“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude,” the United Nations declared in the fourth article of its 1948 landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued three years after the international body’s founding.
“Slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms,” the United Nations declared. Yet, more than seven decades later, slavery cannot be said to be universally prohibited.
Pope Francis frequently calls attention to contemporary slavery under the heading of human trafficking, as he did early in his pontificate in “The Joy of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium“), his 2013 apostolic exhortation on evangelization. He exclaimed:
“How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: ‘Where is your brother?’ (Gn 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labor?” (No. 211).
It takes nothing away from the universal declaration to note that basic human rights continue to be violated in the 21st century. Perhaps a declaration completed in 1948 seems old. Yet everything about this one remains new; the conversation about human rights always is restarting.
Human rights are not abstractions. Neither does everyone fully accept them. So ways are sought again and again to ensure that human rights are honored and not abused.
Moreover, new ways always are sought to enable human rights to take root in the complex lives of real people around the world. That is a daily concern in the worldwide Catholic Church.
Recognition of everyone’s human rights would alter human relations on a grand scale. That is one reason human rights are of such interest for the church. Don’t we approach others differently when we acknowledge them as God’s creation?
What can be enjoyable about the human-rights conversation is its focus on our personal freedoms, for example our right to make our views known or to practice the faith we profess. When the focus shifts to others’ rights, however, the conversation sometimes turns stressful. Are others’ rights as important as our rights?
The Second Vatican Council spoke of this in its 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. “There is a growing awareness of the exalted dignity proper to the human person,” whose “rights and duties are universal and inviolable,” the council observed. Thus, “everything necessary for leading a life truly human” must “be made available to all,” it said (No. 26).
Human dignity and human rights virtually are twins in this ongoing conversation. Part of their inherent challenge is to view others differently or, perhaps, to view them through God’s eyes.
In the Beatitudes of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus states, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh” (6:20-21). Doesn’t such esteem for poor and hungry people raise awareness of their inherent dignity and rights?
“It is because of God’s love for each person and for the entire human family that the church speaks” of a broad range of social issues, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore said recently. This, he said, is why the church speaks of “economic and racial justice; the evil of abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia; the economy and the environment; religious liberty; the plight of immigrants and refugees; and a host of other social issues.”
Aren’t those the very topics of today’s daily news reports? The world’s conversation about human rights and dignity is continual, though it is not always labeled as such. A closer look at the 1948 U.N. human rights declaration illustrates why.
Consider the declaration’s Article 25. It states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”
Moreover, everyone has “the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Article 25’s challenge is perpetual. How is a “standard of living” that is everyone’s right to be assured? That seems like the very stuff of the political realm. It is a challenge, too, for faith communities, charities, social agencies, educators and many others.
Think also of the ceaseless challenges of the declaration’s statement that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state” (16).
Finally, consider its first article, which says that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
What does ensuring these human rights require? In the greatly polarized societies of our times, what will it take “to act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood”?
Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.