Speaking of the Church and human rights starting with the Declaration of 1789 means untangling the knot in this institution's relationship with modern times. This is clearly uppermost in the mind of Daniele Menozzi who, in his book Chiesa e diritti umani [Church and human rights] (Il Mulino), reviews with painstaking attention the positions taken on the issue of ecclesiastical hierarchies, aware that the discussion on this subject has been lively from the outset.
The 19th-century popes condemned the Declaration since, with good reason, they saw it as “a process of emancipation for the civil consortium from the direction of society by the Church”. They thought essentially that the rights of human beings, necessarily changeable, were in opposition to those of God – founded on truth and therefore eternal – of which the Church was the depository.
However, the political and economic vexations to which many lay regimes had subjected the Church were not long in imposing greater flexibility: rights in fact began to be invoked to obtain the freedom of religion and of teaching. Yet the fundamental theoretical turning-point was that of Leo XIII, who opened himself to economic and social rights and also to the idea that human rights are positive because they depend upon the natural law wanted by God and preserved by the Church. The goal proposed to Catholics, however, was not the implementation of rights but the realization, also at the social level, of the Kingdom of Christ, of an initiative that was unfortunately all too often accompanied by stances hostile to the Jews for whom the suspension for all violence was requested, but not their equality. It was thus a battle between truth and freedom fought de facto before the great dictatorships that enabled their Catholic opponents, such as Bishop Clemens August von Galen, to discover the importance of human rights; but it was also contempt on the part of the atheistic dictatorships which contributed to reinforcing, in Catholic culture, the idea that the transcendent foundation of the person alone makes it possible to attribute to human persons the absolute value that is at the root of their rights. And we see Menozzi but he did not notice this in the condemnation of eugenics contained in the Encyclical Casti Connubii (1930), unique among the authoritative voices of the time.
Among the Catholics with pro-human rights stances – who became more numerous during and after the Second World War and were to play a principal role in drafting the Letter of 1948 – without any doubt the most important was Jacques Maritain. However, the real stumbling-block to the total acceptance of human rights by the Church was freedom of conscience, which was to be accepted only by John XXIII with his Encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963). In it human rights are appreciated as a stage on the way to becoming closer to the civil consortium proposed by Catholics.
From that time, thanks also to Paul VI's crucial contribution, the Church became a sincere champion of human rights which she considered an essential reference point in order to protect the dignity of the person. Menozzi, however, reprimands John Paul II and Benedict XVI for an ecclesiocentric involution testified, in his opinion, by the ever stronger reference to natural law of which the Church is the sole interpreter. She is accused in essence of a failure to keep up to date and therefore of an invasive return to natural law to the detriment of human rights.
The historian forgets that in these years human rights themselves have changed, opening up to a boundless extension of individual freedom, starting with the so-called “reproductive rights”, which include abortion. In this expansion the Church sees a violation of the first right of all, the right to life. This presumed involution is therefore determined by perfectly comprehensible reasons.
Menozzi is also very polemical concerning a reconstruction of history that he considers apologetic. The academic defines in this manner any non-critical position that sees Catholics, including Benedict XVI, attribute the birth of human rights to the Christian tradition. Forgetting that this thesis was supported by intellectuals whom it would be hard to see as apologists, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Marcel Gauchet.