by Sheila Gribben Liaugminas
In 1995, Pope John Paul II addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. But he knew he was addressing the world. “In coming before this distinguished Assembly, I am vividly aware that through you I am in some way addressing the whole family of peoples living on the face of the earth”, he said. “My words … echo the voices of all those who see in the United Nations the hope of a better future for human society”. Pope John Paul spoke of human dignity, moral logic, the natural law.
It was language that echoed again in the General Assembly in mid-April, when Pope Benedict XVI took to the floor of the UN and observed the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. It was to be the highlight of a five-day-long apostolic journey to America, and his message was much anticipated in the weeks of media speculation before the pope arrived. Journalists at least one Vatican-watcher among them worried that Pope Benedict might say something that could be construed internationally as offensive to certain sensitivities, after the “faith and reason” address in Regensburg turned into an international affair over one misconstrued line.
They need not have worried. Faith and reason united in search of the truth of humanity has emerged as the foundation of all of Pope Benedict’s dialogues with global leaders, and within the Church itself. And the journalists would have known what was most prominently on his mind before he headed off for America, had they carefully read his addresses leading up to it. The pope virtually telegraphed his message for the apostolic journey in a brief set of remarks he made to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace just three days before he set off for Washington a rather obscure weekend message that may have missed the radar of the eager press. At its core, this message said that the future of humanity depends on a “new humanism” that protects religious freedom. “Certainly, joint action on a political, economic and juridical level is needed but, even before that, it is necessary to reflect together on a moral and spiritual level”. That line was the key.
The UN address was originally billed as the highlight of the papal visit to the United States. It was one among many, but one that deserves careful attention and requires further study. The kind and gentle Holy Father, as he had come to be known by the time he addressed the UN on the morning of Friday, April 18, delivered what seemed like a completely cordial and diplomatic address.
Even the media loved it or what they knew of it. The New York Times was admiring. “In his speech, Benedict touched on themes important both to his three-year-old papacy and his decades of writing as a cardinal and one of the church’s leading intellectuals”, the Times wrote in its extensive coverage.
“At base, the pope presented the idea that there are universal values that transcend the diversity cultural, ethnic or ideological embodied in an institution like the United Nations…. Thus religion, he said, cannot be shut out of a body like the United Nations, which he said aims at ‘a social order respectful of the dignity and rights of the person."
“A vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension can help achieve this”, the Times continued quoting Benedict. “Recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism, war and to promote justice and peace.”
This snip made it into most major media stories on the UN address, many of which carried the pope’s full transcript. The Times covered it comprehensively, providing video and listing categories of topics within the text.
Deeper meaning missed
What most media missed though, was the deeper meaning of the pope’s elegant words.
He began in French, the language of the United Nations, and only in reading the transcript of the address do you see the rich defense he makes repeatedly of the dignity of the human person and the protection of the human family.
The founding principles of the Organization the desire for peace, the quest for justice, respect for the dignity of the person, humanitarian cooperation and assistance express the just aspirations of the human spirit, and constitute the ideals which should underpin international relations.
This is only the second paragraph, still in French, and he goes into the first precise challenge:
The United Nations embodies the aspiration for a “greater degree of international ordering” (John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 43), inspired and governed by the principle of subsidiarity, and therefore capable of responding to the demands of the human family through binding international rules and through structures capable of harmonizing the day-to-day unfolding of the lives of peoples.
That was the affirmation. Now the challenge…
This is all the more necessary at a time when we experience the obvious paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world’s problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community.
Note that phrase, “decisions of a few”, because he’ll come back to that. Consensus has replaced truth and right order, he goes on to say, in all kinds of areas, such as…
the way the results of scientific research and technological advances have sometimes been applied. Notwithstanding the enormous benefits that humanity can gain, some instances of this represent a clear violation of the order of creation, to the point where not only is the sacred character of life contradicted, but the human person and the family are robbed of their natural identity. Likewise, international action to preserve the environment and to protect various forms of life on earth must not only guarantee a rational use of technology and science, but must also rediscover the authentic image of creation. This never requires a choice to be made between science and ethics: rather it is a question of adopting a scientific method that is truly respectful of ethical imperatives.
From that gem, the media plucked the reference to the environment, and made whole stories out of it. The larger message was missed, but Benedict speaks here firmly of the consistency of ethics. Not their relative application.
Recognition of the unity of the human family, and attention to the innate dignity of every man and woman, today find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect.
This section grabbed the media’s attention as well, because of the pope’s attention to violations of rights and humanitarian crises. What they missed was the wider application to all humans and the sanctity of all life.
About the UN’s “responsibility to protect”, he said…
This principle has to invoke the idea of the person as image of the Creator, the desire for the absolute and the essence of freedom.
The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights…
was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, religion and science. Human rights are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum of international relations.
That’s a key line, that last sentence. It follows with this:
It is evident, though, that the rights recognized and expounded in the Declaration apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history. They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.
And this, all in the early portion of the address in French. He has yet to turn to the message in English.
The power to do what’s right
When the Holy Father began the bulk of his address in English, he was only warming up to his challenge to protect the human family by promoting the sanctity of all life and the rights of every person, not relative to redefinition by a group in power or by consensus.
The common good that human rights help to accomplish cannot, however, be attained merely by applying correct procedures, nor even less by achieving a balance between competing rights. The merit of the Universal Declaration is that it has enabled different cultures, juridical expressions and institutional models to converge around a fundamental nucleus of values, and hence of rights. Today, though, efforts need to be redoubled in the face of pressure to reinterpret the foundations of the Declaration and to compromise its inner unity so as to facilitate a move away from the protection of human dignity towards the satisfaction of simple interests, often particular interests. The Declaration was adopted as a “common standard of achievement” (Preamble) and cannot be applied piecemeal, according to trends or selective choices that merely run the risk of contradicting the unity of the human person and thus the indivisibility of human rights.
The address can be weighty, unless you parse it down. Then you discover the gems and “gentle skewers”, as one priest analyst put it. Like this one:
Experience shows that legality often prevails over justice when the insistence upon rights makes them appear as the exclusive result of legislative enactments or normative decisions taken by the various agencies of those in power.
That sounds bulky to the ear. But here’s what it means: just because something is legal doesn’t make it moral. Like the language of “reproductive rights”, for instance, that some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) at the United Nations have tried to write into UN documents in order to export contraception and abortion globally and tie it to international aid. Or the “right” to end one’s life in an attempt to spread euthanasia disguised as compassion.
But the Holy Father doesn’t use those exact words. His are more nuanced, and elegant.
When presented purely in terms of legality, rights risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and their goal. The Universal Declaration, rather, has reinforced the conviction that respect for human rights is principally rooted in unchanging justice, on which the binding force of international proclamations is also based. This aspect is often overlooked when the attempt is made to deprive rights of their true function in the name of a narrowly utilitarian perspective.
And here Pope Benedict brings in one of his messages of the week the fundamental lesson of the Golden Rule:
This intuition was expressed as early as the fifth century by Augustine of Hippo, one of the masters of our intellectual heritage. He taught that the saying: Do not do to others what you would not want done to you “cannot in any way vary according to the different understandings that have arisen in the world” (De Doctrina Christiana, III, 14). Human rights, then, must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators.
In other words, might does not make right.
Here, Benedict pivots and turns to religious freedom, the fundamental base of all human rights, as he has said repeatedly throughout the three years of his pontificate.
Human rights, of course, must include the right to religious freedom, understood as the expression of a dimension that is at once individual and communitarian a vision that brings out the unity of the person while clearly distinguishing between the dimension of the citizen and that of the believer. The activity of the United Nations in recent years has ensured that public debate gives space to viewpoints inspired by a religious vision in all its dimensions, including ritual, worship, education, dissemination of information and the freedom to profess and choose religion. It is inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves their faith in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.
He wouldn’t be saying this if it weren’t the case in some nations, even in very advanced western nations.
The rights associated with religion are all the more in need of protection if they are considered to clash with a prevailing secular ideology or with majority religious positions of an exclusive nature. The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order. Indeed, they actually do so, for example through their influential and generous involvement in a vast network of initiatives which extend from Universities, scientific institutions and schools to health care agencies and charitable organizations in the service of the poorest and most marginalized.
(That’s the principle of subsidiarity, a tenet of Catholic social teaching.)
The United Nations remains a privileged setting in which the Church is committed to contributing her experience “of humanity”, developed over the centuries among peoples of every race and culture, and placing it at the disposal of all members of the international community. This experience and activity, directed towards attaining freedom for every believer, seeks also to increase the protection given to the rights of the person. Those rights are grounded and shaped by the transcendent nature of the person, which permits men and women to pursue their journey of faith and their search for God in this world. Recognition of this dimension must be strengthened if we are to sustain humanity’s hope for a better world and if we are to create the conditions for peace, development, cooperation, and guarantee of rights for future generations.
In Pope John Paul II’s 1995 UN address, Benedict’s predecessor remarked about what the changes of the times meant “for the future of the whole human family”. Here’s one key remark:
If we want a century of violent coercion to be succeeded by a century of persuasion, we must find a way to discuss the human future intelligibly. The universal moral law written on the human heart is precisely that kind of “grammar” which is needed if the world is to engage this discussion of its future.
In April 2008, Pope Benedict continued that discussion by re-introducing moral grammar to the United Nations, and called them back to their original intent. It is critical that they understand the language.
Sheila Liaugminas, a member of the editorial board of Voices, is a Chicago journalist who covered the apostolic visit of Pope Benedict for Relevant Radio. She writes on news of faith and culture on her InForum blog: www.inforumblog.com.
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