If you’re looking for a concrete example of the New Evangelization in the public square, the new Dignitatis Humanae Institute may well be it.
Founded two years ago by a small group of Catholic European parliamentarians and politicians, the organization aims to be a platform through which Christian politicians can better present coherent, moderate, and mainstream responses to the growing opposition to Christian values in public life.
In recent months, the institute has been establishing working groups in several parliaments with a view to spreading worldwide. Now, with a new office in Rome due to open officially in December, the institute is stepping up its activities, aiming to become a main point of reference and support for all Catholics involved in public life.
Its basic principles are set out in a “Universal Declaration of Human Dignity”—a novel and pressing list of articles that purposely resembles the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But unlike that 1948 declaration, this one has an emphasis on what many would argue is the most important right of all (yet one often ignored or dismissed): the right to life.
The declaration, drawn up by Catholic European lawmakers, consists of three main principles: that man is made in the image and likeness of God; that this image and likeness exist in every single human being, without exception, from conception until natural death; and that the most effective means of safeguarding this recognition is through the active participation of the Christian faith in the public square.
“G.K. Chesterton famously once said when you lose any respect for human dignity, not long after you lose respect for human rights as well,” Lord David Alton of Liverpool, head of the UK’s parliamentary working group on human dignity, told CWR. “Those two things always go together, and [their] basis for us as Christians is the biblical principle in the book of Genesis that every single person is imago Dei, made in the image and likeness of God.”
With such an emphasis on this counter-cultural truth, Lord Alton believes, the Dignitatis Humanae Institute is “the most important organization promoting human dignity in the world today.” He sees it as having a crucial role to play in promoting an understanding of human rights in the light of the natural law. The institute is saying something “that those who talk in the flaccid language of rights and entitlements aren’t saying,” Lord Alton explained. “It’s talking about responsibilities, duties, obligations, the needs of the voiceless and the powerless.”
The Dignitatis Humanae Institute’s founding chairman, Benjamin Harnwell, explained that the organization grew out of what became known as the Buttiglione Affair. In 2004, Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was forced to withdraw his nomination as the European Union’s new commissioner for Justice, Freedom, and Security because of his Catholic views on homosexuality and women. “He was rejected, in the words of one socialist British Member of Parliament, not for anything he had ever said but for what, as a Catholic, he might think,” said Harnwell. “For the first time, I appreciated the extent to which a requirement was being placed on public figures to divest themselves of their Christianity in order to be acceptable to a militant secular environment.”
The institute has enlisted a number of leading names in the European pro-life movement, including the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino. The cardinal is honorary president of the institute and sees the Universal Declaration of Human Dignity as the intellectual basis of all its work. He hopes to spend his retirement and his energies as honorary president “concentrating on the humanitarian side of promoting human dignity, and especially the rights of children in the developing world.”
Also, in October this year, Harnwell appointed Lord Nicholas Windsor as the institute’s chairman. A member of the British royal family, Windsor has been an ardent defender of the pro-life cause since he was received into the Catholic Church in 2001. On his appointment, he stressed the need for reasoned debate and for including in the institute’s global perspective “every threat to the integrity of human beings, at all stages of their being and in all circumstances.”
Another key appointment, confirmed the same day by Cardinal Martino, was that of Ilyas Khan as the institute’s vice chairman. A British financier, philanthropist, and well-known convert to the Catholic Church from Islam, Khan is also chairman of the world’s largest charity for the disabled, the UK-based Leonard Cheshire Disability.
Buttiglione, a philosophy professor and currently vice president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, is patron of the new body. “I expect very much from the institute,” he told CWR. “We must support each other in times of persecution. My case is well-known, but how many are there in European institutions who must face this hostility because they don’t comply with the rules of political correctness? No one talks about them, and they must carry on alone.”
“Also how many pressures are brought to bear on legislative processes in Europe, dismantling piece by piece its culture—such issues such as marriage, life, abortion, euthanasia? But not only that. We should also change—and the institute will help us do this—the perspective we have,” Buttiglione added.
The Italian lawmaker is particularly concerned that this destruction of culture through attacks on non-negotiable values is the cause of a “period of crisis in social systems.” Unless these attacks are resisted, he believes, democracy itself will be destroyed. “We know from history that Greek democracy didn’t last for long,” he said. “Why did it go down? Because of corruption. Why was it corrupt? Because of the dominance of moral relativism. Read Plato’s Republic and you see it. He explains why democracy dominated by relativism is corrupt… then people look to a man who promises to return some sort of order. We are not very far from that.”
For these reasons, Buttiglione believes there must be “a new engagement” of Christians in politics, not only to defend Christian values, but to defend democracy, and to prevent a process that ultimately leads to tyranny. “What kind of tyranny might that be? I don’t know,” he said. “It’s not a communist one, that’s already over. It’s not a fascist one—but there are many kinds of totalitarianisms that are brewing in our society.”
Lord Alton likewise sees the creation of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, at this moment in world history, as opportune. “The timing for creating the Institute for Human Dignity could not be better—it’s a providential moment,” he said. “When you look at the threats to human life from fertilization to natural death, but also the whole spectrum of life; when you look at the persecution for religious or political beliefs; when you look at the undermining of human dignity in areas of conflict; when you look at areas like the sales of arms into zones of conflict; or you look at the promotion of drugs, both legal and illegal, trying to give some people some kind of escapism from the world in which they live—people are losing their dignity.”
Lord Alton continued, “When you look at the estates where we throw people, living in often wretched conditions and abandoned; when you think about the million people, in Britain for instance, who don’t see a friend, relative, or neighbor in the course of an average week; the way we treat the elderly—when you see those things you can see a need for an Institute for Human Dignity.”
Noting also the 600 unborn babies that are killed in Britain every day, China’s largely unopposed one-child policy, and the numerous successful attempts to legalize euthanasia in parts of Europe and the US, Lord Alton emphasized the need “to try and galvanize public opinion to soften hearts [and] open minds, and then to mobilize parliamentarians as well.”
He stressed most of these human rights violations actually come from the “rights-based agenda,” and that the “right to life” has been grossly misinterpreted since the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “It beggars belief,” he said. “Against that, we need to have a declaration of human dignity. The Institute for Human Dignity has done well in bringing together its own articles based on promoting human dignity, which we should encourage legislators worldwide to support and [incorporate] into the parlance, the common vocabulary, of legislators worldwide, as [has been done with] the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Buttiglione sees the institute’s Universal Declaration in a similar vein, but also as a key part of the New Evangelization. “This declaration is a kind of mature fruit of Vatican II, re-read and re-actualized through the great pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI,” he said. He firmly believes it should be viewed as part of the New Evangelization— “as a tool in the resurrection of Christianity in our time, of the New Evangelization.” Buttiglione sees Christianity and secularization moving in cycles, and he believes the world might be entering a new stage in which secularization is ending, and a new era of Christianity is beginning.
Lord Alton is similarly optimistic. “At the end of the 18th century, Britain was a pretty secularized society,” he said. “People had abandoned the Church, and it took the Holy Spirit to come and animate men like the evangelicals Charles Wesley and George Whitfield, then the Tractarian Oxford Movement—Pusey, Keble, and Newman—and then Newman and [Cardinal] Manning through to the Catholic Spring. It took all of that religious renewal in society to lead to political reconstruction and then reform.”
But he also noted that one of the products of that religious renewal was a young man who, when elected to parliament, wasn’t yet a Christian but who would eventually lead the campaign to abolish slavery. His name was William Wilberforce. “The very last letter that John Wesley wrote was to him, to encourage him to continue in his campaign to abolish slavery,” Alton recalled. “It took him 40 years, and he took St. Augustine’s words seriously—to pray as if the entire outcome depends upon God, and work as if the entire outcome depends upon you.”
“I think that’s a pretty good example for the Institute for Human Dignity to take,” Lord Alton added. “It may not come in our time, it may require a Wilberforce, it may take persistence, but it will be a combination of pressure and prayer and a lot of persistence which will see this come to a successful conclusion.”
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