The Dispatch: More from CWR...

The ideological attack on rights in the name of rights

The protest of the State Department’s new Commission on Unalienable Rights is an example of grinding particular axes rather than addressing genuine human rights abuses.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo introduces Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, center, as the head of the Commission on Unalienable Rights at a news conference at the State Department in Washington July 8, 2019. (CNS photo/Yuri Gripas, Reuters)

Sometimes it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. That is the dilemma I faced when I learned a coalition of groups and individuals was opposing the State Department’s new Commission on Unalienable Rights–and why.

That expression “unalienable rights” was at the center of the protesterscomplaints. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo they said they “view with great misgiving a body established by the U.S. government aimed at circumscribing rights through an artificial sorting of those that are ‘unalienable’ and those to be now deemed ‘ad hoc.’”

“These terms simply have no place in human rights discourse,” declared the coalition, whose members include the National Council of Churches, Catholics for Choice, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the LGBT advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign.

I don’t know where they got that bit about “ad hoc” rights, but as far as unalienable rights are concerned, I suggest the protesters consider the following:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men 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.

It hardly needs saying that this is from the Declaration of Independence. If the protesters have their way, we presumably will need to drop the reference to unalienable rights (and to a Creator who bestowed them). Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness may or may not stay. And so much for the American Founding. As I said: all this would be rather funny if it weren’t rather sad.

The new Commission on Unalienable Rights, a purely advisory body, is chaired by Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, a Catholic scholar who is a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. In an article in the February issue of First Things, she and Seth D. Kaplan of the Johns Hopkins school of international studies discussed the decline of interest in human rights in the years since the UN Declaration on Human Rights of 1948. They suggested as a realistic goal for reviving it “the systematic elimination of a narrow set of evils” for which, they said, a broad consensus already exists across societies.

This non-inclusive list included genocide, slavery, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, retroactive penal measures, deportation or forcible transfer of population, discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality or social origin, and protection for freedom of conscience and religion.

Readers will note that this says nothing about pushing either for abortion or against it, nor does it speak of pressing the LGBT agenda. But both things–abortion rights and LGBT interests–are of prime importance to a goodly number of the groups and individuals raising alarms about the State Department commission. That makes it hard to escape the conclusion that when push comes to shove, these people care more about grinding their particular axes than addressing genuine human rights abuses in areas like those identified by Glendon and Kaplan.

In announcing the new commission, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “as human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect.” The commission’s charter says it will provide “fresh thinking about human rights” and propose “reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Here’s wishing it much success.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Russell Shaw 294 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. It looks like we really hit a nerve. Maybe we really need to emphasize this as Catholics. For example, there are two different rights to health care.

    There is the inalienable right to health care which means that the government can’t step in and deny me services that I need for bodily health. There is also the superficial right to health care which means that the government must pay for my health care.

    One right is inalienable: the other is hardly a right at all. Liberals seek to conflate these two rights.

  2. The ideological attack actually has a pedigree that goes back to “the beginning.”

    The more rationalistic term—unalienable truths that are “self-evident”—was an edit to Jefferson’s draft, supplied by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin’s half-way-house term replaced Jefferson’s original “sacred and undeniable” (Paul Johnson, A History of the American People [New York: Harper Perennial, 1999], 155).

    (And, for the record, the term “unalienable,” itself, is an enshrined spelling error: inalienable.)

    But the real push-back against the new commission will come from NOT just any gaggle of ad hoc, self-referential, placard-carrying devotees to victimhood, BUT FROM possibly liberal nominees to the United States Supreme Court…

    who, as in the past, first express to members of the confirming Senate their commitment to the Constitution of the United States, but then in the same sanctimonious breath deflect the question whether they will hold themselves equally bound by the prefatory, foundational and inseparable Declaration of Independence—-from which commeth the controverted (not controversial) vocabulary of “self-evident” and “unalienable rights.”

  3. “The commission’s charter says it will provide ‘fresh thinking about human rights’ and propose ‘reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights” (Pompeo on the new Commission). Human rights are inherent by nature in Man explicated by commentaries on natural law and social justice by Aquinas and others (see JJ Ziegler What is Social Justice?). Social Justice, the terminology as well as it’s presumed meaning was hijacked by Karl Marx [Jacques Rousseau, Robespierre before him during the French Revolution]. Re-hijacked by Radical Left Socialism now known as the Democrat Party. As I said elsewhere the essential difference between a Christian concept of social justice embedded in Natural Law v Communism, the Nouveau Marxists known as Democrats is the Natural Law principle of the Common Good. Christian oriented reason and the Common law inherited from England [the juridical measure of justice for most states following Independence] protects the individual’s rights from Marxist socialism’s primacy of the Common Good placed above the individual giving the State supreme power the individual simply a means to that end. A marked difference in Democrat Nouveau Marxism is its Amorality as defined in the bane of Justice Justice Anthony Kennedy in his irrational unprincipled definition of Liberty (see Casey). That premise of unfettered Liberty enshrined as sacred by Democrat Nouveau Marxists is now weaponized as an instrument of oppression v Catholic or any group holding to different, viable moral views. Forced education on our children of the wonder of deviate sexuality, transgenderism [whatever that means aside from insanity], in classrooms, libraries, in the media the latter [except for FOX] simply propagandists false prophets in pretense of journalism. Russell Shaw rightly wishes “much success” the wish perhaps indicative of the immense rage opposition expected from the vast numbers led by Democrats disciples not of social justice rather of The Spirit of the Air.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The ideological attack on rights in the name of rights -
  2. The ideological attack on rights in the name of rights - Mama Mary - Our Loving Mother

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.