01-05-2008 - Traces, n. 5

Benedict XVI in the USA

In Service of the Truth, the Pope Educates the Heart of Man
The University of Notre Dame Law Professor (and President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) gets to the root of the Pontiff’s UN speech

edited by Santiago Ramos

By visiting the United Nations, the Holy Father continued a tradition that was started by Pope Paul VI in 1965, and succeeded by Pope John Paul II in 1979 and 1995. Pope Benedict’s message was both traditional and novel in content. Paolo Carozza, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, and recently appointed President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, helps us to parse the different ideas in the Pope’s speech.

Why does the Pope hold the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in such high esteem?
He is doing what his predecessor did. Like John Paul II, Benedict has said–even when he was Cardinal Ratzinger–quite a bit about the idea that human rights is something that is linked to the irreducibility of human persons. The idea of human rights only makes sense to the extent that one can point to, can be conscious of, the meaning of the human person that is at its root. He values the Universal Declaration because that’s what it signifies; it points to that fundamental human dignity.
In a certain sense, however, the Holy Father’s praise for the Universal Declaration, and for the general idea of human rights, was somewhat more measured than that of John Paul II. One of the most misleading bits of reporting on the UN speech was the way that all the major media said that the Pope “strongly affirmed human rights.” Well, yes and no–sure, he gives it strong praise, but praise that also notes the fact that when you lose an adequate understanding of the unity and integrity of the human person, then the idea of human rights falls apart, and in practice can even become dangerous. He warned that this is in fact happening today.

Along those lines, the Pope voiced a concern: “When presented purely in terms of legality, rights risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and their goal.”
It’s brilliant. Where human rights have their meaning and authority only because of formal acts of legal bodies, then there is no stable ground for them. Only when they have their authority because they are true expressions of what is required by the substance of relationships of justice between persons, can they offer a sort of certainty, a reality that resists being manipulated, abused, or ignored. If all we have as the basis of human rights is the fact of some institutions saying so, then anything can be a human right, any desire, any interest–it will depend on who has the power. That would be a betrayal of the original inspiration of the Declaration, and its lofty aspirations to universality.

The Pope appears to trace the origin of the idea of human rights to the Scholastic philosopher Francisco de Vitoria.
In fact, he was talking about something even more fundamental than human rights–he traced to Vitoria the responsibility of public authorities to protect to the common good. From that classical idea of natural law, he defended the somewhat controversial contemporary idea of a “responsibility to protect,” or “R2P,” to use the jargon of the day. R2P, as Benedict described it, recognizes that the protection of the common good is always the measure of legitimate authority and intervention. By taking the idea of R2P back to Vitoria, back before the emergence of the modern nation state, the Pope is not only affirming the legitimacy of the principle, but also reminding us that it is a principle that the Church has always taught to be true: that the authority of law and governance comes from the service of the common good.
In a sense, he is reintroducing the role of the Church in international affairs, which is to educate us to these principles of truth and justice, and he is chastising the UN and the various actors in it for failing to always bear in mind in their decisions this essential concern for the common good.

From this responsibility to protect, the Pope seems to draw out a moral imperative for intervention: “If States are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments.”
That’s exactly right. He even goes on and says that no one can reasonably claim that that’s an intrusion to sovereignty. He is radically relativizing the authority and sovereignty of nation states. But again, this is not really something new. Maybe the forum in which the Church is saying this is new (although John Paul II and Paul VI did so too). But all that he is doing is drawing on the basic principle that has animated the Church’s understanding of the meaning and end of political communities. Their authority doesn’t come from the fact of territory. The best expression of this is the principle of subsidiarity; Benedict here is affirming subsidiarity. He is saying that subsidiarity applies to sovereign nation states. When a state is capable of serving the good of persons on its own, it has a certain autonomy. But where it becomes incapable of fulfilling the good and the needs that give it reason, it is the obligation of the whole human family, through the community of nations, to intervene in such a way that this good is achieved.

The Pope also spoke about religious liberty in this way: “It is inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves–their faith–in order to be active citizens.”
Here it is important to note the main unifying thread of the whole talk, which is the unity of the human person. He uses those words in different contexts throughout it. And he makes clear that his unity is maintained most fully by an openness to the transcendent–to all the dimensions of reality and the person. That is why he affirms freedom of religion, and in particular, religion in relationship to all aspects of human life, including politics. To segregate out the religious dimension of life is to fail to respect the unity of the human person, and failing to respect this unity becomes the ground for the corruption of human rights, for the reduction of international institutions to form and not substance, and to all the other things he said he was concerned about. We need to create and maintain the conditions that enable us to recognize and respect the unity we have when we are living in total openness to God.

What is something not mentioned within the speech itself, that can help us to understand the Pope’s visit to the UN?
I would say that the talk he gave to Catholic educators is very relevant, where the Pope speaks about the Church being the “diakonia of truth” for humanity. There is a certain performative aspect to what Benedict did at the UN. It was important not only because of what he said, but also because of the fact that he was saying it, and saying it in that forum. What he is doing is serving as the “diakonia of truth.” He is placing the Church at the service of man, as the diakonia of our humanity. His speech gave witness to the Christian experience as the education of the human heart.