Cardinal Mueller on Questions about Rights

Note: Cardinal Mueller sent us this interview with Lothar C. Rilinger, a German lawyer, and asked if we could translate it into English and publish it. Given our great respect for the Cardinal, we are happy to do so. It’s long – measured by our charism of brevity at The Catholic Thing. But it’s time well spent to read the whole of it, particularly as concerns abortion rights and the understanding of rights in general. The original may be read at in German. Translation by Robert Royal with assistance by Fr. Hans Feichtinger.

Kath.Net Introduction: Last year, the European Parliament passed the Matic Report by a large majority – over the opposing votes of Conservatives and Christian Democrats. There are similar tendencies, of course, in the United States. According to the Report, among other things, the killing of unborn life – i.e.,  abortion – must be understood as a “human right.” In the Christian view, every human being, born or unborn, is entitled to human rights – intrinsic rights. We spoke to the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, about this different point of view and the resulting consequences.

Lothar C. Rilinger: Are human rights derived from natural law and thus – as Pope Benedict XVI formulated it – to be understood as “innate rights”?

Cardinal Mueller: The Christian faith is a response of the people who fully accept in mind and heart the self-revelation of God in the salvation history of Israel and finally in his Son Jesus Christ. (cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” 5) This response is also linked with the conviction that God, in creating the world from nothing, is not just a vague “demiurge,” but formed every individual human being in his image and likeness.

We Christians speak of human beings as individuals, and not merely of the abstraction “man.” Because of our common human nature, each person has an indestructible dignity, which in turn links each of us to all other people.

This means that all people are equal and have the right to humane treatment, as the Stoic philosopher Seneca (1st century AD) already pointed out in a letter (no. 47) to his friend Lucilius about the treatment of slaves. To the objection that slaves are only slaves, he replies: “I propose to value them according to their character, and not according to their duties. Each man acquires his character for himself, but chance assigns his duties.” Seneca overcomes the contrast between masters and slaves in terms of natural law and philosophy. His contemporary St. Paul undermines this difference theologically, with reference to God, as creator and judge of all, and to Christ, redeemer of all. (cf. Gal 3:28; Col 4:1; 1 Tim 2:5, etc.)

In contrast to the early modern absolutist, and later openly totalitarian, exaggerations of state power, the declarations of human and civil rights in America in 1776, in Poland and France in 1789, the United Nations in 1948, and (post-Nazi) Germany in 1949 have established rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as independent of the will of the powerful. Because these rights are owed to all human beings by birth, they belong to our “nature.” The word “nature” comes from the Latin nasci, which means: to be born. Human nature signifies not just the time of birth, i.e., being conceived and carried to term in the mother’s womb, but also the empirically verifiable absolute beginning of individual humanity at the moment of conception, and up to natural death.

Rilinger: Why has natural law essentially been rejected since the Enlightenment?

Card. Mueller: In the West, modern philosophy has emphasized the natural rights of every human being in contrast to the arbitrariness of princes, who violently interfered with the freedom of religion and conscience of their subjects. Under the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, those in power determined the only religion/confession that was allowed publicly on their territory. The new insight, however, says: Every human being is a free citizen and, in his or her understanding of truth and the principles of ethics, is not responsible to political power, but directly to God, i.e. to a supramundane authority.

The authorities, i.e. the government, are limited to organizing and guaranteeing the earthly common good. The state is for the people and not the people for the state. The political authorities must not sacrifice people for so-called reasons of state, such as: dynastic interests; state expansion; the hegemony of one’s nation; enrichment of the upper class through exploitation of serfs, slaves, and illegal wage-laborers; the globalization of technology and monopolization of capital; the creation of a utopian New Humanity through world revolution and efforts to gain world power, etc.

Of further: What is the meaning of life? How is it philosophically justified? On which moral principles is individual and community life built? Can we hope for eternal salvation after this earthly life? – The state cannot – must not – answer these questions if it doesn’t intend to become totalitarian.

A democratically legitimate, constitutional state, in particular, must admit that citizens have not granted it philosophical or religious competence – and, in principle, cannot do so, even if they wanted to.

The 1934 “Note of the Holy See to the German Reich Government” remains valid against the constant and widespread totalitarian temptations of those in power. A distinction must be drawn between the necessary obedience of every citizen to all legitimate orders of the state (in its proper area of ​​responsibility), and the presumptuous encroachments into other areas in which the state has no competence.

The decision of any state authority, whether administrative, judiciary, or legislative, to declare the killing of a human being by other human beings as a settled and enforceable right, delegitimizes these authorities and exposes their totalitarian attitude. Behind the propaganda about “emancipation” lies a pure will-to-power based on social Darwinist principles: i.e., the law is on the side of the stronger, and morality is what “benefits the people” or someone’s self-interest.

Rilinger: Natural law is often rejected as a sectarian Catholic doctrine. Even Reformation churches and communities do not explain the justification of human rights via natural law, but – as the former chairman of the EKD (Evangelical Church in Germany), Wolfgang Huber, put it – via social ethics, which are based on the idea that believers are capable of their own ethical judgments – by practicing responsible freedom. Is there a danger in this justification via social ethics that ethics as such will not be justified by criteria that cannot be circumvented, but by the spirit of the times?

Card. Mueller: The Church, as the community for the salvation of the world in Christ, is founded on divine law. Religious freedom in relation to all earthly authorities is based on the nature of moral conscience. (cf. Vatican II, “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” Dignitatis humanae, 1 ff.)

Catholic theology, as a reflection on Christ’s self-revelation in the history of salvation, does not have its own doctrine of natural law, but takes natural law from philosophical anthropology and only presents it with greater coherence. Because “nature” in this context does not refer to earth’s flora and fauna, nor to the givens of biology or social facts, as opposed to culture as a human creation. What is meant is the essence of law, which is based on moral principles, and the realization of justice, which pertain to every human being. The foundation of it all is the principle that good is to be done and pursued, and evil to be avoided. (Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia IIae, 94)

It was a conviction of many of the 16th-century Reformers that man’s “nature” was totally corrupted by Original Sin, and that the grace of justification and forgiveness of sins is granted solely through faith (sola fide). This is why Protestant theology has strong reservations about so-called “natural” law.

But in that perspective, the concept of “nature” is understood from the dualism “nature-grace” and the contrast of “spirit vs. Nature” (i.e., the formal self-definition of an autonomous freedom over and above the forces of natural causality, to which our body is subjected), as in the later debate between idealism and materialism. But it does not and should not mean denying that reason is capable of scientific knowledge and that the state is capable of establishing a proper order. Consequently, the system of natural sciences and non-confessional, rule-of-law states come into being, especially in traditionally Protestant states.

The justification of human rights from the spiritual and moral nature of the bodily, socially constituted human being, however, is in no way opposed to the idea of persons acting in responsible freedom. Because human “nature,” in this context, does not denote the complex of animal instincts that first have to be “ennobled” by the spiritual-personal subject. What it means is that being human (in our bodily, social, and historical dimensions) is always the basis, the source, and the horizon of our realization of personal individuality.


Rilinger: Contrary to the Christian view, it’s now being asserted that human rights should be justified in positivist terms. In line with certain forms of the theory of evolution, arguments about further developing human rights are put forward that man should be split into a dualism of spirit and body, whereby the body is still assigned to the animal realm. Only the spirit distinguishes the human from the merely animal, i.e., from being a “thing,” and elevates people into the realm of human rights. Is it correct to see man so divided, into two parts, as it were – into the human, supra-material spirit and the animal, material body, with the result that legal status is exclusively linked to the spirit?

Card. Mueller: Apart from the ethical dualism of the old Manichaeans, anthropological dualism has been characteristic of Western philosophy since René Descartes – albeit with questionable and often devastating consequences. This happened, however, contrary to Descartes’ intentions, with whom the turn to consciousness and subjective philosophy began in the 16th century. In contrast to the emerging mechanistic worldview, which tended to reduce man to a machine, he wanted to save the reality of the spiritual individual. He also believed that he could hold on to man’s openness to God, the creator of the material and spiritual world. The truth of the soul-spiritual unity of man, however, is grasped by neither of the two extremes, materialism (empiricism and positivism) or idealism (rationalism): These philosophical systems either reduce the human spirit to an epiphenomenon of matter, or they minimize the material corporeality of man.

Rilinger: What is behind the idea of ​​dissolving the unity of body and mind, which is posited by Christianity, and therefore the acceptance of a dualism in which mind and body are separated?

Card. Mueller: In “On the Soul” (De anima), Aristotle already argued against his teacher Plato that the soul as the intellectual, sensitive and vegetative life-principle of man is not in the body like a driver on his chariot, or like a prisoner in a dungeon, but as the form that gives us being, the individually concrete human being.

A concretely existing human soul cannot be in a wrong body, be it in an animal body or in the body of a person of the opposite sex. My body, with all its integral parts, does not belong to me, like a suit that I might buy belongs to me or fits my body size.

My body is me. Whoever deliberately harms my body hurts me both in my inner-spiritual as well as in my outer physical being.

The Biblical image of man is compatible with this view, which corresponds to experience and is in accord with reason. The whole human being – both in his connection with the earth and its fertility, and in his ability to think, speak and pray – is God’s creature and is ultimately called to be a child of God in Jesus Christ and to be friends with God in the Spirit of the Father and the Son.

Rilinger: Should Nietzsche’s call for the revaluation of all values ​​be met by changing the image of man, in order to create an image of man that is justified independently of God?

Card. Mueller: It remains to be seen whether our politicians today are in a position to take a critical look at Nietzsche. I would guess they would rather embrace the psychoanalytically-tinged Marxism of social engineers as a spiritual background, which wants to go “back to nature” in Rousseau’s sense. That is to say they emphasize the environment behind culture and, in relation to the human environment, have in mind the new human being as a bio-technical product. It’s all a cheap blend of neo-Marxist social analysis, emancipation rhetoric, and gender ideology.

Therefore, the tendency is towards a split in society between those few who create and the many who are shaped, those who determine and those who are determined.

For those who propose such a division, therefore, the world population must be radically reduced so that the ruling class (not necessarily everyone else) does not run out of resources. This ranges from the devastating one-child policy of the Chinese Communists to the alarmism of the Club of Rome and the denial of development aid to poor countries that do not accept abortion as a woman’s right. George Orwell expressed this mutual dependency with the slogan: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Ultimately, as in the title of Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus, it’s all about the human being who creates his own god: himself.  The traditional view of man does not mean that everything should remain as it is, or go back to how it used to be. But the human being of the Christian future sees himself first as a “new creation in Christ.” (2 Cor 5, 17; Gal 6, 15)

We know about the “Dialectics of Enlightenment” (Horkheimer and Adorno) and do not ignore “The Discomfort of Modernity” (Charles Taylor). But as Christians, we think and act in the direction of “modernity with a human face,” a new synthesis of humanism and faith in the God of Triune love. The Church is the place of this supernatural belief and worldly action. She confesses: “Christ, who died and rose again for all, gives everyone light and strength through his Spirit, so that he can fulfill his highest calling.” (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes 10)

Rilinger: You said that for those in power, the world’s population had to be reduced in order not to let natural resources become too scarce. How should Christians respond to this?

Card. Mueller: We recognize the principle of responsible parenthood. Children are not a burden but a gift from God entrusted to parents for faithful love and a good upbringing. Taking into account all the spiritual and material circumstances, it is up to the spouses to decide in conscience how many children they wish to have. Contrary to the inviolable dignity of every human life are “every kind of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and also voluntary suicide.” (GS, 27)


Rilinger: The Christian image of man is based on the idea that God as Creator brought the world into being. Does the atheistic-evolutionary image of man not only give man a new position in the world, but also prove that there is no God?

Card. Mueller: The protagonists of this program assume that it is an absolutely certain fact. Karl Marx even considered atheism (the negation of God) obsolete, because the negation would somehow preserve the memory of its meaning. A people that has left the misery of the social conditions behind them, in his view, no longer needs the opium of religion, not even the need to protest against religion.

As to the theories of the biological evolution of living beings and the genesis of the temporal-spatial universe: In and of themselves, these theories do not contradict belief in God as their Creator and Sustainer. The empirical sciences examine and describe the structural and procedural elements of the totality of contingent beings. The confession of God as the generous author of everything that does not exist of necessity is based on the self-revelation of God as the origin and goal of the human being who is looking for Him. In principle, even without belief in supernatural revelation, this insight can be “accepted by reason as true.” (Rom 1:20)

Rilinger: Does the granting of human rights then depend on whether people conform to utilitarian standards, so that only people who are useful to society have a right to life?

Card. Mueller: Certainly, we humans have to proceed rationally in order to earn our livelihood, to provide an infrastructure, in the legal order of the community. But a line is crossed when people use beings of their own kind, i.e., their brothers and sisters in human nature, as means to an end, instead of respecting them as persons in their dignity and freedom. Man is a person, not a thing: a “he” and a “she,” never “it.” We use things for our benefit. We love people in order to transcend ourselves and be united with them in communion, in marriage, family, friendship, church membership, friendship with God.

Rilinger: If the allocation of human rights is based solely on the existence of a certain level of consciousness, then the floodgates are wide open to denying the human right to life to mentally handicapped, demented, or sick people. Bishop Clemens Graf von Galen saw this danger when he turned against the euthanasia laws of the Third Reich, which declared lives “unworthy of life” in order to be allowed to kill these people in accordance with the law. Do you see a danger that splitting up of human beings into body and mind could lead to the legalization of active euthanasia and the decriminalization of euthanasia?

Card. Mueller: Behind all the euthanasia movements, despite their different political and ideological tendencies, there is ultimately the negation of God in the Biblical sense as the creator and redeemer of mankind. Against the background of a nihilistic sense of existence, life only has meaning if the state of mind and body guarantees a life that is pleasurable and as pain-free as possible. “Taking one’s own life” becomes a right, and “not to be a burden to others” becomes a duty. The connection between suffering and love is denied, and living-for-others unselfishly is suspected of being a mere illusion about some higher happiness.

Rilinger: And who gets to decide who is entitled to human rights?

Card. Mueller: Certain groups claim the right to make such decisions: political rulers, super billionaires, beauty queens, research geniuses, global entrepreneurs, etc.

“Elites,” if you want to use the word, should be people who, because of their special opportunities and outstanding abilities, are ready to serve humanity all the more. God has given them a responsibility, and at the Last Judgment God will demand an account of what He’s given. Those who grant themselves the right to deny or award the right to live to their fellow human beings are blind to the human condition; they themselves may “need care” at any moment.

Rilinger: According to the Christian view, human rights are intrinsic to human beings. Can you imagine human rights being extended at will in order to give one’s own political ideas more clout?

Card. Mueller: Either human rights are part of nature and then, with sufficient philosophical understanding and historical experience, they can be recognized and differentiated more and more clearly – or they are positivist, i.e., arbitrarily awarded and denied, by some self-appointed jury. The latter view would mean that the line is crossed, from right to wrong, from reason to arbitrariness, and from the recognition of every human being as a person to their degradation as a thing.

The human hope for a future life in no way deters Christians from liberating themselves from unjust conditions and from building a more just earthly society. Indeed, that hope gives them a motivation that atheism can only dream of. Vatican II proclaimed: “When a divine instruction and the hope of life eternal are wanting, man’s dignity is most grievously lacerated, as current events often attest; riddles of life and death, of guilt and of grief go unsolved with the frequent result that men succumb to despair. Meanwhile, every man remains to himself an unsolved puzzle, however obscurely he may perceive it. . . .To this questioning only God fully and most certainly provides an answer as He summons man to higher knowledge and humbler probing.” (Gaudium et spes, 21)

Rilinger: Eminence! Many Thanks.



* The Pharisees Wish to Stone Christ by Georg Pencz, before 1550 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC]. Note that the image is not currently on view at NGA.

** Christ Accused by the Pharisees (scene 12), detail from the verso of the Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11 [Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena]

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Cardinal Gerhard L. Mueller was made Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Benedict XVI and served from 2012 until 2017. Pope Francis named him a member of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in June of 2021. The Cardinal is author, most recently, of The Pope His Mission and His Task, translated from the German by Brian McNeil.