By William Newton
TRUMAU, Austria, 24 FEB. 2010 (ZENIT)
In his Feb. 8 address to the Pontifical Council for the Family,
Benedict XVI commented on the decision of the council to
dedicate their 19th Plenary Session to a discussion of "The
Rights of Childhood." This theme was chosen to commemorate the
20th anniversary of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the
Child, an international convention that sets out the social,
economic, and cultural rights of children
The Holy Father notes that the Convention was "received
favorably by the Holy See." This is a reminder that, while not
unaware of the harmful approach taken by some U.N. agencies in
the area of population and gender, the Church is generally very
positive about the work of the international community, and the
United Nations in particular.
The Church recognizes that in the modern world there are more
and more issues
such as development, human rights, peace, and the environment
that can only be adequately dealt with at an international
level. In his recent encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate," Benedict
XVI notes that the process of globalization heightens the
importance of the international community and calls for a reform
that strengthens its influence, so "that the concept of the
family of nations can acquire real teeth" ("Caritas in Veritate,"
Fortunately, The Convention on the Rights of the Child avoids
many of the ideological pitfalls of the documents that came out
from the U.N. conferences on population (held in Cairo) and on
the topic of women (held in Beijing). In his address to the
Pontifical Council for the Family, the Holy Father notes that
the Convention reaffirmed the indispensible place of the family
in ensuring the rights of children, since it says that the
family is "the natural environment for the growth and well-being
of all its members, especially the child." Elsewhere, the
Convention even mentions the rights of unborn children when it
states that the child "needs special safeguards and care,
including appropriate legal protection before as well as after
While the Convention points out that the welfare of children is
best secured by being part of a family, it says nothing about
marriage as the foundation of family life. Aware of this,
Benedict XVI emphasizes that "it is precisely the family,
founded on marriage between a man and a woman, which is the
greatest help that can be given to children. They want to be
loved by a mother and father who love each other."
Accordingly, for governments to champion the rights of children
and at the same time to do nothing to support marriage, or even
to undermine it
as is the case when other forms of union are made equivalent to
is to build up with one hand while tearing down with the other.
Another contradiction that has emerged in recent years (and this
was foreseen by the Holy See in its main reservation to the
Convention) is to pit the rights of the child against those of
the parents; minimizing the influence of parent while increasing
the influence of the state. This is sometimes even done by
appealing to the Convention. An example of this is when a right
is proclaimed for minors to procure an abortion (itself the
ultimate abuse of a child) as part of their rights to
"reproductive health care," without the knowledge, let alone the
consent, of their parents. The issue of parents' rights over the
education of their children is another point of conflict.
It is because of the intimate connection between the rights of
the child, strong families, and strong marriages, that while
head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the then
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that "the child has the right to
be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and
brought up within marriage" because "it is through the secure
and recognized relationship to his own parents that the child
can discover his own identity and achieve his own proper human
development" ("Donum Vitae").
Yes, a child has the right to expect the unreserved commitment
of their parents, one to the other! It has this right because it
is the prerequisite for the child to flourish as a human being.
Here, Benedict XVI is reminding us that human rights are not
goals in themselves; rather they are the means to a further
goal: human flourishing.
Mind the gap
Conscious of the connection between human rights and human
flourishing, Benedict XVI's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, also
stated that children had "the right to live in a united family,"
and added that they have the right to live "in a moral
environment conducive to the growth of the child's personality"
("Centesimus Annus," 21). Of course, expressing things in this
way stands in stark contrast to a modern mindset laboring under
the influence of relativism. The ideology of relativism claims
that imposing any moral standard on anyone, and especially a
child, is a gross infringement of freedom.
But relativism, a perennial concern of Benedict XVI's, is no
friend of human rights. In fact, it stands behind the modern
crisis in rights. Again, in "Caritas in Veritate," Benedict XVI
notes the emergence of what might be called a "rights gap":
"On the one hand, appeals are made to alleged rights, arbitrary
and non-essential in nature [such as the right to homosexual
marriage], accompanied by the demand that they be recognized and
promoted by public structures, while, on the other hand,
elementary and basic rights remain unacknowledged and are
violated in much of the world [such as the right to a human
standard to living]" ("Caritas in Veritate," 43).
In the one case, relativism fails to impose the same basic
standard of rights on all (the rich and the poor), in the other
case, it fails to found human rights in the truth of the human
person because it denies there is such a truth! Thus, any
conception of human rights that takes relativism as its point of
departure is bound to fail.
Given the explosion of claimed "rights", especially in the west,
how can we distinguish between authentic and fake human rights?
What litmus test can we apply? Benedict XVI sketches an answer
to this in another innovative text from "Caritas in Veritate."
He notes that "individual rights, when detached from a framework
of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild,"
but that "duties set a limit on rights because they point to the
anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a
part, in this way ensuring that they do not become license"
("Caritas in Veritate," 43).
By saying, "duties set a limit on rights," he is saying that in
some sense the duty is the foundation of the right. The duty
comes first! So, for example, the right to know the truth
follows on from the duty to seek the truth.
Herein lays the test: All authentic rights presuppose that we
can point to a duty that the right seeks to fulfill. So the
right to marry follows on from the duty to procreate and educate
children. Since only the union of a man and a woman can
adequately fulfill this duty, only they have the right to marry.
Same sex marriage cannot be a right as there is no corresponding
duty that such a right seeks to fulfill.
A few days earlier, Benedict XVI had also hosted the bishops of
Scotland for their five-yearly "ad limina" visit. He called the
bishops to the task of "upholding and defending the Church's
right to live freely in society according to her beliefs."
This is undoubtedly a reference to a piece of legislation
currently before the British Parliament that, in the name of
gender equality, may compromise the ability of religious
organizations such as the Catholic Church to live according to
their beliefs, criminalizing them if they refuse to employ
homosexual persons, or perhaps even if they refuse to admit
women for ordination.
The week before, Benedict XVI met with the bishops of England
and Wales for their "ad limina" visit. After noting that their
"country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of
opportunity for all members of society," he lamented the
prospect of "legislation designed to achieve this goal [... that
would] impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious
communities to act in accordance with their beliefs."
Benedict XVI's criticism was greeted with derision by some
sectors of the British press, especially in the light of the
confirmation of the Pope's forthcoming visit to Britain at the
end of the year.
In the face of such an ill-conceived notion of equality, it is
necessary not only to distinguish genuine from fake rights, but
also to reaffirm a hierarchy of rights. The most fundamental
human right is the right to life, because the attainment of all
other rights presupposes it.
But, the most important right is the right to religious freedom,
because this right protects the ultimate goal of human life,
namely communion with God. When this right is compromised in the
pursuit of other claimed or real rights, we can be sure that
something has gone dramatically wrong with the concept of rights
in that society.
* * *
William Newton is an assistant professor at the International
Theological Institute, Austria, and associate member of faculty
at Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, United Kingdom. He is from
the United Kingdom and is married with 6 children.