Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 19, 2008
Pope’s human rights talk to UN a wake-up call for Canada
"Our human rights commissars may fancy themselves gods of a sort, but their time is short,"
- Daniel Cere
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
Pope Benedict XVI's speech to the United Nations Apr. 18 serves as a reminder to Canada that human rights discourse stems from a worldview based on universal truths and objective notion right and wrong, good and evil.
"Either we recover some of these assumptions and make a serious course correction," McGill University professor Douglas Farrow said, "Or we begin to encounter quite rapidly the consequences."
Farrow sees Canada's human rights commissions as a sign the country is in a transitional phase, because increasingly the Canadians are seeing human rights as what we say they are." Thus laws can be written concerning human rights that have nothing to do with universal standards.
"We might say almost anything," he said, noting that increasingly human rights commissions are being used by various individuals and groups to "generate traction" for that group's "particular construct of rights."
This method has worked well for some groups, but it has often been used to suppress religious freedom, especially that of Christians.
Farrow said real basis for human rights springs from a worldview like that the pope outlined in his speech, a theistic worldview that sees a benevolent Creator and human beings made in God's image, with a capacity to distinguish between good and evil.
The pope exhorted the world body to return to its founding principles as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), that he described as "the outcome of a rare convergence of different religious and cultural traditions."
The Declaration is based on "the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations," Benedict told the UN. "Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks."
"This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights," the pope said.
Farrow warns that the only reason why Canadian society is still functioning as a relatively free society stems from the borrowed capital of a worldview based on the classical God of western theism.
"Once all of that capital disappears, because these assumptions have been set aside, you've got to come up with some different basis, some glue to hold it together."
Farrow warns that Canadians are not merely tinkering with the worldview but making major changes to its very foundations. He pointed out that in a chemical experiment, changing one of the elements "makes things come out radically differently."
"If we go forward to the 'brave new world,' we'll need thought police, but I don't think it'll take the form of current human rights commissions. Human rights language is something that can be discarded in the future quite quickly.
McGill University's Institute for the Study of Marriage, Law and Culture director Daniel Cere also sees Benedict's UN speech as a call to "get back to the heart" of the UN Declaration's achievement "and recover ground that has been lost."
Though he sees room in the Catholic rights tradition for protecting religions from slanderous attacks, and for recognizing that the religious dimension is a key component of human identity, "there has to be some push back" on the way human rights commissions in Canada have been engaging in a form of harassment against religious expression such as the hate-crime complaint against Catholic Insight Magazine.
Canada's discomfort with the principles in the UDHR is nothing new. When it came to a vote in Dec. of 1948, Canada was one of nine countries that abstained, finding herself in the embarrassing company of Soviet Bloc countries, Saudi Arabia, which objected to religious freedom, and South Africa, which abstained because of apartheid.
That embarrassment prompted her to vote for the Declaration on the second vote.
Cere said the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson never clarified is objections, but he suspects the reason was the UDHR is "too thick a document" because of its stress on the fundamental rights of the family, emphasis on human dignity and inclusion of duties and universal restraints. He noted that the more recent Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a "much thinner document" that focuses more narrowly on individual rights.
The only way to get a consensus for the UDHR, however, was to "add more to the pot," Cere said. "The consensus ended up moving towards a thicker, richer, more catholic, holistic document."
The pope warned of attempts to pare down this consensus, stressing the Declaration was not merely a kind of modus vivendi compromise among competing players, but a "fundamental expression of basic human moral instincts," Cere said.
The pope also spoke of the communal dimension of religious freedom. Western countries have eroded fundamental rights in the area of family and of religion as totally private rights. This makes churches more vulnerable to legal assault, Cere said.
Though Western countries like to see themselves as the big defenders of human rights, they are doing "much backtracking on core principles," he said.
But human rights discourse in the West is also beginning to move away from even the liberal stress on individual autonomy towards materialist notions of the human person, whose religious and philosophical yearnings are merely the side-effect of chemical or electrical processes in the brain.
"You cannot build a human rights discourse that is persuasive and lasting on a 'materialist philosophy,' which is already an oxymoron," Farrow said.
"It can't go on," he said.
"Our human rights commissars may fancy themselves gods of a sort, but their time is short," he said. "Events, I suspect, will bass them by. But these may well be events in which we lose more than our freedom of speech."
"You can't expect the culture that we have to simply evolve slowly and in a natural sort of way when you change quite radically the worldview and the underlying assumptions."
"If we go back to where we were we'll realize what craziness they were and do away with them," he said.