Some may harbor half-articulate doubts, but Catholics who want to be relevant have jumped on the bandwagon like everybody else. “Human rights” are now the sole moral basis of public discussion in the Western world. Rights rule, at least in theory. The bumper sticker says “question authority,” but that doesn’t apply to the authority of human rights. How could it, when human rights are the ultimate standards presumed to provide the basis for all legitimate questioning?
In a way, that seems odd. People would be alarmed if someone proclaimed a “universal crusade for righteousness” charged with transforming all human relations everywhere by all available means. Why is an international human rights movement different?
One difference is that “human rights” sounds secular, while “crusade for righteousness” sounds religious. Many people expect something this-worldly to be more limited and rational than something supposedly based on transcendent principles. For some reason that expectation has survived fascism, Nazism and Bolshevism, all of them this-worldly.
In fact, “secular” is pretty much the same as “practical”: let’s pay attention to what’s plainly real and not get caught in grandiose notions that can never be nailed down and might take us anywhere. Everyone thinks practicality is a limited and rational standard. The reason they think that is that they’re used to something else providing an ultimate standard that practicality then limits. The point can only be pressed so far, though. Making practicality the ultimate standard is the same as making power the standard.
That, in fact, is what “human rights” do. Human rights have become mostly a matter of “equal respect,” and thus “nondiscrimination” and “inclusiveness.” Those things have very little to do with actual nondiscrimination or inclusiveness. How could they, when social institutions are based on differentiated roles and thus on discrimination and exclusion? Instead, they stand for the suppression of some institutions in favor of others. Traditional principles of social order like sex, family, religion and inherited culture and loyalties must give way to technocratic ones like world markets and transnational bureaucracies.
In the past children were raised by the family, which was based on the sexual connection between man and woman that had produced the children. Since families, men, women and the sexual tie were the basis for carrying out serious social functions, there was a strong network of social understandings and expectations that established the relevant rights and obligations.
Today children are raised more and more by commercial pop culture and instrumentalities of the state. That change has gone with the increasing power of a different network of rules and roles: on the one hand fan, student, client, on the other pop celebrity, teacher, counsellor, therapist, childcare worker, child protection officer.
Both networks distinguish persons and give them roles that differ in power and respect. For some reason though the network that once supported the family is now defined as sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, ignorance, intolerance, bigotry, misogyny and hatred. In contrast, the network that supports MTV and childcare agencies is defined as freedom, rationality and social service.
Is the distinction in how the two networks are viewed justified? No reason is evident for thinking the new approach promotes human dignity and the good life or even equality more than the old. It looks more like an approach that increases the power and authority of those who are in a position to set public standards because they control all bureaucracies, including the bureaucracies of knowledge and entertainment.
To me it seems obvious that the new system gives rise to a degraded society characterized by elites who rule and hold in contempt the majority, who have been deprived of the habits and standards that once enabled them to organize and run their own lives without much supervision from their betters and so become increasingly passive and dependent. If that’s human rights, I want no part of it. The basis of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity, which emphasizes the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions like the family, local churches, and voluntary associations. Since that’s so, how can Catholicism possibly accept what are now called human rights?