by Lucia Ann Silecchia, Ordinary Professor of Law


Next month will mark ten years since Pope Benedict XVI addressed the United Nations General Assembly, following in the footsteps of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II who also spoke hopefully, cautiously, critically, and passionately about their aspirations for the family of nations.

In the decade since, there is one phrase in Pope Benedict’s address that strikes me as particularly worthy of reflection both in the international law context in which he expressed it but, perhaps even more so, as a succinct guide for a life lived well.

Pope Benedict spoke eloquently of a concept called “the duty to protect.” He did this in the context of international human rights law, noting, “[e]very state has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises.” He went on to say that there is an important role for the international community to play should individual states be unable – or unwilling – to offer such protection.  Likewise, he affirmed that the duty or responsibility to protect has, since ancient times, been regarded as an essential function of government. He observed that it “was considered by the ancient ius gentium as the foundation of every action taken by those in government with regard to the governed.”

In his statement to the United Nations, Pope Benedict’s message was clear: the obligation to protect the dignity of the human person against all that may threaten it is the raison d’etre of national governments and international organizations. When they fulfill this function, governments serve their noble purposes.  However, when they are indifferent to this obligation – or worse – they can justly be regarded as failures.

Yet, on the personal level, the “duty to protect” might rightfully be seen as a guide to life itself — not merely a guide to good governance. To each person, many opportunities are given, each and every day, to serve as “protector.” In a single day, a person may be called to protect the innocence of a child, the safety of a frail elder, the hope of a friend in despair, the life of an infant in the womb, the faith of a stranger battered by life’s sorrow, or the soul of a brother facing temptation. That same person may be called to protect the reputation of one who is slandered, the beauty of God’s creation, the fragile peace of a volatile truce, the truth when it is distorted or mocked, or the sacred bond of a marriage in crisis. That person may also be asked to protect the freedom of someone enslaved by circumstances or choices, the dreams of someone who is discouraged, the dignity of someone who is vulnerable, and the courage of one who is fear-filled.

This duty to protect is a weighty responsibility that calls for a courageous selflessness and a willingness to put one’s strength at the service of others. Yet, Pope Benedict’s words of warning to the family of nations are also words of inspiration to the human family: “it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage.”


Professor Silecchia, IHE Faculty Fellow, has taught at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law since 1991. She has been an ordinary professor since 2004, and served as the law school’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in 2004 and 2005. She also directs Catholic University’s Summer Law Program in Rome. From September 2015 to August, 2017, she served as Catholic University’s Vice Provost for Policy.

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