The Holy See and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Working toward a Legal Anthropology of Human Rights and the Family

By Adolphe, Jane | Ave Maria Law Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Holy See and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Working toward a Legal Anthropology of Human Rights and the Family


Adolphe, Jane, Ave Maria Law Review


Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council on the Family ("Pontifical Council"), speaks directly to the legal community with an important and timely message. It comes from a dicastery of the Roman Curia, which, together with its head, the Roman Pontiff, makes up the Holy See--a subject of rights and duties on the international level. (1) In his article, The Nature of Marriage and Its Various Aspects, (2) Cardinal Trujillo calls for the development of an anthropology on sexuality, marriage, and the family based on natural law, (3) which would include an analysis regarding the nature of the family, its link to the human person, (4) and the proper role of the state. (5)

This is not the first time he has directed such an appeal to the legal community. At the invitation of the Pontifical Council, a group of experts gathered together in 1998, during the anniversary year of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("UDHR"). (6) At that meeting, participants discussed the theme of "Human Rights and the Rights of the Family" and their reflections are reproduced in a conference document entitled The Family and Human Rights. (7) The reflections contained in the document forge the way in developing a legal anthropology in the area of human rights and the family.

Although the depth of the anthropological position, as articulated by the Cardinal in this volume, finds no equivalence in the UDHR, undoubtedly, many will be surprised to learn that the Holy See finds a "great convergence between the Declaration and Christian anthropology." (8) The Holy See argues that the Declaration founds human rights on the notion of human dignity. Then, in Article 1, the concept of dignity is linked to the capacious view of the human person as "born free and equal," endowed with "reason and conscience," and having duties to others. (9) From this understanding, the Holy See contends that dignity emanates from man's nature; it is "a reflection of the substantial and spiritual reality of the human person and not a creation of human will." (10) Every person has not only an innate dignity but also an acquired dignity that is developed when one freely maximizes or perfects his or her possibilities in accordance with right reason. By grasping the nature of the human person, and upon further reflection, one can also come to understand the deeper significance of man's innate dignity. Namely, that God created man, whose nature is different from the whole created order, and whose nature reflects something of the divine. Through the faculties of intellect and will, the human person is naturally open and inclined to God who is the fullness of truth and goodness. The deeper realization of man's innate and acquired dignity as inextricably bound to the triune God is available only through right reason as illuminated with the gift of faith. Having said that, the preeminent place for recognition and development of the human person in his or her path to complete dignity is within the bosom of the family--a community of persons living in communion--which forms the foundational element of society. This idea is at the root of Article 16, which proclaims the natural family in logical sequence.

   Men and women of full age have the right to marry and to found a
   family.... [M]arriage shall be entered into with free and full
   consent of the intending spouses.... [T]he family is the natural
   and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by
   society and the State. (11)

In this way, the rights of the family, which imply the protection of marriage, play a preeminent part of the international human rights system.

The purpose of this article is to give an overview of the Holy See's perspective on the UDHR with the aspiration of promoting further study and development of an authentic perspective of international human rights and the family. While looking at human rights through an anthropological lens, the article will explore how the UDHR remains an important touchstone for international dialogue. …

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