Catholic Social Teaching and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights

by : Ted Keating, SM, Director for Justice and Peace
Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Institutes

On December 10, 1998, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Out of the ashes of the Shoa (the Holocaust) and of the other barbarisms of World War II rose up this foundational document that has guided the development of international human rights standards and the movements for the protection of human dignity for fifty years. The negotiations preceding the document and its final acceptance by the almost all of the nations of the world is a story of surprise, mystery, and the perseverance of hope itself. Eleanor Roosevelt, the US ambassador to the United Nations at the time it was accepted and the principal US negotiator, will forever remain linked to document in the historic memory of this country. Her personal presence and reputation was an important factor in the outcome.

The Catholic Church in a continuously developing way has made the defense of human dignity by the protection of human rights a principal focus of its social role in the contemporary world. Beginning with Pius XII's Christmas radio message in 1944, developing through the teachings of John XXIII, Vatican II, Paul VI, and culminating in a fully developed magisterial theology of the Churchs mission with regard to human rights in the papacy of John Paul II, Catholics now approach this 50th anniversary with an integral and holistic sense that it is not possible to be Church in these times without a concerted plan for dealing with human rights. The painful and tragic experiences of the Church in Latin and Central America during the 1970s and 1980s have left the Church in that area of the world with a developed pastoral de derechos humanos that includes vigilance for violations of human rights occurring in society, programs of human rights education. and fostering of the consciousness of human rights as a way of transforming society and furthering the evangelization of culture. John Paul II, in commenting on the horrors of World War II Germany on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, said that the only way to avoid another disaster like Nazi Germany was to teach "a new spirit, the spirit of the rights of the human person, the rights of nations, of international justice and solidarity". Such a hope cannot be realized by aspirations alone but by educating for human dignity, the most basic hope of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To pursue the Churchs social mission in this era is inconceivable without involvement in the movements for human rights.

We, who are Catholics in the United States, face severe challenges in the face of this anniversary. If one of the best kept secrets in the Church is its social teaching as a book of some years ago declared one of the most shocking secrets in the United States is the centrality of the human rights worldview to the mission of the Church in our times. Our US bishops said in The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace (1993) that "an indispensable condition for a just and peaceful world order is the promotion and defense of human rights." In Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on Parish Social Mission (1993), they said "advocacy on human rights, development and peace through legislative networks ... are also signs of a faith without boundaries and a parish serious about its social responsibilities." John Paul II, known most throughout the secular world for his indefatigable defense of human rights, has not only declared human rights to be the minimum of human dignity in our time but also that education for human dignity a critical concern of the Church. He has also publicly encouraged and applauded Christians throughout the world involved in human rights associations and movements. He said in 1988 that he hopes that these actions will not remain the reserve of a few in the Church but the "rather one of universal and common concern."

Many readers of this newsletter are precisely the people that John Paul II is addressing the ones who take seriously the integral pursuit of human rights as an outgrowth of faith and spirituality in our times. The true challenge of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration is most explicit for those in the US who have taken up the challenge of the defense of human rights and know how central it is for the Church. We in the US assume that human rights is an international issue, usually relevant to underdeveloped nations or to nations under brutal authoritarian rule. Our US foreign policy constantly frames human rights concerns as an issue for other nations that we denounce, sanction, isolate. A persistent attitude of what is called US exceptionalism in a number of areas of our development as a people leaves us with a sense that we are above these concerns of the rest of the world. "Look, we invented democracy, we invented constitutional protection of civil rights, we were born in revolution against authoritarianism. Our negotiation of international human rights treaties and our support of human rights around the world is a way to share what we have in this country with others." So we have not ratified many of the most basic human rights covenants and it causes no public comment. Amnesty International and United Nations Human Rights Commission concludes that the implementation of the death penalty in this country violates the standards of international human rights and we are shocked and outraged as a people. At international summits, our government takes the position that neither housing nor food nor health care is a human right even for children at international summits because to do otherwise would shift our internal political, economic, and legal approach to social services in this country, and there is little public comment.

When we try to strategize with social advocates in other nations around the world within the Church in general and the religious life in particular, our rhetoric breaks down. Almost all of the nations of the world in applying standards of human dignity to their internal social systems now use universally applicable principles of human rights negotiated in treaties and covenants. They have programs of education for human dignity that bring these standards and covenants before the people in order to build a society and culture rooted in human rights. In this country. we still engage in a host of different social agendas having to do with welfare reform, the family farm, the death penalty, the rights of immigrants, racism, affirmative action, civil rights, workers rights, environmental pollution, native Americans, health care without any common language or consistent vision of justice applicable to these separate social issues. We too often competitively divide our energies and resources among the issues without a way of collaborating together around common areas of concern. We are left with almost no ways of creating the essential cross-border international solidarity movements with groups working on similar issues in other countries because they are working under human rights standards, and we are working under a host of different languages of justice and advocacy coming out of century of US social movements. It is time for the US advocacy community to join the rest of the human race and begin learning, adopting, and adapting the universal and common language of human dignity of our time international human rights.

Some surprising results occur when we begin to do this. 1) We begin to find common connections in the social issues faced by family farmers in the US and small farmers throughout the world. 2) We find that welfare reform issues in this country look a lot like structural adjustment issues in other countries. 3) We are able to begin building cross-border connections between Native Americans in the US and movements of indigenous peoples around the world that are already decades old. 4) We find that many of our issues of racism here in the US find reverberations throughout the colonial mindset of Western culture. 5) We find whole new strategies for envisioning what is wrong with the death penalty in the US as we see how it is reflected in more extreme situations around the world. We begin to discover that our narrow take on US social issues is broadened by the realization of what globalization is doing across the face of the world and in the US at the same time. We come to realize that advocacy will only be effective in the future in cross-border solidarity movements that connect grassroots movements with similar movements around the world to confront a global agenda by corporations, governments, and international institutions that can no longer be dealt country by country.

We also begin to learn how enmeshed in the US culture of individualism that we had become as US social advocates. Contemporary human rights standards codified in a number of covenants are much more communitarian than our traditionally individualistic and competitive social strategies in the United States. Other cultures that also value the individual are more attuned and sensitive to the needs for protection of communities and cultures and peoples as well. This integration evokes a human rights tradition that not only protects the individual but that also insists on social responsibility, concern for the common good, commitment to the community.

So the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights leaves the most seasoned US social advocates without a whole new agenda: 1) the reframing of US social justice movements under the paradigm of commonly accepted international standards of human rights and human rights law; 2) learning a whole new language and system of analysis that will compel us to become more global in our thinking and strategizing about the most local of issues in the US: 3) finding ways to dialogue and communicate with social movements around the world to discover how globalized agendas are affecting us all and to begin forming more globalized strategies for dealing with them.

Happy 50th. While the challenges of this new agenda are great, they also have the potential for renewing US social justice movements. We cannot imagine that we will be young forever. Even revolutions get old. To put it bluntly, we are already a little behind the times in our failure to embrace the international human rights movement in the US. This will be one of the most important US social justice agendas of the coming years.

For more information contact :

Human Rights USA
Lyn Beth Neylon, Director
918 16th St., NW
Suite 602
Washington, DC 20006-2902

Tel: 202/293-0088, x251
Fax: 202/293-0089

Reprinted from Catholic Peace Voice, Spring/Summer 1998, XXIII, Number 213, the national newspaper of Pax Christi USA.

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