“All children should have the right to grow within their family, the right to study and also the right to education, says Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny. Talking about human rights for children is a Catholic response in a cruel world that sees more than 36 million children worldwide displaced from their home. Photo by Michael Swan

‘They have the right to be children’

  • November 24, 2022

In far off places, I’ve seen children under armed guard, fenced in, sitting in the dust, holding themselves up on the edges of human existence — exiled to places where any notion of the rights of children seems fanciful, even sadly comical.

In Dollo Ado, on Ethiopia’s southern border with Somalia, I saw children play soccer, volleyball and foosball. They studied plumbing, barbering, tailoring and even mathematics thanks to the efforts of the Jesuit Refugee Service — while their fathers snuck back into Somalia to try to earn money and their mothers sat in one-room tin huts under punishing heat, waiting for that magic hour when water flowed from the hilltop through pipes into the refugee camp. 

In Kilis, on Turkey’s southern border with Syria, the chain link fence rose three metres more or less around refugee children. The young Syrians leaked out of their enclosure, past the men with automatic weapons, to sell tea and fruit on the side of the highway. Their families had brought these few unwanted, unneeded trade goods with them as they escaped the murderous chaos unleashed by the Assad regime in 2015. 

Venezuelan kids I saw on the streets of Boa Vista, Brazil, and in the camp set up by Brazil’s army in 2019 existed in an endless time loop, neither oppressed nor welcomed, growing up in limbo while President Nicolás Maduro’s incompetent regime managed to keep most Venezuelans entirely divorced from the billions of petrodollars flowing into their country.

At the Gregorian University in Rome on Nov. 17, Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny spoke of the rights of these children — rights they possess in theory and in law but cannot touch with a 10-foot pole.

“All children should have the right to grow within their family, the right to study and also the right to recreation. They have the right to be children,” Czerny told the 15th annual symposium on the World Day of Action and Prayer for Children. “Unfortunately, many of them have no choice but to migrate. And migration puts all those rights in jeopardy.”

It may seem quixotic, far fetched, but talking about the human rights of children is a practical and a Catholic response to a cruel world filled with 89.3 million forcibly displaced people, 41 per cent of them (36.5 million) children under the age of 18, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“The concept of rights has been part of the Catholic tradition since at least the 16th century,” St. Jerome’s University professor Scott Kline said in an email. In other words the concept of rights is how the Church responded to modernity, the Protestant Reformation and harsh realities of colonialism. The Catholic argument about rights and slavery was laid out by Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas while the castles of Europe were being covered in gold dug from the mountains of Mexico and Brazil, while kings and queens were swaddled in furs trapped by the Cree, Iroquois and Mohawk in Canada.

On which side of that history does the Church stand? In the 17th century, the Age of Enlightenment, “the Church resisted the concept of human rights largely in response to liberal French, British and German social thinkers who challenged the Church’s authority,” said Kline, who teaches the history of Catholic social thought at St. Jerome’s, on the campus of the University of Waterloo.

A century-and-a-half of reaction against Enlightenment champions of human rights gave us the word “reactionary” — applied first to Czerny’s Jesuit forebears who defended the papacy against modernity through most of the 19th century.

The reactionary tradition in Catholicism ended in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. 

What Pope Leo XIII started by talking about the limited but undeniable right to property, balanced against the rights of workers, has only grown.

“In the wake of the conscience-shocking consequences of fascism, Naziism and empires run amock, the Church began to join the call that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948),” Kline recalled. “The Cold War brought to light that human rights could serve as a powerful force against communism.”

Czerny’s Czech family fled a communist regime that played word games with rights. The Czernys chose to live in the modest, solid reality of human rights in Montreal. When Czerny speaks about human rights and naturally applies them to children, he is expounding a living, Catholic tradition — the one the 76-year-old grew up in.

“Pope John Paul II greatly expanded the concept of rights in Catholic social doctrine when he, for example, reiterated the rights and dignity of workers in Laborem Exercens (1981) and fought for religious freedom,” said Kline. “Pope Benedict XVI praised ‘human rights, especially freedom of faith and its practice,’ as the ‘true conquests of the Enlightenment’ ” (Christmas greetings to the Roman curia, 2006).

This is not an argument about political theory or philosophy. Rather, it’s about the kind of society human beings were made, by God, to live in.

As the pandemic hit, Pope Francis began to speak about human dignity and human rights. In a livestreamed general audience from the Apostolic Palace in those days of lockdown the Pope said, “We want to recognize the human dignity in every person, whatever his or her race, language or condition might be… awareness of the dignity of every human being has serious social, economic and political implications.”

The implications come to us in the form of human rights.

“Catholic social teaching emphasizes that human rights have both an individual and a collective sense, which we Catholics often call the common good,” said Kline.

“When we talk about rights, we’re highlighting the responsibilities of governments to ensure that people have access to the basic resources and opportunities they need for their wellbeing,” said Sr. Sue Wilson, who runs the Office for Systemic Justice for the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada. “We’re not just talking about basic human rights (e.g., the right to be free from discrimination) but also the social and economic rights which have been delineated by the United Nations.”

For Wilson, talking about human rights and children’s rights makes sense of Catholicism’s “preferential option for the poor.” If the key to understanding and to justice is to begin by looking at how the most vulnerable fare in our world, it makes sense to start with children.

“Such talks (as Czerny’s address at the Gregorian University) should challenge Catholic dioceses around the world to become involved in protecting these rights by urging their governments to put systems in place to protect these rights,” said Wilson. “Certainly, in Canada, we have failed to protect the rights of migrants by unjustly detaining some migrants, not protecting access to health care, labour rights… The Church absolutely has a role to play in protecting human rights. Catholic social teaching tends to use the language of human dignity, but human dignity can be protected only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met.”

For Czerny children’s rights line up with the hope and love embedded in a family.

“Children also have the right to a healthy and secure family environment,” he said. 

Seeing children without rights, or rather children whose right to childhood has been stolen, is to be a witness to history — important history. It has been the greatest privilege of my life as a journalist. I have no doubt that when politicians who bestride our headlines and shocking revelations that fill our social media feeds have become too obscure to include in future editions of Trivial Pursuit, the real history of this century will be the history of great migrations rebalancing our global population. To see it as a journalist is to touch the trauma and sometimes the glory of our times. 

Faith demands we keep our eyes open. Faith demands we know our tradition. Faith cannot relinquish the rights of even one child.

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