This article is adapted from a speech delivered by George Weigel at the Rome Life Forum, an international pro-life conference, on May 3.
Extensive Catholic use of the language of “human rights” begins with Pope St. John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, but it was Pope St. John Paul II (happily canonized with John XXIII on April 27) who deployed human-rights language to great effect in the two and a half decades of his pontificate.
His passionate defense of the rights of his fellow Poles helped ignite the revolution of conscience that gave birth to the Solidarity revolution — and that eventually led to the collapse of European Communism. His sophisticated use of human-rights language and his development of the classic themes of Catholic social doctrine helped teach the Church in Latin America and the Philippines a better approach to challenging authoritarian governments than the language of liberation theology, distorted as it often was by Marxist categories of thought. And it was John Paul II who put the defense and promotion of human rights at the center of the Church’s social doctrine, offering the world a powerful vision of the free and virtuous society of the 21st century in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus.
In all of this, John Paul II understood, and taught, that religious freedom is the first of human rights in organized political society. For as Vatican II taught and John Paul II emphasized in his first address to the United Nations in 1979, religious freedom, affirmed in law and cherished in the consciences of a people, creates essential limits to the power of the state and sets boundaries to the capacity of the state to intrude into the convictions and conscientious practices of individuals, families, and communities. In defending and promoting religious freedom, in itself and for its contributions to a just society, the Church honors what is Caesar’s while making it clear that there are things that are not Caesar’s: areas of human life into which Caesar may not reach without becoming a tyrant.
As my colleagues and I wrote in establishing the journal First Things more than 20 years ago, the first thing to be said about politics is that politics is not the “first thing” in our lives. To suggest that politics is “first” is to set out on the path to totalitarianism, a temptation to which political modernity seems uniquely susceptible. Religious freedom, cherished in culture and protected in law, is thus a barrier against the totalitarian temptation. That is why religious freedom is, or ought to be, of concern to all citizens, whether or not they have been blessed with the gift of faith.
And so in any proper ordering of rights in the political community, religious freedom will come first. But just as the political community — the state — does not exhaust the meaning of “human community,” civil and political rights are not the only “human rights.” Thus the first “human right” is the right to life from conception until natural death — the right without which civil and political rights, and indeed all other forms of “rights,” are meaningless.
If the state effectively asserts the power to declare some members of the human community — the unborn, for example — outside the circle of common concern and legal protection, then no one is safe, for no one has any “rights” the state cannot abrogate. The perverse German notion of Lebens unwertesleben — “life unworthy of life” — may have had a higher intellectual pedigree than the crudely materialistic Communist notion of “class enemies” to be liquidated; after all, the German authors of the influential 1920 book The Permit to Destroy Life Not Worth Living were an eminent legal scholar (Karl Binding) and an equally eminent physician (Alfred Hoche), not a maniac like Stalin. But the result of this denial of the first of human rights, the right to life, was the same under both German National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism: The result was genocide.
It is something of a mystery why this lesson from the lethal experience of the 20th-century totalitarianisms has been lost, as Western countries have debated their laws on abortion and euthanasia (a debate that now includes the possibility of euthanizing children). Perhaps there is a reticence about invoking the Nazi precedent for anything; there is certainly a reticence in certain political circles about acknowledging the genocidal tendencies that were, as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski insisted, built into Communism. Nonetheless, it must be said, and it must be said without hesitation: The desperately false idea that some human lives are worth less than others, and thus have less claim on cultural and legal protection than others, is at the root of the abortion license in our countries and is now, at the other end of the life spectrum, infecting public policy toward the elderly.
Those who imagine that they are providing merely a “choice” in these matters will soon discover, as my friend and colleague Father Richard John Neuhaus pointed out, that what is permitted is soon required, when the matter at hand is a breach of some traditional moral truth. This is what happens too often today with unborn children diagnosed with Down’s syndrome or some other genetic malady. This is what happens in states that offer the “choice” of euthanasia: What is described as a “choice” soon becomes a requirement. The same, we should be aware, will likely be the case with the radically handicapped who are not aborted.