Benedict to the UN: In Defense of Natural Law

December 10, 1948: Keep your eye on that date. It’s likely to have an important symbolic role in Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit to the United Nations and the United States.
Religious and civic pageantry, teddy bears wearing T-shirts with papal-visit logos, and celebrity worship may be the visit’s most obvious features. But people interested in something more meaty can take heart: Just keep that date in mind.
On December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly — meeting in Paris — voted 48 for, 0 against, and 8 abstaining to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The abstainers, for those who may have forgotten, were the states of the Soviet bloc, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa.
Nearing its 60th anniversary, the human rights declaration is Benedict’s Exhibit A in making his case for universal moral standards as the necessary basis of world peace and justice. When circumstances permit, he links that idea to his project for the revival of natural law.
The pope seems likely again to make his argument for what he calls “common moral law” in the major address he will deliver April 18 to the UN General Assembly in New York. But it will also come as no surprise if he brings up the subject at other stops during his April 15-20 visit to Washington and New York.
To be sure, human rights and natural law won’t be Benedict’s only topics. He has the opportunity to cover many subjects in encounters with groups ranging from the American bishops to priests and religious, presidents of Catholic universities, non-Catholic leaders, and seminarians and young people.
He may, for example, give the bishops a candid assessment of the problematical state of American Catholicism 200 years after Baltimore became the first U.S. archdiocese and four new dioceses were carved out of it — Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown, KY (now, Louisville).
But the importance of the common moral law seems a timely issue for the pope to raise with — among others — Catholic university presidents in speaking of what Catholic schools should be teaching these days, if they want to retain their identity as Catholic.
Benedict has been pressing for a renewal of natural-law thinking as a priority of his pontificate and has invited Catholic universities to join him in helping to bring it about. Less than three weeks before his U.S. arrival, one school — the Catholic University of America in Washington — sponsored a major conference, “A Common Morality for a Global Age,” in response to the appeal.
There was a tipoff to Benedict’s thinking about these matters and their likely relationship to his trip to the United States in remarks he delivered at the Vatican on February 29 to Mary Ann Glendon, who was presenting her credentials as the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 60th anniversary we celebrate this year, was the product of a worldwide recognition that a just global order can only be based on the acknowledgment and defense of the inviolable dignity and rights of every man and woman,” the pope told Glendon, a Harvard Law professor who is author of a history of the writing of the human rights declaration. (The book, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was published in 2002.)
Benedict made it a point to link the idea of common moral law to the United States, declaring it to be “enshrined in its founding documents.” He urged that it remain a central principle guiding U.S. policy in today’s world.
This, however, is not an easy sell at a time when natural law has widely fallen out of favor in academia — not only secular academia, but often Catholic academia as well — with various versions of positivism and utilitarianism replacing it. This circumstance provided the background for Benedict’s famous warning against the “dictatorship of relativism” when he spoke to the cardinals on the eve of his election as pope three years ago. Since then, it has continued to inform much that he’s said and done.
The pope spoke at length about the common moral law as the foundation of human rights in his message for this year’s World Day of Peace last January 1. Recognizing its existence “enables human beings to come to a common understanding regarding the most important aspects of good and evil, justice and injustice,” he said, adding: “Mankind is not lawless.”
Yet in some respects, Benedict has a difficult job on his hands even in commending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the UN. The rise of secularist relativism over the past six decades is one reason. But so is something else: Eight years ago, the 57 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference voted to accept a “Declaration on Human Rights in Islam,” which says that people have a right to live in freedom and dignity — provided they do that in accord with Islamic Sharia law.

Russell Shaw’s 20th book, Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church, is forthcoming from Ignatius Press.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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