A surprising number of people who know about the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 and a focus of rights discussions around the world ever since, are unaware that its primary author was Jacques Maritain, a prominent Catholic philosopher. Much of the document’s language and reasoning might seem more in keeping with contemporary secular liberal humanism and its emphasis on abstract rights than with Catholic Social Teaching (CST). As the UN Declaration’s influence has spread, however, it turns out that misapplication of CST has been as damaging as the corrosive force of abstract, foundationless humanism on the lives of countless millions, especially the most vulnerable across the globe. Maritain was a brilliant and decent man, but a naïve view of the very demanding requirements for development of respect for human dignity and of the power of governments to develop and foster such respect has produced too many tragedies to count, though enough to show our duty in the West to reassess the bases of our assumptions and demands in regard to the behavior of peoples and governments everywhere.

The Declaration’s Preamble begins by declaring that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Vapid platitudes, along with the document’s replacement of God and the natural order of being with assertions of utopian goods, not to mention “the conscience of mankind” which is corporately “outraged” by the barbarous acts so common in our fallen world highlight the compromise Maritain made with secular values. It is important to note that the Declaration contains much that clearly is in keeping with CST, including the necessity for the rule of law as a protection of human rights, the inherent dignity of the human person, and the necessity of certain procedural rights as protections of that dignity. Nevertheless, the document is, overall, damaging to the cause of human rights, properly understood, and especially to a Catholic understanding of rights and the manner in which they can be pursued and upheld, consistent with “freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

I have been revisiting the Declaration as I work with a colleague on a book dealing with the failure of constitutional governments throughout most of the “developing world” and the role played in this tragedy by Western secular conceptions and institutions intended to bring development, democracy, justice, prosperity, and individual freedom to everyone. For more than half a century, now, various United Nations organizations, along with national organizations and nation states themselves, acting under the logic of the Declaration and numerous subsequent human rights documents, have attempted to encourage democracy and development by pushing a program of action rooted in the ideas and rights outlined in this first UN Declaration. The result has been unmitigated disaster for peoples living under violent, unstable, constantly shifting regimes that promise them utopia and deliver only violence, poverty, and oppression. And the irrational demands and misguided logic of the Declaration form a significant part of the reason why this disaster has caused as much damage as it has.

To begin with, the rights declared in this document do not end with recognition of human dignity, the rule of law and the importance of basic procedural justice. The Declaration begins by outlining the full panoply of liberal democratic rights from “life, liberty and security of person” to freedom from arbitrary arrest, cruel, unusual, or degrading treatment, and an expansive right to participate in the political process. Most Americans and Europeans, to be sure, highly value these rights. Their particular, practical definitions seem rather open to interpretation, however, given the differences among even Western nations, given the needs of peoples facing political chaos, mass illiteracy, and various economic and humanitarian emergencies, and given the presence in the United Nations of, at the time, the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist regime, and numerous other brutal dictatorships.

True, the document contains a number of rights that go specifically to an understanding of society both in accordance with CST and necessary for any regime of ordered liberty. I note, in particular, the statement that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Here we get to the beginnings of the central problem with the Declaration, and with most “universal” rights statements, the role of the state in defining our institutions, and our rights.

Much of the Declaration is taken up with a listing of so-called “positive” rights. These rights, to things like social security, “rest and leisure, including … periodic holidays with pay,” and “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,” are in fact good things. Likewise, it is difficult to say that education is bad, or that it should not “be directed to the full development of the human personality.” But who is to “produce” these good things? Who is to determine what “full development of the human person” entails and requires? The Declaration’s answer quite clearly is the state, and this is highly dangerous, as so many utopian-minded tyrants have shown.

It has become somewhat of a truism in CST that the state, properly speaking, is a “community of communities.” But the point is that the state is not, within that body of thought, a separate institutional entity tasked with arranging society according to any specific pattern or set of principles. Rather, all the communities that make up a society by nature should strive to work together to establish peace, order, and respect for the dignity of persons. Conflict is, however, inevitable. The role of the government within such a society is limited to maintaining peace among more fundamental institutions and associations. Of special importance among these institutions, of course, is the Church.

Modern secularists fear any church having an official position within society, let alone a position that seems to put it on equal footing with governmental powers in shaping public life. But this is central to CST, as well as to Calvinist “federative liberty” or “sphere sovereignty,” and, frankly, to ordered freedom and constitutional government of any meaningful kind. Constitutionalism as a form of limited government aimed at promoting the well-being of the people and not merely the strength of the state began in the so-called Middle Ages with the diversity of overlapping jurisdictions promoted in the thought and practice of canon lawyers and Popes combatting various kings’ claims to absolute authority. With the early modern rise of “sovereignty” as a single source of legitimate power, the dignity of persons and freedom of peoples took a beating from which they have yet to recover.

Unfortunately, while Maritain and many of his allies in the European movement toward Christian Democracy knew of and valued the Church’s wisdom regarding human dignity, they sought to pursue it within secular categories and, in particular, the confines of modern sovereignty. The result within Europe was development of modern social democracy. After first arguing for a “third way” between Soviet-style socialism and a heartless brand of individualistic capitalism, Christian Democrats rather quickly settled into pursuit of political programs startlingly akin to those of their Social Democratic opponents, with only respect for the Church and its right to participate in public life as a functional issue between them. Thus, rather than supporting a community of communities, they ended up supporting the fusion of these communities into one, national community under the tutelage of a state that might or might not listen to the calls of conscience, perhaps (and perhaps not) as formulated by one or another church.

The result in Africa, Latin America, and much of Asia was far worse than European social democracy. For there the claims of positive rights were pushed onto fledgling governments incapable of bearing the weight of such rights’ corresponding responsibilities. In particular, the lack of traditions of public service and especially of approaching the sovereign state as an entity separate from the more primary associations of family, tribe, and clan, meant that corruption was endemic, indeed hardly recognized as such because the underlying society (in some ways actually healthier than the European counterpart) simply was not set up to run a social democratic state. Rulers seized power for themselves and their groups, governmental institutions collapsed, and peoples fell deeper into misery, all in the name of universal rights.

We all know with what the road to Hell is paved. This goes especially for the road built by the state-as-guardian. Sadly, the UN Declaration, with the best of intentions, led nations and peoples not to the supposed paradise of lethargic, morally-debilitating European-style social democracy, but to the real Hell of centralized power without administrative capacity or cultural cohesion. We cannot, sadly, turn back the clock to undo the damage done in the name of human dignity. We ought at least to recognize that damage and its source in the abstractions of cosmopolitan ideology that continue to rule international “humanitarian” thought and institutions.

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Editor’s note: the featured image is “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix, and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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