I just got back from covering the New York leg of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States. It was an experience of a lifetime to actually be inside St. Patrick's Cathedral when the pope conducted the mass there, and to be at Ground Zero when he knelt and prayed for peace and healing for those were injured or lost loved ones in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The picture to the left shows the pope at Ground Zero with a family member of someone who died that day.
In every address, whether in Washington D.C. or New York City, the pope had important words to say not only to Catholics, who make up about 25 per cent of the U.S. population, (and about 46 per cent of Canada's) but to all Christians and all people of good will, whatever their faith, religious or non-religious.
His words at the United Nations on human rights have a special resonance here in Canada, where Christians have been under attack for well over a decade by so-called "human rights" commissions. Now human rights commissions are trying to extend their reach to encroach on freedom of the press of mainstream publications like Maclean's Magazine.
Christian publications are also facing expensive complaints processes for so-called "hate" speech.
Benedict XVI said:
This reference to human dignity, which is the foundation and goal of the responsibility to protect, leads us to the theme we are specifically focusing upon this year, which marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, religion and science. Human rights are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum of international relations. At the same time, the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights all serve as guarantees safeguarding human dignity. It is evident, though, that the rights recognized and expounded in the Declaration apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history. They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks. This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights.
What I fear in Canada is that any idea of "natural law," even any idea of a law "written on the heart" or of the Book of Nature somehow testifying to a Lawgiver and a Designer, is now being replaced by various political elites with relativist, materialist, secularist and even neo-Marxist conceptions that are so malleable and flexible that the rules are made up as we go along. Words that have a meaning anchored in objective reality--like marriage, the rule of law, human rights, and dignity-- have become "empty containers" into which the culture pours whatever meaning happens to be the latest thinking of our "cultural elites" at the moment.
I found it most dismaying when I attended the Charter @ 25 conference last year, to find that the conversation about rights had so moved on from any natural law conception that I wrote at the time:
"The impression I got at the conference was that Canadian society has "evolved" to the point where Christian voices seem irrelevant to the conversation. The Christian point of view on rights was like the senile uncle sitting at the dinner table. When he speaks he gets a polite nod, but the conversation continues around him as if he doesn't exist."Is North America going to treat Benedict like this senile uncle, like an old man in a white dress, whom we humor but ignore? To the very bottom of my being, I hope not.
The pope appealed to reason and to a kind of objective reality that all persons of good will, whatever their beliefs, can find agreeable and hope-filled.
He also issued a wake up call. A gentle one, but a wake up call nevertheless. He also issued an exhortation to everyone to find true freedom, which can only be found in Jesus Christ. At yesterday's mass in Yankee Stadium he said:
“Authority” … “obedience”. To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays. Words like these represent a “stumbling stone” for many of our contemporaries, especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom. Yet, in the light of our faith in Jesus Christ – “the way and the truth and the life” – we come to see the fullest meaning, value, and indeed beauty, of those words. The Gospel teaches us that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love. Only by losing ourselves, the Lord tells us, do we truly find ourselves (cf. Lk 17:33). True freedom blossoms when we turn away from the burden of sin, which clouds our perceptions and weakens our resolve, and find the source of our ultimate happiness in him who is infinite love, infinite freedom, infinite life. “In his will is our peace”.Real freedom, then, is God’s gracious gift, the fruit of conversion to his truth, the truth which makes us free (cf. Jn 8:32). And this freedom in truth brings in its wake a new and liberating way of seeing reality.
In Canada it is especially important, that Christians wake up to what is happening to the conversation about rights and freedoms here. I exhort you to start reading regularly www.freemarksteyn, a website by the Web Elf Binky, who provides links and, occasionally, wonderful, uplifting and humorous commentary on an otherwise troubling and darkening state of affairs concerning true human freedom.
For those of you who blog or write columns or reports on the battle for true human rights in Canada, send Binks a link and he will include it in his daily round up of all the news on this issue. His email address is displayed on his website.
Get informed, learn everything you can about your rich Christian heritage, not only from the Word of God, but also from the great philosophical traditions that fed on it.
Our very survival depends on it. Here's a little video of Pope Benedict at the altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. The picture at the top shows me at Ground Zero before the pope's arrival.