Longtime readers of First Things may recall that the April 1998 issue featured a nuanced statement “On Human Rights” by the Ramsey Colloquium, a diverse group of Christian and Jewish scholars led by Richard John Neuhaus. The group’s aim was to provide the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) with “a more secure grounding in religious, philosophical, and moral reason” at a moment when that document was under attack from several directions. While acknowledging that rights discourse is often misused, the Ramsey group noted its roots “in our shared history” and affirmed its value as “the most available discourse for cross-cultural deliberation about the dignity of the human person.” They affirmed that it “makes possible a truly universal dialogue about our common human future.”
Much has changed since then. So much, in fact, that First Things editor R. R. Reno announced in the May 2016 issue that he has become increasingly opposed to human rights and pledged that “First Things will never call for dialogue.” In an editorial provocatively titled “Against Human Rights,” he argues that the concept of human rights has become an ideology that functions, at least in the West, as “an enemy of the responsible exercise of freedom,” indeed a “patron of negative freedom, pushing against demands and obligations arising from our shared culture.” Noting that two generations of Catholic leaders, including popes, have regarded human rights as important for the building of humane societies and have employed rights discourse themselves as a “bridge language” supporting the protection of human dignity, Reno declares that it is time for the Catholic Church “to rethink its enthusiasm for human rights.”
As a participant in that 1998 Ramsey Colloquium, a longtime supporter of the cautious use of rights language, and a frequent critic of its misuses, I was moved by Reno’s arguments to ponder whether the noble post–World War II universal human-rights idea has finally been so manipulated and politicized as to justify its abandonment by men and women of good will.