Hundreds of Catholic Leaders Voice Objections to State Department Commission on Unalienable Rights Report’s Priority for Religious Freedom
July 22, 2020. Over 300 (final number to come) Catholic theologians, human rights activists, and community leaders have signed a statement that outlines strong concerns about the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights draft report released last week. They say the report is wrong in advancing “a Christian, perhaps even a Catholic, perspective rather than taking seriously the separation of Religion and State,” and in prioritizing religious freedom over other human rights.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, Executive Director of DignityUSA, which advocates for justice and equality for LGBTQI Catholics, said the statement’s authors and signers were compelled to reject the perception that all Catholics embraced the Commission’s perspective. “All who endorsed this statement understand that it violates the social justice foundations of our faith,” Duddy-Burke said. “Despite Catholic leadership on the Commission and the blessing the report received from a US Cardinal, this document does not further the dignity and equality of all human beings. If implemented, it would limit human rights for countless people, especially those who most demand our care and attention.”
Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., co-director of Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual and one of the statement’s authors, said, “American democracy is in peril on many fronts, not least on human rights. This Commission’s report, while seemingly benign and well-intentioned, is actually a stunning effort to enshrine conservative Christian views in US foreign policy. There are many echoes of earlier efforts to prioritize religious and property rights above all others, conveniently crafted to block global consensus on matters of reproductive justice, LGBTIQ+ rights, as well as each nation’s duty to provide safe haven to immigrants.”
Professor Hille Haker, an ethicist who holds the Richard McCormick Endowed Chair of Catholic Moral Theology at Loyola University Chicago, also one of the statement’s authors, stated, “At present, the world watches the political and moral disintegration of leadership in the United States. A truly independent Commission of Human Rights would have held up the international Human Rights Framework as a shield that requires constant observation in order to protect and promote human dignity and the indivisible human rights. Instead, the Committee chose to legitimize the Administration’s identification of human rights with national interests. I cannot remain silent when certain ethnic, religious, or political groups, the press, and even a whole party are declared the enemy. I fear that the Committee’s Report will be used to legitimize the human rights violations routinely committed by this administration.”
The letter’s final co-author, Former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Miguel H. Diaz, Ph.D. agreed, saying, “There is no room for polarizing our foundational documents. There is every reason to embrace the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the legitimate developments to this declaration that have offered hope to countless human lives. A faith that seeks social justice, in a country that leads by example, must begin with servants willing to prioritize the rights of those who suffer unjustly within our human family. As Catholics, we must reject this Report’s effort to undermine the indivisibility of the human rights tradition.”
The statement calls on the U.S. to set “priorities with special regard for the human rights of women and children, as well as political, religious, racial, and sexual minorities.” It concludes, “As Catholics, we stand in solidarity with all witnesses of human rights violations, and we commit ourselves to assure the human rights of every member of the human family, independent of cultural, political, or religious allegiances. We support civil, political, social, economic, and cultural human rights. We urge the U.S. to re-commit itself to the effort to overcome human rights violations, wherever they may occur, and to support fully international collaboration necessary for global justice and peace.”
Statement is below:
July 21, 2020
Catholic Scholars and Faith Leaders in the U.S. Challenge State Department’s Commission Draft on the Report on Unalienable Rights
We are progressive Catholic theologians, community leaders, ministers, and advocates who write to express our strong concerns about the current draft of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. As persons who live and serve in this nation, we cherish and affirm our founding documents and the development of human rights in our country. These have enabled us to strive for a more perfect union and they affirm that all persons “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
First, we note with dismay the inappropriate way in which the Report was rolled out. Soliciting Cardinal Timothy Dolan in order to all but baptize it through his inexplicable presence and prayer raises serious concerns for us, as Catholics, to the intentions of the Commissioners. Cardinal Dolan’s presence conveys the distinct impression that the Report reflects a Christian, perhaps even a Catholic perspective, rather than taking seriously the separation of Religion and State.
Second, we enumerate three specific concerns about this Report related to: 1) the right to religious freedom, 2) the global interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, and 3) the selective, ambiguous, and problematic nature of the Report’s historical interpretation of the development of human rights in our country.
(1) Religious Freedom. The Report focuses on “inalienable rights” and highlights religious freedom, together with property rights, as primary. Apart from a brief historical explanation and numerous references to these rights, it does not address the development of religious freedom from the time of the Framers to the present. The ramifications of the plurality of religions, respect for an individual’s religious views and conscience, and the legal ramifications of the separation of state and religion are missing.
The writers presuppose that the United States is a country that embraces its Protestant, republican, and liberal traditions, without elaborating on what the cultural changes over the last two hundred years mean for their interpretation. Human rights are founded not only on a Christian (natural law) theory, but have a home in many other religious and non-religious traditions. The Commissioners ignore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ perspective on religious freedom, as well as the internal debates with regards to religious freedom, race, equal rights of women, and LGBTQ+ rights.
Most egregiously, the document misses the present context of religious freedom – namely the discrimination and danger which members of various religions, among them Islam and Judaism, experience in the United States.
We therefore recommend more nuance regarding the understanding of religious freedom and its relation to other human rights.
(2) Global interdependence. The Report elaborates in several sections on the positive role of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, it is very clear from the text that the U.S. not only cannot but should not be bound by international agreements. This position undermines the validity of the overall human rights project, which seeks international collaboration and accountability in pursuit of global justice. This position contradicts our country’s self-understanding since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
While the Report emphasizes the commitment to international development and recommends that the United States “lead by example,” it fails to acknowledge that the United States has recently pulled away from several international agreements that seek to protect basic life conditions on Earth, our Common Home, including the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The United States has failed to ratify other Conventions including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
We respectfully recommend that the Commissioners take these facts into account, and revise the position on international cooperation in order to reflect the will of the majority of the American people on these issues.
(3) The Report’s historical interpretation of the development of human rights in our country. The authors offer their own interpretation of U.S. history – as a history of progress in the implementation of human rights. It acknowledges that “Progress toward the securing of rights for all has often been excruciatingly slow and has been interrupted by periods of lamentable backsliding” (see page 9). However, the authors are reluctant to clarify when they are writing descriptively and when they infer normative claims about the history of the U.S. They do not question their own philosophical and religious principles that frame their historical interpretations and the resultant ramifications for establishing criteria to assess the validity of claims to human rights.
Finally, they never name the violations of human rights in the present – even though there are ample examples by the current administration, from the violation of religious freedom (Islam), to the violation of the right to asylum and refuge, the caging of immigrant children and their families, the failure to protect the political rights and the social and economic security of its citizens during the pandemic, the re-installment of the federal practice of the death penalty, and many more.
In order for the United States to lead by example, as the Report states, the Trump administration should account for its present human rights violations and address these immediately.
In contrast to the Commissioners, our Catholic faith calls us to embrace the following commitments to universal, indivisible human rights:
We reject this Report’s efforts to undermine the cohesion of human dignity and all human rights. Faithful to the principles enshrined in our nation’s founding documents and equally committed to the core principles that shape our Catholic faith, we seek to determine priorities of actions arising in contexts and situations of human rights threats and/or human rights violations, rather than drawing a line between civil and political rights on the one hand, and social and economic rights on the other. We affirm the necessity to fight for the realization of universal human rights, both domestically and in U.S. foreign policy.
We hold that one of the core principles of Catholic Social Teaching, namely, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, requires us as Catholics to demand that our government set action priorities with special regard for the human rights of women and children, as well as political, religious, racial, and sexual minorities.
We emphasize explicitly that the right to religious freedom comes with the obligation to protect the rights of members of all religions and those who adhere to no religion, as well as the obligation to protect and promote all human rights. Furthermore, religious freedom must not be prioritized over other human rights, nor must it be weaponized to discriminate against any person, community, or nation.
We hold that more rights do indeed create more justice. Likewise, rights for more people, beginning with those who have been excluded from basic protections, create more justice.
We hold that global justice requires the cooperation of all nations, with no nation claiming to place itself first, above others. The commissioners’ position that the United States may interpret human rights in view of its national interests, requires the explicit clarification that such accommodation must occur within the framework of human rights, not against it. Otherwise, our country would undermine the international solidarity that the human rights framework calls for and needs today to respond to global threats, such as climate change and pandemics like Covid-19.
As Catholics, we stand in solidarity with all witnesses of human rights violations, and we commit ourselves to assure the human rights of every member of the human family, independent of cultural, political, or religious allegiances. We support civil, political, social, economic, and cultural human rights. We urge the U.S. to re-commit itself to the effort to overcome human rights violations, wherever they may occur, and to support fully international collaboration necessary for global justice and peace.