Serious Catholics should applaud the action of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in forming a Commission on Unalienable Rights to advise his department in its dealings with foreign governments and international organizations. This may sound like inside-the-Beltway insider baseball, but I am convinced that this commission has the potential to create a focal point for an alternative understanding of human rights. And boy, do we need to get our “rights talk” right!
Some people say everyone has a “right” to abortion or “sexual expression.” Others say everyone has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But these two groups — those who espouse abortion and sexual rights on the one hand and the rest of us on the other — are clearly not talking about the same thing when they use the term “rights.”
Advocates of the sexual revolution use an expansive understanding of “human rights” to promote their values. Describing “marriage equality” as a “human right” allows them to sidestep the many troubling consequences of redefining marriage. Labeling abortion as a “human right” puts defenders of the unborn on the defensive.
This language of “human rights” (which is in reality neither) is common in the United Nations and other international organizations. The U.S., along with other Western countries, have promoted these “human rights” through the U.N. and international organizations. Numerous international leaders, including Pope Francis, however, have decried such talk as “ideological colonization” or “cultural imperialism.”
By contrast, the advocates of “unalienable rights” or “inalienable rights” of the kind found in the Declaration of Independence ground their understanding of rights in undeniable and universal truths about the human condition. This is a basic starting point of natural-law thinking. The Catholic Church has long held that the natural law is knowable to human reason. For instance, Pope Leo XIII stated in Libertas Praestantissimum (The Nature of Human Liberty) in 1888 that “natural law … is written and engraved in the mind of every man; and this is nothing but our reason, commanding us to do right and forbidding sin” (8).
The newly formed Commission on Unalienable Rights has the potential to shift the conversation about rights. The commission is chaired by pro-life Harvard Law professor and former ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon. Glendon wrote the highly regarded Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse in 1993. Glendon has been thinking deeply about the proper understanding of “rights” for a long time.
Serving alongside Glendon on the commission will be law professors and philosophy professors from distinguished institutions such as Stanford and Notre Dame, as well as a rabbi, an American Muslim scholar and several African Americans. (The complete list of the commissioners can be found here.)
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