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Human rights in the Catholic Church

Report of the international expert meeting “Benchmark Human Rights. Ambition and Implementation in the Catholic Church” in Münster

by Petr Štica (translated by Stefanie Knauss)

Since the encyclical “Pacem in terris”, the Church has made human rights the benchmark for political practice of nations, political agents as well as society. This means, that the Church itself and its social form – as it is described in several post-conciliar magisterial documents – cannot evade this challenge. A conference held in Münster (Germany), October 23-25, 2013, with participants from different theological and non-theological disciplines, discussed this important issue. Organized by the Institute of Christian Social Ethics (Prof. Dr.  Marianne Heimbach-Steins) and the cluster of excellence “Religion and Politics” at the University of Münster, in cooperation with the Institute of Religious Pedagogics Luxemburg (Prof. Dr. Daniel Bogner), and hosted by the University of Münster, the conference offered the opportunity to engage in an open academic exchange about the ambitions and implementations of human rights in the Catholic Church.

The first presentations (Hans Maier, Linda Hogan, Konrad Hilpert, Tine Stein) focused on the relationship of the Catholic Church with human rights and discussed the unrealized potential of the encyclical from the perspectives of theology and political sciences. Linda Hogan emphasized that the acceptance of human rights by the Church is not just a product of philosophical debate, but also of ecclesial practice (and thus reflects the challenge of the Christian social testimony). Several presentors, among them political scientist Tine Stein, pointed out the “performative self-contradiction of the Church”: while ad extra, the Church has made human rights the normative measure for politics after Vatican II, ad intra, the recognition of human rights has not developed further since the 1980s.

The Swiss canonist Adrian Loretan reflected the right to freedom in the Catholic Church. He delineated the debate about the basic rights of the faithful after Vatican II: the bishops’ synod convened by Paul VI in 1967 included the elaboration of the basic rights of the faithful as the main element of the Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis. But in the early 1980s, this draft of a catalogue of basic rights was given up without further explanation; the respective passages of the new CIC 1983 talk of the rights of the faithful not as basic rights but as “mere rights.”

Other presentations at the conference reflected upon the conditions for authority and validity in the Church (M. Heimbach-Steins, D. Bogner), and from a philosophical perspective, the normativity of human rights in the Church (Ludwig Siep). Discussions also turned towards several exemplary concrete issues such as the participation of laypeople and women in the Church (Sabine Demel; Rainer Bucher), as well as the autonomy of decisions about lifestyle and way of life (Saskia Wendel; Stephan Goertz). Finally, philosophical resources for the recognition of human rights within the Church were debated, in particular the potential of philosophical pragmatism (Friedo Ricken; Alexander Filipovic).

In the lively discussions following the presentations, several issues emerged as desiderata: the relationship of the Church with human rights is interconnected with questions regarding the understanding of Church, the theology of ordination and the sacraments, and more in general the coherence of ethics and law in the institution of the Church. Thus, its reflection depends on close cooperation and reciprocal discussions between several theological disciplines (in particular theological ethics, dogmatics and canon law). Theological reflections can draw on historical experiences present already in the years after Vatican II, seize ideas and develop them further. Important reference points in the discussion are questions about the role of human experience in the debate about human rights, about which justification of human rights is compatible with the Christian tradition and current social debates, about the role of Christian natural law theories in this context, and the concrete and practical significance of the recognition of human rights for the Church today.

The discussions showed that human rights are a central theological issue that urgently requires further work and reflection in theology and beyond. Consequently, participants welcomed the suggestion of the organizers to form a network of (theological) human rights studies. A continuation of the discussion and work on the issue can therefore be expected.


Petr Štica, works at the Institut für Christliche Sozialwissenschaften at the University of Muenster (Germany). His main research area and interests are Christian Social Ethics, Political Ethics and Sociology of Religion. He can be reached at