Reflection on Unalienable Rights

By Joseph Enzler, M.A. student

On the 21st of February, I attended the Commission on Unalienable Rights. This Commission was established by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to understand better what the Framers of the constitution meant by ‘unalienable rights’ and how to better implement this meaning in U.S. foreign policy. The Commission consists of twelve members from across the United States, mostly of academic backgrounds. Attending the Commission meeting was an incredible experience. Listening as the guest speakers voiced their thoughts on the human rights debate and spoke the truth about the importance of human rights, I was overcome with anticipation and vigor to solve the mystery that is human rights.

The first guest speaker was Dr. Martha Minow, a professor at the Harvard Law School. Her speech offered advice to the commission on how they should go about solving the mystery of ‘unalienable rights’ and human rights in general. She focused heavily on the manner in which one ought to engage with this topic. From maintaining respect and humility in one’s approach to tolerating the views of others, she laid out a clear path on which to begin discovering these rights. Listening to Dr. Minow’s speech reaffirmed my belief that human rights are difficult to ground in anything other than the dignity of the human person. At the core of her argument, Dr. Minow stated that understanding human dignity as the basis for unalienable rights, is the starting point of understanding how to construct foreign policy regarding them. In accordance with the Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae, Dr. Minow’s speech too seemed to indicate that, “truth…is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person.” Her focus on understanding human rights by way of understanding human dignity instilled hope in me, knowing that the ideals I am learning in the classroom are sought after and are at the core of the discussion of professionals in the human rights field.

The second speaker, Thor Halvorssen, is the CEO and founder of the Human Rights Foundation. Originally from Venezuela, Mr. Halvorssen expressed a clear disdain for socialist and authoritarian regimes. He stressed the importance of democracy and presented evidence of the correlation between human rights violations and dictatorships. Without diving into the theoretical dialogue, Mr. Halvorssen explained that human rights violations are intrinsically linked to dictatorial regimes. He then followed this observation by asking the obvious question: how do we prevent this? As CEO of the Human Rights Foundation, Halvorssen sees his duty as ‘sounding the alarm’ when a violation occurs. He explained that his responsibility is not to implement or suggest policy but to inform those who are responsible, of the need for a change of policy. Thus, he began by thanking the commission for their work and praising the existence of the commission. He pointed out that such a commission would not exist in China “or if it did, it would probably be composed of all state officials and used to spread propaganda.” Mr. Halvorssen did not put forth a path by which to create human rights policy as Dr. Minow did, however, he did leave the commission with one suggestion: to condemn all dictatorial regimes and all dictators across the world. He stated that he does not believe in labeling some dictators as ‘good dictators’ while condemning others as ‘bad dictators’ rather, he sees all authoritarian regimes as unjust, abusive of power, and the source of many human rights violations.

As a student in the Master of Arts in Human Rights program, attending the United States Commission on Unalienable Rights was an extraordinarily privileged moment. The primary struggle I have encountered during this program is the frustration of not being able to assist the millions of human beings who suffer from human rights abuses across the globe. I find myself questioning why I am learning the basis for human rights, when I desire to be out fighting those who abuse them. Attending this commission meeting instilled hope in me, a hope that great minds are sincerely struggling with a solution as well. Moreover, great people are fighting daily to gain the attention of the public and inspire this righteous anger in them. While the desire to step up and fight for those whose rights are being violated is good, understanding why we even have rights is the first step in joining the battle. Perhaps if enough people learned about the intrinsic dignity of the human person, we just might end the human rights atrocities and save our fellow human beings.

Human Rights and Human Dignity at the US Department of State

By Abigail Wilkinson, M.A. student

The Commission on Unalienable Rights at the US Department of State was drawn together to take a fresh look at the role of human rights, at a time when a lot of people are losing faith in the role that they occupy in our public policy. The Commission is tasked with working at the level of principle—not policy—which enables it to consider the foundational issues which undergird current problems and debates. From the very beginning of the meeting, it was fascinating to note the diverse backgrounds which the Commissioners bring to bear on this work. Between them, they represent a number of different fields, including philosophy, ethics, history, and economics. During the February 21st meeting, the Commission heard from Martha Minow, a professor at Harvard Law School, and Thor Halvorssen, the founder and CEO of the Human Rights Foundation, who is currently advocating for human rights in his native Venezuela.

Over the course of the afternoon, I was particularly struck by the emphasis on the centrality of human dignity in human rights work. Minow prefaced her address to the Commission by stressing that human rights ultimately concern the dignity of each and every human being. One of the major challenges that currently effects our human rights discourse is the perceived conflict between various rights. However, Minow argues, holding fast to a foundation of human dignity helps to lessen the tension between civil and political rights and social and economic rights. Halvorssen would later push back on this idea, arguing that the former are the building blocks of human flourishing and must be protected first. But Minow would strain that the question to ask is not “which rights?” but “what is necessary to respect the full and inviolable dignity of the human person?” This fundamental concept is very much reflected in the social teaching of the Catholic Church. The Catechism states it clearly: “Being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons” (CCC 357).

Minow consequently highlighted the role of empathy in the human rights arena. Affronts to human dignity ought to evoke our empathy—and this should shape the ensuing public policy debates. Minow advised that we should not be afraid to delve into the conflicts that arise between rights claims, but that this is where we must especially discipline ourselves to get to the root of the conflict with courtesy and with civility. The practice of human rights work must be marked by a willingness to understand others, even when their perspective is not closely aligned with ours. The practice of empathy protects the dignity of our interlocutors and furthermore, is an effective tool in our work. In fostering good will even among those we disagree with, we are better able to advance a true understanding of human dignity.

In his 1980 encyclical letter, Dives in misericordia, John Paul II also underscores the connection between compassion (or mercy) and respect for the dignity of all persons. He provides an exegesis of the parable of the prodigal son, writing that it demonstrates that “the relationship of mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is proper to him.” And mercy or compassion is at it’s most perfect when it drives us outside of ourselves: “The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical, or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes, and draws good from all the forms of evil that exist in the world and in man.”

And so, both Minow and Halvorssen noted the role that the present-day phenomenon of “compassion fatigue” plays in halting adequate public responses to human rights crises. What good does it does to empathize with the people of Venezuela if our involvement ends there? One of the challenges that will face the Commission is that of demonstrating the gravity of abuses against human dignity in a fast-paced, technology-driven world where many have grown resigned to them. After getting the opportunity to witness them in action, I have no doubt that they are up to the challenge.

Graduate Scholarships Available to Alumni of Newman Guide Colleges

By Newman Society Staff

Are you planning to pursue graduate studies? Alumni of faithful Newman Guide-recommended colleges should know of these scholarship opportunities offered especially for them.

Human Rights

The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., is also recommended in The Newman Guide. Its Institute for Human Ecology recently announced a new Master of Arts in Human Rights. Led by longtime pro-life leader and attorney William Saunders, the program draws on studies in philosophy, theology, law, canon law, and the sciences, and will ignite in students a passion to defend human life. The program is available on a full-time or part-time basis.

A new $5,000 scholarship is available for graduates of Newman Guide colleges and universities. The scholarships are awarded on a rolling basis. The deadline is July 15 for the fall semester.

Read more here.

Originally published on 2 March 2020 at The Cardinal Newman Society

March for Life 2020: Perspectives from a Human Rights Student

By Abigail Wilkinsonr, M.A. student

Studying human rights, I sometimes find myself having to battle a sense of discouragement at the abuses against human dignity that seem to proliferate in contemporary society. Whether reading in a textbook about 1990s Rwanda or scanning the headlines of the morning Wall Street Journal, it takes little effort to locate instances of human suffering. Even as courageous men and women work relentlessly to protect human rights, violations continue to abound.

But this year at the March for Life in Washington, DC, I was challenged particularly by the spirit of my fellow protestors: a spirit of joy. Washington is no stranger to protests and so many of them are marked by bitterness and anger. The March for Life, however, poses a striking contrast. The streets of our nation’s capital overflowed with mothers pushing infant twins in strollers, with elderly couples arm-in-arm, with groups of students singing exuberantly. The crowd was as diverse as it was abundant: I witnessed Native Americans in traditional dress, college students from Europe and South America, and smiling religious sisters who chimed into our conversations. Oftentimes, the pro-life movement is depicted in the media as a homogenous group of sour-faced and straight-laced white men. But the men and women that I saw on the National Mall last week had little in common besides a commitment to affirming that life is valuable and in need of protection—from conception until natural death. As I walked out of class and into the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception last week, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of pilgrims who were crowded into its corners and side chapels, having come from across the country to bear witness that, as the poet Max Ehrmann wrote, “with all its sham and drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”

The 2020 March for Life was an important reminder that we advocate to protect human rights, not to win a political battle or to make ourselves feel accomplished, but because we are motivated by a vision of human flourishing. There are a lot of frightening things in this world and for a lot of women, seeing two lines on that pregnancy test is one of them. But the story doesn’t have to end there. There were so many miracles present at last week’s March, from children who had been born alive despite attempted abortions to abortionists who have come to acknowledge and embrace the sanctity of the human person. The darkness doesn’t win out in the end, these miracles remind us, but only bears witness to the light—and that is exactly why we continue the fight for the dignity of human life.

Freedom as Choice

By Joseph Enzler, M.A. student

This year, I attended the 47th annual March for Life. It was not my first time attending, as I have been going since high school, however, it was my first time arriving at 9 am to get close to the stage. This semester I am interning with Susan B. Anthony list, one of the largest Pro Life lobby firms in the area, so I was asked to meet my coworkers downtown early so that we could handout signs to the people arriving for the rally. Although I waited quite some time for the rally to begin, it was all worth it when President Donald J. Trump promulgated the Truth for the whole nation to observe.

The rally was an incredible experience. Never has the President of the United States attended the March for Life, “…to defend the right of every child, born and unborn, to fulfill their God given potential.” The truth that was uttered by our commander and chief, truly inspired me to continue my efforts in the fight for life. The purported “fundamental issue” at the heart of the abortion debate is whether an unborn child’s life is valuable. It seems that no one would dispute that a child in the womb will eventually reach maturity, provided his/her development is left unhindered. I also believe no one would reasonably argue that a fully developed human being, no matter what race or gender, has less rights than another. So why then do some believe that rights begin at birth and not at conception? Why do they begin at birth and not at maturity? Are children afforded the same rights as adults? Ought they be?

All these questions are at the core of the Master of Arts in Human Rights, which I am currently pursuing. While I have yet to uncover all the answers, I know enough that when the President stated, “all of us here today understand an eternal truth: every child is a precious and sacred gift from God,” he was not stating his opinion but stating the Eternal Law as understood by reason, promulgated by the Natural, Divine, and Human Laws. The Truth of the matter is that laws should never promote evils which threaten the common good of society. In fact, Aquinas defined a law as “an ordinance of reason promulgated by an authority for the sake of the common good.” A Supreme Court decision mandating that abortion be permitted nationwide, is neither an ordinance of reason nor is it for the sake of the common good; therefore, it must be corrected through Human Law. It is here that one can begin to comprehend the truism: lex iniusta non lex est.

A Closer Look at Saint Josephine Bakhita

Professor William Saunders had the opportunity to share about the life and legacy of Saint Bakhita as a guest on Relevant Radio. He shares about her incredible attitude towards her captors while she was enslaved and towards God whom she trusted. Learn more about her journey on earth as an enslaved person and a canonized Saint in heaven.

Listen here.

Originally published on 2 February 2020 at Relevant Radio.

Marching for Life with the Democrats for Life of America

By Steven Howard, M.A. student

On Friday, January 24, I had the opportunity to join with the Democrats for Life of America for the March for Life. Although I have supported the organization for several years, this was my first official engagement with them. I have been pro-life for my entire life and a Democrat ever since I was able to register to vote before the 2012 presidential election. When I reflect on Catholic Social Teaching, my convictions are that it calls us to be strongly pro-life when it comes to bioethical issues such as abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia, but also when it comes to issues such as the economy, the enviornment, healthcare, gun control, immigration, and racial reconciliation. In fact, when observing statements and policy recommendations from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I often find that they agree with Republicans on bioethical issues, but also agree with Democrats when it comes to many of the aforementioned other issues. Consequently, I find a Catholic can be a Democrat or a Republican. However, a Catholic cannot toe the line with either party’s platform one-hundred percent. Catholic Democrats must press the party on the life issue and Catholic Republicans need to press the GOP to understand that being pro-life does not stop with the abortion issue (that is only where it begins!). In today’s political climate, I find there are very few whole-life elected officials. However, there are many pro-life Democrats in state legislatures such as State Senator Katrina Jackson of Louisiana, in state houses such as Governor John Bell Edwards of Louisiana, in the House of Representatives such as Congressman Dan Lipinski, and in the Senate such as Senator Bob Casey. It is vitally necessary for pro-life Catholics to support such leaders. Furthermore, there are Catholic Republicans and conservatives who also embrace the whole-life approach such as Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey. I also greatly respect Senator Mitt Romney and columnist David French (the former a Mormon and the latter an Evangelical) as conservatives who approach politics with a full life approach. As Catholics and Christians, I believe our duty is to be a light to our nation and challenge our political parties rather than conform to them.

Newspaper Covers M.A. in Human Rights Program

By J-P Mauro

In the fall of 2019, The Catholic University of America is rolling out a new graduate program in which students can earn a Master’s degree in Human Rights. The course load is unique in that it is the first such program to approach the subject from a Catholic perspective. CUA is now accepting applications for enrollment for the Fall 2020 semester.

Although the degree is offered through CUA’s Institute for Human Ecology (IHE), it is a mult-disciplinary program that takes students through classes in philosophy, law, canon law, and theology and religious studies. While these classes are offered through the many specialized schools of the university, the degrees are issued through the school of Arts and Sciences.

Read more here.

Originally published on 30 January 2020 at Aleteia.

Thinking and Acting Institutionally in 2020

By Daniel E. Burns

Levin argues that “at the heart of our broader social crisis” is “the weakness of our institutions—from the family on up through the national government, with much in between.” He points out that, by most easily measurable criteria, our country faced much greater challenges in the thirties or late sixties: what is new today is not the strength of our common challenges but only our collective weakness in confronting them, which in turn can be traced to the weakness of our formative institutions. “Breaking away from institutional commitments can seem like liberation, but it more often feels like isolation—cold and lonely and pointless, devoid of love and loyalty,” like too much of American life today.

Read more here.

Originally published on 27 January 2020 at Public Discourse

Justice for All – the March for Life

By Michael Moss, M.A. student

As part of the Masters in Human Rights, this semester I am interning for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission under the House Foreign Affairs Committee. As staff in the bi-partisan commission, I work in the office of Chris Smith, a Congressman from New Jersey’s fourth district. Chris Smith is an ardent worker for the sanctity of all lives, born and unborn. Besides his work protecting the vulnerable at home and abroad through the Human Rights Commission, Congressman Smith is a co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. Those who watched the rally heard President Trump mention him among the champions of the pro-life cause.

My day began with work for the Tom Lantos Commission, line-editing a bill on neglected tropical diseases in the United States. Around noon, I walked from our House office building down through the National Mall to meet my classmates and friends outside the rally. I am always amazed at the turnout at the March for Life – people I haven’t seen for years, living all across the country, travel to Washington to defend the lives of the unborn. A typical day on the mall for the March includes running into friends from schools, dioceses, and other organizations every couple minutes. It’s an encouraging reminder that the culture of life extends far beyond what I do or see in the course of my own routine.

I watched the presidential motorcade drive past as I walked down the Mall, so I was not able to attend the rally or hear the President speak. But the area outside of the rally was energetic too. The March for Life always involves discomfort at first, in part because the individuals one encounters on the way to meeting with a group seem to be less interested in building a culture, legal system, and economic environment conducive to cherishing all lives from conception to natural death than in using a large public demonstration to make their own bespoke political statement. Also frustrating are the individuals who factitiously make the pro-life issue just another element of a cultural and political war of attrition, disregarding the possibility that people on both sides of the political aisle are generally motivated to make the world a better, more welcoming place for all. Fortunately, once the March kicks into motion it becomes clear that nearly everyone is there for charitable reasons. I spent a lot of time standing on the street waiting for the March to start moving, which gave me time to see all the groups of normal, good people around us. My small group was wedged between students from a small college outside Pittsburgh, a group from a diocese somewhere in Wisconsin, and another group from St. Louis.

My favorite moment of the March for Life is always the view back from Constitution Avenue just before turning to approach the Supreme Court. When I looked back this time, the end of the March was not in sight – a powerful visual statement of the movement’s size and strength. A mother next to me was struggling to lift her young son above the heads of the crowd. I was able to lend a hand and was rewarded by his own wonder at seeing the mass of people.

I returned from the March to help out with a reception hosted by Congressman Smith for Marchers from New Jersey. It was a fun, busy affair with loads of glazed donuts to re-energize the travelers. As I entered the hearing room-turned-reception, the Congressman was delivering a short speech describing the accomplishments and future goals of the pro-life movement. I was struck by his personal engagement with the effort – he has been working for this cause in Congress for almost four decades. I’m grateful for his work, and for the work by my own friends who have already begun my generation’s contribution to building a world with justice for all.

“Do You Hear the People Sing” – One Student’s Reflection on the March for Life

By Emily Hausheer, M.A. student

It was a brisk Friday morning as I awoke from my apartment on Capitol Hill. Waking up on the day of the March for Life to a view of the Hart Senate Office building was a striking difference from the bus I once took from Liberty University to DC through the early hours of the morning to get a good spot in the crowd.

Listening to “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, the classic song of protest from Les Miserables, while sipping coffee, I made my way down the street to the Library of Congress for some early-morning reading. Already, I saw forces from both sides of the March assembled at the Supreme Court. By the time I emerged from the Library, the Supreme Court was totally blocked off and a zone of confrontation, so I took the Metro and went underground to continue my adventure.

Arriving at the Organization of American States, I enjoyed some Colombian coffee with empanadas while trying to contact my classmates. I then walked down to Bolivar Square, named for the same Simon Bolivar who once called the murder of unborn children a “vile crime.” I learned this while going through his entire correspondence collection as a project in my M.A in Human Rights program. That square, as small as it is, was already packed with school groups and buses. Alas! Probably not the best place to meet my classmates. The five of us each had perfect vantage points for the March – all for five different grand stories. Our styles and tactics are as diverse as the movement itself. In my typical fashion, I quickly walked from place to place and covered much ground. Still, I was in for a surprise upon emerging from Bolivar Square.

By that time, I thought I must have missed the President’s speech. I was wrong. The presidential motorcade came through as I stood and caught a glimpse of him waving. Alas, Mr. President! I opposed the idea of politicizing such a march, because for me, the right to life is an issue that should transcend the partisan labyrinth of American politics.

Not long after while standing on the grass outside of the American History Museum, I ran into an old classmate from Liberty University! I also texted several other friends who were at the “barricades” (to carry on the Les Mis theme). The atmosphere at the March, while still triumphant, was a bit different from previous years in ways I will explain later. I caught up with a couple of my Catholic University classmates. We chatted and eventually found the director of our program, Dr. William Saunders. The crowd was diverse with representatives from many nations: I saw the flags of Poland, Slovakia, Vatican City, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, Italy, and Ireland (just to name a few).

As for the Trump issue, that was the most striking difference I saw. I disagree with many of his politics and I’m not a fan of his leadership style. I noticed many people with Trump gear, which I disapproved of. I noticed vendors selling gear to promote Trump and, while I respect the free market, I do not think such an important protest and cause should be turned into a popular personality or identity politics. Even if it had been for a president I like, I think that the issue of life should transcend politics and unite us all. It is an issue of human rights that is greater than any one politician.

My classmates and I had some interesting discussions on topics ranging from denominational discussions (I’m a Protestant from a very Protestant background) to history. As we marched together, we were able to come together in solidarity about the issues of life and how we are all created equal in the sight of God. We saw some very divisive signs from both sides, which defeats the point. Human rights are greater than our politics and we should all rally behind life. If we continue to let identity politics divide us, it will be easier for those who want to harm human rights to misuse our passion. We should not divide those who are different from us, but show love to people of all groups and creeds.

Our nation is at a turbulent time of division and polarization. We identify so strongly with our groups that outsiders are villainized. It is a refreshing breath of air to stand side by side in solidarity as we fight for those who cannot speak for themselves.

It was triumphant to march up Capitol Hill. The closed Newseum’s First Amendment still stood on the outside of the building. The Capitol itself was a beacon of glory from every angle, a place of both immense history and architectural splendor. In the corridors of that grand building so much history has been made, and perhaps a grand future waits to be made as well. I smiled as I glanced to the marble steps where so many presidents have sworn to uphold the constitution, where so many feet have trod with eyes open in wonder.

After finishing a project on Venezuela during an congressional internship, I could not help but be grateful for the right to protest. This right has a long and rich history in the American tradition, going back to the Boston Tea Party (which my ancestors took part in!). It is so easy to take this right for granted, but we must take the long view and realize that there are still people in the world who cannot protest. People in countries such as Venezuela and Hong Kong risk their lives raising their voices. Meanwhile, we in countries like the United States, France, Poland, and others, are prone to losing our sense of how important this right really is. While the right to protest is occasionally abused, it is a right we should all uphold and hope that others around the world may someday be as free as we are to address the government about our grievances.

The right to life, just like the right to protest, is one that may not often pass our minds. These are rights that are innate and natural to us all regardless of our creed. Sadly, these rights are denied to so many around the world. But just because rights are denied does not mean we should not speak for them. Whether we are marching on the Capitol or walking to a local coffee shops, we should always be ready to have productive discussions with those views may differ from our own about the issue that matters the most: humanity.

Students Meet with Republican Staff Director and Member of the Human Rights Commission

By Emily Hausheer

The following reflection is on the M.A. in Human Rights students’ meeting with Piero Tozzi, the Republican Staff Director of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

The Capitol building holds great significance in both US History and current events. It is a building of immense beauty whose walls have beheld great turmoil. The halls are painted with great scenes from history. Human rights heroes from around the world find themselves in the tableau of Capitol art. Just like the Capitol hallways depict heroes as diverse as Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Kosciuszko, Garibaldi, Kossuth, and Bolivar, the House Committees on human rights bring together diverse politicians whose unity you would never expect.

In our meeting with him, Piero Tozzi discussed the daily life of working on a committee and the necessity of bringing bipartisanship to global issues. He mentioned how, on the international stage, many Americans agree on issues such as Sudan and China grossly violating human rights. He shared anecdotes of people from the left and the right coming together in defense of human rights, like helping to bring a light to Chen Guangcheng’s situation in China. People put their partisan differences aside in the name of rights, an issue we can all unite under.

Tozzi explained that people as different as Representative Chris Smith and Representative Nancy Pelosi can find common ground on many issues, such as helping a Chinese dissident escape China. Across the political spectrum, many on Capitol Hill express disapproval of the way the Chinese government has been handling minority groups and silencing their right to free speech.

Regardless of our backgrounds or political differences, we are all called to be a voice for those who do not have one. The policy world is an important place to do just that. While working with others in the Capitol on important issues, you may find that your most unlikely ally in the human rights field was sitting across from you all this time. While policy work with Representative Pelosi and the humanitarian spirit of Saint Josephine Bakhita may look different on the outside, at heart, liberty is the foundation bound together by the social contract of humanity. Much like the pillars of the Capitol crypt hold the building by balancing each other, our rights depend on all of us (regardless of our political opinions) holding them up.

Human Rights Program Director Reflects on the 71st Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By William Saunders, JD

This is a year of many anniversaries related to human rights, such as the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the 20th anniversary of the crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party against the Falun Gong, and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  But there is another anniversary, too often forgotten, that, in many ways, serves as a basis for our evaluation of, and judgments on, current events in light of our shared commitment to human rights.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly announced and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Declaration, adopted unanimously, states certain rights that must be respected, among them the right to life, the right to religious freedom, and the right to marry and found a family.   It is a remarkable achievement, reflecting a consensus among the diverse collection of nations that make up the UN, nations that hardly ever agree on anything.  But they agreed this time.  Why?  Because, following the utter devastation of World War II, which was unlike anything that had preceded it, they believed that a commitment to human rights was the only thing that could prevent the world from falling into a third world war, one that might mean the very end of humanity itself.

The Declaration is not perfect, and some criticize it on various grounds, such as that it is an incoherent “shopping list”.  Those alive today face the perennial question: is the glass half full or half empty?  The Popes, particularly John Paul II, have not stinted from seeing the glass as half full.  True, it fails to enunciate a coherent underlying theory that would unify the rights recognized; however, it, at least, recognizes the existence of these rights and it insists they must be respected.  So the glass is half-full. To vary the metaphor, we can build on that.

And how are we to go about building a sturdy doctrine of human rights?  Just as John Paul II did – by proposing, to all people of good will, an understanding of human rights built upon the teaching of the Church in its social doctrine.  That deeper understanding will unify the “list,” as well as guide us when we need to consider whether to add to the list.  And this deeper understanding is what we aim to provide in our master of arts degree in human rights.  The Declaration is a fundamental tool in this dialogue among people of good will, and we celebrate its anniversary.

M.A. in Human Rights Students Meet with the Rev. Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett

By Steven Howard

On Thursday, November 7, Program Director William Saunders hosted a conversation between the MA in human rights students and Rev. Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett, Director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, a nonpartisan, faith-based think-tank that educates Canadians about the importance of religious freedom to a deeply pluralistic society. Director Saunders, Joseph Enzler, Emily Hausheer, and myself received Father Deacon Bennett for a meeting on campus. To begin with, Father Deacon Bennett shared about his professional and personal journey, which took him to places such as McGill University in Montreal, to service as Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom, and ordination to the deaconate in the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church.

The conversation then shifted to the decline of Catholicism in Quebec, the rise of French-style laïcité in the province, and how that is used to discriminate against Catholics as well as Muslims. ‘What was interesting to note is that most of the legislation against Muslim women wearing headscarves is supported by an odd coalition of anti-Catholic activists on the left who live in Montreal and the province’s more conservative rural population who are more hostile towards immigrants. He also shared how the province has no conscious objections for medical professionals and how many Catholics will have to close shop unless Canada’s judicial system hears their case and rules to protect a right to conscientious objection. This is vital because the province has been forcing Catholic healthcare professionals to carry out procedures and treatments considered intrinsically evil or sinful in Catholicism.

What impacted me was how much the U.S. and Canada share in common when it comes to religious freedom issues. There is definitely a need in wider North American culture to reinforce the importance of religious pluralism and religious liberty for all.

Unborn Human Life and Fundamental Rights: <br> Leading Constitutional Cases under Scrutiny

This book, co-edited by IHE Fellow and Human Rights Program Director William Saunders, J.D., presents a collection of studies by top scholars (including Saunders himself, Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame, and William Binchy of Ireland) on leading cases from twelve different countries defining the legal status of unborn human life. The cases under study pertain to three distinctive cultural and constitutional systems: Latin American Constitutional Courts and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, European Constitutional Courts and the European Court on Human Rights, as well as Common Law jurisdictions. With a special conclusion by Professor John Finnis, drawing together the many treads of the individual chapters into a comprehensive whole, this book lays the basis for further comparative study of the legal and moral reasoning underlying judicial decisions which either recognize or deny legal personhood and/or equal dignity to unborn human beings.

Order the book here

Trading Ordinary Times for Advent

By Lucia A. Silecchia

Recently, I was standing in a checkout line behind two women deep in conversation. I could not help overhearing that one was recently widowed and struggling to adjust to this new season of life.  Most of their conversation, however, was drowned out by the lilting strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” playing over the loudspeakers while Halloween candy was still in the aisles.

I could – but won’t! – gripe about the seasonal creep that may soon have us singing “Jingle Bells” on the 4th of July. Instead, that moment of odd juxtaposition reminded me that, for many, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas holds a measure of sorrow.

Like the stranger shopping with me, many are dreading their first Christmas without a loved one.  Others are facing their second, or ninth, or twenty-seventh Christmas without a loved one when the blessed numbness of the first year has passed and the reality of loss has truly sunk in. There are some who expect with dread that this may be the last Christmas they will share with a suffering family member or friend. There are some passing the first season when an adult child will not be able to come home. This may be the first Christmas away from the family home because downsizing or simple economics mean the home was sold and the large table that had long been the setting for family feasts is no more. It may be the season when a deployment keeps a member of the military away from home – knowing he or she will miss a child’s first Christmas or a grandparent’s last.

This may be the first Christmas season that the elders of a family, with both relief and regret, surrender hosting duties to a younger generation – or the first time that the family chef can no longer make a cherished traditional dish. This may be the season when images of joyful families hurt the hearts of those whose families have borne the pain of divorce and estrangement. The centrality of children in this season centered on the birth of a child can take a toll on those who ache to have a child and do not or cannot.

Some face the season in poverty, knowing they cannot give their loved ones grand tokens of their affection and fearing that they will disappoint those nearest and dearest. Others have seen some manifestation of a dark side to human nature in this past year – and whatever they have seen has made it far too difficult to hope or rejoice. Others have no time or energy to celebrate because they silently work multiple jobs or scramble to care for those unable to care for themselves. Still others know they will not celebrate Christmas in their own homes because they will be keeping vigil with loved ones in hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes.

Some parents will face a pang of loss this season if their children announce they have grown skeptical of Santa. Other parents will face a far greater, more poignant pain if their children confide they have grown skeptical of God.

For some, the cares of life may have robbed them of a bit of their own faith in a season when it is yearned for the most.

As we leave Ordinary Time for a spell and begin Advent, we enter the season that seems particularly meant for those who carry great burdens. All appearances to the contrary, Advent is not the season of the jolly songs and frantic festivities of Christmas. It comes in the darkest days of the year when the nights are the longest and light most scarce. It is a season that recalls the ancient world’s aching wait for Christ, yearning for the tidings of great joy that had not yet come. It is not a season of red and green and gold and silver, but of purple – because the joy promised is hoped for, but not yet here.

If you are facing Christmas this year with sorrow in your heart, I hope that you will find comfort in believing that, truly, Advent is the season for you. It is the season for all those who hope for what they do not have, and who yearn to see light after a season of darkness.

If you are seeking a new tradition this year, particularly if this year has treated you well, I have a gentle suggestion. On the first Sunday of Advent, remember all those you know whose hearts might be aching a bit. Devote some time to them that day as we enter this season of yearning, waiting, and hoping in the darkness. A visit, an email, a text, a letter, a phone call or the promise of prayer might be exactly what they need to know that they do not wait alone for the light to dawn.

The first Sunday of Advent seems the perfect time to assure those who suffer that Advent is, in the words of ancient carols, a time to “rest beside the weary road” until, once again, “a weary world rejoices.” It is a season to help each other move toward Christmas peace by sharing the burdens of ordinary times.

Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple. Email her at silecchia@cua.edu.

Past columns in the series may be found here. 

Saint Josephine Bakhita Honored In Museum of the Bible Exhibit

By Emily Hausheer, M.A. student

Saint Josephine Bakhita’s life is an inspiring story of compassion. The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, features a prominent display of this Sudanese heroine. As you enter the museum, you see a large picture of her looking out from the second-floor window. Once you are on the second floor, there are exhibits commemorating the great fights for justice that took place throughout history against slavery, including that of William Wilberforce. Throughout the world, the Bible and various denominations of Christianity changed hearts spiritually and changed the world. Bakhita’s story is included in this exhibit as a 20th-century story of a woman who rose from slavery to freedom.

As a young girl in Sudan, Bakhita was captured by slave traders. Bakhita recalled much anguish and fear when she was captured and torn from her family. She was sold to an Arab man and later a Turkish general. She suffered great distress as his slave. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian man after bringing him a cup of coffee. Bakhita was brought to Italy, where her life improved greatly and she found her freedom. It was in Italy where she yearned to know more about Christianity and God. She was accepted into a religious community and devoted herself to a life of compassion and service to others. Bakhita helped wounded soldiers during World War I and was known to have a kind face full of life. She died in 1947, leaving behind a legacy of true freedom.

In 2000, the Catholic Church declared her a saint. Professor Saunders, who founded an NGO to help the persecuted Church in Sudan, was traveling throughout Rome and Vatican City during the canonization and witnessed it! It was a very special moment for everybody involved, and a story that deserves to be told to the world. She continues to serve as an inspiration to people throughout Sudan, Italy, and the world as a resolute woman who brought kindness and love to a dark world. Bakhita sought truth and freedom, and although she faced many obstacles, she found her liberty. Saint Bakhita is the patroness of our Master of Arts in Human Rights program.

Robert George Discusses Dialogue, Consensus <br> and the “New Natural Law” School

By Michael Moss, M.A. student

The Masters of Arts in Human Rights program met for a personal conversation with Robert George, who serves on our program’s Advisory Board, before he spoke for the Catholic Information Center’s JPII New Evangelization award dinner. It was a delightful conversation, especially because of the rich relationship between him and the director of the M.A. program, Professor Bill Saunders. We spoke briefly about his professional history, which reaches far beyond academia into the world of international commissions for human rights work and international and interreligious dialogue. We discussed theories for the bases of human rights at length, noting the broad but fraught consensus on natural rights present at the time of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Professor George spoke about the type of consensus possible between Catholics and other groups, religious or otherwise. He highlighted the importance of actual dialogue between individuals who can always, if they try, find a basis for agreement and development. That may be an agreement as basic as the embrace of free intellectual inquiry, but it nonetheless provides a starting point for joint efforts toward a vision of the common good. His experience of working internationally for the protection of human rights provided unexpected examples of moral consensus between supposedly opposed groups. Professor George delivered an introduction to what some call the “New Natural Law” school, an increasingly popular basis for talking about human rights that can be extracted from the common experience of human life.

Fr. Kitima Comments on Human Rights in Tanzania

By Michael Moss, M.A. student

The students in the Masters of Arts in Human Rights program met with Fr. Charles Kitima, Secretary General of the Tanzanian Conference of Bishops. Fr. Kitima is performing research at The Catholic University of America as well as with Professor Saunders on several projects during this academic year. We discussed the geopolitical situation in Tanzania and the surrounding countries. Fr. Kitima explained the connection of religious populations (especially Christian and Muslim) with the political history and current organization of the country. Tanzania’s constitution explicitly incorporates the protection of human rights as described in the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This bases political legitimacy in a regime’s protection of rights and enables direct coordination with international treaties. Fr. Kitima has also been instrumental in the rapid development of a university system in Tanzania, so he shared his story of involvement in that project.

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