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Cover story

Church’s human rights record a mixed bag

NCR Staff

Evaluating the Catholic church’s record on human rights in the past 50 years is a lot like deciding whether a glass is half full or half empty.

From one point of view, it’s a story of breathtaking transformation. In 1948, when the United Nations issued its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the concept of religious liberty was still officially heretical for Catholics; by the end of Vatican II in 1965, it had become church doctrine.

That change was part of one of the most sweeping reversals in church history, as Vatican II and its two popes, John XXIII and Paul VI, overturned centuries of papal condemnations of Enlightenment-era notions of human rights.

During the past half-century, the Holy See has emerged as an important advocate for rights agreements. The Vatican was the fifth nation to ratify the U.N. convention on the rights of the child, and was among the first to ratify the anti-land mine treaty that won for its supporters last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Cynics might note that the Vatican city-state has neither children nor land mines, but these were still important gestures.

At an individual level, Catholic men and women during the past 50 years have performed astonishing acts of heroism in order to stand with the oppressed.

Incomplete picture

Yet these triumphs present an incomplete picture. Ecclesial detente with the human rights movement is compromised by several factors: an ideological bias in favor of the status quo that has led the church into tacit alliances with tyrants and thugs; a single-minded focus on abortion and “reproductive rights” that threatens to scuttle important international agreements; an unwillingness to apply the same human rights internally that church leaders preach to others; and deep resistance to the inter-religious dialogue many see as necessary to carry the human rights movement forward.

If the Catholic church wants to become a more effective advocate for oppressed people, experts who spoke to NCR say, resolving these contradictions will be its major challenge.

The U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted Dec. 10, 1948. A commission led by Eleanor Roosevelt drafted the document. Its 30 articles call for civil rights such as freedom of speech and of the press, as well as “social rights” such as the right to work and the right to education. Subsequent covenants, one on “economic, social and cultural rights” and another on “civil and political rights,” both adopted in 1966, fleshed out the details.

If not in leading roles, Catholics were nevertheless important actors in the adoption of the declaration. As papal nuncio to France, Angelo Roncalli -- later to become John XXIII -- was active in behind-the-scenes work. When the General Assembly took up the declaration in 1948, observers from the Holy See were present.

U.S. bishops’ contributions

Leonard Swidler, an expert on human rights from Temple University, said that historians have largely overlooked the contribution of the American Catholic bishops to the U.N. declaration. A committee of the National Catholic Welfare Conference -- the forerunner of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops -- issued a statement on human rights in 1947. Swidler said a copy of that statement reached Eleanor Roosevelt, and that many passages in the 1948 U.N. declaration are strikingly similar to the U.S. bishops’ document, suggesting probable influence.

Historically speaking, it’s remarkable that Catholics played any role at all. Popes into the 20th century had condemned much of what the declaration contained.

In 1832, for example, Pope Gregory XVI described as “false and absurd or rather mad” the principle “that we must secure and guarantee to each one liberty of conscience; this is one of the most contagious of errors. ... To this is attached liberty of the press, the most dangerous liberty, an execrable liberty, which can never inspire sufficient horror.” As late as Pius X and the anti-modernist campaign of the early 20th century, these anathemas were vigorously enforced.

All that changed, beginning with Pius XII and culminating in Vatican II. “I suppose there are still some people who wouldn’t want to call this a reversal in teaching,” Swidler said. “But I would ask them: If this doesn’t count as a reversal, could you please describe one?”

Since 1948, the Vatican has played an increasingly constructive role in international human rights efforts, according to Jesuit Fr. Robert Araujo, a professor of law at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. Araujo was part of the Holy See’s six-member delegation during this summer’s negotiations for the creation of an International Criminal Court -- a tribunal with the power to try war criminals and human rights violators, modeled on courts currently operating in Rwanda and Bosnia. The Holy See was among the first states to call for the establishment of such a court, beginning with Pius XII in the 1940s.

The Holy See has also become an important supporter of U.N agencies and initiatives, such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF and UNESCO (the Vatican has since cooled to UNICEF over family planning disputes).

Many Catholics -- “even priests and bishops sometimes” -- are unaware of the extent to which the church has developed a human rights doctrine, according to Marist Fr. Ted Keating, who works on human rights issues for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men’s Institutes, based in Silver Spring, Md.

This is an especially acute point for American Catholics, Keating said. “We buy into American exceptionalism, the notion that we invented human rights,” Keating said. He added that Americans are likely to see “human rights” as synonymous with civil and political liberties, such as free speech and freedom of the press.

Social and civil rights

“What we miss is the development of the last 30 or 40 years, which has come to see social and civil rights as interrelated,” Keating said. “As Americans, we are unwilling to acknowledge the rights to work or to health care that much of the rest of the world accepted long ago. We’re actually out of step. But the church is right there.”

Even given this doctrinal progress, many observers believe the church’s best moments on behalf of human rights have come not in papal documents but on the ground, struggling for justice for suffering people.

In Europe, the Solidarity movement in Poland was a classic example of political resistance built on a bedrock of Catholic identity; in Latin America, heroes range from the four American church women killed by the Salvadoran army in the 1980s, to lay men and women who organized base communities, led protests and faced death to do so; in Asia, the most recent example may be Bishop John Joseph of Pakistan, who killed himself in order to protest the mistreatment of Christians.

The honor roll could be extended indefinitely, from Bishop Samuel Ruiz García in Chiapas to Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo in East Timor, but the point is clear: Motivated by the deepest stirrings of their faith, Catholic men and women have time and again acted to defend the rights of others.

Human rights was the focus of this summer’s joint gathering of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, held in Milwaukee. The two groups worked together, Keating said, to produce an inter-religious statement on human rights, culling ideas from a variety of different faith traditions in America -- Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Baha’i and others -- to demonstrate the universal character of the idea of human rights. The statement may be found at www.hrusa.org. The religious men’s association is also launching a national effort to teach human rights in the parishes, schools and other ministries they staff, Keating said. Curricular materials are presently being distributed.

Of course, it’s not just members of religious communities who’ve made contributions. The founders of Amnesty International, for example -- Peter Benenson and Luis Kutner -- were Catholic laymen. Kutner had previously served as an unofficial papal diplomat under Pius XII. Benenson chose Trinity Sunday to launch Amnesty International in 1961.

Such acts, both institutional and individual, offer much for Catholics to be proud of. Yet the story is more complex, because when it comes to the church one hand sometimes takes away what the other hand offers.

Odd bedfellows

For one thing, the fierce anti-communism that dominated Vatican foreign policy for most of the 20th century made odd bedfellows out of the church and several brutal regimes around the world. Catholics suffering at the grassroots too often lifted their eyes to see church leaders nuzzled up with their persecutors. Witness Argentina in the late 1970s, when scores of dissidents were being “disappeared” while Cardinal Pio Laghi, the papal nuncio, played tennis with the nation’s generals and told them human rights must be respected only “as far as this is possible.” The quote, reported in La Nacion on June 27, 1976, reportedly was made by Laghi in a speech to generals in Tucuman in northwestern Argentina.

The church’s checkered history flared up anew last October when John Paul beatified Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, a man closely identified with the Nazi puppet state that ruled Croatia during World War II. The decision drew fire from Jewish groups and the Orthodox church, both of whom remember the program of resettlement, forced conversion, and, in some cases, mass murder the Ustashi carried out against Jews, Serbs and Gypsies.

While Stepanic did denounce Ustasha excesses, and did suffer greatly under the Yugoslavian communists who ruled Croatia after the war, he also stood by Ustasha leader Ante Pavelic well after the regime’s brutality was clear. Beatification by John Paul -- who called Stepanic “the bulwark of the church among the Croats who resisted the yoke of communism in the name of human rights and Christian dignity” -- will be seen in many circles as proof that the church cares more about the victims of communism than other kinds of martyrs.

While global communism is no longer a threat, Keating said, the church remains ambivalent about progressive social movements. “Today it’s not so much communism as a general fear of instability” that preoccupies the “moderate middle” in the church, Keating said. “It’s almost psychological -- a fear of chaos. [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger, for example, is no anti-communist, but he certainly is a protector of the established order.”

On the other hand, Keating said the church has gotten better. “Before Vatican II, the idea that social justice should influence the Vatican’s foreign policy was laughable. It was exclusively a matter of institutional self-interest. That’s changed.”

With the communist bogeyman gone, some observers believe that church officials have fastened upon “feminism” as a new enemy, and have proved equally willing to shuck their commitment to human rights to combat it. The flash point is usually abortion or other “reproductive rights.”

‘Enforced pregnancy’ as crime

Tensions between the Holy See and women’s groups have flared up at several international gatherings -- the U.N. conference on population in Cairo in 1994, for example, or the U.N. conference on women in Beijing in 1995.

The most recent dispute came during negotiations for the new International Criminal Court. Advocates for women, most prominently the New York-based Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice, argued for including “enforced pregnancy” as a war crime. They pointed to Bosnian Serbs who had impregnated Croatian and Muslim women and forced them to carry the babies to term.

The Holy See argued that existing prohibitions against rape and involuntary servitude could cover the offense, suggesting that women’s advocates were surreptitiously trying to create a right to abortion. The Vatican aligned itself with several conservative Islamic states to oppose the “enforced pregnancy” statute.

Rhonda Copelon, a legal adviser to the Women’s Caucus, declared this coalition an “unholy alliance.”

“The Vatican was using the court to foist an essentially religious agenda on the world community,” Copelon said. “I personally found it reprehensible. It denied a very grave crime for a purely political reason.”

Araujo, of the Holy See’s delegation to the negotiations, said that despite statements from Copelon and others to the contrary, abortion was the real issue in the dispute over enforced pregnancy. “I look at these documents as a lawyer and I say it’s the ones who argue for choice who aren’t being fully honest about what they mean.”

Araujo said he also questioned the pro-choice groups’ commitment to social justice, noting that they did not join the Vatican in opposing capital punishment as one of the new court’s penalties. “They’re saying the church is only concerned about the so-called reproductive issues, but let’s be frank, let’s be honest. Where were they when this important issue was being discussed? They weren’t there, it wasn’t on their radar screen.”

Many observers believe the Holy See would have abandoned the negotiations rather than cave in on the enforced pregnancy issue. Araujo said he could not comment on whether the Vatican delegation would have pulled out.

As it happened, a definition of war crimes was created that avoided any reference to abortion, and the Vatican joined the 120 nations voting to create the court. (Seven voted against it: the United States, Iraq, Libya, Qatar, Yemen, China and Israel. Twenty-one nations abstained. U.S. diplomats argued the treaty would allow its peacekeeping troops to be charged as war criminals.) The full text of the agreement may be found at www.un.org/icc.

Araujo said the church’s commitment to the protection of life demands that it take a hard line on abortion. “If we somehow see a fetus as not being a part of this human family, then we can see a Hutu or a Tutsi not as being part of this human family. That’s the common denominator,” he said.

Copelon was unswayed. “We’re basically reliving the attack on the women’s platform at Beijing,” she said. As far as reproductive issues are concerned, Copelon said, the Vatican needs to find a way to work constructively despite differences or it risks alienating the world’s women.

The inside issues

For many rank-and-file Catholics, however, the big human rights issues facing the church are not found at international conferences, but inside its own doors. Vatican crackdowns on dissent, the church’s refusal to ordain women (and, under the present pope, to even talk about ordaining women), and the lack of democratic accountability in its governnance structures have led some to charge that the church does not practice what it preaches.

“Freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience -- these ideas were all advocated in the 1965 Vatican declaration on religious liberty. Why don’t they apply inside the church?” asked Swidler. “When you read the language of that declaration and it says no coercive force should be used, especially in matters of religion, the natural thing is to think that applies to being Catholic, right?”

A famous line from the concluding document of the 1971 Synod of Bishops, an outgrowth of the collegiality called for by Vatican II, lent credence to this view. The bishops said, “While the church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak about justice must first be just in their eyes.”

In an attempt to provide some due process protection for Catholics, Swidler has been working to draft a Catholic constitution, picking up on Paul VI’s call for such a document. He says the project has reached the stage where, after receiving extensive feedback from all over the world, a draft is in place. Swidler will be carrying that draft to a meeting of reform groups in Liechtenstein in January, where he hopes to get approval to circulate it under the aegis of the international We Are Church movement. The draft may be found on-line at http://blue.temple.edu/~dialogue.

The association founded by Swidler held a symposium in New York Nov. 21 commemorating the U.N. declaration. At that event, auxiliary bishop J. Francis Murphy of the Baltimore archdiocese said the church’s “credibility is at stake” if its treatment of members contradicts modern standards.

“Carrying on the status quo” inside the church is not consistent with public praise for the U.N. declaration, Murphy said. He also told association members he was “encouraged by your vision.”

Interreligious dialogue

A final tension identified by several sources between the church’s talk and its behavior concerns inter-religious dialogue, and its relationship to the human rights movement.

One of the most intense debates today concerns whether rights are applicable across cultural and national boundaries. “Lots of people around the world see the language of human rights as wrapped up in Western imperialism,” Keating said. “You see this in many of the Asian nations, for example, who wonder why they should accept notions that were often part and parcel of a system that oppressed them.”

Keating believes the world’s religions must lead the way in figuring out how to talk about rights in a way that transcends cultural specifics. “If the concept of universal rights is going to survive, it will probably fall to the world religions to figure it out. It’ll be hard to support with a purely secular philosophy,” Keating said.

John Paul himself has been one of the clearest voices on this issue. In a speech delivered on World Peace Day, the pope stressed that the universal character of human rights “must be strongly affirmed in order to reject the criticisms of those who would use the argument of cultural specificity to mask violations.” He has invited leaders of other faith traditions to join him in human rights advocacy.

Here too, however, observers fault the pope for failing to match words with deeds. Citing the since-lifted excommunication of Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, and the investigation of Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis for suggesting that other religions might be vehicles of salvation, several sources told NCR that a clear chill has settled over the area of inter-religious dialogue.

“We have to get out from under our own mythologies and find out what a truly universal right might look like,” one source said, who asked not to be identified. “But anybody who talks about that now is committing professional suicide.”

Scholars interested in this kind of work, she suggested, are either gravitating to secular universities or simply waiting for a new pope, hoping for a change in climate.

In all of these areas, many believe the church is not yet living up to its talk on human rights. Asked if she drew any hope from the progress made in the past half-century, one source was dubious. “I don’t know that the church deserves a lot of credit for simply catching up to where the rest of the world already is. The question is,” she said, “where do we go from here?”

The full text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be found on the NCR Web Site. Click on “documents” at http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/

New Earth Ministries, at http://www.sistersofsaintanne.org/nem/, includes extensive links to human rights groups on the Web. Click Social Concerns, then click Human Rights and Related Categories.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998