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Religion and Society

The 'Fourth Wave', or the Wave of Insatiability

Unforeseen consequencs /2. The birth and evolution of the generations of rights, from the first series based on the natural law doctrines of Locke and Rousseau to the present day, with the explosion of particularisms of every kind. The position of the Church.

I believe that it is more than justified to state that religious freedom is the focal point of the defence of the universality of fundamental human rights. The great Pope John Paul II saw it as essential in achieving the real possibility of a genuine global dialogue about the future of mankind. The Declaration of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, is also central because of its social magisterium on the subject of democracy, which the Pope then developed his three encyclicals Centesimus Annus (1991), Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Evangelium Vitae (1995). Why does Dignitatis Humanae have such a relevant place in the thinking of John Paul II? Certainly because this Declaration reflects the key concepts of his anthropology. If the nature of man is religious, the state has to recognise this fact. The century that has just ended had weak thought about man; the Christian humanism of John Paul and the whole Church proposes a conception of man that is able, with the grace of God, to build a civilisation worthy of the human being, who is made in the image of God. To better clarify what I have just stated, I believe it is advisable to demonstrate first of all what a long chronological journey has led to the present stage of 'insatiable rights'1, by referring briefly to the 'generations' of human rights.


The first generation involved the rights of freedom, which went back to the natural law doctrines of Locke and Rousseau, also called 'negative rights', in that through them an abstention is requested of the state from specific spheres protected by individual freedom (freedom of expression, the right to life, and political freedoms in general).


The second generation involved economic and social rights, 'active rights' that were established during the course of the twentieth century with the Constitutions of the post-Second World War period and international charters.


The third generation began with the 1970s and this involved the right to peace, to the safeguarding of the environment, to the common heritage of mankind, and the right of an individual and families to conditions necessary to development.


Some authors have begun to speak about a fourth generation of rights made up of rights connected with technological society, rights that refer to the acquisition, treatment and dissemination of data thanks to new technologies.


It therefore appears evident that from an approach centred around the individual (the rights of the first generation) there was a move to a collective approach (the rights of the second generation) and lastly to a humanitarian approach (the rights of the third generation). As regards the evolution of major rights, 'insatiable rights' appear, therefore, as a regressive phenomenon because they seek to locate the idea of a right, which involves the translation of the general need to defend 'human dignity' into juridical instruments (cf. the Declaration of 1948 which was based on a vision of such dignity), where human dignity finds its reason for being in universality, in the claims of minority groups that do not reflect the fundamental needs of the human community or of the individual as generally understood. It is by now clear that 'insatiable rights' have for some time found more fertile terrain with international courts and organisations than with national parliaments. This is probably a result of the fact in the case of the first lobbies do not have to deal with the obstacle of democratic consent. Although, on the one hand, this demonstrates that today in most countries a majority of the population and of the governing class opposes such a degradation of the concept of a right, on the other hand this represents a danger in that during the current epoch, and in particular in Europe, we are witnessing increasingly intense transfers of sovereignty at the national level to the supra-national level and cases of a prevailing of international norms over national norms (for example the cases of the European Community and the European Court of Human Rights). Here one may remember the case of 'Open Door and Dublin Well Women' (1992) where the European Court of Human Rights declared illegitimate, because it was injurious to freedom of expression, an injunction of the Supreme Court of Ireland that had sought to prohibit an association from providing pregnant women with information about clinics in the United Kingdom that carried out abortions. The injunction of the Supreme Court of Ireland found its basis in a norm of the Constitution of that country that was approved by a referendum rejecting abortion.


A specific characteristic of fundamental human rights is that at the moment when they are established they automatically create a duty, that is to say an obligation to allow all citizens to exercise the same right. The same does not apply to minor categories of rights which are created by a law and can be extinguished by a law of equal force. It follows that this unchecked addition of rights to the catalogue of those that have already been codified is in itself a dangerous phenomenon, not least because it does not take into account the fact that in this way new duties are created and one reduces the sphere of freedom of every other individual. And all of this involves the negative trend of 'insatiable' rights because it tends to add in an endless list a long series of 'claims' that seek the legitimation of law because of the very fact that some people or groups of people of varying sizes request such legitimation.


This, in my view, is due to the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, like the Declaration of 1789, was dominated by the ruling individualism of juridical thought and by the dominant subjectivism of philosophical thought.



Faced with Annihilation


What is the position of the Catholic Church in this area?


In his 'Radio Message of Christmas 1942', Pius XII spoke in the language of human rights but the emphasis was new, and new, too, was speaking about people with reference to their situation, to their family relationships, to their work relationships, and to their homelands. At the height of war, a war that was truly infernal, the Pope appealed for justice for those human beings who had been eliminated. Faced with such elimination, he held up the dignity of people, their rights: the right to life, the right to life of tortured bodies, the right to life of oppressed spirits; the right to conditions of life: education, work, and marriage. This simple enunciation went beyond the abstract freedoms of the rights of the individual of the individualistic thought of 1789, which, indeed, still underlies the various lists of human rights. Here we are in the presence of subjects linked to each other according to the natural needs and imperative values to be found in their very being. These fundamental relationships make up an order in which fundamental rights are rooted. The hu man person is not diminished by finding his fundamental rights in this order because the person is an end in himself. Pius XII, in the above cited radio message, proclaimed, in fact: 'The person is the end and the foundation of society'. The human person is an end but he is not a separate end: he is not a being that exists on his own; he is not God. All men are born dependent on their mothers and the order of the cosmos. That small being whose umbilical cord is cut remains connected by all his fibres to his parents and from then on to every order of persons and things that make up his life environment, his country, his homeland, and the world. Even before being a little human being he is an end for his mother, for all those who know the value of human life. But he is essentially an end dependent on others and ordered to others and to the Other, who is the Father of all beings. A baby is born in a relationship with the universe; first of all in a relationship with God: a relationship of dependency and of finality ordering.



Fundamental Ordering


This is the key to the doctrine of fundamental rights that John XXIII received from Pius XII. The ordering of the person to God is primary: it is the basis of the first of fundamental rights the right to God. And the right to religious freedom. What did the Second Vatican Council add to what John XXIII taught in Pacem in terris, in which he pointed out the fundamental ordering of the human being to God? The Second Vatican Council, with a new clarification, emphasised this natural ordering, basing itself on the spirituality of human nature; it is an ordering of the human spirit to God, who is Spirit a spiritual ordering, it is the basis of an obligation to God, the first Truth. To look for religious truth, to adhere to religious truth, to regulate all one's life on the basis of such truth this is the primordial obligation that expresses the fundamental ordering of the human being to his Creator. Now this obligation requires freedom. Adherence to Truth cannot be done in conformity with nature if it is not done freely. The right to freedom, therefore, necessarily accompanies this obligation to Truth [cf. Dignitatis humanae, 3].


For the Church, therefore, the foundation of the defence of human rights lies in recognition of, and respect for, God, who is loving Truth. When reflecting on the tragedy of the holocaust. John Paul II declared that 'only an ideology without God could plan and carry out the extermination of an entire people2. In other words, if one disassociates God from human rights, their basis collapses and they can become manipulated and ideologised to the point of becoming insatiable, and sterile. Indeed, the most evident danger at the present time is that of confusing the concept of a human right with any individual claim and of identifying it with the concept of a human need or indeed a human impulse, without any social consideration and above all else without any assessment of an ethical kind.


This does not impede the fact that 'to speak about human rights is to affirm a common good of mankind, it is to work to construct a brotherly community, it is to operate for a world in which each person is loved and helped as one's neighbour, as one's brother'3. In order to proceed in this task, I believe that it is very important and useful to bear in mind what the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger proposed in his dialogue with Habermas: 'The modern age has formulated a patrimony of similar normative elements in the various declarations of human rights and it has withdrawn them from the interplay of majorities. One may be content, in the contemporary conscience, at the internal evidence of these values; however, such a self-imposed forgoing of inquiry, too, has a philosophical characterAs the ultimate element of natural law, which wants to be as profoundly as possible rational law at least in the modern age there remain human rights. They cannot be understood without pre-supposing that man as such, simply because of his membership of the human species, is the subject of rights, that his very being involves values and norms that must be identified but not invented. Perhaps today the theory of human rights should be supplemented by a doctrine of human duties and human limits, and this could, however, help to renew the question of whether there cannot be a natural reason and thus a rational law for man and his existence in the world. Such an analysis should today be interpreted and applied interculturally. For Christians this has to do with the Creation and the Creator. In the Indian it corresponds to the concept of Dharma, the law within being, and in the Chinese tradition to the idea of celestial arrangements'4.






1. Diritti insaziabili'('Insatiable Rights') is the title of an essay by A. Pintore, a lecturer in the philosophy of law at the Faculty of Law of the University of Cagliari, which was published in the volumeDiritti fondamentali: un dibattito teorico, by L. Ferrajoli (Laterza, Rome/Bari, 2001).



2. John Paul II, 'Address at the Mausoleum of Yad Vashem', Jerusalem, 23 March 2000



3. Paul VI, 'Conference of the UN on Human Rights', 15 April 1968.



4. Joseph Ratzinger, Jürgen Habermas, 'Ragione e fede, scambio reciproco per un'etica comune',Munich, Bavaria, 19 January 2004.