Who Thought of Human Rights?

A look at yesterday and a look at today reveal the hidden work by the Catholic Church to uphold human dignity.
by Brother John Antonio, LC | Source: Catholic.net

Perhaps the most public recognition of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been the discourse of the Holy Father at the United Nations Headquarters. On a smaller scale but with similar intentions, Mary Ann Glendon, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, organized the May 2nd convention ‘Latin America and the International Human Rights Project’ here in Rome along with several Latin American embassies.

The Americas can be especially proud of the international achievement of 1948.  It is highly doubtful whether or not such a declaration would have taken place without the diplomatic moderation of Eleanor Roosevelt or the persistent human rights initiatives of the Latin American delegates.  This story of human rights in the Americas, however, began long before these post-World War II conferences, thanks to the contribution of a third party’s much quieter diplomacy.  A look at yesterday and a look at today reveal the hidden work by the Catholic Church to uphold human dignity.

When Columbus discovered America in 1492, he discovered not only a new land but a new people as well.  The native peoples of the Americas with their culture, manners, and lifestyle were, for the Europeans, a new form of human existence. They were initially regarded as slaves and treated with harshness by the colonizing powers. At the same time, this repression aroused questions regarding their status within the human family.  Far from being a remote colonial issue, it was a matter taken into serious consideration in European courts.   

For centuries, European philosophers and rulers took sides on the debate of human rights for the Indians.  The Swedish chemist and physician Paracelsus called them “similar to men in everything but the soul”.   The great rationalist Hegel said that they were “inferior in all respects”.  Juan Sepulveda, a prominent humanist, referred to them as “beast-like, natural slaves”.  Many other writers, scientists, and explorers would sincerely share their opinions. 

With hindsight these views strike our democratic minds as extremist and unjust.  Fortunately for the Americas, however, there was one particular force which did not wait for hindsight to form its judgment and course of action.   Otherwise, the American continent could have been left with a much more impoverished concept of human rights.  This force was the Catholic Church.  Long before the “all men are created equal” clause of the Declaration of Independence, the Church had already been operating from the principle of a universal human dignity.

From Niagara Falls to the Andes of Chile, missionaries evangelized the Native Americans believing that they were serving a particularly needy part of the human family.   The sufferings—and even martyrdom—that they endured are proof of their profound conviction that their Gospel message was not falling on the ears of a subhuman, soul-less species.  Many men of the Church would champion the cause of the Indians and like one bishop, Bartolomeo de las Casas, refer to them as “our brothers”. 

As a fruit of this continuous discussion and debate a new tradition of human rights was formulated in Latin America.  It consisted of a synthesis of Christian philosophy, some elements of French rationalism and the political thought of the newly founded United States.  Ever present were the humanizing and evangelization efforts of the missionaries who kept the ideas in touch with the reality.  The 20th century inheritors of this tradition were those who took the proactive role during the U.N. debates of 1948.  They brought forth the initiative to discuss what no other nation at the time thought important—human rights.  

Today, as at the first days of the founding of our continent, we are faced with new forms of human existence.  Recent advances in technology have revealed things never before seen.  They have allowed us to spy on the development of the human organism from zygote to fetal stages—be it in the transparency of a test tube, or the natural refuge of a mother’s womb.  We also witness invalids or victims of brain injuries being sustained by intravenous feeding tubes.  We see life in a broader spectrum in which it begins earlier and ends later.  We can choose to act “inclusively” as regards this new “race” and consider its members inheritors of human dignity; or, we may be “exclusive” and judge the worth of life by its manner of expression.   

There are skeptics, of course.   Extremists like Peter Singer claim that a newborn isn’t human until 28 days after birth.  But even many seemingly moderate opinions fall short of unequivocally defending humanity from the moment of conception to the last breath in a hospice or hospital ward.

Faced with these modern challenges, the Church has chosen to hold steadfast to her tradition of inclusiveness.  In both doctrine and practice, she awakens us to the dignity of the defenseless and marginalized.  Her centuries of human experience have taught her not to repeat the colonial mistake of confusing human dignity with manners of human expression. Notwithstanding culture, lifestyle, or the stage of physical development, the human person remains human.

As we remember the Universal Declaration of 1948, we can ask, “How will subsequent generations judge our present recognition of human rights?”  Will they become nauseous at the thought of abortion or appalled at the thought of euthanizing the infirmed?  Will they lament our exclusiveness in the same way that we abhor the racism and slavery which times past unquestioningly accepted?  The efforts of Mary Ann Glendon and the embassies and experts who collaborated with her are a comforting reminder that many legislators and intellectuals are not waiting for hindsight to find out.    

Brother John Antonio, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome.

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Published by: Bernardo Osorio
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
This is I articulate that it approaches in a very intelligent way the topic of the human rights, and it gives me reasons to love and to defend to the Catholic Church. It is also a powerful reminder of as the Catholics we can transform this world for Christ.

Published by: Paul
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
Very insightful piece of writing.

Published by: Bernardo Osorio
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
This is I articulate that it approaches in a very intelligent way the topic of the human rights, and it gives me reasons to love and to defend to the Catholic Church. It is also a powerful reminder of as the Catholics we can transform this world for Christ.

Published by: Paul
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
Very insightful piece of writing.

Published by: Bernardo Osorio
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
This is I articulate that it approaches in a very intelligent way the topic of the human rights, and it gives me reasons to love and to defend to the Catholic Church. It is also a powerful reminder of as the Catholics we can transform this world for Christ.

Published by: Paul
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
Very insightful piece of writing.

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