I found the reckless accusation, “The Catholic Church simply doesn’t believe in human rights” wedged between several other statements of supposed “facts” about the Catholic Church in the comment section of a recent online op-ed posting.
Unfortunately, the sad fact is that there are many non-Catholics and Catholics alike who believe this is true to varying degrees.
To accurately address where this confusion lies, we need to approach the issue by asking the right questions. It is not “Does the Catholic Church believe in ‘human rights’?” Rather, the questions are “What is the Catholic Church’s conception of ‘human rights’?” And, perhaps in some cases, “Why do I think that it is at odds with mine?”
In her essay, “The Moral Structure of Freedom,” former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon analyzes Pope John Paul II’s 1995 address to the U.N. General Assembly.
She notes that multiple competing notions of “freedom” exist and that discourse concerning rights has become difficult because the presence of these competing visions of freedom escape notice. More specifically, the competing ideas about “freedom” differ as to how they view its relation to truth, responsibility and, most important, an understanding of the person and what constitutes authentic human flourishing.
The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and many “dignitarian” constitutions provide that the family is under special protection for the society and the state.
It is worth noting that the Catholic Church analyzes marriage law in civil society with this “dignitarian” approach. A man and a woman have the right to have their marriage recognized by the state because they publicly embrace the responsibility to nurture the children that result from their union.
The law helps to promote stable, two-parent households that provide a mom and a dad for a child. The right to marriage is not grounded in the legal recognition of individual romantic preferences. Rights are rooted in responsibilities — the ability to do what we ought, not what we want.
As Catholics, we are called to view every question of “human rights” and public policy in these terms.
We should weigh the validity of “freedoms” by the extent to which they support or undermine the common good.
We must find ways to promote the “unique worth of each individual” while we honestly scrutinize how our individual actions diminish or promote broader human flourishing, and then support laws that do the latter.