On Wednesday morning the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child published its Concluding Observations concerning the Catholic Church’s treatment of children. In this widely-denounced document (see HLI’s statement here), the Committee chastises the Church for supposedly ignoring or refusing the rights of children. It called for the Church to amend Canon Law, to change her unchangeable teaching, and to embrace secular morality on matters ranging from homosexuality and contraception to abortion and gender ideology.
The UN Committee was quite explicit and exhaustive in its expectations: the document is 16 pages long with 67 paragraphs. The Holy See, for its part, was not impressed:
The Holy See does, however, regret to see in some points of the Concluding Observations an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of the human person and in the exercise of religious freedom. The Holy See reintegrates its commitment to defending and protecting the rights of the child, in line with the principles promoted by the Convention of the Rights of the Child and according to the moral and religious values offered by Catholic doctrine.
There has already been outcry about this unjust attack on the Holy See, and likely there will be a more detailed statement forthcoming. In the meantime, however, I would like to consider two key themes of the Vatican’s response that merit reflection: the dignity of the human person and religious freedom. What the UN Committee rejects and considers as unacceptable behavior, the Church sees as a moral obligation and duty to uphold because she cannot ignore her purpose and divine mandate. There really could not be a more stark opposition between the worldviews of this committee and the Vatican.
In the opening paragraph of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, the Church states her case about the dignity of the human person as it relates to personal and religious freedom:
A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. (DH #1)
The Declaration states that the growing consciousness of people regarding their own dignity helps the Church in its mission, and leads to an increased emphasis on man’s need to be free from coercion. It also affirms the Church’s claim to the freedom to pursue its mission, which is not established by any human agreement. Pope Saint John Paul II, champion of human dignity and religious freedom, affirmed these principles in his 1979 encyclical Redemptor Hominis: “I appeal in the name of all believers throughout the world to those on whom the organization of social and public life in some way depends, earnestly requesting them to respect the rights of religion and of the Church’s activity.”
The Church must be free to preach the Gospel, and the human person must be free to pursue the truth about himself as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Seeking the truth without compromise is the greatest affirmation of human dignity. Human dignity is defined in part by man’s ability to transcend himself — to love God with his whole being. “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience, in order that he may come to know God, the end and purpose of life.” (DH #3)
Religious freedom does not, however, mean that the laws of society can be ignored. When these are in harmony with God’s law we have an obligation to obey that authority; otherwise we jeopardize the common good. In fact, those who seek religious truth make good citizens because they strive to live by God’s plan.
The last century saw the unprecedented growth of governments and ideological systems that suppressed religious truth and human dignity. Yet, in the midst of such turmoil there were some willing to witness for truth and freedom of conscience — even at the cost of their lives. Martyrs give the ultimate witness and force humanity in every age to consider the truth placed before them and the seriousness of the duty to seek the truth. When man’s law is unjust, God’s law still demands our assent. “It is necessary to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) Sadly we are seeing a new era of martyrs in Africa and the Middle East, as Christians are targeted by Muslim mobs and forced to convert or be killed.
Although we are not yet facing martyrdom following the UN Committee’s offensive and unjust demands, it is wise to remember history. We have ample reminders today and in recent history of what faith, hope, love and courage demand of Christians in times of persecution, much of which was preceded by blatant rhetorical attacks on the Church from political powers. The Church has seen many centuries and has weathered many storms. She will as she has always done speak and witness the truth no matter the cost.
We pray that the Committee’s overreach may serve as a wake-up call to many inside and outside the Church about the radical direction being taken by some at the UN. But let’s be aware of the moment we’re in, and prepare accordingly.