John Paul II deeply believed in Human Rights. They were one of the most recurrent topic in his speeches, particularly freedom of religion. He cared deeply in social justice, and travelled extensively to spread this message.
Yet, his understanding of human rights is at times quite incoherent, and in the end very problematic. Where does the incohererence lie? It concerns the degree of autonomy that human rights are meant to provide the individuals with. In short, the primacy of human rights means that certain spheres of human behaviour cannot be strictly regulated by the legislator, but should be left open so that the individual could make up his own mind as to which behaviour suits him best.
In the Pope's mind, however, the spheres of autonomy left to the individuals are considerably shrunk. In particular, the pope displayed a very conservative understanding of sexual morality. Sex is understood exclusively as a means to an end: procreation. Any other understanding of sex is bound to deviate the individual from the right path. As a consequence, perhaps more importantly, any form of prevention to procreation was condamned by the Vatican. In practical terms, this caused a great evil in countries such Africa, where AIDS was as prominent as the catholic belief in no contraception. Coming to life with a deadly illness, which was the case of tens of thousands african children, is without any doubt a tragedy.
The Pope, who claimed to be so attached to human rights and social justice, should have embraced an understanding of rights based on a stronger conception of autonomy, especially when his own understanding led to social tragedies as the one mentioned before. Let's hope that the next Pope will be as committed to human rights as John Paul II, but less conservative in his interpretation of individual liberty.