Here is the latest evidence of the clash between contemporary human rights norms and traditional religions. Last week, the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child reported on the Vatican’s compliance with an international treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention, which virtually every UN member, including the Holy See, has ratified (though not the US), lists universal rights of children, including the right to be protected from discrimination; the right to be free from violence, including sexual abuse; the right to health and welfare; and so on.
The committee had blunt words for the Vatican. With respect to the sexual abuse crisis, it complained, “the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.” The committee had several suggestions for how the Vatican could do a better job, including the immediate removal of “all known and suspected child sexual abusers” and referral of cases “to the relevant law enforcement authorities.”
Critics complain that the that the committee did not sufficiently acknowledge the steps the Vatican has taken to address the crisis. I’ll leave that question to others. Whether or not the Vatican’s response has been adequate, everyone agrees that sexual abuse is a violation of children’s rights. But the committee also addressed subjects on which everyone does not agree. It suggested that the Vatican alter its positions on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality in order to meet its obligations under the Convention.
For example, the committee stated that the prohibition of abortion “places obvious risks on the life and health of pregnant girls”and urged the Vatican to amend canon law to “identify circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.” It expressed “serious concern” about the Vatican’s policy of “denying adolescents access to contraception.” The Vatican must put “adolescents’ best interests” ahead of other concerns, the committee said. And the committee expressed concern that the Holy See’s disapproval of homosexuality may lead to discrimination against LGBT children and the children of LGBT parents. It recommended that the Holy See amend canon law to recognize diverse family arrangements.
As my former colleague Julian Ku explains, these recommendations don’t follow clearly from the text of the Convention, which lacks “specific language about LGBTQ rights, the appropriate circumstances for abortions, or birth-control education.” On the contrary, Ku says, the report is based upon an “aggressive” reading of the treaty. And the recommendations obviously conflict with fundamental teachings of one of the world’s great religions. Given these facts, shouldn’t the committee have dialed it back a bit? Why push an aggressive, contestable interpretation of a treaty that purports to be universal, notwithstanding the inevitable conflict with the Catholic Church and other traditional religions?
There are probably two explanations. First, to the committee, these recommendations seem morally incontrovertible. Who could doubt that children’s best interests call for liberalized abortion, unrestricted access to contraceptives, and the recognition of same-sex marriages? From the secular human rights perspective, these propositions are frustratingly obvious. The idea that one might in good faith define “best interests” differentlythat many world religions in fact do define “best interests” differentlydoesn’t make sense. The committee simply cannot credit the other point of view.
Second, the secular human rights regime believes it is at the brink of final victory in these matters. (It has believed so for about 50 years now.) The forces of obscurity are in retreat and religion no longer dictates people’s lives, at least in the civilized West. The Catholic Church, in particular, is on the ropes, a victim of its own sins and intransigence. Why not put an end to its obstructionism once and for all? This would help the cause of progress, and actually be a good thing for the Church, too.
The committee no doubt expected the negative reaction of the Vatican to last week’s report. But it may have been surprised that so many in the elite media objected too. The Economist criticized the report for being sloppy and taking positions on issues where consensus is lacking. The Atlantic’s Emma Green complained that the report inappropriately critiqued deeply-held religious beliefs. And the Boston Globe’s John Allen argued that the report would only confirm the opinion of skeptics that the UN is motivated by politics and secular ideology. Perhaps the final victory is still a ways off.