Serious Catholics should applaud the action of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in forming a Commission on Unalienable Rights to advise his department in its dealings with foreign governments and international organizations. This may sound like inside-the-Beltway insider baseball, but I am convinced that this commission has the potential to create a focal point for an alternative understanding of human rights. And boy, do we need to get our “rights talk” right!
Some people say everyone has a “right” to abortion or “sexual expression.” Others say everyone has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But these two groups — those who espouse abortion and sexual rights on the one hand and the rest of us on the other — are clearly not talking about the same thing when they use the term “rights.”
Advocates of the sexual revolution use an expansive understanding of “human rights” to promote their values. Describing “marriage equality” as a “human right” allows them to sidestep the many troubling consequences of redefining marriage. Labeling abortion as a “human right” puts defenders of the unborn on the defensive.
This language of “human rights” (which is in reality neither) is common in the United Nations and other international organizations. The U.S., along with other Western countries, have promoted these “human rights” through the U.N. and international organizations. Numerous international leaders, including Pope Francis, however, have decried such talk as “ideological colonization” or “cultural imperialism.”
By contrast, the advocates of “unalienable rights” or “inalienable rights” of the kind found in the Declaration of Independence ground their understanding of rights in undeniable and universal truths about the human condition. This is a basic starting point of natural-law thinking. The Catholic Church has long held that the natural law is knowable to human reason. For instance, Pope Leo XIII stated in Libertas Praestantissimum (The Nature of Human Liberty) in 1888 that “natural law … is written and engraved in the mind of every man; and this is nothing but our reason, commanding us to do right and forbidding sin” (8).
The newly formed Commission on Unalienable Rights has the potential to shift the conversation about rights. The commission is chaired by pro-life Harvard Law professor and former ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon. Glendon wrote the highly regarded Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse in 1993. Glendon has been thinking deeply about the proper understanding of “rights” for a long time.
Serving alongside Glendon on the commission will be law professors and philosophy professors from distinguished institutions such as Stanford and Notre Dame, as well as a rabbi, an American Muslim scholar and several African Americans. (The complete list of the commissioners can be found here.)
I realize that some people scoff at the very idea of “intellectually serious” and “Trump administration” in the same sentence. Get over it. Trump’s secretary of state has assembled a group of intellectually serious people considering serious questions.
Predictably the commission drew fire before they even opened their mouths. For instance, JustSecurity.org opined, “Civil and human-rights advocates raised immediate alarm when news of the commission was first reported, fearing that its focus on ‘natural law’ was code for anti-LGBTQI, anti-choice and anti-women’s rights agenda(s).” Notice the rhetoric: “anti-this” and “anti-that.” No mention of what the commission might be positively “for.”
Let me take a stab at using natural law to defend some human rights that I, at least, am positively “for.” I will list two self-evident truths and draw two reasonable conclusions:
Self-Evident Truth No. 1: Every person comes into the world as a helpless baby.
Self-Evident Truth No. 2: Every person has a mother and a father.
One need not be Catholic to recognize these two significant facts about the human condition. From these two facts (which I hope everyone will accept), I draw these two conclusions:
Reasonable Conclusion No. 1: Every society needs some plan for helping its members move from helpless infancy to adulthood.
If this job doesn’t get done, there will not be a “society” in any meaningful sense of that term. We don’t need a perfect plan, mind you. But we do need some social structures that address the fundamental issues of infant helplessness and the basic human needs for attachment, connection and identity.
Reasonable Conclusion No. 2: Mothers and fathers cooperating with each other in a lifelong loving union for their mutual benefit and the benefit of their children (including possibly adopted children) provides such a plan for helpless babies. This union is what societies usually call “marriage.”
I will go further and say: Marriage is the best plan. It is not foolproof in every case. Unexpected things happen. People sometimes fail or are mean or stupid. All true.
But I will stand by this statement: Marriage is superior to its competitors. We have tried just about every imaginable alternative to marriage. We now have enough evidence — and not just by faith-based groups — to conclude that marriage serves the legitimate interests and needs of children better than the alternative structural systems.
This line of thought produces its own set of rights, different from those we commonly hear about:
- the right of every child to a relationship with his or her natural mother and father, except in cases of unavoidable tragedy,
- the right of every person to know the identity of his or her biological parents,
- the right to life from conception to natural death; and
- the right of families to educate their own children in their faith tradition and values, without being undermined by the state.
The president campaigned on the promise to “Make America Great Again.” Without the restoration of the family, he will be unable to fulfill that promise. But, more importantly, the newly formed Commission on Unalienable Rights has the potential to shift attention from the desires of adults, based on their fantasy ideologies, to the needs of children, based on immutable realities.
Let’s Make the Family Great Again, both at home and abroad.
Jennifer Roback Morse is the founder and president of The Ruth Institute,
which is a global interfaith coalition to defend the family and build a civilization of love.
The Ruth Institute has petitioned President Trump to Make the Family Great Again.