The Idol of “Human Rights”


 United_Nations_Security_CouncilOur first parents, endowed with every good gift and living in friendship with the benevolent Creator, yielded to the temptation to assert an autonomy that was never their own, exalting themselves over God.

 Thus, as illustrated in the masterwork of St. Augustine, was the “city of men” set in conflict with the “City of God.” Yet in the fullness of time, God sent His only begotten Son to establish that Kingdom wherein He might offer to humankind infinitely more than it had lost.

 “Nothing under the sun is new, neither is any man able to say: Behold this is new: for it hath already gone before in the ages that were before us” (Ecclesiastes 1:10).

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly gave witness to this Scriptural truth as it proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UHDR), an international agreement that presumes to set forth certain rights deriving not from God, but directly from the dignity of the human person.

While it is widely acknowledged that Pope Pius XII had misgivings about the declaration (as evidenced by the silence with which he greeted its enactment), many contemporary Catholic commentators applaud the agreement, claiming that the Holy Father himself set the stage for its creation, some even going so far as to say that the pope explicitly called for it. [i]

There exists in the magisterium of Pope Pius XII, however, no indication that he wished to entrust to the UN, or to any other secular institution, the task of drafting such a declaration.

Upon examination, one discovers that the Holy Father’s teaching concerning the internal ordering of nations (i.e., social life) and the matter of international relations (topics that he insisted are interrelated) clearly spells out the very reasons why the UDHR, in its failure to account for the Sovereignty of the Lord and man’s obligation to uphold His Law, is so woefully deficient as to be unacceptable, in spite of any attractive elements it may otherwise appear to contain.

A succinct summary of the centerpiece of Pius’ magisterium on the subject can be found in the Holy Father’s Christmas Address of 1942:

“The origin and the primary scope of social life is the conservation, development and perfection of the human person, helping him to realize accurately the demands and values of religion and culture set by the Creator for every man and for all mankind, both as a whole and in its natural ramifications.

 A social teaching or a social reconstruction program which denies or prescinds from this internal essential relation to God of everything that regards men, is on a false course; and while it builds up with one hand, it prepares with the other the materials which sooner or later will undermine and destroy the whole fabric.”

For Pope Pius XII, just as his venerable predecessors, the germane point isn’t particularly complex: Programs aimed at the ordering of society, and likewise those pertaining to the international order, can beneficially serve mankind only if they “conform to the demands of God’s Law.” (ibid.) In other words, apart from due subjugation to the Social Reign of Jesus Christ, He who is Sovereign of the City of God, all such human endeavors are destined to end not in order, but in disorder.

W  With this most basic of Catholic doctrines in mind, let us now examine the deficiencies so readily apparent in the Preamble to the UDHR, wherein the foundational principles upon which its articles rest are set forth: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

The foundation of freedom, justice and peace is not, as this statement surely implies, a human construct that naturally results from man duly acknowledging man; rather are they founded in the Creator and made known to man in the Person of Jesus Christ, who is both King and Prince of Peace.

Indeed, apart from Christ, man has not the reference point necessary in order to properly recognize human dignity in its fullness.

In the words of Gaudium et Spes (a document not exactly known as a tour de force of Christocentric thought in its own right), “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself.” [ii]

When man becomes his own reference point, by contrast, assaults against human dignity find fertile ground in which to propagate; e.g., abortion can effectively be peddled as “freedom of choice,” same-sex “marriage” can plausibly be disguised as a symbol for justice, and compromise with evil can easily be construed as a service to the cause of peace.

The Preamble goes on to suggest that adherence to the UDHR will pave the way for a Utopian ideal.

          “…the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want [that]has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”

Needless to say, the “highest aspiration” of humankind is not a laundry list of civil rights; rather, it is communion with God, the same that constitutes the “root reason” for human dignity. [iii]

The source of the UN’s unbridled hope for the future, one discovers, is none other than humanity itself.

 ·       “Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights…”

When one’s faith is in “fundamental human rights” (i.e., man) and not in the Lord, to whom should one look as the highest authority?

·        “Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms…”

The faithful Catholic can hardly fail to recognize as pure folly any human pursuit that promises to benefit mankind apart from cooperation with the Father’s plan of salvation revealed in Christ Jesus and entrusted to His Church. In the UDHR, however, the United Nations presumes to anoint itself as the highest authority with which one must cooperate.

·         “Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge…”

 What might serve as the guiding light for arriving at this proposed common understanding?

 The answer is plain: It is man himself.

 As one might expect, many of the articles that follow in the body of the Declaration are equally as flawed. In the interest of space, Article 21 § 3 may be considered representative:

 ·         “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government…”

 Contrast this Edenesque proclamation of human autonomy with the words of Pope Leo XIII:

“But, as no society can hold together unless some one be over all, directing all to strive earnestly for the common good, every body politic must have a ruling authority, and this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has, consequently, God for its Author.” [iv]

At this point, it should be plainly evident to the reader why Pope Pius XII could not endorse the proposals set forth in the UDHR, as ultimately it amounts to little more than the “city of man” flexing its collective muscles in the face of Christ the King.

Why then do so many of those contemporary Catholic commentators, who behave as if the UDHR is one of humanity’s crowning achievements, evidently place such high priority on the notion that its roots can be discerned in the magisterium of Pius XII?

It is for the very same reason that John Courtney Murray so often misappropriated the magisterium of this same Holy Father (and others) in his quest to radically alter the Church’s doctrine on religious freedom; namely, it is to lend credence to claims of continuity.

You see, apart from the illusion that Pope Pius XII at least implicitly desired an international agreement that set forth certain rights that derive directly from the human person, as if man himself is their source, the UDHR will most certainly be recognized for what it truly is; a radical departure from that which is laudable relative to sure Christian doctrine.

Keeping in mind all that we’ve discussed thus far, consider the following commentary (the sources of which will be addressed momentarily) suggesting that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is in no way incompatible with the City of God.

 ·         “An act of the highest importance performed by the United Nations Organization was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved in the General Assembly of December 10, 1948. In the preamble of that Declaration, the recognition and respect of those rights and respective liberties is proclaimed as a goal to be achieved by all peoples and all countries … For in it, in most solemn form, the dignity of a human person is acknowledged to all human beings…” [v]

  ·         “When this eminent international assembly prepares to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, We want to seize the occasion once more to express our great confidence in, and at the same time our firm accord with, the consistent commitment of the United Nations in the promotion – ever more precise, more official, and more efficacious – of the respect of the fundamental rights of man. As we have affirmed elsewhere, the Declaration on the Rights of Man remains in our eyes one of the most beautiful titles of glory.” [vi]

  ·         “I am particularly pleased to join in the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights being held by the United Nations Organization, the guardian of one of the most precious and important documents in the history of law.” [vii]

The comments offered above are attributable to none other than Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II respectively.

How is it possible for one to consider the stunning progression just outlined – from the sober words of Pope Pius XII reminding the world of the “essential relation to God of everything that regards men,” to the above quoted, near breathless, praise for the naked humanism articulated in the UDHR – as anything other than a rupture of the most dangerous kind?

Missing, it seems, from the worldview of the Successors of Pope Pius XII, is an abiding awareness of, and willingness to plainly preach, the Sovereign Rights of Christ the King.

As Pope John XXIII spoke in 1963, the gap between his own inclination to form an accord with the “city of man” and the Christocentrism of his predecessors had yet to be fully bridged as it appears today, even if simply in practice, and then only by claims unsustainable.

In fact, even as he lauded the UDHR, the Holy Father acknowledged as much, albeit obliquely, saying, “We are, of course, aware that some of the points in the declaration did not meet with unqualified approval in some quarters; and there was justification for this.” [viii]

On October 4, 1965, his successor, Pope Paul VI, became the first ever Roman Pontiff to appear before the United Nations General Assembly, at which time he offered the sort of obeisance that even common men of Christian faith are constrained in conscience to reserve for the Lord and His Church alone:

“The peoples of the earth turn to the United Nations as the last hope of concord and peace.”

Some two months later, the Second Vatican Council would place its own seal upon the treaty with the city of man in the form of Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, thereby sending a message that the world would receive as a signal that the King of kings had willingly relinquished His throne in favor of a common seat at the table of international diplomacy.

It is in this post-conciliar environment that churchmen developed the regrettable habit of incessantly invoking the “rights of the human person” while offering little to no exhortation concerning the duties of men toward God in light of the Sovereign rights that are ever His own.

And thus it remains to this very day.

Even so, a glimmer of light momentarily pierced the fog on April 18, 2008 with the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in New York where he addressed the UN General Assembly:

“This document [UDHR] 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. At the same time, the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights all serve as guarantees safeguarding human dignity.” [ix]

Though his hosts would have been pleased had the Holy Father stopped right there, His Holiness forged ahead, and in his own gentle way sowed what appear to be the seeds of a much needed corrective; not just in the way that Roman Pontiffs address the UN, but in the way in which the Church engages the world. He continued:

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. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks. This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights. [x]

This is, of course, but one relatively modest inference that has long since been overwhelmed by the cacophony of humanist voices reverberating both within the walls of the Church and without, but it is perhaps a seminal step in the right direction just the same.

It will fall to the successor of Pope Benedict XVI to go well beyond the mere plating of seeds to the firm condemnation of humanism in all of its nefarious forms, taking up once more the sword of truth in defense of the Sovereign rights of Christ the King, restoring to Him the exalted throne that He earned by His passion, death and resurrection, calling every would be inhabitant of the City of God, including those who occupy places of civil authority, to account on His behalf.

When faced with the frightful image of the unthinkable rupture outlined in this article, surely many will choose to deny the obvious, preferring instead to imagine that the Church in our day, with its tendency to focus on the dignity of humankind apart from Him whose glory it can only hope to reflect, is simply constructing the “big tent” necessary to inaugurate that elusive New Springtime.

Even so, I take comfort in knowing that the same was true even as St. Augustine wrote, “The men against whom I have undertaken to defend the City of God laugh at all this.” [xi]

Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun.

[i] One such example: “Seven years before the UN document was approved, Pope Pius XII used a radio address to push for such a universal statement.”  William Donohue, Why Catholicism Matters, Random House, 2012

[ii] Gaudium et Spes – 22

[iii] Gaudium et Spes – 19

[iv] Immortale Dei – 3

[v] Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris – 143, 144

[vi] Pope Paul V, Message to the United Nations, Dec. 10, 1973

[vii] Pope John Paul II, Message to the United Nations, Nov. 30, 1998

[viii] Pope John XXIII, ibid.

[ix] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, April 18, 2008

[x] Pope Benedict XVI, ibid.

[xi] St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, Ch. 12


About Author

Catholic News Agency columnist, author and speaker w/ particular focus on applying the hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican Council II.