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Religion and Society

The Injustice that is Born of the Best Intentions

Unforeseen consequencs /1. There is an ambiguity in the notion of 'human rights', and it is the fact that they can be extended to any subjective desire. This is not only the outcome of the vagueness of the notion but also expresses something that is more grave.

In an interview granted to two Polish friends in 1993 but not published until a few months before his death (Pamiec` i toz.samos`c`, Krako´w 2005), John Paul II spoke of an 'Ideology of Evil' and pointed out that it was also to be found in contemporary developments in democratic constitutional states. He had in mind the fact that in many countries democratically elected parliaments had passed laws that permit abortion and see homosexual unions as a legitimate alternative to marriage. This development, he argued, shows that even the idea of human rights can be misused to the detriment of man and the family. Although this did not cause a public outcry (those likely to protest rarely read books published by the successors to St. Peter), this statement was obviously a breach of a contemporary taboo of the Western world. Most Westerners feel that the decisions of democratically elected parliaments are ipso facto legitimate and should thus be accepted even by those who previously opposed them. In particular, this applies to laws that grant impunity to actions that in the past were severely prosecuted. Even many Christians have difficulties in seeing that what a liberal democratic state does not consider a crime is in fact as sin. This is all the more the case when such a liberalisation occurs in the name of human rights. A woman, they feel, should be permitted freely to decide about the fate of 'the thing' that grows in her tummy (after all, it is her tummy); and if two homosexuals decide to be faithful to each other, as if they were a married man and woman, even the authorities of their religious community should agree to bless this union. After all, except in some totalitarian states such as China, no woman will ever be forced to get rid of the fruit of her womb; and nobody can be forced to act as a homosexual. If somebody argues that abortion is murder then they should be allowed to hold this belief; and why should a marriage-like union of two men or two women threaten the family? Indeed, they should participate in all the privileges granted to families, including the possibility of adopting and bringing up a child.


Hitherto contemporary majority opinion in Europe and the United States has supported these views. This curious development in the way a great number of Westerners think indicates, on the one hand, how much many, if not most, 'Christian na tions' are neglecting, and in fact are beginning to abandon, their historical roots. On the other hand, it reminds us of an ambiguity in the very notion of human rights. When in the past both abortion and active homosexuality were considered criminal, this was due to the fact that the Western nations viewed the Old and the New Testament as the Magna Carta of their culture and therefore considered it obvious that in a number of particularly important cases the political authorities and/or the legal system had to defend in fact enforce the fundamental norms and values laid down in the Bible. As far as abortion is concerned, it is almost completely forgotten that it was first permitted by two states that are today considered criminal almost by definition: Hitler's Germany and the Soviet Union of Stalin. Moreover, it seems to have been forgotten that even (indeed, especially in) the modern age the protection of the life of citizens, even if only potential citizens, was considered one of the state's basic duties. Furthermore, until the middle of the past century almost nobody in the West defended the idea that each human being has the right, respected by the state, to pursue a life according to his own 'sexual orientation' (this did not exclude a tacit tolerance in cases that remained strictly private and had no influence on others people, especially minors). On the contrary, most of the thinkers from the eighteenth century onwards who fought for human rights and liberal democracy were convinced, even if they were not deeply committed to the faith of their fathers, that the moral principles expressed by the Ten Commandments and specified by Christian doctrine were essential for a peaceful and meaningful life together of people in society.



The Defence of the Indios


It is not easy to say why this has so radically changed. Certainly, one reason is that the influence of Christian beliefs (including faith in a personal God) on society has faded in a dramatic way. As a character in one of Dostoevsky's novels says: if God does not exist, then everything appears to be permitted. In his interview, after pointing out the importance of the idea that we are God's creatures and thus bound to consider what in our nature is good or evil, John Paul II expressed the point in a more subtle way: 'there has been a rejection of the notion of what in the deepest sense makes us humans, the idea of man's nature as something that is 'a given fact', and it has been replaced it by a 'product of thought' that can be freely changed according to circumstances'.


Another reason, however, is the vagueness of the very notion of human rights. Although its roots go back to antiquity (in addition to the Biblical assertion that God created man in his image, there was also the Stoic notion of 'world citizenship') and the Middle Ages (e.g. the English Magna Carta of 1215), the idea of human rights did not emerge until the eighteenth century; it soon replaced the older notion of a ruler's obligation to respect the commandments of God, although at the outset this was not done by abandoning the idea that such rights are due to each man and woman because they are God's creatures.


As one source of this development was the defence during the sixteenth century of the rights of Latin American Indians by the Dominican friars Francesco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de Las Casas, to begin with the Church did not have serious problems with this notion. After the French Revolution, however, the Church noticed that the notion was increasingly used to defend liberties that appeared to threaten law and order, as they were understood by the Church. In particular, in pointing out that error can have no rights the Church passionately opposed the idea of freedom to act according to conscience (and therefore also the freedom of the press) and religious freedom. Even Pius XII, although he conceded that a state may tolerate dissenting confessions for the sake of public peace, argued that errors cannot have rights. It was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Catholic Church, by pointing to the dignity of the human person instead of concentrating on the notion of error, found a satisfactory solution to this issue.


It should be remembered, however, what the famous decree on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae, specifically says. It does not argue that I am free to ignore truth but rather that neither the state nor another community has the right to forbid me to commit myself to the religious faith of my choice. In other words, this is a human right in relation to the political community and not in relation to God. Only God, and not the community or the state, has the right to judge my conscience. In addition, one should not overlook that the decree points out that there is a limit to this right. Several times it uses phrases such as 'as long as this does not threaten public order and morality'. This is an important restrictive clause since there is no undisputed definition of the word 'religion' and therefore the claim of a group that it is 'a religion' could be used as a justification for illegal activity. An example that has been much discussed in Europe is the ideology of L. Ron Hubbard, which led to the founding of the 'Church of Scientology'.


But could one then not argue that this also applies to abortion and 'homosexual marriage'? This is not the case with abortion since abortion involves the killing of a defenceless innocent person (the classic definition of murder) and defence of the life of its citizens is one of the primary duties of any political community. The issue of homosexual marriage is somewhat more complicated. Although the Church considers homosexuality a sin, it does not expect governments to prosecute homosexuality. However, the formalised unions of gays and lesbians seem to threaten the unique role and importance of the family, which the Church has always seen as the basic cell of a healthy society.


Although abortion is one of the most horrible crimes of our times, and even more horrible because it has become almost an industry, it seems to me that John Paul II had in mind more than the two examples he mentioned. He pointed to a highly problematic development in the use of the notion of human rights that could soon lead to further injustices. Today, small minorities often push their ideas and interests forward by arguing that they are fighting for a human right. As the defence of human rights has become one of the most important questions of our time, those opposing such minorities must try to show that this claim is not justified. This is not easy since there is no undisputed definition of what is, or what is not, a human right. While it may be clear what a right of this kind is, it is much less clear what is not and cannot be considered a human right. At the same time, there is also reference to the rights of animals and this leads to such strange demands such as the obligation to smash the head of a lobster before it is thrown into boiling water. We seem to be not far from the time when some parliament will pass a law which lays down that a thief cannot be punished if he claims that he suffers from a hitherto unknown mental disorder that induces him to steal.


Without doubt, the insight that each human has rights should be defended in all circumstances is one of the great cultural achievements of the modern age. It is possibly one of the most important contributions to peaceful life together in society. Thus it is of the utmost importance to always remember, and to be reminded of, the ultimate source of these rights. If one ignores the fact that each of us owes these right to the fact that God created man in his image and thereby gave him a specific nature that is related to Him, one runs the risk that this noble insight will turn against itself and be destroyed.