Relativism: The Erosion of Human Rights

Author: William Newton


Relativism: The Erosion of Human Rights

Benedict XVI Recalls Importance of Marriage and Family

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," 67).

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 birth."
Family foundations

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 marriage — 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.

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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.


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