About 10 years ago, I participated in a debate in Venice, Italy, on the respective roles of national governments and international institutions — and the limits on government as such. A former Italian ambassador sniffed at my American reservations: “Your country has not even signed the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.” I replied: “You’re darn right. We don’t even trust our own government to define such ‘rights.’ Why would we trust some U.N. committee not subject to democratic oversight?”

That convention is the very one that a U.N. committee used as a pretext to criticize the Holy See this week. I say “pretext” because, bad as the institutional dimension is, the convention is like many international treaties in containing diplomatic language intended to appeal to many constituencies and gain widespread support.

Here’s the pretext: One would never guess from the committee’s tongue-lashing of the Vatican about abortion (and contraception and homosexuality) that the convention actually says in its preamble: “The child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” (Emphasis added.)

And throughout the actual text are concessions to the rightful authority of parents, differing cultures, religious entities — in short, the usual civil-society institutions that nourish children and all of us — which may very well have a view different from the U.N. committee about homosexuality, abortion and contraception.

The disconnect between the original text and what the committee assumes is now the position of all right-thinking people reflects a very worrisome shift in all the developed nations of the world — including the United States.

When the original U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, it referred mostly to older notions of “rights”: freedom of religion, speech, political opinion, and property rights. Jacques Maritain, the great modern Catholic philosopher who was one of the central figures in the emergence of Christian democracy and also largely responsible for developing the Universal Declaration, said at the time that the nations of the world agreed on it, just so long as you didn’t ask why.

The “why” questions were important — and member states like the Warsaw Pact nations abstained from acceptance of things like property rights and political freedoms, which they had no intention of allowing. But for the most part, these ideological differences were constrained within the need to appear as members in good standing of the international community.

That is no longer the case. And that’s the deeper problem of which the committee report is a more superficial example.

In all developed nations today, it’s a common assumption that the old “political rights” have been superseded by newly found “rights.” Even in the United States — which I tried to defend a decade ago in Venice for its different and important perspective on the dangers of state power — we’ve stumbled into a set of values quite distant from our own traditions.

When President Obama imposed the HHS mandate requiring insurance coverage of contraception, sterilization, and Plan B on Catholic and other religious institutions, he began with asserting that these measures were required by “women’s health,” which he said is a “fundamental” right.

Some people think this, of course, but in a system where the rule of law is paramount, the actual written law matters more than what anyone may think about it at some point in time. Our own president was saying, in effect, that a current view among some people is somehow “more first” even than the First Amendment, which guarantees the classic rights of freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, etc.

In the older understanding — and in the perspective of the long American tradition of tolerating difference among people — there’s no reason to impose on people of faith when other means exist to pursue secular goals.

But the developed nations seem to have lost their commitment to that kind of tolerance in pursuit of an ideological vision. Prior to being elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger famously spoke of a growing “dictatorship of relativism” in modern societies. At first sight, the phrase seems incoherent. How can relativism — a belief that no truths exist that are applicable to all of us — also be a dictatorship? What would a pervasive relativism believe it could impose on us all?

We now know the answer to that question. Relativism was only the first phase in a larger process. It initially does dispute and seek to discredit or demolish all the older religious and moral traditions in the great faiths of the world — and even in the saner side of a rational secular order. But its skepticism about truth makes a U-turn once this primary task is complete.

As the U.N. committee’s “report” made clear this week, a very different set of basic “rights” has now emerged that has no qualms whatever about dictating moral positions, even to independent religious bodies like the Catholic Church.

The Vatican — and all of us — need to recognize quite clearly that this is not some neutral secular position. It is secular-ism, which is to say, a substantive ideology that, even if it doesn’t realize it, is pursuing one of many possible moral and political views, while presenting itself as a universal ideal for all the peoples of the world.

The lack of self-knowledge in this view would be laughable, if it were not so pernicious. Even in its immediate effects, it detracts from the real good the committee might have done if it had limited its comments to pointing out the continuing failures in certain parts of the Church in dealing with the sexual abuse of children.

Instead, it took advantage of the situation to express its larger goals. Catholics and other people of goodwill now know what they face. And the Vatican in particular needs to rethink what this means for its position at the United Nations.

Robert Royal is the founder and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington

and editor in chief of The Catholic Thing.