MAN AND HIS RIGHTS
Cardinal Giovanni Colombo
On the feast of St Ambrose, Patron Saint of the diocese of Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Colombo [then Archbishop of Milan] delivered a homily which dealt with problems of great interest for the Church and Italian society today…
Today everyone’s attention is fixed on man: there is no discipline that does not declare itself to be directly or indirectly anthropological; there is no social, political or religious movement that does not hoist the banner of man's liberation and advancement.
If the question of man is the most characteristic one in our age, it is also the most hotly contested. Today people fight not only to annex a territory or to conquer a space of political or commercial influence, but they struggle also and above all about the meaning of man and the model of life to which it is desired to adapt him socially.
In this dramatic contest, two anthropologies face each other: the secularistic one and the Christian one. The future of all is bound up with the outcome of this confrontation.
The fundamental opposition of these two anthropologies lies in the different conception they have of man: of his origin, his mission, his destiny. They converge in affirming the absolute dignity of man, but they base this dignity in a radically contrasting way.
Secularistic anthropology, which disregards all religious reference and all immutable superior norms, bases man's absolute dignity on man himself, as being endowed with reason and freedom and considered to be the only arbiter and constructor of his own life. And since man is immersed in history and its vicissitudes, he, too, is changeable and unstable; then, too, being absolutely autonomous, he is the only source of justice and injustice, the only criterion of good and evil. In this way the door is open to moral relativism, unrestrained anarchism, despotism, and the manipulation of man. If there is no God, the "father" of man, man too easily becomes the "master" of man.
In the image of God
Christian anthropology, on the contrary, bases the absolute dignity and inviolability of man on the fact that he was created by God "in his image and likeness" and therefore, by his very nature, is different from and superior to, the whole of created reality. According to revelation, furthermore, man is not only the "image" of God, a person capable of choosing freely and of planning his own future, but he is also a "sort" of God, destined to become his "heir". He is made for God, and cannot be reduced to an instrument for purposes that are inferior to God himself. His dignity is, therefore, based on God, an immutable rock, and therefore cannot be affected by historical changes. The moral law, which is the expression and safeguard of human dignity, expresses requirements and imposes lines of behaviour which are not subject to man's will. Thus God, the "father" of man, prevents man from becoming the "master" of man, and commits him to becoming a "brother" and "servant" of his brothers.
From this different view of man is derived also a different way of conceiving human rights, the defence of which is one of the most outstanding aspects of the modern world.
In fact, according to the Christian conception, human rights—in the first place the right to life—have an absolute and inalienable character which comes from the fact of being based on the Absolute, which is God. Certainly the historical process helps to understand them and define them better and better, but not to make them obsolete or even changeable according to individual and social circumstances or convenience. Man, whether he is an individual or the State, can never become the arbiter or "owner" of these rights, but must protect and develop them, and must also operate in order that every person may enjoy them.
Man: master and despot
In the secularistic conception, on the other hand, absolute and untouchable rights do not exist, but they can all be interpreted and modified by the unlimited will of man, the supreme and final arbiter. And when two rights come into conflict, one can be sacrificed: usually, the right of the weaker in favour of the stronger, as in the case of abortion.
Once more the fundamental problem of the two contrasting anthropologies comes to light. Is man the "master" and the "despot" of man or is he only his "guardian" and "promoter"?
Man the "master" and "despot" of human nature would seem to bethe highest exaltation of man himself, honoured as the only law unto himself and as the only maker of history. In fact, this is not so. On the contrary, in this hypothesis man ceases to have an absolute meaning and an indisputable value; and may like all other things, be manipulated. But if this were so, in the name of what principle can the ordinary man be defended from the man who wields the power—whether his name is Hitler or Stalin makes no difference—and with the power the terrifying capacity, conferred on him by the bewildering pace of scientific and technical progress, of suppressing, distorting and enslaving?
When man is the "master" and "despot" of man, there are two inevitable outcomes. One either arrives at systems in which the human person is an instrument of production and consumption in a collectivity—it does not matter whether it is Socialist or capitalist—where the economy is recognized as having first place, or one reaches the exasperated celebration of an individual freedom without any purpose and sometimes without any norm, socially sterile and personally alienating.
It is clear that a culture constructed on the assumption of man as "owner" and "despot" of man, cannot but make any foundation of human rights frail and precarious. And if this culture were to prevail, it would be a poor lookout for the near future.
Man: friend and brother of man
Today the most sensational symptoms indicating such a possible future are legalized abortion and violence, even physical, considered to be a legitimate means of struggle. The same fierce logic desecrating life unites the two phenomena and spreads like wildfire in society. Today too many people, even among the young, have a gun in their pocket. Because of a flare-up of political hatred or for a handful of millions, they shoot against life which is continually losing value. Popular feeling, horrified, is helpless. When the State agrees to suppress the defenceless and innocent life enclosed in the mother's womb, how can it recover the moral strength—more necessary than physical strength—to defend life in the adult when he walks along the streets or enters banks or shops?
We are up against an involution of civilization which brings us back to the centuries of paganism. But the two signs mentioned are only tips of the iceberg. They reveal a vast subsurface, where sexuality, detached from love and torn from its intrinsic finalities, has sunk to the level of commerce. It is reduced to an instrument of pleasure. It is even debased to a game in which the participants are soulless actors of an insignificant comedy which too often ends up in a drama, where widespread Machiavellianism accustoms people to seek what is of immediate utility although to the detriment of honesty, and proposes selfish advantage instead of respect for the rights of others; where the physical and economic emargination of the aged, the handicapped and the poor is still an actual reality, in spite of many declamations to the contrary.
Christian culture, of which the holy bishop is one of the highest and most genuine expressions, is radically opposed to secularistic culture.
As we mentioned previously, the fundamental thesis of Christian anthropology affirms that man is "God's image". By virtue of this truth, man belongs to God, and so to himself; therefore he is removed and preserved from the domination of man. No power can lawfully lay hands on him and "master" him as if he belonged to it. Man is only a "guardian", friend and brother of man.
These terms, simple and peremptory, show the human person in a natural "sacredness". This every upright intelligence can recognize, despite the variability of historical contexts and cultural forms, regardless of all religious faith and any revealed plan of God. Understood in this sense the two affirmations—man is God's image; man is the "guardian" of man—can be universally proposed as the basis of human rights, because they do not constitute a "confessional" party foundation, nor an "ideological" foundation, but merely propose the "reality" of man Without interpretative superstructures.
In any case this conception is the only one able to sustain human rights of man and then assuming rights over man, as if he were an object to be manipulated at will. Objects have no rights, nor duties.
Rights and duties
Man, on the contrary, has rights and, correspondingly, duties. Let us list first of all some rights and then some duties, by way of example, in order to prove—if it were necessary—that Christian anthropology is not an abstract view of the complex historical reality.
—Man has the right to truth and therefore to objective knowledge of the facts, without distortions and ambiguities aimed at wresting agreement surreptitiously.
—Man has the right to live and express himself, to join forces, to act according to his own convictions within the limits of public order, without being made the object of violence, mockery or unjust silence on the part of the public media of information.
—Man has the right to see civil liberties recognized and guaranteed as an inalienable heritage, not bound up with a provisional tolerance of the political authority or with a precarious concession by some oligarchy that is dominant in actual fact.
But anyone who is convinced that man is the "guardian" of human reality in its essence and not the "master", also knows that he has duties to carry out. Unfortunately, today there is a great deal of talk about rights and very little about duties. Or rather, man's rights are justly exalted and it is loudly demanded that they should be respected and put into practice. But it is not sufficiently considered that the exercise of a right by a person, a group—and also by the national community, because the State, too, has rights—entails on the part of others the accomplishment of a duty. It entails, therefore, sacrifices which must be accepted consciously, responsibly and generously.
When awareness of the very close relationship between rights and duties is lost, when people are not convinced that each of us—and not always and only the others—has also duties, society becomes a field in which selfish interests struggle with one another, in which everyone asks and no one wants to give. In this way an extremely dangerous process of anarchy is started, which may lead to authoritarian solutions, considered the only ones capable of arresting the disintegration of social structures and reestablishing the "order" necessary for society.
Volume on "duties"
Just because he was an intrepid defender of human rights, St Ambrose felt the need to write a whole book on "Duties". Following his example, it seems to us useful to recall, on this day dedicated to his memory, some duties that are particularly neglected today.
—The first is to seek the truth and, once we have found it, not to betray it for cowardly fear of what people will say or for personal and party advantages.
—There is also the duty of not going beyond the limit of one's own rights, marked by the beginning of the rights of others. No one in society is a solitary being, but is a member of a civil community which prospers only in rightful and unanimous respect of the rights of
all. The sad experiences of these days make it necessary for us to recall, in this connection, that in defence, legitimatethough it is, of personal rights, category rights and class rights, there is the duly of avoiding unjust harm and excessive discomforts for others and for society.
Let us think, for example, of the additional suffering inflicted on the sick in hospitals by uncontrolled agitations. Let us think of the sudden closing of concerns with unilateral decisions in which the motive of diminished profits is too prevalent. Let us think of the frequent and prolonged interruptions of fundamental public services which have painful repercussions on the most laborious and poorest strata of the population. Let us think of the great harm to the young caused by the disorder reigning in many schools and in particular in the universities of our country, owing to many unfulfilled obligations and responsibilities on the part both of the scholastic authorities and of the teaching staff and the families.
Principle of authority
There is the strict duty on the part of all to recognize the principle of authority, which is obviously very different from the arrogant exercise of power. Anyone who legitimately wields authority, has the duty of exercising it conscientiously and courageously in the service of the common good, without seeking or defending personal or group interests.
—Today there emerges more and more urgently also the duty of overcoming exacerbated pride and nationalistic feeling in order to support the juridical and political structures that are gradually being set up within the international community. We are referring to the organisms for European union and to the "Organization of United Nations" instituted with the intention of fostering peace by preventing, through dialogue and fair sincere agreements, the causes of conflicts and of promoting the progress of peoples in the perspective of the common good of the whole of mankind.
If man by virtue of his nature is an absolute, free and non-conditionable value, he must be considered and respected as suchin society. And if he has rights, on whom does it fall to ensure that they are recognized, defended and actually enjoyed? And if he has duties. whose business is it to demand their fulfilment? This is the function of the State.
Obviously in the present historical development, we think of a state that is soundly lay, really democratic and authentically social.
Lay, that is, a State which is inspired in its fundamental choices by the emergent values of man's nature, without giving privilege to any ideology and any religious faith.
Democratic, that is, a State that determines its own legislation and its own line of government according to popular will, expressed by free elections at reasonable intervals, and offers the real possibility of alternating majorities and oppositions.
Social, that is, a State that does not limit itself to guaranteeing rights in formal terms, but undertakes to create the concrete conditions, so that whoever so desires may exercise his rights and take part responsibly and with stability in the progress of society.
Exists for all
It is only right that such a State should exist. It is only right that it should emerge from all absences and concealment.
It should exist for the young, so that they may be educated to respect the fundamental norms of associated life, and not be abandoned to a future of unemployment.
It should exist for the workers, in order that together with the strength to defend their jobs, it may find the courage to put into practice the provision of the Constitution which, laying down the regulation of the right to strike, certainly meant to prevent forms of indiscriminate exercise and marked negative effects on the fundamental structures of an orderly society.
It should exist for students, in order to make their right to study feasible of being enjoyed in well-organized schools, wisely open to the requirements of history.
It should exist for women, freeing them from heavy and unjust discriminations and procuring for them the social and economic conditions in order that they may fulfil themselves completely.
It should exist for all citizens and guarantee fiscal justice, buying power, the safety of individuals, respect for the property of others and all the many things necessary for a serene and industrious society.
Not on citizens
The State, however, must exist for citizens, not on citizens.
This basic principle is not recognized, but contradicted, when the initiative of the political authority seems inspired by a totalizing will, which leaves to individuals and free institutions what the State does not manage to do by itself at present. It is not democratic to take advantage of regulations introduced to promote the desired decentralization and to give increased scope to local autonomies—like the laws that transfer many administrative competences to the Regions—in order to make public intervention more levelling and oppressive. It is not just to let non-State institutions be caught and suffocated in an inexorable vice: on the one hand the continual increase of management costs, imposed also by law, and on the other hand the refusal to grant adequate economic subsidies, so that it seems that it is desired to carry out by administrative channels that elimination which people dare not effect in the light of day by means of formal legislation.
There transpires here a malpractice of the State with regard to man, because the State puts itself, in this field, as his principle and his limit, that is as "master" and "despot", and not in his service.
As in Ambrose's times, when Roman society, undermined and now soulless, was gradually dissolving and the State structure was no longer able to withstand the blows of the various disintegrating forces, today, too, we all feel a sense of confusion, fear, and anguish and long for something or someone that will restore confidence to man.
As in Ambrose's times, today, too, in the ideal and moral decay that dismays them and in the collapse of the myths in which they had put their trust in view of a more human and more just future, men are looking for a new hope, a "firm point" which will allow them to construct on more solid foundations a project of society in which their burning aspiration to freedom, justice, solidarity, brotherhood and peace will be realized!
Who can give hope?
But whocan give men this new hope? Who can be for the humanity of today the "firm point" from which to set out for a happier adventure? For Christians, there is no doubt: it is Jesus Christ, his person and his message. And we, humbly but proudly, as St. Ambrose did to his contemporaries, propose it to the men of today.
Actually, the hopes aroused in the past by the two great "proposals "—the Liberal proposal and the Marxist one—have turned out disappointing.
Liberalism—the extreme offshoot of which is represented by Radicalism today—has not led to freedom and prosperity for everyone, but only for some privileged persons. The political and economic system derived from it has signified for many people oppression and underdevelopment. Now, it is not acceptable either on the Christian or on the human plane that the freedom and prosperity of a part of mankind should be paid for with the sacrifice of the other part. And as regards the anarchism supported by the Radical trend, we must say that it does not lead to man's true liberation, but makes him an even more closely confined prisoner of his instincts.
In its turn, Marxism has not kept the promise to bring men out of the reign of necessity, alienation and injustice into the reign of freedom, justice and full humanization. This is confirmed by its most important historical realization. Sixty years after the October Revolution, we must note that none of the promises in the name of which it had been carried out, has been kept. Not the promise of freedom and democracy, not the promise of equality and justice, not the promise of prosperity. Yet the human cost of this revolution was extremely high, if we think that in these sixty years huge multitudes of men and women have lost their lives or suffered imprisonment, the concentration camp, vexations and hardships of every kind. Today, still, the suffocation of all liberties—from civil ones to religious freedom—and the dictatorial exercise of power, while they nourish the imposing phenomenon of dissent, are the evident signs that the Marxist proposal, particularly in the Leninist interpretation, is not capable of bringing forth a project of complete humanism. And when humanism is not complete—Paul VI affirms—but "is closed, partial, exclusive and not open to God and spiritual values, it cannot but be an inhuman humanism" (Populorum Progressio, n. 42).
"Complete humanism" only in Christ
This project of "complete humanism" can find inspiration and strength only in Christ, who is at the same time fully God and fully man. Thus there remains only the Christian message, always the same and always new, always contested and always alive. There remains Christ, sent to this world as a man "for us men and for our salvation": full salvation, not only social but also individual, not only for this life but also for the next one.
Every day the Church is engaged in living Christ's mystery in its totality and proclaiming it to the world. She proclaims it to all, she does not impose it on anyone. The Lord's disciples know, however, that non-believers cannot yet perceive its deep roots. But Christ is also a man, and in him there shines forth man's truth, there shine forth human values, duties and rights that are understandable to every reason.
To those who seek them with a sincere heart and an unprejudiced mind, to those who await a friendly hand to help them to grow in humanity, believers must be able to indicate, with works more than with words, the Crucified-Risen Christ and say: "Here is the man".
Weekly Edition in English
26 January 1978, page 5
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:
The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069