Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Human Rights in a Pluralist, Unequal Globe: Contributions of Jesuit Universities

Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Human Rights in a Pluralist, Unequal Globe: Contributions of Jesuit Universities

Article excerpt

David Hollenbach, S.J.

Boston College, Massachusetts

Globalization has made human rights both increasingly important as the normative standards that seek to shape the diverse religious, cultural, political, and economic interactions of our world, and also increasingly controversial in the face of the realities of cultural diversity and economic inequality. Over the past half century, hopes that human rights could become truly effective standards of international behavior have risen and fallen like tides.

The Contemporary Emergence of Human Rights

When the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in 1948, many saw it as a promise "never again" to tolerate genocide, and as a commitment to resist the colonial domination of one people by another. Much of the recent discussion of global values has been formulated in terms of the emergent human rights ethic that has been a distinctive development of the post-World War II period. Indeed, Mary Ann Glendon (2001), a legal scholar who has traced the history of the drafting of the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, called the declaration a charter for "a world made new" (p.XV). In the wake of the horrors of World War II, "the mightiest nations on earth bowed to the demands of smaller countries for recognition of a common standard by which the rights and wrongs of every nation's behavior could be measured" (p.XV). The absence of such common standards was seen as one of the sources of war itself.

From 1948 to 1989, however, Cold War ideological strife pushed human rights off the international agenda. But hopes rose again in the immediate post-Cold War period. For example, at the 1993 UN conference on human rights in Vienna, delegates representing 85% of the world's population reaffirmed the Universal Declaration and declared that the universal binding power of the rights and freedom it proclaimed was "beyond question." In today's post-9/11 world, however, the issue of universality is again hotly debated. Some see a rising "clash of civilizations" setting Western nations with their democratic values on a collision course with the religious-moral-legal system of Islamic shari'a and with nations guided by Confucian traditions and "Asian values." Others, such as former U.S. President George W. Bush, see the human rights associated with Western democracy and free markets as the wave of the global future. Perceiving this as neo-imperial Western arrogance, some thinkers in formerly colonized countries of the global south, as well as Western academics of a postmodernist bent, reject human rights norms as incorrigibly Western in the name of respect for diverse cultures (see Mamdani, 2009).

Developments in Catholic Tradition in Support of Human Rights

In the face of this ebb and flow of opinion, it is striking how strongly the Catholic Church and its leadership have come to affirm human rights as the moral standards to which all nations and cultures should be held accountable. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several popes rejected emerging modern human rights standards such as freedom of religion. They saw human rights as closely tied with the secularism of the French revolution, which would relegate religious belief to the margins of society, and with a focus on the rights of isolated individuals, which would dangerously undermine social solidarity and commitment to the common good. Less than a century later, however, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed that "the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself" (Vatican Council II, 1965a, [section]2). In a dramatic shift the Council linked the full gamut of human rights with the very core of Christian faith. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has become an active supporter of human rights around the world. …

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