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Faith sheds light on natural law

January 11, 1991

Pope John Paul II encourages Catholic members of the legal profession

On Friday, 11 January the Pope addressed participants in a conference of Catholic members of the legal profession. This is a translation of the Pope's address, which was given in French.


Mr President,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. I am happy to welcome you on the occasion of the international conference which draws you to Rome at the invitation of the Italian Catholic Jurists' Union, held under the patronage of the International Union of Catholic Jurists, with the participation of some dignitaries of the Roman Curia.

For your theme you have chosen a fundamental topic: "Natural law and human rights at the dawn of the 21st century". I am happy to see highly qualified Catholic specialists take the time to clarify together these ideas of utmost importance which have a direct bearing on the Christian concept of the human person and human rights today as in the past.

In the context of an audience which is necessarily brief, I would like to make some observations inspired by the subject of your work. We can say that the topic that opportunely unites your research on the natural law is a universal basis for all areas of law and an examination of the values and principles which inspire the regulation through law of social life at the level of States and the international community.

2. In our era, it is obvious to everyone that the entire "human family" suffers numerous violations of its rights, repeated attacks against the dignity of the human person, from a very unequal distribution of resources of all types, from conflicts which assail too many peoples. At the same time, the consciousness that we form one large community based on the equal dignity of persons, the thirst for justice and peace for all of humanity is making limited but real progress towards a reconciliation and unity which we can see is within reach and no longer merely utopian.

To put it briefly, it is a matter of building a harmonious unity on solid foundations. The "universal" recognition of human rights immediately comes to mind. However, in order to assure progress, it is very important that we shed light on natural law, which we could say is the truth about law.

Natural law, as you know better than anyone else, does not give legislators particular norms which endlessly remain the same It does not claim to constitute of itself a code of social behavior which is eternal and free of any historical connections. However, it does ask that human dignity be assured in the different areas of life. More than an exercise of control over positive law, natural law tends to be expressed concretely in it and give it life. That is why it remains valid wherever there are more flagrant violations against the person, as is witnessed to by the courage and greatness of so many heroes whom the worst tyrannies were never able to demean.

3. The dramas experienced by recent generations have elicited a healthy reaction, bringing about a greater recognition of human rights. These enter into the consciousness of each person; they are better understood as being universal, natural, and inviolable, that is, humanity's common good. In that context, today's task for jurists is not only to cooperate in the promotion and defense of these rights, but also to offer convincing reasons in establishing their foundations. It is up to members of the legal profession especially to unmask the temptations which can still arise, the temptations to see human rights as mere options, with no other safeguard than a rather vague sense of philanthropy or uncertain political choices.

Reflection on the natural law draws closer to its goal when it recognizes the individual's quality as a person. On this point faith sheds important light, because it teaches us that the person is called and raised up by God the Creator to be His child. The Good News which Christ proclaimed means the end of bondage: the bonds which weakened mankind through the refusal to love and enter into communion are broken. By the highest act of love which God brought about in His Son, we are re-established in our dignity and our capacity to love and enter into communion. Open to that major perspective on the ultimate destiny of the human person, you will be able to recognize and define better whatever threatens law and right.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is in this spirit that I would like to encourage you during your work these days, as well as in your many legal missions. You will be guided in your reflection by the Spirit of the God of justice. "Justice and peace embrace", says the Psalmist (Ps 84/ 85:11). At the close of the second millennium I hope that you Catholic jurists may help the human family achieve these objectives: to grow closer in solidarity and to become more fully aware of its vocation.

With all my heart I give you my Apostolic Blessing, and I ask the Lord to watch over you along your path, with the greatness of His justice, the sweetness of His mercy, and the strength of His love.

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