Author(s): Alex Bruce
On 10 December 2008, the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘the UDHR’). A formative influence on the UDHR was the Catholic social justice tradition and during his long pontificate, John Paul II described the UDHR as ‘one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time.’ John Paul II was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his emphasis on the importance of human rights.
However, after his death in April 2005, commentators began a concerted attack on the human rights record of the Church generally and John Paul II particularly. John Paul II had allegedly ‘waged a ceaseless war against human rights’, and had done ‘more to spread AIDS in Africa than prostitution and the trucking industry combined’. These attacks were deeply ironic given John Paul II’s consistently expressed fear that the liberal western democracies of North America and Western Europe were incubating a ‘culture of death’.
This article investigates the immense gap between these two positions by demonstrating how extreme cognitive dissonance has developed in characterising the contribution of the Church generally and John Paul II particularly to international human rights discourse. It will examine how critics are attempting to resolve this dissonance in their favour through their attacks on both the Church’s status in international law and on its teachings on particular human rights issues such as contraception and arresting the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This article will argue that these criticisms are characterised more by rhetoric than reason and as such, fail to understand the foundations of the Church’s views. As a result, the Church’s concerns about the ethical and philosophical underpinnings of various human rights initiatives of contemporary liberal democracies remain caricatured, misunderstood and ridiculed.
Given the prophetic nature of John Paul II’s warnings against a flourishing culture of death, the paper concludes that the ability of stakeholders, governments and Non-Governmental Organisations (‘NGOs’) to engage seriously with the Church in its continued presence in international law and in its approach to the philosophical foundations of international human rights discourse remains seriously flawed.