Theology 101

Your Faith
Doug Culp
May, 2015

New interpretations of what is considered a human right

Continuing Theology 101’s exploration of the Church’s teaching on many of the themes being considered by the two synods on the family, this month we examine the “new interpretations of what is considered a human right” 

The basics

According to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, human rights are rights inherent to all human beings “whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language or any other status.” Human rights are universal and inalienable (which means they can only be taken away in specific situations according to due process). Furthermore, every human being is equally entitled to his or her human rights without discrimination, for, according to Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

So what’s the issue?

 The final report of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops points to the root problem: 

“… equal consideration needs to be given to the growing danger represented by a troubling individualism which deforms family bonds and ends up considering each component of the family as an isolated unit, leading, in some cases, to the idea that a person is formed according to one’s own desires, which are considered absolute.” (5)

Then, following the synod on Nov. 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. In his speech to the European Parliament, Pope Francis both echoed and elaborated upon what the Extraordinary Synod was referring to in both its preparatory document and final report:

“Today there is a tendency to claim ever broader individual rights … The essential and complementary concept of duty no longer seems to be linked to such a concept of rights. As a result, the rights of the individual are upheld, without regard for the fact that each human being is part of a social context wherein his or her rights and duties are bound up with those of others and with the common good of society itself.”

Pope Francis then told the Council of Europe: 

It also needs to be kept in mind that apart from the pursuit of truth, each individual becomes the criterion for measuring himself and his own actions. The way is thus opened to a subjectivistic assertion of rights, so that the concept of human rights, which has an intrinsically universal import, is replaced by an individualistic conception of rights. This … favors that globalization of indifference born of selfishness. 

In other words, as in the case of last month’s discussion on the culture of non-commitment, excessive individualism is the primary driving force behind this concern. Again, excessive individualism is a mind-set that asserts the prime duty of the individual is to make the most of one’s own life, rather than contribute to the good of others. It is a mind-set that undermines marriage, with its invitation to total self-giving reciprocity, and creates, as the synod reminds us, “a mentality against having children.”

The link to relativism

The phenomenon of excessive individualism can be linked to the philosophy of relativism, which dominates much of Western culture. The essence of relativism is that points of view have no absolute truth or validity – only relative, subjective value. This means that all truth is “relative” to the individual.

The problem is that relativism is, in fact, a philosophy that is predicated on the denial of objective truth, or at least our ability to know objective truth – which amounts to the denial of the revealed truth of God, of faith in the God of revelation and, ultimately, of God. 

It also stands in stark contradiction to, and finally renders meaningless, any notion of the universality and inalienable nature of human rights. In short, relativism is about what we, as individuals, want. It leaves us susceptible to false notions such as 

  • whatever is legal is moral; 
  • feelings should trump reason when it comes to moral decision-making; 
  • morality consists of whatever is acceptable to the culture at a given time; and
  • might makes right

Also, in such a system, pragmatism generally gains influence. Pragmatism holds that whatever works for the individual is true. In other words, we cannot know whether something is true or not until we do it and see if it works. Naturally, a mind-set of “the ends justify the means” generally accompanies relativism and pragmatism – though the ends are constantly changing.

This reality of constantly changing ends is what is so problematic about relativism. When our ultimate standard and guide of conduct is desire cut off from the transcendent, we are ultimately left with no standard at all because human, earthly desires can change and be disordered.