John-Paul II

Supreme Pontiff, Head of State of the Vatican City

Speech made to the Assembly

Saturday, 8 October 1988

Mr President, Your Excellency, ladies and gentlemen, I am happy to be able today to visit the Council of Europe and to address its Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, a city whose history bears witness to its European vocation.

I wholeheartedly thank the President, Mr Louis Jung, for the kind words he has just spoken, and I am most grateful to the Secretary General, Mr Marcelino Oreja, for having been so kind as to repeat the invitation he made to me several years ago. You have given me the opportunity once again to express the esteem in which the Catholic Church holds an institution whose work it follows closely by means of a permanent mission. Your Council has the great and fine vocation of bringing the nations of this continent closer together in order to consolidate “peace based upon justice”, “for the preservation of human society and civilisation”, in an unshakable commitment to “the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their peoples”, to quote only a few key terms from the preamble to your Statute. Next year, the Council of Europe will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its foundation. That will be the occasion for your Assembly, representing the democratic institutions of twenty-one countries, to take stock of all the work that has been accomplished to satisfy the expectations of nations, to serve an ideal of freedom, tolerance and the rule of law.

Immediately after the second world conflict, which started in Europe, the need was keenly felt to overcome antagonism between the nations which had just done battle. The resolve was expressed to unite the belligerents of yesterday in fellowship and to institutionalise their co-operation. I shall never forget how, amidst the turmoil, the voice of Pope Pius XII was raised to proclaim the “inviolable dignity of man”, the “true freedom of man” (I am referring here to his radio message Christmas 1944). It is fitting that we should pay tribute to the dear sighted men who contrived to meet across frontiers, to set aside old enmities, to propose and bring to fruition the project of this Council destined to become a place where Europe may achieve self-awareness, where it measures the tasks that it needs to accomplish in response to the anxieties and the expectations of its citizens, where it undertakes necessary co-operation in many arduous fields. I know that you are faithful to the memory of those whom you call the “founding fathers of Europe”, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman. From the last-named, I shall borrow the description of the central intuition of those founders, taken from Pour l'Europe, page 46.

“To serve humanity at last freed of hatred and fear, relearning Christian brotherhood after years of conflict.”

It is true that the men and women of this old continent with its turbulent history need to be made freshly aware of the basis of their common identity, of what lives on as their vast shared memory. Admittedly, European identity is not easy to pin down. The distant sources of this civilisation are many, coming from Greece and Rome, from a Celtic, Germanic and Slavic basis profoundly remoulded by Christianity. And we know what a diversity of languages, cultures and legal traditions has marked nations, regions and also institutions. Yet, by comparison with other continents, Europe stands out as a single unit, even if its cohesion is less clearly perceived by those of whom it is composed. This way of looking at it may help Europe rediscover its identity better.

Over nearly twenty centuries, Christianity has helped to forge a conception of the world and of man which today remains a fundamental attribute, whatever the divisions, weaknesses and even neglect of Christians themselves. I should like to mention here just a few essential features. The Christian message translates such a close relationship of man to his creator that it places value on all aspects of life, starting with physical life: the body and the cosmos are the work and the gift of God. Faith in God the Creator has demythologised the cosmos and offered it to man for rational investigation. Controlling their own bodies and dominating the earth, men and women deploy abilities which are in turn “creative”: in the Christian vision, man, far from despising the physical universe, makes use of it freely and without fear. This positive vision has contributed extensively to Europeans' development of science and technology.

At peace with the cosmos, Christian man has also learned to respect the priceless value of each and every person, created in the image of God and redeemed by Christ. Gathered together in families, in cities, peoples, human beings do not live and labour in vain: Christianity teaches them that history is not a random cycle perpetually recommencing, but that it finds meaning in the alliance which God offers men in order to invite them freely to accept His reign.

The biblical conception of man has enabled Europeans to develop a lofty notion of the dignity of the person, which remains an essential value even amongst people who do not subscribe to a religious faith. The Church affirms that there is in man an awareness which cannot be explained solely by the influences that are brought to bear on it, an awareness capable of knowing its own dignity and receptive to the absolute, an awareness which is the source of fundamental choices guided by the search for good for oneself and others, an awareness which is the locus of responsible freedom.

It is true that there has been much aberration, and Christians know that they have had their share in it. The human person, as the only subject of rights and duties, has often yielded his place to the individual, a prisoner of his own selfishness considering himself as his own end. Conversely, exaltation of the group, the nation or the race has sometimes led to murderous totalitarian ideologies. In many places, practical or theoretical materialism has misunderstood man's spiritual nature and dramatically reduced his reasons for living. The merit of democracies is that they seek to organise society in such a way that the person is not only respected in all his aspects, but participates in the common endeavour by exercising his free will.

Your Council has shown itself faithful to the heritage of European awareness in setting itself the major task of proclaiming and protecting human rights. By ratifying the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the member states have sought to tighten their union around the highest principles and values of European tradition. In order to ensure their application everywhere, they have set up the European Court and Commission of Human Rights, according them jurisdiction and judicial authority unique in international organisations.

As the thinking of your Assembly on many aspects of life in society bears witness, taking into consideration the rights and dignity of the human person goes far beyond what is defined in the specific texts concerning human rights. The Church considers that man has a right to freedom and to the safety he needs to lead his life according to the demands of his conscience, his spiritual receptiveness to the absolute and his vocation for brotherly living. Among the fields which affect what is most profound in man, there are several on which it must express its point of view.

The family is probably the reality in which the interaction between personal responsibility and social conditions is most clearly apparent. Recent developments in European society have made the equilibrium and stability of families more difficult. That is the result of economic factors related to work – particularly women's work -housing, travel, voluntary migration and forced exile. Furthermore, we observe conceptions spreading which reduce the value attached to love, separate sexuality from the communion of life which it expresses, weaken the stable bonds which a truly human love entails. Therein lies a real danger, for the family is being destabilised and is disintegrating. Falling population trends are a sign of a family crisis which gives cause for concern.

In this situation, Europeans must restore to the family its value as the key element in social life. They must contrive to create conditions favouring its stability, enabling it to receive and to give life generously! They must once more become aware of the dignity of the responsibilities exercised by each human being in his home for the support and happiness of others! The family as such has rights that must be more clearly recognised.

I can mention these concerns only briefly here. You know how much importance the Catholic Church attaches to them, to the point of having proposed a “family rights charter”. Everything concerning the family is a concern which Christian communities explore in the light of their faith, but which they share with everyone who believes in human dignity.

One of the most impressive aspects of scientific development concerns biology and medicine. Often, in your committees, you have to consider questions raised by the new possibilities for intervening at various stages of life, going beyond the limits of the therapies habitually practised. Genetic processes can be helped, but also impaired. Biogenetic processes can interfere with the natural link between parent and child. The diagnosis of prenatal pathology too easily leads to abortion, whereas its legitimate purpose is therapeutic in nature. Experiments on human embryos open the way to unacceptable manipulation. It also happens that serious interventions are accepted simply because scientific progress has made them possible.

Your Assembly frequently has to reflect on these questions, which are fundamentally ethical in nature. Respect for human dignity must never be lost sight of, from the moment of conception to the last stages of disease or the most serious conditions of failure of mental faculties. You will understand my repeating here the Church's conviction: the human being keeps his value as a person for ever, because life is a gift of God. The weakest have a right to protection, to care, to affection from those around them and from society. The Church's insistence on safeguarding all life from conception onwards is inspired solely by an ethical requirement derived from what man is, and from which a free and enlightened conscience cannot remain aloof. The Church is aware of the serious dilemmas that face many couples as well as doctors and health counsellors; it is aware of their suffering and their doubts; it would ask, however, that consciences should not be distorted and that authentically human fraternity should never fail. It welcomes the progress achieved for the protection of the life of the unborn child, for preserving the integrity of his natural genetic heritage and for developing effective therapies. In setting limits of an ethical nature on man's action on man, your institution will fulfil its role of critical conscience in the service of the community.

It will seem natural to you, ladies and gentlemen, that I emphasise the scope of the work patiently conducted by your Council in the field of social affairs. You offered Europe a social charter which seeks to further the dignity of all workers, harmonious human relations in the world of work, the possibility for all of providing decently for their needs through employment adapted to their abilities. This is no mean task, even though your countries are relatively favoured by comparison with many other parts of the world.

The most urgent problem underlying all cooperation is primarily that of actual access to employment; for too many years, this continent has been stricken by an employment crisis, harshly affecting men and women, who are prevented from providing for their own and their families' needs by following the occupation for which they are trained. Is it unrealistic to ask that, when economic decisions are being made, account should be taken of the ordeal of those who, with their work, lose a part of their dignity and sometimes even hope itself? Accordingly, the Church would wish to encourage all efforts undertaken to ensure true solidarity among the citizens of nations; solidarity, as a human and Christian “virtue” is a way not only of compensating for loss of resources, but also includes the determination and boldness necessary to achieve a better sharing of activity.

Nor must we lose sight of the areas of poverty within the very nations that form the Council. Substantial efforts are being made to identify them and to remedy the marginal situations in which the most disadvantaged find themselves.

In the context to which I have just referred, we naturally think of young people. It is up to them to give the community of nations drive and generosity for peace and solidarity in a world capable of tackling constantly changing problems. I shall say so to the thousands of young Europeans whom I shall be meeting this evening.

I know that it is the wish of your Council to encourage progress in education, in order to enable everyone to develop their faculties of intelligence and to realise their desire to act.

What training do we offer young people? Agreeing here with the studies and activities conducted within your Council, I wish simply to emphasise one essential aspect. The training of young people assumes its full human dimension when the acquisition of knowledge and the learning of techniques are placed in the context of the integral truth of man. At a time when material goods and technology are tending to take precedence over the claims of the spirit, ought we not to be reminded that there is no “science without conscience”? In initiating young people to knowledge, our aim is to help them discover the grandeur of man's destiny.

One often hears regrets expressed about young people's indifference to the cultural heritage built up by the peoples of Europe over more than two millenniums. There is also anxiety about the very conservation of that heritage. If I briefly mention this question after talking about education, it is because I believe that this continent's incomparable cultural heritage must not simply be preserved in order to be available to be looked at with the remote or indifferent gaze which is reserved for vestiges of the past. It is important to be able, from one generation to another, to transmit, to pass on tokens of a living culture, works, discoveries and experiences which have progressively contributed to shaping man in Europe. That is why I wish to encourage the remarkable efforts made not only to save the riches of the past from extinction, but to make of them the wealth of today. These efforts will match the reality of this continent all the better if a great tradition is developed in exchanges between one region and another, whereby an artist or an intellectual feels just as much at home in Flanders as in Italy, in Portugal as in Sweden, on the banks of the Rhine as on those of the Danube. Young people in particular are receptive to cultural exchange, let us enable them to take over the many achievements of their fathers, to be familiar with the past, the better to prepare them for taking the initiative in their turn and nurturing their creative abilities.

Ladies and gentlemen, if Europe wishes to be true to itself, it must contrive to gather together all the live forces of this continent, respecting the character of each region, but finding in its roots a common spirit. The member countries of your Council are aware that they are not the whole of Europe; in expressing the fervent wish for intensification of co-operation, already sketched out, with other nations, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, I feel that I share the desire of millions of men and women who know that they are linked by a common history and who hope for a destiny of unity and solidarity on the scale of this whole continent.

For centuries, Europe played a considerable role in other parts of the world. It must be admitted that it did not always show its best side in its encounters with other civilisations, but no one can contest that it did felicitously share many of the values which it had matured over a long period. Its sons played a key part in disseminating the Christian message. If Europe today wishes to play a part, it must, in unity, calmly base its action on what is most human and most generous in its heritage.

Good relations with the countries of the various parts of the world cannot stop at political or economic bargaining. With the growth in contacts between people of all c6ntinents, we feel in a new way how necessary it is that there should be understanding between human communities with different traditions. I am sure that this was the approach underlying the campaign recently mounted to stimulate and further North-South relations. Indeed, in the framework of universal solidarity, Europe has a responsibility towards that part of the world.

An important token of the seriousness of that desire for peace and understanding may be seen in the quality of the welcome afforded to anyone arriving from elsewhere, be he a partner from the outset or someone compelled to seek refuge. Christians for their part, who are themselves endeavouring to rebuild their unity, wish also to show their respect for those of other religions present in their regions, and wish to maintain a clear and fraternal dialogue with them.

Peace depends on this respect for the cultural and spiritual identity of peoples. May Europeans found upon this conviction their disinterested contribution to the good of all nations!

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, in coming here today, before the world's first ever international Parliamentary Assembly, I am aware that I am addressing the qualified representatives of peoples who, loyal to their vital origins, wished to join together to consolidate their unity and to open their arms to other nations of all continents, in respect for the truth of man. I can bear witness to the willingness of Christians to take an active part in the work of your institutions. I wish for your Council that it may work fruitfully in order to make Europe’s soul ever more living and generous.