Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Reclaim Human Rights

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Reclaim Human Rights

Article excerpt

Longtime readers of FIRST THINGS may recall that the April 1998 issue featured a nuanced statement "On Human Rights" by the Ramsey Colloquium, a diverse group of Christian and Jewish scholars led by Richard John Neuhaus. The group's aim was to provide the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) with "a more secure grounding in religious, philosophical, and moral reason" at a moment when that document was under attack from several directions. While acknowledging that rights discourse is often misused, the Ramsey group noted its roots "in our shared history" and affirmed its value as "the most available discourse for cross-cultural deliberation about the dignity of the human person." They affirmed that it "makes possible a truly universal dialogue about our common human future."

Much has changed since then. So much, in fact, that First Things editor R. R. Reno announced in the May 2016 issue that he has become increasingly opposed to human rights and pledged that "First Things will never call for dialogue." In an editorial provocatively titled "Against Human Rights," he argues that the concept of human rights has become an ideology that functions, at least in the West, as "an enemy of the responsible exercise of freedom," indeed a "patron of negative freedom, pushing against demands and obligations arising from our shared culture." Noting that two generations of Catholic leaders, including popes, have regarded human rights as important for the building of humane societies and have employed rights discourse themselves as a "bridge language" supporting the protection of human dignity, Reno declares that it is time for the Catholic Church "to rethink its enthusiasm for human rights."

As a participant in that 1998 Ramsey Colloquium, a longtime supporter of the cautious use of rights language, and a frequent critic of its misuses, I was moved by Reno's arguments to ponder whether the noble post-World War II universal humanrights idea has finally been so manipulated and politicized as to justify its abandonment by men and women of good will.

It should be kept in mind that the twentieth-century popes never embraced the human-rights idea without reservations. The most distinctive feature of the Catholic Church's posture toward the modern human-rights project, in fact, has been encouragement accompanied by constructive but pointed criticism. Although Pope John XXIII was a strong supporter of the Universal Declaration, and even helped to lobby for its adoption when he was papal nuncio in Paris in 1948, he noted in Pacem in Terris, "Some objections and reservations . . . were raised regarding certain points in the declaration, and rightly so." The fathers of Vatican II specified some of those reservations in Gaudium et Spes, cautioning that the movement to respect human rights must be "protected from all appearance of mistaken autonomy." When Pope John Paul II spoke on the occasion of the fiftieth birthday of the UDHR in 1998, he warned, "Certain shadows however hover over the anniversary, consisting in the reservations being expressed in relation to two essential characteristics of the very idea of human rights: their universality and their indivisibility."

He did so with good reason. By 1998, governments and human-rights organizations alike were ignoring the fact that the UDHR was constructed as an integrated document whose core fundamental rights were meant to be "interdependent and indivisible." The framers' idea was that all parts of that core have to be kept in play. No right may be left out and none may be completely subordinated to others. But, as the authors of the Ramsey statement showed, the declaration and the documents based on it were being treated like menus from which to pick and choose. The sense of the interdependence among rights and the connections between rights and responsibilities was fading.

Ironically, the key role that human-rights ideas had played in the movements that led to the nonviolent collapse of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and apartheid in South Africa had fueled another deleterious development. …

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