April 18 marks the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.
Such addresses are distinct, in that they are relatively short, are initially heard rather than read, and have a secular global audience. As did Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Pope Francis, Pope Benedict used this appearance on the world stage to address issues of great concern.
For him, this issue was the modern understanding of human rights. With a turbulent decade of hindsight and this year’s 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this 2008 address is well worth revisiting.
Pope Benedict praised the ideal of the international human-rights system, noting that even if its ideals “do not coincide with the total common good of the human family,” they “undoubtedly represent a fundamental part of that good.” This was consistent with the optimism of many Catholic leaders who supported the creation of the United Nations and advocated for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the catastrophic carnage of the Second World War.
Yet Pope Benedict articulated serious — and prescient — misgivings about the way in which human-rights law has developed in recent times.
First, he noted that there is confusion as to the fundamental source of human rights. If universal human rights are believed to be bestowed by a legal authority with power to give these rights, that same authority can also withhold them. This is no mere academic misunderstanding. It can have profound consequences for the protection of human rights.
As Pope Benedict observed:
“Legality often prevails over justice when the insistence upon rights makes them appear as the exclusive result of legislative enactments or normative decisions. ... 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.”
A legalistic view of rights not grounded in a universal, timeless natural law about the inherent nature of the human person posits that rights can be negotiated, compromised or traded. Such a view can easily become, as the Holy Father Benedict described, “a pragmatic approach, limited to determining ‘common ground,’ minimal in content and weak in its effect.” As the winds of time and public opinion change, so, too, can the protection of human rights if they are not built on something sturdier than a fragile majority.
Second, Pope Benedict warned against the fragmentation of human rights. The heart of universal human rights is the insistence that they apply, by definition, to all because the subject of them is the human person. Ideally, “the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights all serve as guarantees safeguarding human dignity.”
Yet, in the decades since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fragmentation of human rights has led to separate declarations for different groups: for women, children, migrant workers and persons with disabilities, along with proposals for additional conventions for other vulnerable groups.
Certainly, significant hardships disproportionately afflict some more than others based on history and human failing. Yet this should call for a more rigorous reinvestment in protecting the rights stated in the Universal Declaration rather than the creation of multiple declarations and conventions that appear to pit groups against each other.
Special treaties and conventions effectively turn the spotlight on vulnerable groups. However, the cost of doing this can, inadvertently, be the unraveling of the profound ideal that human rights are universal.
Beyond specific documents, even discussions of human rights now often seem to set groups against each other. For example, the theme “empowering women and girls” is woven throughout the “Sustainable Development Goals,” adopted in 2015 and driving much of the United Nations’ agenda and priorities. Yet, how can half a population be empowered unless a more just society is pursued for all — including vulnerable boys and men?
Some groups are closer to having their rights fully protected than others. Yet to concede that undermining universality is necessary to protect universal rights is counterintuitive and harmful to all.
Conversely, universality is also shattered when some human rights are protected while others are not.
As Pope Benedict warned, universal human rights “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.”
Relatedly, Benedict expressed concern about the politicization of human rights. Human-rights language has been so effective that it is increasingly tempting to expand the meaning of human rights in a harmful way. Catholic social teaching has long proposed a broad view of human rights not limited to the classic negative rights to protection from harm but also embracing so-called “second generation” affirmative rights to basic social and economic goods. However, there is a rapidly accelerating movement to lengthen the list of universal human rights. One concern is the growing pressure to add to the list of rights those things that are moral wrongs. Chief among these are the articulated right to end human life in the womb or to overemphasize individual rights without regard to the corresponding duties that accompany them.
However, an additional concern is grafting on to the human-rights canon those things that may be good but are not truly essential to the dignity of the human person. This can be harmful because it cheapens the meaning of human rights by placing lesser luxuries in the same category as great essentials. It also undermines universality if certain nonessentials may be desirable in some times and places but not others.
As Pope Benedict noted, the heart of human-rights law has been that it allows the world community to “converge around a fundamental nucleus of values and hence of rights.” This only remains possible if that nucleus is well protected. At times, after careful discernment, there may be wisdom in adding to that core. However, this should not be done lightly. Benedict warned against this “pressure to reinterpret the foundations of the declaration,” fearing that this would result in “a move away from the protection of human dignity toward the satisfaction of simple interests.”
Fourth, and not surprisingly, Pope Benedict was concerned that religious freedom is not recognized as fully as it ought to be in the constellation of fundamental rights. He noted that “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.” On both the domestic and international levels, this prevailing secular ideology has become more widespread over the past decade. This is particularly true when religious groups have sought a role in the public square or argue for protection of rights to religious practice as well as worship.
Pope Benedict warned the world that “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.”
In the creation of the social order envisioned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, believers — including Pope Benedict’s predecessors — played a vital role. The 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict’s address is a timely invitation to renew that vital role.
Lucia Silecchia is a professor of law at The Catholic University of America, where she teaches in the areas
of Catholic social thought, elder law, environmental law and property.