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Pope Benedict’s address to the U.N. General Assembly possessed no obvious and immediate Regensburg passage, no startling phrase to shake observers from comfortable assumptions and to foster debate about the institution. This was all the more troubling for those who know—and who know that Pope Benedict knows—that for all the good it may do on humanitarian grounds, the United Nations is a primary political opponent of the pope in his effort to defend three bedrock values, values he himself has labeled as nonnegotiable: the protection of human life from conception to natural death, the protection of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and the protection of the right of parents to control the education of their children. None received explicit mention in his speech.

In fact, some passages in the speech could be interpreted as a papal blessing, of sorts, of increased authority for the United Nations: “The international community must intervene” in domestic affairs when sovereign nations cannot or will not protect the rights of their citizens; the “multilateral consensus” cannot be “subordinated to the decisions of a few”; the United Nations has the “responsibility to protect” all of humanity. Could it be that Pope Benedict is an uncritical admirer of the U.N.?

Of course not. The truth of the matter is that, such statements notwithstanding, the entire address should be considered a profound and extended type of Regensburg moment. On reflection, what Benedict called for, even if the awed diplomats in attendance may have missed it, was no less than the international application of the American concept of the separation of church and state, a concept that Benedict considers essential if the international community is to be predicated upon the inherent dignity of the human person. At the very deepest level, his apparently pro-U.N. speech turned out to be a stunning endorsement of the United States’ understanding of religion in the public sphere, and the need to apply that understanding to international dialogue. This is the case even though no news reports noticed; it is the case even though “America” or the “United States” does not appear once in the address.

To begin, it is important to note what did appear in the speech, and what appeared repeatedly: The pope thought it necessary to refer to the concept of human dignity nine separate times. Why? Human dignity is a type of shorthand for the recognition of the proper status of the human person. What is that status? According to Benedict, the human person is “the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”

Dignity is discussed a great deal at the United Nations; it finds its way into preambles and resolutions and reports on a regular basis. But it does not mean anything. It is there because it sounds good; it marks an aspiration without any programmatic implications. Benedict is therefore attempting to recover dignity, to reclaim the notion that humanity is the high-point of God’s creation, and to restore it to its central role in international relations

According to Benedict, the U.N. once recognized that man was at the pinnacle of creation: “This reference to human dignity . . . leads us to the theme we are specifically focusing upon this year, which marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws, and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, religion, and science.”

Human nature is the primary universal truth of social and political interaction, upon which all other truths are based: “The Universal Declaration . . . has reinforced the conviction that respect for human rights is principally rooted in unchanging justice, on which the binding force of international proclamations is also based . . . . Since rights and the resulting duties follow naturally from human interaction, it is easy to forget that they are the fruit of a commonly held sense of justice built primarily upon solidarity among the members of society, and hence valid at all times and for all peoples.”

Thus, the entire regime of international human rights is threatened if the universal nature of the human being is denied. And that is exactly what is happening today: “It is evident, though, that the rights recognized and expounded in the Declaration apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history. They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social, and even religious outlooks. This great variety of outlooks must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of rights.”

Throughout the address, Benedict expounds upon the threat of the relativistic conception. Under the banner of relativism, he includes “simple interests,” “particular interests,” “trends,” “selective choices,” “legality,” “legislative enactments,” “decisions taken by various agencies of those in power,” a “narrowly utilitarian perspective,” a “pragmatic approach.”

It is clear that he considers it his duty to combat these tendencies: “Today, though, efforts need to be redoubled in the face of pressure to reinterpret the foundations of the Declaration and to compromise its inner unity so as to facilitate a move away from the protection of human dignity.” But how? Benedict calls for the recovery of the sense of the “meaning of transcendence.” And so the real debate he seeks to foster is not between two competing conceptions of political organization, between national sovereignty and multination cooperation (or a kind of global state), but between a state, any type of state, that is bereft of transcendent meaning and a state informed by religious belief. “Discernment, then, shows that entrusting exclusively to individual States, with their laws and institutions, the final responsibility to meet the aspirations of persons, communities and entire peoples, can sometimes have consequences that exclude the possibility of a social order respectful of the dignity and rights of the person. On the other hand, a vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension can help to achieve this, since recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of heart.”

The question then becomes, in a world of undeniable pluralism, how do we bring religion into the political sphere? This is where the vision of church and state as practiced in the United States becomes central. According to Benedict, “The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order.”

This is the U.S. model of church-state relations. There is no established religion, but believers are permitted to inform the public discourse with their beliefs¯if they can be communicated through reason, which would then tie beliefs back to the universal nature of humanity.

All this is in contradistinction, Benedict implies, to the European model, where the secular state has been scoured free of religious influence, and where believers “have to suppress a part of themselves¯their faith¯in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.” And it is in contradistinction to the Muslim model, where religious freedom is lacking and where there are “majority religious positions of an exclusive nature.”

Benedict therefore left the assembled ambassadors and diplomats with this challenge: to transform the current state of dialogue at the U.N.¯and the human rights revolution the institution was created to further¯from the relativism they are currently helping to impose upon it. That he suggested, however subtly, an American model of dialogue in order to accomplish this would be an irony that few of them would probably enjoy.

Douglas A. Sylva is a senior fellow at the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.


Pope Benedict XVI’s Speech Before the U.N. General Assembly

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