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Vatican attempts to subvert the concept of human rights

The Vatican does a tapdance around human rights. It doesn't dare reject them outright, so tries to change them to suit itself. It denies women's right to reproductive choice and gays' to marry by dismissing them as “gender ideology”. At the same time, it inflates the right to conscientious objection and extends the definition of legal personhood in order to threaten access to contraception and abortion.

For the Vatican, Church doctrine trumps human rights.

When he was the Vatican doctrinal watchdog, the future Benedict XVI reminded theologians that “The freedom of the act of faith cannot justify a right to dissent. [...] One cannot then appeal to these rights of man in order to oppose the interventions of the Magisterium.” [1] Or, as a priest and canon lawyer puts it “Human rights are not absolute if they are against the plan of God”. [2] 

The Vatican only recognises “human rights” which are compatible with Catholic doctrine. These it calls “authentic human rights”. [3] (Likewise, the police state of North Korea also says that its populace enjoy “genuine human rights” [4] and an a Saudi Arabian spokesman claims that his country's flogging, amputations, eye gouging and beheading represent “the highest form of human rights”. [5]) On the other hand, those rights that the Vatican disapproves of, like women's reproductive freedom or the rights of gays to marry, it dismisses as nothing more than “gender ideology”. [6] 

However, the Vatican is careful not to openly reject human rights as a general concept. A frontal attack would be damaging. Instead it attempts to undermine them in many ways.

♦ Vatican attack on human rights poses as need to counterbalance rights with duties

The headline summed it up: “Rights and duties go together, says Pontiff”. [7] This mirrors  the regulations of the Catholic Church. Canon Law frequently talks of "obligations and rights" or "rights and duties". [8]

In his 2009 Caritas in Veritate Benedict XVI says that duties are needed to “set a limit on rights”.  [9] And Pope Francis also says that the concept of duty should be linked to the concept of rights. Otherwise, he claims,

the rights of the individual are upheld, without regard for the fact that each human being is part of a social context wherein his or her rights and duties are bound up with those of others and with the common good of society itself.” [10]

(That's " the common good of society" as defined by his church, of course.) He pretends that "the rights of the individual" are being upheld as if they were unlimited. This is not true. The whole point of human rights law is to find the best balance between the competing rights and the completing claims of individuals asserting their rights.

However, human rights are unconditional. They do not depend on fulfilling any duties or obligations. The Pope’s redefinition of human rights as depending on something else is an attempt to turn back the clock. It’s a return to the Middle Ages when the Church taught people that they were owned by God and had duties to Him, but no rights.

♦   The "natural law" smokescreen: some human rights are "true", others "demonic"

 Apparently only the pope can judge which ones are "true human rights". The rights of gays to be free from discrimination and the right of women to reproductive choice are not acknowledged by the Vatican, but are dismissed as "gender idoeology". In his 2009 Caritas in Veritate Benedict XVI cautions against “alleged rights, arbitrary and non-essential in nature”. [11] He also called gender ideology “a negative trend for humankind” [12] and a “profound falsehood,” which “it is the duty of pastors of the Church” to put the faithful “on guard against.” [13] Pope Francis is reported (by a bishop) to have called them "demonic". [14]

The Vatican tries to replace “human rights” with something called “natural rights”. These are held to derive from something else called “natural law” which just happens to conform to Church doctrine. According to "natural law" everything in the world has its “natural” role, which is good, and its “unnatural” perversions, which are bad. To be gay is "unnatural" and for women to have equality with men is also a violation of "natural law".

Only mating pairs constitute a family, and any configuration that is not a mating pair — divorced people, gay people, single people — are not to be legitimised. Otherwise, society will collapse. [15]

Thus Pope Francis has said that gay marriage is against the plan of God, that gay parenting is a rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts, et cetera, et cetera. [16] And in 2014 he convened a whole conference devoted to The complentarity of Man and Woman to extol the beauty of traditional marriage — the kind that involved obedience to a woman's lord and master and that provided the Church with another baby every year.  

The Vatican uses the smokescreen of "natural law" to mask its attack on human rights. People get lost in this maze of theological justifications, and can miss  the fact that they're simply designed to reach the conclusion the Vatican wants — that Church doctrine, not human rights, should be the final arbiter — for everyone. 

♦  The Vatican makes its favourite human rights cancel others

The Vatican wants to be able to pick and choose from the list of human rights. When convenient, it is quite happy to demand “parental rights”, “the right to religious freedom” and “the right to life” — from conception, of course. 

— Parental rights are mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the context of schooling. 

Article 26.3: Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

This is sometimes has been twisted by the Church to mean that the state has an obligation to fund Catholic schools and that it may not teach compulsory courses in sex education. (See European Court of Human Rights: No right to state funding for sectarian schools)

That this is just a pretext for giving the Church more power can be seen in the way the parental rights of non-Catholics have been treated. The Vatican has a record of refusing the parental rights of Jewish children who fall into the hands of the Church. (See Canon Law in action: Were the Papal States a “perfect society”?)

— Conscientious objection is also used by the Vatican in a way never originally intended.

Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Conscientious objection was originally designed to let pacifists like Quakers be medics in wartime. The Quakers never abused this exemption to impose their doctrines on others. They never claimed that bearing stretchers under fire was against their conscience because some of the soldiers they helped to rescue could return to battle and kill someone.

Yet this is the strategy adopted by the Vatican. It tries to use the conscientious objections of Catholic professionals in order to deny services which are lawful, but happen to conflict with Church doctrine.

An early attempt to inflate conscientious objection was made by John Paul II in 2002, when the Pope effectively said that Roman Catholic lawyers and judges everywhere should refuse divorce cases. [17]

However, unlike lawyers , doctors are concentrated in hospitals, making them easier to control. The Vatican has been much more successful in using the conscientious objection of medical than of legal professionals. An audacious attempt was the draft “Conscience concordat” prepared for Slovakia in 2004. Sheltering under the category for international human rights treaties, this identification of “conscience” with the dictates of Church dogma would have taken legal precedence over Slovak domestic legislation. [18]

This inflation of "conscientious objection" appears to be just a strategem for imposing Vatican doctrine.

Anti-choice activists are not concerned with an individual’s conscience—they want to end access to abortion and contraception. [19]

In the European Union the right of medical personnel to refuse to provide treatment is still balanced by an obligation to refer the patient to someone who will. [20] Yet this is now being challenged by the Vatican, which maintains that it is a violation of the doctor's religious freedom to oblige him to refer a patient if he himself won't do the job. 

In 2014 the Polish director of Holy Family Children's Hospital in Warsaw not only refused to provide a legal abortion in his own hospital to a woman carrying a foetus with severe brain damage. He also denied her a referral. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, noted with approval that "The doctor did not send the woman to another hospital." [21]

— The Vatican treats “freedom of religion” as an absolute, even when this violates other kinds of rights, not to mention the law of the land. But no one's no religious freedom can be absolute. As Lady Hale points out:

Freedom of thought is unqualified: anyone can believe what they like. But article 9.2 [of the European Convention of Human Rights] provides that the freedom to manifest one’s beliefs can be subject to limitations, though only to those which are “prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

She also stresses the "important distinction between the freedom to hold religious views and to practise one’s faith, and the power of any religious group to dictate what the laws should be". [22]

— The Vatican tries to interfere with the implementation of the law. This has happened in many countries due to the widespread exercise of "conscience" opt-outs. Where contraception is legally permitted, and even abortion in a few circumstances, access to these legal services can still be effectively denied to many women. 

— In Italy, for example, as of 2013, 70 percent of Italian gynaecologists refused to participate in abortion and in some regions it was up to 90-95 percent. This threatened to make the law a dead letter and the Council of Europe chastised Italy for not ensuring that that hospitals did not make enough non-objecting doctors available. [23]

— And in 2014 the Polish Prime Minister had to step in to say that objecting doctors, like the ones mentioned above, must comply with the law and refer patients to colleagues willing to carry out legally permitted abortions. [24]

— Another example is Brazil, where a 2012 study found that even access to abortion by rape victims, which is supposed to be guaranteed under Brazilian law, was widely blocked by doctors claiming conscientious objection. [25] In fact, in one case, a Brazilian archbishop even tried to prevent the abortion urgently needed by a nine-year-old rape victim carrying twins. [26]

And a still more audacious move in this direction is the current effort, spelled out in February 2007, to “complete” (i.e., “rewrite”) the Declaration of Human Rights to suit the Vatican: 

We are also hoping for legislation that will complete Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948 by the United Nations to guarantee the right to conscientious objection and to defend this right against all forms of discrimination [!] in the areas of work, education and the attribution of benefits by governments. [27] 

Note how the Vatican claims that it is “discrimination” to make it stop discriminating against others -- which brings us to the next point. 

♦  The Vatican inverts victim and oppressor and lies about anti-discrimination laws

Pope Francis blamed sex abuse victims in Chile victims when he accused them of slandering the bishop who enabled the abuse. [28] He not only helped cover up the crimes, but some victims even claim that he observed instances of abuse. [29]

This is typical of the Christian Right in general, which has succeeded in reframing the debate around civil rights by inverting victim and oppressor. It depicts questions of discrimination (for instance against women and gays) as questions of the religious liberty of those who wish to discriminate.

In the US Catholic bishops expressed tender regard for the consciences of Catholic institutions and even anti-choice private employers — but little regard for their employees. As Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, puts it:

The bishops’ idea of ‘freedom’ means that employers, and not medical professionals, should choose which safe, preventive, legal medications and procedures their employees can access—and which they can’t. This means, for example, that without shouldering unreasonable expense, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of women would not be able to use family planning to decide when and whether to become pregnant or even to protect their health. [30]

And as the placards of women demonstrating in 2014 put it: "No bosses in my bedroom".

Often it tells outright lies about the effects of laws intended to safeguard the rights of these groups.

“Religious liberty” activists subtly expand the sphere of religious exemptions.  Typically there are five tiers of actors:

1.      Churches, clergy, and religious institutions
2.      Religious organizations
3.      Religious-affiliated organizations
4.      Religious-owned businesses
5.      Religious individuals

[US] law treats these tiers differently: Churches are rarely required to obey anti-discrimination laws, for example, but religious organizations may be, and religious-owned businesses are. RL rhetoric deliberately misstates harms upward, and tactically expands exemptions downward. On the one side, no clergy will ever have to solemnize any marriage against her/his beliefs, yet restrictions on tier 4 or 5 individuals are cynically extended by RL messaging to tier 1. On the other side, RL advocates are clearly pursuing a staged plan to migrate extensions downward. For example, in the New York same-sex marriage debate, existing law exempted tier 1, Republican state senators won exemptions for tiers 2 and 3, but at least one senator held out for tiers 4 and 5, and ultimately voted against marriage equality. [31]

♦  The Vatican rewrites the list of human rights to mirror its own doctrine

This is done in two main ways: by inventing “group rights” (like “family rights”) which conflict with individual rights and “foetal rights” which conflict with women's rights.

In 1983 the Vatican issued a Charter of the Rights of the Family which defines a family as based on a marriage that conforms to Vatican doctrine. The only kind of marriage it recognises is one that is “indissoluble” and “open to the transmission of life”. That means no divorce, no contraception and no same-sex marriage,  So if anyone tries to assert any of these as human rights, the Vatican claims that this violates its self-proclaimed “rights of the family”. (And it ties itself in logical pretzels while arguing that gay marriage somehow or other destroys the marriages of heteros.)

The Vatican holds strategy sessions to develop ways to promote this patriarchal “natural family”. [32] And in the name of “parental rights” the Church opposes both the religious and sexual self-determination of young people and even, as in Poland, their right to learn in school about human reproductive biology 

Naturally the Vatican wants nothing to do with the inclusive definition of a family, recommended at a UN forum:

Forms of families include, but are not limited to: single parenthood, same-sex couples, traditional temporarily separated, displaced, child-led, or -headed, divorced, cohabitating, fostered, grandparents raising children, couples without children, migrants, extended families, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered.... [33]

Another kind of "group rights" which conflict with individual ones are the ones granted to institutions of various kinds and sometimes even to for-profit companies. When the US Supreme Court gave "conscience rights" to a business, this was the latest in a long expansion of this kind of group rights

Corporations, it turns out, really are people. And that could be very bad news for the rest of us. [...] The danger is not only that corporations can act at the expense of society, but also that the people who control them can act at the expense of their own shareholders, employees and customers. [34]

When this happens, "group rights" begin to infringe upon "human rights".

However, the Vatican's main assault on human rights currently takes the form of promoting "foetal rights". Through this it tries to block any move to recognise access to family planning as a human right. It has worked hard to roll back the progress made at the UN population conference in 1994.

In Cairo, 179 governments, bolstered by civil society, took a historic step at the International Conference on Population and Development. They defined reproductive rights as human rights, recognized sexual health as a component of reproductive health, and called for universal access to reproductive health care by 2015. [35]

The Vatican denies that access to family planning and freedom from discrimination on the grounds of gender (including gay marriage) are human rights. [36] Instead, it dismisses these as "gender ideology". The Vatican uses its Catholic-Orthodox alliance to work at the UN with Belarus and Russia to try to keep "sexual orientation" off the list of reasons why people must not face discrimination. [37] 

At the same time as the Vatican is trying to deny human rights to gays and women. it is attempting to extend them to foetuses. “Foetal personhood” legislation defines life as legally beginning at conception, thereby outlawing abortion and many forms of birth control, such as the pill, IUDs and the morning-after pill. This new “foetal right to life” is typically cemented a constitutional clause to “protect life from conception until natural death”. The Vatican narrowly missed getting the right to life from conception written into the Polish constitution in 2006, but succeeded in the Dominican Republic in 2009 and Hungary in 2011. As of 2012 foetal personhood had also been enshrined in half of the state constitutions of Mexico [38] and of the national or state constitutions of a dozen other countries, including the US. [39]

♦  The Vatican claims that “human rights” depend on God, (whose will is made known by guess who)

A major attack on the concept of human rights is the Vatican's line that they are arbitrary because they are mere social conventions. [40] This argument has achieved wide currency.

Leo XIII claimed that "man's rights spring from his duty toward God" (#28). And John Paul II said that all should “recognise God as the author of life, human dignity and human rights”. [41] In his 2009 Caritas in Veritate Benedict XVI cautions against “alleged rights, arbitrary and non-essential in nature”. [42] The idea behind this is that human rights are arbitrary because they don’t come from God, whose spokesman just happens to be the pope. Pope Francis denigrates human rights in a subtler manner, by claiming that they are merely a means to "advance the dignity of the person". [43] By subordinating them to "human dignity" he adroitly makes them dependent on the will of God, as revealed by his own institution.

There is good reason for the Church to beat about the bush like this. If the Vatican were to say simply: “Skip human rights and just obey the Pope” few would listen. But when the Vatican redefines human rights in terms of  “natural law” or “true freedom” or “human dignity”, people tend to lose the thread and be impressed. [44]

However, the basic idea behind human rights is simple: they’re not given to you by anyone or anything and therefore entail no obligation. They're yours just because you’re a person and, as such, have certain needs. (Other creatures, of course, have different needs. [45]) By contrast, the Church bases its version of “human rights” ultimately ― whether by way of its own “natural law” or its own interpretation of the will of God ― on Vatican doctrine.

And how much support does Vatican doctrine have, among the faithful? Not much. An international survey by Univision shows that large majorities of Catholics around the world support the use of contraception and access to abortion care. In these critical issues of social justice and public health, the Vatican simply does not speak for the faithful. [46]


♦  Canon law
♦  Religious law vs. human rights: child brides
♦  Anti-Judaism in Canon Law and Nazi law
♦  Canon law in action: Was the Papal State a perfect society?
♦  How far can German churches discriminate against more than a million employees? 
♦  Europe tells German churches to respect employees’ private lives.
♦  Religious courts in England
♦  Prof. Guenther Lewy, “Catholic political ideology: the union of theory and practice”. This is Chapter 12 (the final one) of The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, 1964. 
♦  Roman Rota (the second highest Canon Law court)
♦  Apostolic Signatura (the Vatican's top Canon Law court)


* J. Alex Kevern and Jeremy Freese, "Differential Fertility as a Determinant of Trends in Public Opinion about Abortion in the United States", Social Science Research Network, 2014-07-07 

There is a pro-life summary of this: "America is rejecting abortion because pro-lifers are having more children: study", Life Site News, 2014-08-21

1. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction: Donum veritatis, On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian”, 1990-03-24, #36.

2. The Rev. Edgardo Pangan, a canon lawyer who handles church annulments for the Diocese of San Fernando in the Philippines, “World’s last legal ban on divorce doesn’t keep Philippines couples together”, Washington Post, 2014-10-10.

3. “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the bishops of the United States of America on their ad limina visit”, 2012-01-19. 

4. “North Korea: ‘popular masses enjoy genuine human rights’”, Guardian, 2014-09-15.

5. “Mother of Saudi man sentenced to crucifixion begs Obama to intervene”, Guardian, 2015-10-14.

6. “Human Rights and Radical Gender Ideology”, Zenit, 2007-09-07

7. Zenit, 2010-05-28.

8. However, the “rights” enumerated in this rulebook are not are certainly not human rights. For example, Canon 229 §1 says that "Lay persons are bound by the obligation and possess the right to acquire knowledge of Christian doctrine [...]". There "Christian" means only Catholic, and no consideration is given to the beliefs of non-Christians. This is hardly the human right of religious freedom for all.

9. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, § 43, 2009-06-29. 

10. “Pope Francis: Address to European Parliament - full text”, Vatican Radio, 2014-11-25. 

11. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, § 43, 2009-06-29. 

12. “Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to particpants in the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Council Cor unum”, 2013-01-19.

13. “Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia”, 2012-12-21.

14. “Austrian bishop: Pope Francis told me ‘gender ideology is demonic’”, Life Site News, 2014-06-14.

15. Jay Michaelson, “Is Pope Francis Backpedaling on Gays? Daily Beast, 2014-11-18.

16. “Pope Francis on gay rights: His 5 worst quotes, Salon, 2013-03-14.

17. “Address of John Paul II to the Prelate Auditors, Officials and Advocates of The Tribunal of the Roman Rota“, 2002-01-28.

18. “Precedence Clause of the Slovak Constitution” (amended in 2001)

19. In Good Conscience: Conscience Clauses and Reproductive. Rights in Europe—Who Decides? Catholics for Choice, 2010-10-07, p. 2. 

20. "Resolution 1763 (2010), The right to conscientious objection in lawful medical care", 

21. The article tries to conceal the real issue which is the willingness to refer a patient, but the very end of it reveals what it's really about, when it quotes Cardinal Gerhard Müller as saying that "The doctor did not send the woman to another hospital," 

"Polish Prime Minister says doctors must do abortions despite conscience objection", Life Site News, 2014-06-12 

22. Brenda Hale, "Freedom of Religion and Belief", Annual Human Rights Lecture for the Law Society of Ireland, 2014-06-13, p. 9.

23. "Council of Europe committee attacks Italian law allowing doctors to refuse to commit abortions", Life Site News, 2014-03-10

24. PM Tusk: Doctors are not above the law, Polskie Radio, 2014-06-11.,PM-Tusk-Doctors-are-not-above-the-law

25. Debora Diniz, Alberto Madeiro and Cristião Rosas, "Conscientious objection, barriers, and abortion in the case of rape: a study among physicians in Brazil", Reproductive Health Matters, Volume 22, Issue 43 , Pages 141-148, May 2014.

26. An Abortion in Brazil: The Case that Saved a Life and Divided the Vatican, Concordat Watch, 

27. “Pontifical Academy for Life, Final Declaration by the 13th General Assembly”, 24 February 2007.

28. “Pope Accuses Sex Abuse Victims in Chile of Slandering Bishop”, New York Times, 19 January 2018.

29. “Pope's promise to tackle abuse tested by appointment of Chilean bishop”, Guardian, 17 March 2015.

30. “Bishops Seek to Redefine Religious Liberty”, Catholics for Choice, press release, 2012-04-12

31. Jay Michaelson, “Redefining Religious Liberty”, Political Research, 2013-05-28

32. Gillian Kane, “World Congress of Families Meets, Seeks a New Dark Ages”, Religion Dispatches, 2012-06-12

33. The inclusive definition of a family is the one that is fundamental in many poor countries. All those heroic African grandmothers who are raising AIDS orphans are excluded by the Vatican's definition.

For the inclusive definition, see footnote 2, Transcript: ICPD Global Youth Forum on “Families, youth-rights and well-being (including sexuality)”, Rebecca Oas, Life Site News, 2012-12-06

34. Binyamin Appelbaum, "What the Hobby Lobby Ruling Means for America", New York Times, 2014-07-22.

35. “Calling for Greater Attention to Family Planning”, Statement by Ms. Purnima Mane, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) Deputy Executive Director, 2011-04-11.

36. “‘Sexual orientation’ battle returns to UN Human Rights Council”, Life Site News, 2011-03-10 

37. “Pro-Life organizations engage the UN Human Rights Council”, Life Site News, 2013-02-20.

38. Mary Cuddehe, "Mexico's Anti-Abortion Backlash", The Nation, 2012-01-23 

39. Margie Snider, "Coming soon to a state near you? The fetal personhood movement in the U.S. and beyond", Because, Spring 2012.

The Move Toward More Abortion Restrictions, New York Times, 2014-08-28

40. “Holy See to UN: Law Has to Be Based on Something Objective”, Zenit, 2012-09-26

41. “Holy war looms over constitution wording”, European Voice, 2002-11-07 

42. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, § 43, 29 June 2009. 

43. Pope Francis, “Address to European Parliament - full text”, Vatican Radio, 2014-11-25

44. “Conference Clarifies Church's View on Human Rights: Cardinal Antonelli Stresses Rights to Life, Family”, Zenit, 2011-04-01  

45. Even recognised animal rights can be set aside due to religious lobbying. Muslim doctrine and that of the more conservative Jewish groups requires that animals have their throats cut without being stunned. This make the animals endure as much as two minutes of agony before they lose consciousness due to blood loss. For more information, see: “Consultation: Welfare of animals at the time of killing”, 2012. 

However, in 2014 an Indian state court baned the ritual slaughter of goats with knives in Hindu temples: "Indian court bans animal sacrifice" AFP, 2014-09-02

46. See also: Linda Greenhouse, “Whose Conscience? ”New York Times, 2012-02-08. 

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