Pope Francis, Europe and human rights

In a short, four-hour visit to Strasbourg, Pope Francis delivered speeches to both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. The BBC and other media outlets picked up the comments in the third paragraph of his speech to the Parliament on the world’s perception of the EU as “somewhat elderly and haggard Europe”,

“As the European Union has expanded, the world itself has become more complex and ever changing; increasingly interconnected and global, it has, as a consequence, become less and less ‘Eurocentric’. Despite a larger and stronger Union, Europe seems to give the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion.”

However, the press release of the European Parliament was more upbeat, and its summary of the Pope’s speech stated:

“Safeguarding human dignity was a key theme of the formal address delivered by Pope Francis to Members of the European Parliament on Tuesday. Immigration, protecting the environment, and promoting human rights and democracy were among the topics stressed in a speech that enjoined “Europe to rediscover the best of itself”.

Although the press release of the Council of Europe was restricted to the formalities and background to the meeting, it contains useful links to the Holy See’s role in the CoE, the conventions it has signed and/or ratified, and the partial agreements in which it is a member/an observer.

With regard to human rights, he said in his speech to the European Parliament:

“Promoting the dignity of the person means recognizing that he or she possesses inalienable rights which no one may take away arbitrarily, much less for the sake of economic interests. At the same time, however, care must be taken not to fall into certain errors which can arise from a misunderstanding of the concept of human rights and from its misuse. Today there is a tendency to claim ever broader individual rights; underlying this is a conception of the human person as detached from all social and anthropological contexts, as if the person were a “monad” (μονάς), increasingly unconcerned with other surrounding ‘monads’. The equally essential and complementary concept of duty no longer seems to be linked to such a concept of rights. As a result, 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,”

and at the Council of Europe,

“It also needs to be kept in mind that apart from the pursuit of truth, each individual becomes the criterion for measuring himself and his own actions. The way is thus opened to a subjectivistic assertion of rights, so that the concept of human rights, which has an intrinsically universal import, is replaced by an individualistic conception of rights. This leads to an effective lack of concern for others and favours that globalization of indifference born of selfishness, the result of a conception of man incapable of embracing the truth and living an authentic social dimension.


“I think particularly of the role of the European Court of Human Rights, which in some way represents the conscience of Europe with regard to those rights. I express my hope that this conscience will continue to mature, not through a simple consensus between parties, but as the result of efforts to build on those deep roots which are the bases on which the founders of contemporary Europe determined to build.”

In view of the encyclical on climate change and the environment that is expected next year, his strong criticism of the EU’s agricultural policy[1] and the “throwaway culture[2]” came as no surprise, nor his concluding statement:

“Finally, among the issues calling for our reflection and our cooperation is the defence of the environment, of this beloved planet earth. It is the greatest resource which God has given us and is at our disposal not to be disfigured, exploited, and degraded, but so that, in the enjoyment of its boundless beauty, we can live in this world with dignity.”


The Pope’s statement that the “concept of duty no longer seems to be linked to such a concept of rights” will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever opened the Codex Iuris Canonici 1983. For example, Can. 224 declares that

“Lay members of Christ’s faithful have the duties and rights enumerated in the canons of this title, in addition to those duties and rights which are common to all Christ’s faithful and those stated in other canons” [Christifideles laici, praeter eas obligationes et iura, quae cunctis christifidelibus sunt communia et ea quae in aliis canonibus statuuntur, obligationibus tenentur et iuribus gaudent quae in canonibus huius tituli recensentur]

And the Codex always links duties and rights in that way – and in that order.

It is possible that he may be pushing at a partially-open door in the UK at any rate. David Cameron raised the issue in 2006 as Leader of the Opposition when he argued for domestic legislation to “…protect the fundamental rights set out in the European Convention … in clearer and more precise terms” [3], while Jack Straw then took up the theme a year later, suggesting that there was a danger that rights “… become commoditised, yet more items to be ‘claimed’ … in a selfish way without regard to others”[4].

In short, both would argue – with Pope Francis – that rights and duties are not a one-way street. The extent to which the ECHR and the EU Charter are susceptible of reform along those lines, however, is another matter.


[1] “Respect for the environment, however, means more than not destroying it; it also means using it for good purposes.  I am thinking above all of the agricultural sector, which provides sustenance and nourishment to our human family. It is intolerable that millions of people around the world are dying of hunger while tons of food are discarded each day from our tables. Respect for nature also calls for recognizing that man himself is a fundamental part of it. Along with an environmental ecology, there is also need of that human ecology which consists in respect for the person, which I have wanted to emphasize in addressing you today,” in his speech to European Parliament.

[2] “Indifferent individualism leads to the cult of opulence reflected in the throwaway culture all around us. We have a surfeit of unnecessary things, but we no longer have the capacity to build authentic human relationships marked by truth and mutual respect”, in his speech to the Council of Europe.

[3]Balancing freedom and security – a modern British Bill of Rights (London, 26 June 2006).

[4]Human Rights in the 21st Century‘: The Mackenzie-Stuart Lecture, Cambridge 25 October 2007.


Cite this article as: David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer, “Pope Francis, Europe and human rights”, Law & Religion UK, 26 November 2014, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2014/11/26/pope-francis-europe-and-human-rights/

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