacked support for the natural rights revealed by ancient wisdom.


From the Church of the persecuted martyr during the first centuries, the Church was transformed into a powerful society when it won recognition from the Roman Emperor, Constantine. The Church became involved in political power games and forgot its teaching on human rights. In time, its political games perverted its message.

In the fourth century under the Emperor Theodosius, it directed the persecution of Christians, the Arians. It also justified the massacre of Christian monophysites under the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century.

Saint Augustin, the North African berber, reasserted the principle of egalitarian justice in his "City of God" in the 4th century. But it was only acting as a Christian city that was trying to escape from barbarian invasions.

In the 8th century, the Church itself encouraged Charlemagne to convert the Saxons by force of arms and to use barbarous means to stop the infidels who were bringing a dark age. In the middle ages, Pope Innocent III approved the persecution of the Cathari under the pretext of preserving the purity of the Church's faith.

In the Middle Ages, the work of great theologians like St. Thomas affirmed a doctrine of natural law. This teaching would be enriched during the Renaissance by the contributions of Suarez, Vitoria, and Barthelemy de Las Casas. Before Charles V, de las Casas defended the overriding dignity of the Indians who were discovered through the explorations of Christopher Columbus. Human dignity emerged as a secular concept and was freed from its clerical origins.

Christian behavior during the 12th to the 16th centuries often included shameful practices that ridiculed human rights. So, Saint Louis was impassive as he assisted the persecution of Jews, and Isabel-the-Catholic tortured Jews and drove those who refused to convert away from Spain.

In the 13th century, the Catholic Church established the tribunals of the Inquisition which multiplied the atrocities attributed to religious motives and made terror reign. The warrior expeditions of feudal times multiplied the offenses done in the name of the faith, just as later occurred with the vindictive invasions called the Crusades directed against the Muslim world.

But everything was not worthy of condemnation. A voluntary humanitarianism of the Church affirmed itself in these troubled periods, often in response to wartime injustices.

In these times when armed bands were freely sacking villages, the Church created the right of asylum in its sanctuaries - a right that has been forgotten today in the case of immigrants who lack the proper credentials. In that epoch, however, the citizens of the commercial centers elaborated these rights as customs, inspired by Christian ideas, and their princes confirmed them.

Human rights spread with repeated claims for their acceptance. They won acceptance at all levels of society. The Norman barons imposed them on King John the Landless of England, in a statement of rights in 1215, the "Magna Carta." This document reaffirms the presumption of innocence and serves as the fundamental text of Article 39 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

At the turn of the Renaissance, the Catholic Church missed the chance to renew itself in response to reformers Eke Luther who openly deplored the depraved and greedy practices of a number of Church leaders. The counter Reformation that tried to stop Protestant expansion froze Catholic doctrinal teaching for many years. Even today despite its futility, the Catholic Church still refuses to accept the evolution of dogmas and it holds firmly to the teachings of the past.

Even more important is the fact that the spread of western humanism, bent on planting its values all over the world, misled the cause of humanism. With missionary zeal, it promoted an iconoclastic intolerance for alien cultures. A "white racism" often accompanied missionary colonialism that had little tolerance for the cultural, religious, social, and agrarian values of the peoples that were conquered. The Catholic Church has, for a long time, misunderstood nonChristian cultures. For example, she ignored traditional human customs in the Mali Empire in the 14th century and, in the 15th century, between the Aztecs and Incas of the Americas. The Church also showed its intolerance by directing Jesuit missionaries not to respect the ancestor rights of Japan and China.

All these violations of human rights sully the Church and hide the gospel message. Not long ago, Pope John Paul II solemnly taught that, as a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation for this coming third millennium, he was reaffirming in the name of Catholic Church its disavowal of all of the crimes it has perpetrated over the ages: "There is a painful chapter which the children of the Church can recall only in a spirit of repentance -- the condonation in certain periods of violent and intolerant methods to serve the truth." 1


The Catholic Church has played a significant role in the progressive freeing of oppressed peoples. In the course of time, she has built a political philosophy that could be called "peoples' rights." These rights are only a new statement of the recognition of national communities of the autonomy which mankind commonly seeks. From the 17th century until today, there is an intellectual ferment among those who have who have affirmed the right of peoples to national independence. The revolutionaries who championed the declaration of the Rights of Man of the American revolution, like those of the French revolution at the end of the 18th century, looked to the doctrine of Peoples' Rights to justify their claims of independence.

The universality of Catholicism has helped to establish a better understanding of the universality of human rights, even though some still reject them. The Christian Church has always raised itself above all forms of totalitarianism, at times a little late, in affirming the priority of rule of law for all forms of government. The influence of the Catholic Church has strongly contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain that was such a shameful denial of human rights.


First of all, one can never underline enough the important role of John XXIII in the recognition of human rights as a lay people which appeals to the best in human kind. His encyclical "Pacem in terris" in 1962 was a definite move by the Catholic Church to recognize the humanitarian drift which is stirring in society today.

Vatican II, in 1965, extended this spread of human rights. Pope Paul VI thanked the United Nations for its own contribution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by saying, "We feel that you are the interpreter of what is highest in the human wisdom. We might almost say it's almost sacred character." 2

The new dicastery (a bureau of the Roman Curia), "Justice and Peace," in 1967, is evidence of the Catholic Church's involvement in international justice and the promotion and protection of human rights around the world. This Pontifical Commission, where I worked for many years as a secretary of the Peace Committee, was without question an official sign of the Catholic Church's involvement in that field.

The reason behind such a Commission is the Catholic Church's new interest in the political development and economic problems of the third world, manifested by the encyclical "Populorum Progressio," written in 1967.

Working with RenŽ Cassin and Sean MacBride, both future winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, I published at that time a thesis on "The Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Catholic Church. 3 During those years, important projects were occupying the Pontifical Commission: the recognition of the rights of conscientious objectors, ethical standards for police departments, justice toward every culture, and the right to oppose oppression.

In a joint effort with the World Council of Churches, through an exchange that took place in Baden, Germany, we insisted especially on the right to asylum that is so badly needed today. To a world conference on peace organized by religious authorities in 1968 in Kyoto, as well as to the first international conference on human rights organized by United Nations in Kyoto the same year, I brought a message on peace from the Holy See.

Finally, the United Nations' Worldwide Conference on Human Rights in Teheran, at which I represented the Vatican Commission, made new advances in determining the essential conditions for ending the conflicts that were tearing the world apart at that time.

A special contribution to peace was the founding of national "Justice on Peace commissions" around the world under the auspices of national conferences of bishops. A new understanding of urgent problems in human rights in each country could result from this initiative. Today an educational program in human rights is an undeniable task for Catholic teachers. 4

In 1988, the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace made efforts to protect the rights of migrants, a really acute question today with the exodus from Kosovo!

But all these good actions could not hide many wrong responses of the Catholic Church to human rights today.


Human rights and sexuality

An "aggiormamento," i.e., some new way of thinking and acting, was the aim of Vatican II in 1965. Sexuality had never been openly proposed for discussion by the official teachers of the Catholic Church, and Pope Paul VI, open to the new spirit coming from many bishops around the world, set up a commission of experts to make proposals on this delicate question. (This Congress, by the way, is privileged to honor one of the members of this Commission, Mrs. Patty Crowley.) These experts, comings from different specialties and countries, finally agreed on the urgent need to accept modern medicine's progress on the issue of contraception. It was a special opportunity to arrive at responsible birth control and affirm the traditional natural right to study the possibilities of proper family size. Many humanitarian associations such as the family planning associations asked for a speedy answer in the face of overpopulation in the third world.

Unfortunately, the Pope, under the compelling forces of a conservative wing of the Roman Curia finally decided to reserve so complicated a question to his own consideration.

The encyclical, "Humanae vitae," in 1968, closed the question by forbidding contraception by new medical means, compelling Christian married couples to face psychological and moral problems. Such an attitude denied human rights to normal sexuality.

Meanwhile, the Pope's secretary had asked me personally to prepare an encyclical on human rights, a long and demanding work that I presented in due time to higher authorities. 5 I was so disappointed when, some days after I had given church authorities the draft of an encyclical on human rights, Humanae Vitae appeared, nullifying all my work. I could not accept such a violation of human rights and scandalous misunderstanding of the gospel's message of free responsibility. For me and many other specialists in religion, it was the end of Council time and the beginning of a long period of frightening conservatism which is continuing to this day.

The full meaning of human rights is each one's personal responsibility for the process of creating his or her family. Nobody would normally interfere in the natural way by which mankind is completing itself. The progress of medicine is a helpful contribution to a more humane and ethical way of life. To denounce what medicine had made possible is the same crazy approach as efforts in the past to denounce blood transfusions or vaccination! Contraception is a useful way of allowing mankind to be more intelligently associated with God's planning.


The rite of marriage is the blessing of the Church that publicly endorses the pledge between two people. The priest is only the Church's witness to this sacrament.

The true matter of the sacrament is the love that each of the two people give to each other. A lasting denial of love destroys the sacrament. Divorce is the process that follows the destruction of the sacrament by married people renouncing their pledge to each other of a life of love. No one doubts their responsibility, but it is an absurdity to condemn them to a purgatory by excluding them from involvement with other sacraments. A stance like that on the part of clerics is in direct contradiction with natural rights. The free pledge of married people is always dependent on our existential limits: time, society, changeable human nature, etc. Our actions never escape from changing and temporary conditions, and the notion of eternal and irrevocable pledges is as mythic as mankind's pretension to an everlasting life on earth. Our present lifestyle is a continually changing process of adapting to situations that are always in motion in our work, family relationships, and political choices. Modern civilization denies the past's conception of immutable and eternal decisions, often hiding a coercion of a person's natural rights.

The right to make mistakes is a new conquest in the appreciation of human dignity. To fit people's attitudes into a ready-made suit is a reckless condemnation of the love ever changing in a human heart that needs a new involvement each day to lead a free and active life.


It's a common law at the present time that there should be no discrimination between the sexes. Nevertheless, women often remain dependent. Male predominance is still a reality. To claim that serving the Christian community as a priest is forbidden to women makes no sense and shows a real prejudice against her dignity. Nothing could justify such discrimination. To use history as a pretext for imposing this misogynistic past today makes no sense. For Christ to choose twelve men as disciples was a normal way of doing things in his time. It would be insane to base a rule on nothing but a cultural and circumstantial fact. It is not a duty for popes to be married because the first pope, St. Peter, was!

The Catholic Church must busy itself rethinking this important question. It is not an argument to say that a woman like Mary is venerated as God's mother and then move onto such a discriminatory rule when it comes to priests! The true veneration of Mary consists in acknowledging her humility and her son's service. We hope that one day a woman will sit in the apostolic college.

Celibate Priests

Human rights cannot be separated from one another. They are so closely linked. It's impossible to put a distance between the right to live and the right to give life. They are the same right, and no authorities, religious or civil, can split this inseparable way of being human. Pope Leo XIII recalled: "No human law can take away in any form at all the natural and primordial right of every human being to marry." 6 To oblige some people to relinquish this natural right is a violation of a human being's dignity. Clerical authorities can't make celibacy a requirement for priesthood without overturning the normal destiny of man. Celibacy is an individual choice, a personal agreement, not an obligation from on high. A way of life so voluntary must be freely accepted each day by an internal consent and not by an external regulation. The link between priesthood and celibacy is a historical accident and has no basis in nature.

A pledge that is not made freely, with a conscience actually wanting it, quickly becomes a slavery that destroys human dignity. Celibacy is a free personal choice which must not be linked by law to becoming a priest. An ascetic's obligation cannot be reduced to a status requirement.

The concept of permanent priesthood according Melchisedech is a transfer of the psychosis that would tend to immortalize our existential choices in order to get as quickly as possible to the eternal life which we forever hope for. An attitude like that is close to the notion of everlasting marriage which has to link human couples together for eternity. Real life keeps compelling people to make constant new choices -- to get a job and eventually move to new locations, to have a new understanding of children in a changing society, and to keep forming new relationships. Our life is forever moving on. We have to abandon our usual habits to accept today's changing society.

A forced celibacy encloses a human being in an alien life which inhibits all free activities. God wanted more for his creatures. He is the presence dwelling in free people who show each day the obstinate courage to make choices.

Capital Punishment

"Thou shalt not kill." This is one of the most important commandments. The death penalty in peace time, not in conflicts that need military solutions, is a barbarian act, a physical and moral torture of a human being. It is not an act to protect society by setting an example. It is just an easy way to get rid of criminals. It is a pure and simple denial of an individual's right to life. Society could very well protect itself by others means. It remains an act of revenge, a blood price, not a fair exchange. The Catholic Church has not yet solemnly condemned the death penalty. That's a pity.

She seems more occupied today with denouncing abortion in all its forms, even therapeutical, than condemning inhuman sentences of death, which destroy family circles and provoke results that cannot be remedied.

Economic and Social Oppression

It's a basic human right, a fundamental freedom, to fight to restore the moral order violated by particular groups or organized oligarchic systems that appropriate for their own profit goods that belong to the entire human community. The third section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights underlines this primordial requirement for acknowledgment of human dignity.

Liberation theology arose with only that claim. For Latin American thinkers it consists in discarding a false image of God, the one which has oppressed people under the gaze of an Almighty uninvolved with time, settled once and for all on upper middle class traditions, who pays no attention to the actual socioeconomic needs of oppressed peoples. Following the Latin-American Council of Catholic Bishops (CELAM) in 1968, theologians are asking for a solidarity with oppressed people of those countries, people unfairly reduced to subhuman conditions which deny their primary right to equal treatment and the dignity which every human being can naturally claim.

Our Role in Applying Human Rights

The Catholic Church's involvement with human rights depends on each of us. We are here in Atlanta to shout to the world our determination to fight against violations of human rights, in a spirit of reconciliation with all men and women sharing our destiny in this world.

We have nothing more to hope from Rome or anywhere else. Everything is in our own hands. We have only to convince the people we live among of the need of justice and peace between neighbors. The question now is the future of mankind. The struggle is for unity and respect for the cultural differences of the six billion people living on our planet, for a human race that is in so much pain but each day is more and more conscious of the road still ahead.

President Cassin, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and principal author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wrote to me of his certainty that we're on the right track: "First of all, it is obvious that the more progress mankind makes toward its destiny, the more it keeps developing its potential, using scientific progress, and the more attention it pays to human needs, to a humanity so weak and suffering, the more it involves itself in the fight against all the forces and diseases which threaten our future. Each individual is claiming a normal respect for his or her human dignity. All that continues to promote the human family's rights has unmistakable value. 7

Human Rights involve a permanent struggle. Talking about them is not enough. We must act with all the means we have, be they ever so modest. We must help and encourage humanitarian efforts, especially by the associations active in this field. Yes, it costs money and effort, but it's the duty of each of us to help people violated in their human dignity - in Eritrea, Mexico, Brazil, Bangladesh, Burundi, Turkey, Indonesia, not to mention Kosovo.

We know that we're not here for nothing. Your meeting is not only a sign of brotherhood but a reconciliation with all human groups whether they recognize us, despise us or ignore us. We are determined to elude the difficulties of the past, to struggle together for human rights. Our faith is cemented by martyr's blood. Our love of God, our passion for the gospel message keeps humanizing our life. We are more open to tomorrow's involvements. Together we have a new birth, like the eternal phoenix which is the Spirit behind our meeting. Our hope is that our activities restore to all people a holiness which is their's. As a member of the International Federation of Married Priests, I would like to express my gratitude for the work represented by this meeting.

Many thanks to the generous and talented people who have worked to bring men and women together from such varied and distant parts of the world.

Villefranche/Mer, Tuesday, June 1, 1999

1. Apostolic letter "Tertio millennio adveniente" November 1994, No 35

2. Pope's speech in United Nations in 1965 - Cf Catholic documentation, coll. 1736

3. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Catholicism" Philippe de la Capel Constitutional Library on political science Edition Picton/Auzias Paris 1967

4. Texts of Pontifical Commission Justice and Peace, introduced by Dr. Giorgio Filibeck Vatican City - 1991

5. Project of Human Rights encyclical given to the state secretary in Vatican in 1967.

6. Encyclical letter "Rerum Novarum" 1891

7. Introducing letter of René Cassin to the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Catholicism" Op Cit.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999