Pope Benedict XVI told, "Human rights must be established on the principles of natural law"
New York, Apr. 18, 2008 (vaticans.org) - Human rights must be established on the firm and unchanging principles of natural law, Pope Benedict XVI told world leaders in an April 18 address to the UN's General Assembly.
The papal speech-- which he opened with several paragraphs in French before switching to English-- underlined the importance that Pope Benedict attaches to the recognition of natural law as the basis for human rights. Commenting on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Pontiff remarks that those rights, codified by the UN 60 years ago, "are based on the natural law inscribed on human hears and present in different cultures and civilizations."
The UN speech was perhaps the most important address scheduled during the Pope's visit to America. Indeed the plans for the papal voyage began to take shape only after the Holy Father accepted an invitation to address the General Assembly.
The Pope opened his remarks by praising the founding principles of the UN, saying that they "express the just aspirations of the human spirit and constitute the ideals that should underpin international relations." He reminded the delegates that Popes Paul VI and John Paul II had addressed the UN, acknowledging the consistent Vatican support for the organization.
The existence of an multi-state body committed to upholding the principles of international law is vital, the Pope continued, in order to guard against unilateral action by major powers. "This is all the more necessary," he said, "at a time when we experience the obvious paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world's problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community." The London Times interpreted this passage as a subtle criticism of the US decision to go to war in Iraq-- a decision that the Holy See had opposed, 5 years ago, on the ground that the US policy was not clearly justified by international law.
Pope Benedict went on to offer an expansive vision of the duties of the UN. The international organization, he said, should help to coordinate aid to the poor and weak countries of the world, offering economic assistance and ensuring the rights of the people in those nations. He added that international efforts should be made to safeguard the environment and to intervene when "the human person and the family are robbed of their natural identity."
Continuing his discussion of international intervention, the Pope argued strongly that the UN should become actively involved-- even overriding concerns about state sovereignty-- when individual nations fail to protect their own people. He said:
If states are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments. The action of the international community and its institutions, provided that it respects the principles undergirding the international order, should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty. On the contrary, it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage.
In extreme cases, the Pope said, international organizations are required to protect the very basis of political order. He reminded the UN delegates that the organization was established after the "profound upheavals" of World War II. At that time, he said, thoughtful world leaders recognized that the widespread denial of human rights "threatens the objective foundations of the values inspiring and governing the international order."
In that context the Pope explained the critical importance of a strong and enduring basis for the recognition of human rights. The Universal Declaration, he observed, "was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions." In spite of differences on other political and social issues, these traditions converged to recognize the natural law "inscribed on human hearts," he said. The Pope warned that a failure to recognize the natural-law basis for human rights would be a dangerous mistake:
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.
As it stands, with its strong foundation in natural-law reasoning, the Universal Declaration remains a genuine expression of an unchanging moral consensus, the Pope said. He pointed out that the document "has enabled different cultures, juridical expressions and institutional models to converge around a fundamental nucleus of values, and hence of rights." Citing St. Augustine, the Pope observed that the Golden Rule "cannot in any way vary according to the different understandings that have arisen in the world."
Later in his presentation, Pope Benedict put forward a case for an expansive UN guarantee of religious freedom. This freedom, he said, should properly be understood to embrace not only a private right to individual worship but also a right to affirm religious principles in public life. "It is inconceivable," the Pope insisted, "that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves-- their faith-- in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one's rights."
As he concluded his lengthy presentation, the Holy Father explained the connection between religious freedom and all other human rights. These rights, he said, "are grounded and shaped by the transcendent nature of the person, which permits men and women to pursue their journey of faith and their search for God in this world."
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