Catholics have often made common cause with the promoters of human rights. And with good reason: as Leo XIII argued in Rerum Novarum (1891), we cannot condone cruelty, neglect or baseless discrimination directed at anyone if we profess the idea that we are all equally made in God’s image, and that mistreatment of any one of us is mistreatment of our Saviour himself.
Human rights are one thing. The European Convention on Human Rights is another. Increasingly, rights under this Convention are becoming not so much secular reflections of sound doctrine, as flat contradictions of it. This has been happening for some time, but a trio of recent court decisions in Britain has made it clear that the faithful may have to consider very carefully how far they can in conscience continue to support it.
On October 3, the Northern Ireland High Court blithely declared that allowing abortion of healthy foetuses resulting from rape or incest was not only acceptable, but required, whatever voters or others might think, as a matter of human rights; or more precisely, the right of the mother to private and family life (yes, you read that right).
A few weeks earlier, there had been if anything a more disconcerting decision in the Family Court. A young man unable to look after himself (anonymised as JB) decided he wanted to find a girlfriend and have sexual relations with her. Despite the fact that what he wanted was entirely recreational sex, and also that he had no real appreciation that the woman’s consent was even necessary for such things – matters that predictably worried the authority looking after him – the judge had little hesitation in approving the arrangement; his right to have sex tout court was, she said, his fundamental human right which had to be furthered.
As if this was not enough, at about the same time the case arose of David Mackereth, a Christian doctor summarily dismissed as an assessor for the Department for Work and Pensions because he insisted that people were created male or female, and thus declined to address everyone invariably by their “preferred pronoun”. The Employment Tribunal threw out his claim of discrimination and infringement of religious freedom. Human rights, it said, were concerned with “dignity”. Belief in Genesis 1:27 and conscientious objection to transgenderism were “incompatible with human dignity and conflict with the fundamental rights of others”.
What is interesting is that while the Catholic values supporting human rights – dignity, autonomy, the family – are present in all these judgments, in the mindset of the lawyers and secular publicists in whose hands the development of the European Convention now lies they have been drastically changed.
When Leo XIII emphasised such matters as dignity and autonomy in 1891 he rightly regarded it as obvious, as it is to all thinking Catholics today, that they are good not in themselves, but as a means to an end. Giving someone an autonomous right to choose what to do makes moral sense only in the context of giving him a chance to choose rightly: without this we have not so much immorality as a denial that there can be such a thing as morality.
Ironically, human rights lawyers are today increasingly saying the opposite, with individual desire as the ultimate value. They are thereby falling headlong into the obvious contradiction: the promotion of amorality as the highest moral duty of the state. And that, as I said at the beginning, should give any conscientious churchgoer pause for thought when asked for his or her support.