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Church: Human Rights also for Believers?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 12/2013, P. 603-606
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Catholic Church is worldwide greatly committed to human rights. But she continues to have reservations when it comes to her own members. A meeting at the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics" at the University of Münster dealt recently with this discrepancy.


It was a long way. Although in the Christian tradition many traces were laid by the biblical message but also by the early beginning thought on natural law, the Catholic Church has only fifty years ago explicitly declared her commitment to human rights. For the very reason that they had their origin outside of this social body and thus had become also a question of power, they were in the 19th century explicitly condemned, due to the experiences of the anti-clerically accentuated French Revolution. Only the reflection on the North American Declaration of Human Rights in 1776, the result of the struggle for religious freedom of religious minorities, helped the church to gain a positive relationship with them.

The crucial document in which this change of position is tangible is the in 1963 published encyclical of John XIII "Pacem in Terris." In it also the relevant passages of Pius XII's Christmas message of 1942 are cited several times. In addition to the issues of peace and justice it deals in great detail also with human rights. While the Catholic Church in the meantime with great commitment stands up for human rights and also constructively supports their further development (keyword: social human rights), the Vatican has not signed all human rights conventions. Above all, however, there are still strong reservations when it comes to the own members. While with the declaration "Dignitatis Humanae" of the Second Vatican Council, the freedom of religion is supported without any restrictions, the problem arises of how much freedom rights are granted to the faithful (see HK, February 2013, 78 ff.)

This begins with the question of the rights of the so-called laity within the Church, particularly of women. For them the access to many managerial responsibilities is already blocked - due to their gender. But also the handling of homosexuality, for instance, is virtually experienced as discrimination and a violation of human rights. The problem of missing means of control within the church is of great significance, because there is neither a real separation of powers nor an appropriate judiciary where decisions could be reviewed according to today's conventional legal standards. The case of the Limburg Bishop Tebartz van Elst has recently given plenty of illustrative material (see this issue, 595 ff.)



In this year, the 50-year anniversary of "Pacem in Terris" has already been celebrated in many different ways (see HK, May 2013, 223ff.). At the end of October an experts' discussion with social ethicists, moral theologians, canon lawyers, philosophers and political scientists as part of the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics" at the University of Münster dealt with this discrepancy. There was a lack of participation and civil liberties in the Church and of recognition of independent living of Christians, the two organizers of the conference, the Münster social ethicist Marianne Heimbach-Steins and the Luxembourg social ethicist Daniel Bogner summarized the starting-point. According to Heimbach-Steins, above all "the monarchical principle which determines the Church as an institution since late antiquity" collides here with the human rights to freedom and equality.


Right to Freedom and Equality

The lectures and discussions were on the one hand focused on the fundamental questions about an understanding of authority which is convincing today, and on a reasonable understanding of autonomy. According to the general opinion, from the perspective of theology of Creation freedom must be seen as a gift of God, and as a mark of the analogy between God and creature - namely the image of God. The Mainz moral theologian Stephen Goertz reinforced that with the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church meanwhile admittedly fully accepted freedom of religion, but the freedom of conscience is still reduced time and again, in the tradition of scholasticism, to the freedom of the (Catholic) truth.

Above all, however, the question of the Church's ability to learn in the struggle for legality was the focus of attention - in retrospect on the results already achieved, as well as in terms of starting points for a necessary further development. Hans Maier, political scientist and former Bavarian Minister of Education and Chairman of the Central Committee of German Catholics, in this context appreciated Paul VI as an asset for the human rights movement, which in the sixties and seventies became increasingly international, although within the church the development subsequently came to a standstill. And yet, the recognition of religious freedom might have become the nucleus for a catalog of fundamental rights in canon law, whereas Canon 208 of the Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC) of 1983, which proclaims the equality of all, has hardly any impact today.

Similarly, the Lucerne canon lawyer Adrian Loretan explicitly complained that the own tradition of law, as e.g. the already in the Middle Ages developed procedural rules in the spirit of equality and reciprocity (as in the Decree of Gratian in 1140), had been abandoned to jurisprudence, and that with the communio-ecclesiology a wooly spiritual theology of law emerged. A fall from grace was here that the by the Synod of Bishops in 1967 required "Lex Ecclesiae fundamentalism" has been abandoned under John Paul II - apparently because they feared the reproach to pursue the democratization of the Church.

In contrast, the Regensburg canonist Sabine Demel pointed out that the planned rights and obligations of the faithful were indeed materialiter in the CIC of 1983 (cf. canons 208-223), although they are not specifically declared as fundamental rights. However, even 30 years after the entry into force of the CIC, both clerics and laymen are hardly aware of which rights and obligations, what degree of freedom but also of responsibility for the mission of the Church are in store for the laity due to these regulations. But this does not alter the fact that a whole lot of issues are inadequately solved.

The consequences of some rights and obligations, for instance, would be unclear, because the latter had been "reduced to pastoral directives, recommendations or suggestions." Due to this legal uncertainty, it is particularly unfortunate that there are no local ecclesiastical courts, and only the possibility of a complaint to the superior authority. At the Curia as a last resort, where in any case only the legality of decisions would be examined, important procedural principles such as fair hearing, giving the reasons for the decision, inspection of records or right of defense are not guaranteed. Latin is a special hurdle, and the limited circle of approved lawyers in case of mandatory representation by an attorney is a problem. Demel further criticized that in the judicature there is a lack of transparency, and that judgments of the higher courts would not be disclosed.


The same Dignity - fewer Rights?

With regard to women, she also demanded decidedly to insert a legal norm at a central place of the catalog with the laity's obligations and rights. By it the bishops are, inter alia, obliged "to work towards a gender-equitable implementation of the rights of the entire laity by means of appropriate structural measures." A quota for women in leading positions and an order of gender equality would be inevitable also in the church.

At the meeting it was repeatedly criticized that it is absolutely not convincing when one time and again emphasizes women within the Catholic Church had the same dignity, if they do not per se have the same rights. The Münster philosopher Ludwig Siep spoke of an untenable "metaphysical gender difference" in the background. Loretan called for a greater separation between jurisdiction and ordination - at least for the time being. Already John Paul II had called for greater participation of women at all levels.

In his relentless analysis of the situation, the Graz professor for pastoral theology Rainer Bucher pointed out that "younger" women (i.e. the generation of under-50s) would today no longer conduct a discourse on permission.



They would no longer ask about the manner in which religious needs could be satisfied within the Church; they ask, whether the Church is a place for this at all. Unlike the Catholic Church, participation would no longer be organized normatively, Christian commitment is founded situationally. It is orientated towards experience, and is no longer based on an exclusive, lifelong allegiance.

The open spaces obtained in this way would, of course, also obscure the human rights deficits. On the other hand the attempts of the Church to set standards would thereby come to nothing. The current dialogue processes, so Bucher's fundamental criticism would only be driven so far that nothing would be changed at the power structure and gender relations (see also HK, September 2013, 453ff.).

To what extent motion will come into this point during the pontificate of Pope Francis remains to be seen. The Munich moral theologian Konrad Hilpert advocated the conciliatory thesis that the theological subsumption of human rights under the "signs of the times" in "Pacem in Terris" would make it possible in any case to "interprete the factual correction of one's own position - beyond the dispute between the hermeneutics of rupture or continuity - as a learning process, in which novelty, continuation of the former practice, and the rediscovery of one's own lost riches are combined."

According to Hans Maier, the reform of the Curia not from above but with the involvement of the universal Church - represented by eight cardinals - would at least be an encouraging first step. Francis would think more collegially "than the current monarchical system". The events in Limburg were positively assessed by Maier: he had never seen so many diocesan employees and canons who openly criticized a bishop. Democratic practices in the church had recently obviously gained in importance.


A "Trend to a Pathogenic" Organization?

The topic gets finally more explosiveness due to the fact that it is not just about an intra-ecclesiastical pressure on the hierarchy. As the Kiel political scientist Tine Stein demonstrated, the question of human rights ad intra is crucial also for the external credibility. She summarized that in her science the critical assessments predominate. The church would be assessed as an anachronistic, even "tendentially pathogenic" organization, which was hardly able to contribute to the social integration of modern societies.



And yet, mechanisms of inhibition and control of power would be possible also in the church. This is visible by the synodical structures, the principle of subsidiarity, and the fundamental appreciation of conscience.

The crucial problem would be the compulsion, despite the recognition of freedom of conscience, in case of deviant positions to agree also inwardly with the teachings of the Church. In the political sciences, the Catholic Church would therefore "be seen as an antagonist to the political order. She fights the specifically modern foundations of its legitimacy." This weakens naturally the authority of the Church in the general human rights discourse. As Daniel Bogner pointed out, this discourse is all in all quite dynamic, and - as e.g. in view of the issue of human dignity - full of tension. The voice of the Church would therefore be all the more important.

From a church perspective, the present time with legally comparatively well-secured conditions may be comfortable, so that in view of the religious and political questions (see HK, April 2011, 171 ff) there is currently too little sense of urgency. However, it is foreseeable that in the future the discussions conducted in Münster will more and more characterize the public debates - beginning with the labor law-related difficulties for church employees. Is the state allowed to promote a religious community which, in the eyes of many participants in the public debate, infringes human rights. So it is not surprising that it is planned by the two organizers to stabilize the cooperation in a research network.


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