Maybe it's time we pay more attention

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • December 12, 2008
{mosimage}John Peter Humphrey is a Canadian to be reckoned with. And much of the world did so on Dec. 10 of this year. The Vatican hosted a day-long meditation and celebration on Humphrey’s most famous writing, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrating its 60th anniversary this month. But any contemplation of the declaration just makes clear that old saying, “ideas have consequences.”

Humphrey, a native of New Brunswick and a Christian, was born in 1905. A lawyer, jurist and legal scholar, in 1946 Humphrey became the first director of the Human Rights Division of the just created United Nations. After consultations with his boss, Eleanor Roosevelt, he drafted the Universal Declaration.

When Pope Benedict XVI was in New York earlier this year and addressed the United Nations, he made specific reference to the declaration. He said it applied “to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history. They (human rights) are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.”

The Pope’s remark is provocative thinking and strangely not universally accepted. Buried within this and other papal observations about the declaration is a key point — all the rights in the declaration are the essential elements of what it means to be human. He meant “all,” not some and not “some are more important than others” and not “some are holdovers from a more superstitious time.”

This is important because the declaration says in clear language that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

But you wouldn’t know this if you were watching the crackdown on Buddhist Monks in Tibet, or Catholics in China, or the attempts to suppress or censor pro-life speech on Canadian university campuses, or the moves by the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons to eliminate the doctor’s conscience provision in its code of conduct. And you wouldn’t know this if your guide were the vigourous public debate on religious freedom as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because there was no such vigourous debate.

Freedom of religion is, in polite society, seen as old-fashioned, passé, reflective of another time. It is susceptible to being swept under the carpet or out the legislative and courtroom doors when it becomes too inconvenient, or messy, to take it into account. But that’s the thing about rights, they are inconvenient and messy and problematic. They require attention, conversation, discussion and negotiation.

As Pope Benedict hinted at in New York, we are talking about the essence of what it means to be human, a conversation that continues and will continue as long as there are humans to have it. And one thing none of us gets to do is chuck out the rights we don’t like and keep the ones we do. We all know where that would lead.

But the problem doesn’t just rest with those who would eliminate religion, at the very least from the public square. There are 30 articles and a lengthy preamble in the declaration and all require contemplation and meditation. And there are some that will bother, disturb, or be beyond our appreciation of what is necessary and justified. Some of us will scoff, heap scorn or simply choose to ignore the meaning of rights other than that of religion. But again, we all know where that would lead. 

If, as Benedict and John Paul II, Paul VI and John XXIII have all argued, we see the declaration as a new step in the moral evolution of humanity, a new language underpinning our understanding of living together, then it might warrant that we pay a bit more attention to the document. Certainly more than once a year. Such a step forward in human accommodation and mutual respect might actually demand that we take it into account in our actions and perhaps even cajole our community associations, our churches, our neighbourhoods, our employers, our regulators and, who knows, even our governments to take it into account.

It’s perhaps the least we can do, if for no other reason than to do justice to the work of a Canadian thinker.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer for CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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