Human Rights



Promoting human rights is not a completely original aspect of the pastoral ministry of Pope John Paul II.  In fact, the Second Vatican Council had already established it as a priority.  However, it does remain an important component of his ministry, a top priority right from the start and a theme which is particularly obvious in his speeches and remarks during the course of his many travels.


Primacy of each person


“For the Pope, human rights are a consequence of both the absolute dignity of a person and the incarnation of Christ which gives to each person, independently of one’s faith, something of the divine.[1]  A large part of what John Paul II has done internationally has focused on the primacy of the person in any type of system, political included.  He has constantly returned to the theme of the fundamental equality of all human beings, this equality being founded on the principle of natural law which, in assuming the law of Moses, expresses all “universal” values[2].


He does not limit himself to words, but also to significant action:


-         His meeting at the Vatican with President Mikhail Gorbachev[3]

-         His 1985 visit to Coventry, England, at the time of the Falklands War

-         Before heads of state and various decision makers, John Paul II frequently adopted positions in favour of a human dignity which too often goes unrespected, particularly in developing countries

-         In the midst of all these activities, we should take special note of his first three pilgrimages to Poland[4] and to the support the Holy Father granted to members of the “Solidarity” union

-         The political upheaval of June 1989 finally led to the fall of the communist regime in the Soviet Union.  This change assumed all of its symbolism in the fall of the Berlin Wall during the night of the 9th and 10th of November that same year.



Religious freedom


According to John Paul II, after the right to life, the right to religious freedom is the most fundamental, as our predisposition towards God is an absolutely basic part of our human nature.  In many different ways, the Pope has called for the legitimate exercise of religious freedom, particularly with governments that oppressed Catholics in their freedom of religion and of worship.


In the same breath, the Pope firmly condemned recourse to violence.  He did so courageously, even in countries where brutality and downright cruelty are part of the political system.  Do you recall his words, “something must change here,” during his homily of March 9, 1983, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti? 


Numerous calls for peace


During the past few years, particularly on the occasion of the Sunday Angelus, the Pope has multiplied his calls for peace.  Between 1979 and 2005, there were no less than a dozen direct interventions for peace, either through a statement from a delegation, in one part of the world or another.  In particular, let us recall his remarkable stand for peace prior to the outbreak of war in Iraq:  energetic messages, special envoys, various diplomatic activities.  On May 17, 2003, the Pope received an honorary doctorate from “La Sapienza” University, in recognition of his promotion of human rights.





In the context of a sustained international dialogue, John Paul II has promoted the “dignity and centrality of each human being”[5]. He has himself visited major international organizations such as the United Nations and UNESCO.[6]  He has ensured that he was represented during many international conferences and frequently sent personal messages to different international groups.  Throughout his pontificate, the diplomatic activity of the Holy See has greatly increased.  The pastoral ministry of John Paul II is a reflection of the Universal Church that cannot help but opening itself to the world. 




The types of violence condemned by John Paul II include abortion, euthanasia, torture and physical and moral oppression.  Going beyond the usual position of the Church on such matters, he declared one day that, “there is no such thing as a just war!”[7]

[1] Fr. Julien Harvey, in Jean-Paul II, une Église au rendez-vous, Éditions Paulines  (1984)  p. 130.

[2] See the encyclical Faith and Reason, September 14 1998.

[3] December 1, 1989.

[4] In 1979,1983 and 1987.

[5] The words of Kofi Annan, General Secretary of the United Nations, May 18, 2000.

[6] A few examples : the Pope went to the UN on October 2, 1979, March 19, 1994 and November 4, 1995.  He went to UNESCO on June 2, 1980.  Before that, he had given a speech at the International Institute for Human Rights  on March 22, 1979.

[7] A development of several of these issues can be found in document # 4, Respect for life.