In 2018, the United Nations marked 70 years as the world’s guardian of human rights.

Its Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted Dec. 10, 1948, in Paris — after years of fierce debate among the signatories.

In those years of discussion, Catholic social teaching played an outsized role, serving as a surprising common ground for cultures and ideologies that were vehemently opposed to one another.

So said Paul Marshall, who is Wilson Distinguished Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University and senior fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. Marshall told Angelus News that the “ethos of human rights” expressed in the Universal Declaration “developed out of a Christian commitment to the value of the person” and natural law reasoning.

Marshall believes that the Catholic thinker whose work had a singular influence on the U.N.’s founding documents was the French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973).

Raised in a nominally Protestant French home, Maritain came, as a young man, to despair of finding any meaning in life. Through the influence of friends, he encountered the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, and there he found a sure remedy to his existential malaise. 

In Catholicism, to which he converted in 1906, he also discovered a coherent spiritual, social, and cultural ethos that respected the natural order of rights and duties.

From the time of his conversion, Maritain placed his mind — one of the century’s most brilliant — at the service of a holy ambition. He worked to win culture back to Christ. His philosophical and polemical works ranged from science to art, prayer to politics, education to spiritual direction. He became that rare figure: a public intellectual with international celebrity status.

During World War II, he fled Europe with his wife, Raissa, a convert from Judaism. Both had been targets in Nazi-occupied France — Raissa for her ancestry, Jacques for his ideas. Through the war years, Maritain wrote books and gave radio addresses to fortify the resistance movements throughout Europe.

He was the author of more than 50 books, and two in particular would profoundly influence the coming discussion of universal human rights: “The Rights of Man and Natural Law” (1942) and “Christianity and Democracy” (1943), both written while he was living in the United States.

After V-E Day he emerged as a statesman, serving as French ambassador to the Vatican and to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

French philosopher Jacques Maritain. (HERITAGE IMAGE PARTNERSHIP LTD/ALAMY)

Maritain’s work would receive wide notice within the Catholic Church. St. Pope Paul VI referred to him as “my teacher” and “a saint,” and chose him to represent the intellectuals of the world at the closing ceremonies of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. 

The council’s social vision was deeply influenced by Maritain. Paul later invited him to prepare the initial draft of the Church’s “Credo of the People of God.”

But Maritain’s pioneering work with the U.N. is little known, according to Marshall. He “presided over several of the earliest U.N. meetings on human rights,” Marshall explained. “He was not active in the drafting, but he had a great theoretical influence in the period leading up to it. He was a godfather to the process.”

Indeed, in a 1948 address, Maritain acknowledged that UNESCO was “helping to draft” the declaration on human rights, which he called “one of the most important tasks undertaken by the United Nations.”

The problem, he told the Second International Conference of UNESCO, was “Babelism.” Like the workers in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, the gathered diplomats did not speak the same language.

More important than linguistic differences, he said, was the fact that their cultural, moral, and spiritual heritages were at variance.

“Every man’s voice is but noise to his fellow man,” Maritain noted. Among nations, fundamental ideas about rights and duties are often “mutually opposed.”

Still, he was optimistic. Maritain believed that nations that could not be unified in spirit could still be united in “practical, common principles of action,” assuming they all accept the democratic charter of the United Nations.

In his book “Man and the State” (1951), he illustrated this with an anecdote from the drafting session of the human rights charter: “During one of the meetings … at which the Rights of Man were being discussed, someone was astonished that certain proponents of violently opposed ideologies had agreed on the draft of a list of rights. Yes, they replied, we agree on these rights provided we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins.”

And though there were disputes, the natural law argument, to a surprising degree, prevailed. The man who compiled the first drafts of the human rights declaration, Canadian diplomat John Humphrey, later recalled that debates were dominated by “Catholics and communists, with the latter a poor second,” Marshall said.

Why? Marshall cited three possible reasons. First, it is a basic principle of natural law theory that natural law is universal, built into the nature of human beings. So, in agreeing with the Catholic position, delegates were merely doing what comes naturally.

Second, Marshall said, a Christian natural law offered a “middle of the road” between the dominant ideologies of the day. “Within Catholic social thought, there is a tendency to defend the person without slipping into individualism, yet to recognize the community without slipping into the excesses of socialism.”

Third, he concluded, “Catholic participants had developed and worked-out views. Not all the others did.”

Marshall, an Anglican, is not the first to affirm the Christian character of the human rights declaration.

Pope St. John XXIII wrote in the encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”): “There is no doubt … that the document represents an important step. … For in it, in most solemn form, the dignity of a person is acknowledged to all human beings.”

The consensus in the declaration was hard won and has been surprisingly durable, Marshall said. “But I think in the coming years we could see a real fight break out. The West, today, lacks a strong moral base to defend universality.”

Already in the 1990s a group of nations, known as the Bangkok Group, “pushed against the universality of rights,” Marshall explained. “They claimed that rights are a Western ideology inappropriate in other countries. So human rights will be ‘whatever our country says they are.’ Maritain would see this as a backward step.”

Then, in 1994, a group led by the United States tried to expand the roster of basic rights to include abortion, contraception, and homosexual marriage. These efforts were opposed, successfully, by delegations from Muslim nations and the Vatican. But their advocates keep trying. 

Late in 2018, the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee threatened the longstanding consensus by again attempting to place abortion — now with assisted suicide — among the basic human rights, along with life, liberty, and security. (With no apparent sense of irony, the committee argued that these new “rights” are based on the declaration’s understanding of the right to life.)

At threescore and ten, the declaration may be approaching the end of its life span. It is a live question, it seems, whether the U.N. will maintain its delicate balance by concentrating on “practical common principles of action” — or slide back into the “Babelism” of a world at war.

The rows of the United Nations member states flags in front of the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland. (SHUTTERSTOCK)


Mike Aquilina is a contributing editor to Angelus News. He is the author of many books, including “A History of the Church in 100 Objects” and “Yours Is the Church.”

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