Consilium Conferentiarum Episcoporum Europae (CCEE)
While in Europe, strongly marked by secularism and liberalism, there is an increasing tendency to multiply the rights of individuals, especially at the beginning and end of life, proportionally, freedom of conscience – a fundamental right at the foundation of democracy and the Rule of law of our European countries – is increasingly struggling, especially in the medical and educational field. On the contrary conscientious objection is not used against anyone or to undermine the legal system but for the common good. In Bratislava, the legal advisers of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe talked about the real applicability of conscientious objection in the light of the current debate in European States and the consequences-challenges to church institutions.
The meeting was held from 4th to 6th of March in Bratislava, Slovakia. This was the second meeting of legal advisers, organized by the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE). The first one was held in Strasbourg in 2013. Representatives of the Holy See, England, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Croatia, France, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine attended the conference. The meeting was hosted by Msgr. Stanislav Zvolensky, Archbishop of Bratislava and President of the Slovak Bishops’ Conference, who opened the conference. Msgr. Mario Giordana, Apostolic Nuncio in Slovakia and Jan Figel, currently Vice President of the Slovak Parliament, greeted the participants during the meeting.
The main address was given by Prof. Marek Šmid, Rector of the University of Trnava (Slovakia) who focused on the legal regulation of conscientious objection. There is a diversity of situations in the states of Europe. The common element of their legal systems is the fact that the regulation of conscientious objection has an important impact in a number ethically sensitive areas.
In the case of members of the Catholic Church, conscientious objection should be instituted as a legal possibility that gives people the right to refuse duty, which is contrary to the general principles of doctrine and morals of the Church. This does not mean the right to disregard the laws of the country, but to enable the individual to comply with the laws of the State and avoid compromising their conscience at the same time.
Conscientious objection is in the interests of the individual and of the state which aims to be pluralistic, democratic and respectful of the rule of law. It enables citizens to enjoy the right to freedom of conscience and religion, which is one of the core values of society. In particular the effects of conscientious objection should extend to the inviolability of human life from conception to natural death and also related health services. Its effects should also extend to the field of teaching on sexual morality in public school, marriage as a life community of one man and one woman and the exercise of freedom of religion in public life, particularly through the use of religious symbols.
In health care the right to conscientious objection doesn’t belong only to doctors but also to other professional personnel (eg. nurses, psychologists, social workers). In particular, it must be possible in the following procedures: abortion, euthanasia, artificial insemination, research and organ transplants, as has been shown by Prof. Eva Grey, of St. Elisabeth University of Health and Social Work (Bratislava). However, conscientious objection may not outweigh the duty of medical personnel to protect or save human lives.
Other fundamental points underlined during the meeting were:
- the fact that nowadays a new dimension of conscientious objection arises with respect to aggressive promotion of gender ideology through education and antidiscrimination legislation;
- the need to bear in mind the role of ethics code in healthcare;
- the need to promote the institutional aspects of conscientious objection: not just individuals but also institutions (hospitals, schools) should be allowed to object;
- the role of families in creating conditions for conscientious objection;
- and finally, the fact that Freedom of conscience inevitably provides awareness and recognition of the fundamental values of society and of individuals. The States together with the civil societies, Churches and religious communities should cooperate in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. This principle is particularly promoted by the social teaching of the Catholic Church.
On the afternoon of Thursday 5 March participants moved to Vienna. There, they visited the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). Then, they were introduced to the challenges for Church organisations in the current discussion on development of antidiscrimination laws by Ms Gudrun Kugler, President of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe. In the Austrian Capital they also met with Mgr. Janusz Urbańczyk and Mgr. Marinko Antolović from the Holy See’s Permanent Mission at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Through a video recorded address from Judge Marta Cartabia, Vice President of the Italian Constitutional Court, participants were also introduced to the theme of freedom of expression. The Church strongly defend this fundamental right being aware, however, that nowadays freedom of expression, especially when it concerns the religious dimension of people, might need a reasonable accommodation between the State and religious communities. In case of conflict, experiences show that a better regulation of this right is reached where a Concordat – Agreement between the State and the Church has been established. Bilateral Agreement, in fact, remains the more reasonable solution in a pluralistic society preserving this pluralism without provoking the annulment of the differences or creating homologation.
In Bratislava, participants took also note on the recent redefinition of marriage in Slovenia and supported together with Slovenians bishops the efforts of civil society to overrule the complete assimilation of same-sex unions with the different-sex ones by the people in a referendum.
The final session saw a reflection followed by a dialogue with Msgr. Paul Gallagher, Secretary for the Relations with States (Holy See’s Secretariat of State) on The challenges for today’s Church in Pope Francis’ addresses to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. Msgr. Gallagher stressed Pope Francis’ reflection on the need that we should rebuild “a Europe which contemplates the heavens and pursues lofty ideals”.
At the end of the meeting José Jesus López Nieto, legal adviser of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, presented the conclusion of a short questionnaire that CCEE disseminated earlier this year. According to the responses received, it is important that CCEE fosters this network of Legal Advisers and to engage more with the specific invitation that Pope Francis has addressed to CCEE in Stasbourg to follow more deeply the activities of the Council of Europe, with the help of the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the Council of Europe, represented during the meeting by Mgr. Paolo Rudelli, its Permanent Observer.