VATICAN CITY—Harvard Professor Mary Ann Glendon, one of the leading legal scholars in the United States, argued Nov. 27 in Rome that Eleanor Roosevelt was an unwitting advocate of Catholic social teaching during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 1940s.
The address was delivered at the Domus Guadalupe, a residence for American women religious studying in Rome. As such, it was an evening celebrating, in a certain sense, American women, with the United States' most prominent Catholic lay-woman addressing American sisters on an American first lady.
“Most people would not connect Eleanor Roosevelt with anything Catholic,” Glendon said in a lively address that included the professor's impression of Mrs. Roosevelt's speaking voice.
Yet despite the cultural anti-Catholicism of her upbringing, Glendon said, there was a “felicitous convergence between the principles of the New Deal—the philosophy of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt—and the papal teaching as found in documents such as Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno.”
Rerum Novarum was the 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, which began the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching, and Quadragesimo Anno was Pope Pius IX's treatment of the question in 1931.
Glendon said her talk could be thought of as “outtakes” from her 2001 book, A World Made New:
Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Mrs. Roosevelt, as the United States' delegate to the newly formed United Nations, was elected chairman of the committee responsible for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved in 1948 and had become “a polestar of the post-WWII human rights movement.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has much in common with Anglo-American tradition and includes many of the protections found in such documents as the Bill of Rights. Yet it also includes a richer treatment of the dignity of the human person, economic and social rights, and the duties that correspond to rights.
“Dignity is the [interpretative] key of the UDHR,” Glendon said, noting that many of the passages on the dignity of the person in the declaration are standard phrases in Catholic social teaching.
According to her research, the key figure was human rights committee member Charles Malik, an Orthodox Christian from Lebanon. Malik began the committee's work by asking fundamental questions.
“One could imagine John Paul II saying the same things,” Glendon said. “Does man exist for the state, or does the state exist for man?”
In talking to Malik's surviving son, Glendon inquired as to the roots of Malik's philosophy. She discovered that not only did he teach St. Thomas Aquinas as a philosophy professor but also that he kept on his desk heavily annotated copies of Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno.
Another key player in the drafting, Frenchman Rene Cassin, wrote in his diaries that he was helped in 1948 by the “nuncio in Paris.” The nuncio at the time was Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who later as Pope John XXIII made robust use of human rights language in his own encyclicals.
“Eleanor Roosevelt's role at the human rights commission was the same as George Washington's at the Constitutional Convention,” Glen-don argued. “Washington didn't write a line, but there would not have been a constitution without him. We can celebrate that no matter what Eleanor Roosevelt thought of us Catholics and our Church—and she opposed the campaign of John F. Kennedy because he was Catholic—she did not reject the wisdom of our tradition.”
The Domus Guadalupe, established in 1998, is an initiative of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, an umbrella group for religious congregations committed to traditional religious life. The congregations that belong to the council—which include the well-known “Nashville Dominicans” and the Religious Sisters of Mercy from Alma, Mich.—have a growing number of vocations, hence the need for a house of studies.
The Glendon lecture was the first in a planned series intended to ensure that the sister-students do not become too focused on their particular specialties and lose a sense of the broader picture of the Church.
Father Raymond J. de Souza
writes from Rome.