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A universal undertaking

Michael McVeigh  |  23 May 2018

bird in the handThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights is 70 years old this year. We take a look at five Catholic thinkers who have helped shape our understanding of what it means to respect the rights and dignity of each person in our world.

Francisco de Vitoria

In the 16th century, as Europeans began expanding into the Americas, the issue arose of the status of the native communities already living there. One of the voices in these discussions was that of Spanish Dominican Fr Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546).

De Vitoria was influenced by the ideas of St Thomas Aquinas about the inherent dignity of human beings and sought to bring those into a world in which Europe was beginning to encounter native peoples that had never before heard of Christianity.

Many Europeans believed that Christians had a divine right to convert these peoples and bring their lands under Christian rule. In three lectures, held between 1537 and 1539, de Vitoria argued that native peoples had a God given right to their land and property, and that no violent action nor seizures could happen unless the natives had first violated the rights of the Spanish.

Sadly, the philosophical arguments of de Vitoria and his contemporaries in the School of Salamanca had little effect on the activities of the Spanish, and other colonising forces, in the Americas and elsewhere around the world. However, de Vitoria is known as one of the first great theorists of international law. His ideas helped inform international relations long before the foundation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th century.

Jacques Maritain

As the world recovered from World War II, politicians and thinkers came together to draft a set of protocols that might help ensure that such atrocities would never take place again.

French Catholic philosopher and diplomat Jacques Maritain (1882 1973) was a member of a committee put together by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1946 to explore the feasibility of creating a charter of rights for all peoples and nations. Maritain was one of the leading voices on the committee – whose work would bear fruition in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Like de Vitoria, Maritain was influenced by the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, and thus believed that human dignity is inherently God given, and human rights are thus aspects of our humanity that cannot be taken away by any human individual or society. However, he also recognised that Catholicism was just one of many ways of understanding the world. He argued that there could be a ‘practical agreement’ on a universal set of rights, even if the beliefs that informed people’s agreement on those rights were different.

When the UN Declaration on Human Rights was tabled in 1948, 48 of the 58 members of the United Nations voted in favour of it, eight abstained and two didn’t vote.

Peter Benenson

Holding countries to account for violations of human rights remains a global concern, even after the widespread acceptance of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. National interests have often prevented governments from speaking out, so individuals created international organisations to provide a voice for the voiceless.

British lawyer Peter Benenson was born into a large Jewish family but converted to Catholicism in 1958. Primarily a labour lawyer, Benenson was concerned by human rights abuses around the world. After reading about the imprisonment of student activists in Portugal under the Salazar regime, Benenson wrote an article for the Observer titled ‘The Forgotten Prisoners’ in 1961.

That same year, Amnesty – later to be known as Amnesty International – was founded at a meeting of Benenson and six other men. Benenson was the organisation’s first general secretary, serving in the role until 1964. Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for its campaign against torture and continues to campaign for human rights today.

When Amnesty International changed its policy to favour abortion rights in 2007, Catholics who had been members of the organisation created the Benenson Society to continue their human rights advocacy under a new banner. A number of Catholic schools around Australia continue to campaign for human rights as part of the Benenson Society.

Pope John Paul II

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not without its issues. While supportive of global efforts to protect human rights, Pope John Paul II was also a critic of the movement.

Pope John Paul noted that the UN Declaration on Human Rights didn’t have an agreed concept of what it meant to be human. This led to some arguing that abortion was a ‘human right’, while others believed strongly that human rights extended to those in the womb. Euthanasia was another issue where different groups had different ideas around what was a ‘human right’. The Pope believed that moral evils such as abortion and euthanasia should never be considered rights.

He was also critical of those who focused on individual rights, and failed to consider what was needed for the common good of communities. The Pope argued that if cultures focused too much on individual freedoms – rather than on solidarity with others and the responsible exercise of freedom – the dignity of all people would be in jeopardy.

Pope John Paul argued that different cultures ‘are but different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence’. He criticised what he called ‘cultural imperialism’ – where international groups imposed their interpretation of human rights on other, generally non-western, cultures.

Frank Brennan

While the UN Declaration on Human Rights is a powerful tool in the international sphere, it doesn’t necessarily provide legal protection for citizens in each country. Many argue that Australia needs its own human rights act, which would provide stronger protection for the rights of all Australians.

Australian Jesuit Fr Frank Brennan was chosen to lead a national human rights consultation committee in 2008. Public meetings were held across the country, exploring a range of issues including which areas of rights needed promotion and protection and whether rights were currently being protected enough. Among a number of proposals, the committee favoured a human rights act.

Fr Brennan continues to engage in public conversation in Australia about the rights of individuals and groups, and how they might be protected and advanced. During the marriage plebiscite last year, Fr Brennan argued that while Australian society might recognise the right of all consenting adults to enter into marriage – regardless of sexuality – it also needed to protect the freedom of religious people to hold and promote their own views. He was subsequently appointed to serve on a Federal Government review into religious freedoms.

Illustration: Becky Xie


Topic tags: heroesandrolemodels, socialjustice-global, peoplesstoriesoffaith

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