In the late 1960s, Pierre Trudeau made his famous proclamation that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Trudeau's declaration summed up the prevailing sentiment in the Western world on the nature of human rights – that they represent a zone of privacy which no other force may invade.
Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms generally works within that vision of individual-based rights. It protects, among other things, the rights to freedom of religion, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, mobility within the country and freedom from discrimination.
These are all rights which should be protected within any society that values the dignity of the person. However, nowhere in the charter are rights to water, food, health care, decent housing and work protected.
Over the last 40 years, the Catholic Church has become seen as one of the world's foremost advocates of human rights. One reason is that the Catholic approach to human rights is much broader and deeper than that usually found in Western democracies.
The Catholic approach is based on the nature of the person and on human solidarity. As I discussed in last week's article, the Church sees the person as a social being and as having a transcendent orientation. The person longs to be in community and longs to be in union with God.
This is a much different view than that of liberal individualism. Individualism sees the person as fundamentally alone. In its pure form, it sees the person as a self-sufficient individual who aims to get what he or she wants in the world.
Rights, in this outlook, protect the zone of privacy. Social institutions such as the family or the Church or the nation are arbitrary constructs created by people. Their nature can be reformed if society decides it wants to do that. There's nothing "natural" about the nuclear family; we can opt for polygamy instead.
It doesn't take much imagination to see how this view of human rights plays itself out in issues like same-sex marriage, divorce or abortion. The individual's desires come first.
Likewise with social issues. Without solidarity as the basis of society, we can easily tolerate homelessness, unemployment and the impoverishment and alienation of aboriginal people at the same time as we spend billions on Halloween decorations, stretch limousines and casino gambling. If the amount of money spent annually in Europe on ice cream were instead devoted to malaria prevention, the disease could be virtually wiped out in a year.
But in Western society, individual rights and desires have priority over social responsibilities. Our aid to those suffering from natural disasters and long-term poverty is generally seen as charity rather than the just protection of a person's dignity.
In 1986, the U.S. bishops defined human rights as "the minimum conditions for life in community." Rights are not just a protection of privacy and a guarantee that one can do whatever he or she wants. Rather, they enable one to participate fully and with dignity in society.
Violations of human rights not only hurt those whose rights have been violated, they harm society as a whole.
When people on an isolated First Nations reserve in Ontario must live for years without drinkable water – with the full knowledge of government officials – it diminishes our whole nation. Perhaps the ones most harmed are those who knew about the situation and did nothing.
The basis of Catholic social teaching is the love of neighbour.
We do not stand alone. Yet the Western individualistic concept of human rights would have us do just that.
This is a narrow, impoverished view of the human person. The fuller view is one which sees us as social beings, as people in solidarity. To take that view is to broaden and deepen our conception of human rights.
Rights are not merely a way to protect our private interests; they are also a call for us to fulfill our social responsibilities to those in need.