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[OPINION] Human rights advocacy: An integral part of the Church’s mission

"We pray for those who risk their lives while fighting for fundamental rights under dictatorships, authoritarian regimes, and even in democracies in crisis."
– Prayer of Pope Francis

In an interview last October 2020, the newly-appointed archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jose Advincula, asserted that “protecting human rights is neither optional nor secondary but must be at the heart of the Church’s mission.... The Church must see to it that the human dignity and the human rights of the people are respected.”  

Is the promotion and defense of human rights really part of the Church mission? This question is relevant at a time when there are gross violations of human rights all over the world even during this time of the pandemic. At the moment, the attention of the world is focused on Myanmar where over 400 peaceful anti-coup protesters have been shot by the police and military. The UN has condemned the gross violation of human rights in Myanmar. 

The UN Human Rights Council, the International Criminal Court, and other international organizations have also expressed concern about human rights violations in the Philippines. There are over 33,000 victims of extrajudicial killings perpetrated by the police, military, and death squads. The killings continue even during the pandemic. Many of the victims are poor, accused of pushing or using drugs. Also among the victims are activists, trade union leaders, environmentalists, media people, peasant leaders, leaders of indigenous peoples, human rights defenders, lawyers, priests, and pastors. Those who oppose and criticize the government are “red-tagged.” Opposition politicians and journalists have been imprisoned. Those who violate lockdown restrictions have been imprisoned and some shot to death.

In other parts of the world, repression and human rights violations persist – whether in Thailand, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Russia, China, Hongkong, and many parts of Africa and Latin America. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis looks at the global situation and laments how fundamental rights are discarded or violated: 

“It frequently becomes clear that in practice human rights are not equal for all.... While one part of humanity lives in opulence, another part sees its own dignity denied, scorned, or trampled upon, and its fundamental rights discarded or violated.” (FT 22)

In spite of these violations of human rights, there seems to be hesitation to speak out on the part of the Church and among religious. The question remains: is human rights advocacy really part of the mission of the Church and religious congregations? 

In 1971 Synod of Bishops came out with the document "Justice in the World," which affirms that the Church has the right and duty to proclaim the message of justice and to denounce instances of injustice, including the violation of human rights.

“Justice is also being violated by forms of oppression, both old and new, springing from restriction of the rights of individuals.… The Church has the right, indeed the duty, to proclaim justice on the social, national, and international level, and to denounce instances of injustice, when the fundamental rights of people and their very salvation demand it.” (JM 36)

In 1974, the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace came out with a document entitled “The Church and Human Rights” (CHR), which provided the theological and pastoral orientation regarding human rights advocacy. It affirms that “the Church’s defense of human rights is an inescapable requirement of her mission of justice and love in the spirit of the Gospel message.”

In response to the objection that concern for human rights is involvement in politics, the document asserts that condemnation of injustices – including human rights violation – is not just a political matter; it involves moral judgment. While the Church avoids engagement in partisan politics, she has the right and obligation to fulfil her mission in the socio-political order. The document views human rights advocacy as part of the Church’s pastoral mission:

“The Catholic Church has never confined her moral teaching to private or individual ethics; but on the contrary, and with ever greater insistence in modern times, she has spoken out to the world on questions of public morality such as social justice, the development of peoples, human rights, war and peace, and racism. This is part of her pastoral mission.” (CHR 55)

Human rights advocacy is also part of the prophetic mission of the Church which continues Christ’s presence and prophetic mission:

“In continuing the prophetic mission of her founder the Church must also preach more forcefully and realize more effectively this liberation of the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast, working with others.” (CHR 57)

The exercise of the prophetic mission requires denouncing injustices and the readiness to accept the risks of persecution following the example of Christ:

 “To imitate Christ and to be his true continuation in the world, the Church as a whole, like every Christian community, is called to work for the dignity and rights of human beings, both individually and collectively; to protect and promote the dignity of the human person; and to denounce and oppose every sort of human oppression. It is the risen Christ who inspires the Church in the campaign for human rights; and she knows that the prayers and sufferings of the People of God, particularly those who are victims of injustice in the field of human rights, are the noblest and most effective contribution to this activity.

The proof that such prophetic denunciation is authentic and sincere can be seen in readiness to accept suffering, persecution, even death as Christ himself did.” (CHR 58)

The document highlights the importance of the participation of the lay-faithful in the mission of human rights promotion. At the same time, the document also emphasizes the role of the clergy and religious in human rights advocacy. Regarding the role of priests in the defense of human rights, the 1971 Synod of Bishops’ document on ministerial priesthood is cited:

“Together with the entire Church, priests are obliged, to the utmost of their ability, to select a definite pattern of action, when it is a question of the defense of fundamental human rights, the promotion of the full development of persons, and the pursuit of the cause of peace and justice; the means must indeed always be consonant with the Gospel.” (CHR 76)

Finally, the document recognizes the prophetic role of protests and other concrete acts in the defense of human rights:

“The defense of human rights to which the Church is committed implies protest against any violation of these rights, past or present, temporary or permanent. This is all the more necessary when the victims of such injustice cannot defend themselves.” (CHR 78)

Thus, the promotion and defense of human rights is an integral part of the pastoral and prophetic mission of the Church and religious institutes. It should not just be the option and passion of individuals. This is the duty and mission of every member of the Church – the clergy, religious, and laity. It is up to the leadership of the local churches, religious institutes at the general and provincial level, to promote awareness/analysis and urge their members to act and to be in solidarity with the victims of injustice and human rights violations. – Rappler.com

Father Amado Picardal is the executive co-secretary of the Commission for Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation of the Union of Superiors General in Rome.