Human Rights Advocacy: Integral Part of the Work for Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation(JPIC)


Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, STD
Executive Co-Secretary, Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation
Unions of Superiors General (USG-UISG)

Is the promotion and defense of human rights part of JPIC concern? Should we bring to the awareness of the religious institutes the violation of human rights that are happening in the countries where their members are present and which need their prophetic response?

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 where authoritarian leaders exploit to perpetuate themselves in power.

At the moment, the attention of the world is focused on Myanmar where over 200 peaceful anti-coup protesters have been shot by the police and military. Nuns and priests have joined the civil disobedience movement although the bishops and superiors have cautioned them from getting involved. Pope Francis is pleading to a stop to the violence. The UN has condemned the gross of violation of human rights in Myanmar. Sanctions have been imposed.

The UN Human Rights Council, the International Criminal Court and other International Organizations have also expressed concern about the Philippines. There are over 33,000 victims of extrajudicial killings perpetrated by police, military and the 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 were activists, trade union leaders, environmentalists, media people, peasant leaders, leaders of indigenous peoples, human rights defenders. Sixty-one lawyers were assassinated. Four priests and one pastor were also murdered. Those who oppose and criticize the government are "red-tagged" (falsely accused of being communists). Opposition politicians and journalists have been imprisoned. Two religious have been charged with inciting to sedition. An Australian nun have been deported due to her justice advocacy among the poor. Bank deposits of the Rural Missionaries have been frozen after being red-tagged. Those who violated the pandemic lock down were imprisoned and some were shot. What is disconcerting is not just the silence of many priests and religious but the support that some give to the authoritarian regime. Those who have taken a prophetic stance feel like they are isolated voices in the wilderness.

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...We see numerous contradictions that lead us to wonder whether the equal dignity of all human beings, solemnly proclaimed seventy years ago, is truly recognized, respected and promoted in every situation. In today's world, many forms of injustice persist, fed by reductive anthropological visions and by a profit-based economic model that does not hesitate to exploit, discard and even kill human beings. 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 the 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?

Fifty years ago, the 1971 Synod of Bishops came out with a document Justicia in Mundo (Justice in the World). Here some excerpts that answer the question: 

"Our action is to be directed above all at those people and nations which because of various forms of oppression and because of the present character of our society are silent, indeed voiceless, victims of injustice." (JW 20)

Justice is also being violated by forms of oppression, both old and new, springing from restriction of the rights of individuals. This is occurring both in the form of repression by the political power and of violence on the part of private reaction, and can reach the extreme of affecting the basic conditions of personal integrity. There are well known cases of torture, especially of political prisoners, who besides are frequently denied due process or who are subjected to arbitrary procedures in their trial. Nor can we pass over the prisoners of war who even after the Geneva Convention are being treated in an inhuman manner. (JM 24)

The fight against legalized abortion and against the imposition of contraceptives and the pressures exerted against war are significant forms of defending the right to life." (JM 25)

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)

This document which was one of the sources of inspiration for the emergence of the Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation of the unions of superiors general (USG and UISG) clearly answers the question. Indeed, the Church has the right and duty to proclaim the message of justice and to denounce instances of injustices including the violation of human rights. As an integral part of the Church, religious orders and their individual members have the obligation to promote and defend human rights as part of their concern and mission.

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 echoes the 1971 Synod of Bishops which asserts:

"Of itself it does not belong to the Church, insofar as she is a religious and hierarchical community, to offer concrete solutions in the social, economic and political spheres for justice in the world. Her mission involves defending and promoting the dignity and fundamental rights of the human person. To accomplish her evangelical mission for the salvation of mankind, the Church has the right, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, ― to pass moral judgment, even on matters touching the political order, whenever basic personal rights or the salvation of souls make such judgments necessary"

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 to fulfil her mission in the socio-political order.

From a theological-anthropological perspective, the basis for human rights is the teaching from the book of Genesis that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. From this flows equality, human dignity and the inalienable human rights of each person.

From a Christological perspective, human dignity has been further elevated by Christ's incarnation and solidarity with humankind:

"Every person has a special relation with God, grounded in the mystery of the Incarnate Word. When the Son of God became human, he entered into the world's history as a Perfect Human. He lived in a particular nation, a particular culture, even in a particular minority group, and thus raised the whole human family and all its members, which is to say human nature with all its prerogatives, to the dignity of Sons of God. Thus, in a definite way he sanctified all humanity."

This theological-anthropological and Christological framework is the basis for the Church's mission in promoting human rights:

"These truths, revealed by God to humankind through Christ, are not only the basis and foundation of the Church's teaching on human nature and human rights, both individually and collectively. They also establish the Church's responsibility in her mission of actively advancing persons and nations together with their fundamental rights."

From an ecclesiological perspective, the promotion of human rights is part of the Church's pastoral and prophetic mission. This is based on the ecclesiology of Vatican II which teaches that the Church and all her members participate in Christ's priestly, prophetic and pastoral mission. The document views human rights advocacy as part of the Church's pastoral mission:

"The problems of human rights are manifest and operative, not only for the individual, but also to a higher degree in society and public affairs; for this reason they have both a private and public aspect.

Although the Church with her religious role has no proper mission in the political, social or economic order, she is far from looking on religion as purely private and has always firmly stated that ―out of this religious mission itself comes a function, a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law.

That is why 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:

"The Church is the continuation and the presence of Christ in the world and in history. She continues the prophetic mission of Jesus, whose words and actions are all for the good of humankind to save, heal, liberate and assist them all.

The Bible, and in particular the New Testament, presents Christ's work as one of liberation. God himself in the fullness of time sent his Incarnate Son into the world to free humanity from every form of slavery to which they were subject by reason of sin and of human egoism, from ignorance, destitution, hunger, oppression, hatred or injustice (Cf. Ga 4:4-5).

Jesus' first preaching was to proclaim the liberation of the oppressed. By his death on Calvary Christ freed us from sin that we may enjoy the fullness of true freedom (Cf. Ga 5:13). Sin, the root of all injustice and oppression, is in fact an egoistic turning-back upon ourselves, a refusal to love others and therefore to love God himself. The fullness of liberation consists in communion with God and with all our fellowmen." (CHR 56)

Part of this prophetic mission is announcing the message of liberation of the poor and denouncing oppressive structures that trample on human dignity and human rights:

"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 ― building a world where everyone, no matter what their race, religion or nationality, can live a fully human life, freed from servitude imposed on them by others or by natural forces over which they have not sufficient control.

Today there are structural impediments which deny access of large sections of society to the spiritual and material goods which belong to the community in which they live.

These obstacles foment alienation. They offend the dignity of the human person, and in effect estrange large masses of people who have no normal outlets or means of expression to claim and establish their fundamental rights.

The irresponsible behaviour of those who allow such a state of affairs to continue is incompatible with the demands of the Gospel and must be boldly condemned." (CHR 57)

The exercise of the prophetic mission requires readiness to accept the risks of suffering and martyrdom following the example of Christ:

"Human rights, deriving from the humanity's intrinsically social nature, are not merely natural humanitarian rights or, as some people believe, non-political rights, but rather have a content and political implications. There can be no question but that their observance and application belong to the social sphere and are in a special sense the work of the laity, men and women." (CHR 75)

At the same time, the document also emphasizes the role of the clergy and religious in human rights advocacy:

"Nonetheless, priests and men and women religious, in their capacity as citizens of the earthly community and in fulfilment of their pastoral mission, are called upon to defend and promote human rights." (CHR 76)

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 defence 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. These principles are all valid not only in the individual sphere, but also in the social field; in this regard priests should help the laity to devote themselves to forming their consciences rightly." (CHR 76)

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

"Today more than ever the Church appears to be committed to the service of humankind, ―open to the world in order to help it solve its problems. Her own credibility requires her to make specific acts or statements in condemnation of aggression and aggressors.

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, laity and religious.

The task of the commission and the secretariat as well as JPIC promoters is to foster a greater awareness and clearer analysis not just of the ecological crisis but also the social-political situation in various parts of the world - including specific cases of human rights violations. 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 violation.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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