Đakovačko-osječki nadbiskup Đuro Hranić / Foto: Patrik Macek/PIXSELL
On September 17, the Justitia et Pax Commission of the Croatian Conference of Bishops issued a statement entitled The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Test of Solidarity and Fraternity, which we hereby present in its entirety:
Today we face an invisible danger that threatens an increasing number of our citizens. This has prompted us, as the Justitia et Pax Commission of the Croatian Conference of Bishops, which is called to promote justice and peace, to draw attention to some facts, and thus we urge all the faithful, as well as all citizens of good will, to greater responsibility and also solidarity, especially toward the elderly or those in poor health, who are, therefore, more vulnerable to this vicious infection.
- Pope Francis has clearly stated on several occasions that no one saves himself by himself. Everyone can experience the personal fragility and vulnerability to which we are exposed in this world. We have realized that every personal choice also affects the lives of our neighbors, whether they live nearby or on the other side of the world. All of this make us increasingly aware of our mutual interconnectedness and that we are all brothers living in a shared home. At the same time, this inspires us to greater solidarity in the good and in the distribution of available goods. In the battle against the vicious coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, we are reminded of the importance of science, but at the same time of its limitations.
On a personal level, the necessity of self-isolation and the limitation of social contacts have imposed a certain unnatural way of life upon us and caused us to re-examine the heretofore prevailing scale of social values that rank profit and power highly. The crisis has taught us to work less for profit and pay greater attention to what is essential and important in life. The crisis, imposed upon us through no fault of our own, has also revealed some forgotten values. Confined in our homes, we have discovered the beauty of living together: parents and children, the old and the young, as well as the tensions and joys of interpersonal relationships.
All of this prompts us to think about our future, which seems uncertain and difficult at the moment, especially at the social and economic levels. We are called to distinguish what is truly valuable and lasting from what is ephemeral, what is essential from what is not. We believers have been particularly affected by the initial prohibition and later limitation of the celebration of the Eucharist with other people, and are called to reexamine our own spirituality and thirst for God. In this context, Christ’s commandment of love, “to love your neighbor as yourself,” has given us the strength of evangelical perseverance and patience.
- However, the pandemic caused by the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has raised, among other things, a number of ethical and legal issues, not only in Croatia but also throughout the world. The majority of European countries, including Croatia, have introduced a series of emergency measures to protect their citizens from the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, thereby curtailing some human rights. In this regard, it should be emphasized that the rights being curtailed are not absolute, that is to say, the state has the right to curtail them in order to protect some other rights. Thus, according to the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia, freedoms and rights may be restricted in order to protect the freedoms and rights of other people, as well as the legal order, public morals and health.
It is clear, therefore, that the protection of public health takes precedence over unrestricted freedoms and other rights of individuals. The European Convention on Human Rights also stipulates the possibility of restricting the right to respect private and family life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly for, among other things, the protection of health. The European Court of Human Rights has found in a number of rulings that countries have a positive obligation to provide an appropriate legal and institutional framework for the protection of public health. Of course, such restrictions must be based on the law and proportionate to the nature of the need for restriction in each individual case.
- In Croatia, restrictions on rights in the context of preventing the spread of the pandemic are subject to the ruling of the Constitutional Court, which, at the session of September 14, 2020, decided by a majority vote on motions to assess the constitutionality of several legislative amendments adopted by the Croatian Parliament concerning decisions by the Civil Defense Task Force. Regarding the legislative amendments, the Constitutional Court did not accept the proponents’ proposals, with the explanation that the Croatian Parliament had acted within the limits of its powers, as prescribed by the Constitution.
With regard to the decisions by the Civil Defense Task Force, the Constitutional Court, by rejecting or not accepting the proponents’ proposals, also determined that all the decisions (except one regarding the prohibition of work on Sundays, made at its own initiative), were in accordance with the Constitution and that there were objective and rational reasons for adopting them. The positons of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia are exceptionally important in the context of the further direction of the activities of the authorized bodies in the prevention of the harmful impact of the pandemic on public health. This is, certainly, also important for the functioning of the educational system and the performance of economic, production and service activities, upon which the sustainability and stability of the society as a whole depend. The Constitutional Court also confirmed that legal regulations determine the limits of citizens’ ethical and legal responsibilities.
Not only are there no absolute freedoms in the legal sense but they can also be limited in the ethical sense. The freedom of an individual is always limited by the freedom of others. Therefore, it is important to insist upon the responsibilities of individuals, not only in terms of self-protection but also the protection of others from disease, especially vulnerable groups, those who are potentially susceptible to health complications and concomitant comorbidities.
- The public certainly has the right to know and review the decisions and measures of the authorized state bodies. This is at the core of democratic pluralism and the diversity that enriches society. However, spreading conspiracy theories, panic, denying personal responsibility and disregarding the rights and health of others, ignoring not only scientific knowledge but also the visible reality around us are not acceptable, because they contribute to confusion and disorder, which none of us need. On the other hand, the violation of legal regulations intended to prevent the spread of contagious diseases may be a misdemeanor or even a felony, particularly in cases when medical personnel are prevented from performing their duties.
- In accordance with the constitutional right to a healthy life, everyone is obligated, within the scope of their authorities and activities, to devote particular attention to the protection of human health. As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “[li]fe and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good. Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity” (No. 2288).
The Justitia et Pax Commission, therefore, calls for prudence and respect for the medical profession. Moreover, we appeal for the public support of the work and dignity of the Civil Defense Task Forces, both national and local, as well as all medical personnel who have so far borne the brunt of the crisis. We also consider it important to encourage further well-argued scientific discussion on combatting the coronavirus, especially through the Scientific Council of the Government of the Republic of Croatia, which has assembled top Croatian scientists.
- By adhering to the simple measures of hygiene, social distancing, and wearing masks in prescribed situations and spaces, as recommended by the Civil Defense Task Force and Scientific Council, in accordance with the measures recommended in the majority of countries engaged in protecting the health and lives of their citizens, we are protecting ourselves, our loved ones and our neighbors. Primum non nocere, i.e., first, do no harm to the health and lives of other people and ourselves, is one of the basic postulates of medicine.
In this trying time of pandemic, we have received a great challenge in a new and dangerous virus, but also a unification of science and medicine, which, in addition to modern research in the fight against COVID-19, have provided us with simple measures that every person of good faith and good intentions can apply in personal protection and the protection of our loved ones and neighbors. Thereby, we shall not only safeguard health but also jobs and the future for our children. For us believers, but also for all people of good will, respect for the life and dignity of every human being must always be central, especially brotherly love and solidarity toward the most vulnerable and most endangered in our society.
In Zagreb, September 17, 2020
+ Đuro Hranić
Archbishop of Đakovo-Osijek
President of the Justitia et Pax Commission of the Croatian Conference of Bishops