The New Political Bible of Human Rights
Janne Haaland Matlary Addresses Dangers of Relativism
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, DEC. 23, 2007 (Zenit.org).- In Benedict XVI's Dec. 1 address to an audience with participants in the Forum of Catholic-Inspired Nongovernmental Organizations, he warned against basing international relations on a relativistic logic.
We can look with satisfaction, the Pope said, to an achievement such as the universal recognition of the juridical and political primacy of human rights. Nevertheless, he continued, discussions at the international level "often seem marked by a relativistic logic which would consider as the sole guarantee of peaceful coexistence between peoples a refusal to admit the truth about man and his dignity, to say nothing of the possibility of an ethics based on recognition of the natural moral law."
If the relativistic position is accepted, the Pontiff warned, we run the risk of laws and relations between states being determined by factors such as short-term interests or ideological pressures. Benedict XVI urged those present to counter the trend toward relativism, "by presenting the great truths about man's innate dignity and the rights which are derived from that dignity."
The Pope's long-standing concern over the dangers of relativism is well-known. He is far from alone in recognizing the danger this presents in the area of human rights.
Janne Haaland Matlary, professor of international politics at the University of Oslo, supports the natural law tradition as defended by the Catholic Church. Matlary, who was state secretary for foreign affairs for Norway from 1997-2000, released earlier this year an English translation of her collection of essays titled "When Might Becomes Human Right: Essays on Democracy and the Crisis of Rationality" (Gracewing).
A new bible
Today, Matlary comments, human rights have become a sort of new political bible, but unfortunately this bible is often affected by a profound relativism when it comes to its fundamental values.
Matlary's book is focused on the situation in Europe, where, she warns, relativism is leading to attempts to redefine human rights. In fact, she continues, there is a real paradox present, because on the one hand Europe and the West urge the world to respect human rights, but on the other hand refuse to define, in an objective manner, what these rights mean.
Matlary explains that the contemporary emphasis on human rights stems from the rejection of the evils of the Nazi regime, which saw the dangers of subjects obeying orders by a legal ruler that were, however, contrary to morality. The subsequent 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is formulated in such a way, she argues, that it is clear they are to be regarded as inborn for every person. The declaration can, therefore, be regarded as a natural-law document.
Today, however, human rights are often regarded as being dependent on the political process, Matlary continues. While the 1948 declaration defends the right to life, many states have legalized abortion. Similarly, the 1948 text proclaims the right of a man and a woman to marry, but there is increasing pressure in many countries to establish a "right" to same-sex marriage.
Another example is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, approved by the U.N. General Assembly in 1989. It stipulates that a child should have the right to know and be cared for by its parents. Only a few years later, this is ignored by the use of anonymous donors for invitro fertilization treatments, Matlary comments.
Matlary examines a number of factors that have contributed to the triumph of an ethical relativism in Europe. One of these is secularization, which means forgetting the Continent's Christian roots, as well as the values Christianity has contributed to politics and law. To this is added increasing immigration from other cultures, and uncertainty over the concept of tolerance. As well, an aversion to the concept of objective truth, often combined with the mentality of political correctness, undermines attempts to define common values.
There has also been a marked politicization of human rights, Matlary observes, as was evident in a number of conferences organized by the United Nations in the 1990s, on themes such as demography, the family and women's rights.
The debate on values and human rights, Matlary states, is also marked by a profound subjectivism. In many countries religion increasingly ceases to be based on adherence to an institutional identity and becomes "religion à la carte." Subjectivism has also contributed to the decline of ideology, but has replaced it with a superficial desire to follow the latest fashionable public personality and the trends popularized in the media.
Based on truth
The last section in Matlary's book considers how the case for natural law can be made in the midst of the prevailing relativism. Christianity has a vital role to play in this effort, she maintains, through its teaching in the area of anthropology, including the strong emphasis the Church places on inherent human dignity.
We cannot impose Christian norms in the political sphere, Matlary acknowledges. Nevertheless, on many points regarding the human person and rights there is no contradiction between faith and reason. The task, therefore, is not to create Christian states, but states based on the truth about the human being. What Europe needs, consequently, is politicians who are prepared to dedicate themselves to the common good, according to what is universally right and wrong based on the standard of human dignity.
Matlary admits that even among Christians there is often a legitimate plurality in the political arena, allowing flexibility between diverse courses of action. There are, however, some issues over which there cannot be compromise, those that concern human dignity.
This concluding section also looks at the contribution made by the Vatican to the debate over human rights. In a chapter dedicated to Pope John Paul II, Matlary commented on his skillful public diplomacy, as well as the quieter, but also very effective, contribution made by Vatican diplomats around the world.
A further chapter examines the analysis of modern rationality made by the current Pope, in many writings authored when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. One of the matters dealt with by him was the notion of human freedom, which many today regard as having no limits.
The lack of willingness to limit personal autonomy, Matlary comments, ultimately lies in the inability to define the human being and what is good and bad about human nature.
Another defect identified by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, according to Matlary, is the idea that rationality is limited to the technical area only. Accepting this means we no longer have any idea of how to reason about right and wrong, as well as denying there is any standard of ethics outside of an individual.
In addition, Cardinal Ratzinger criticized a purely materialistic concept of rationality that ignores the philosophical and theological dimensions of our nature, thus reducing the idea of progress to the merely technical and economic dimensions; an argument still present in the thought of Benedict XVI.
Juridical norms need to be founded on morality, which in turn is grounded in nature itself, explained the Pontiff in his message for the World Day of Peace. Without this solid foundation, the Pope counseled, the juridical norms will be "at the mercy of a fragile and provisional consensus" (No. 12).
"The growth of a global juridical culture depends, for that matter, on a constant commitment to strengthen the profound human content of international norms, lest they be reduced to mere procedures, easily subject to manipulation for selfish or ideological reasons," he warned (No. 13). A timely reminder that the political process is not the absolute master, but needs to be oriented by the truths inherent in human nature.