Published June 7, 2001
The Catholic Difference
On May 3, the United States lost the seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission it had held since 1947. Among the human rights paragons who did get elected to the UNHRC were Algeria, China, Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Vietnam. This is very bad news for the cause of human rights, and especially for religious freedom.
Initial reports suggested that the U.S. expulsion was payback for the Bush administration’s willingness to go against the grain of received wisdom on missile defense and global warming. Nina Shea, one of American Catholicism’s most astute advocates for international human rights, thinks something else was afoot.
Ms. Shea, who was in Geneva for the most recent UNHRC meeting, saw the U.S. expulsion coming—not just because of typical U.N. politics (which make the ward-heelers of The Last Hurrah look like Platonic Guardians) but because America’s European allies “dislike being forced to vote in public on measures censuring countries with which they hope to conclude trade deals.” As Ms. Shea reported in the Weekly Standard, one European ambassador “confidently told me that in a few years there would be no more ‘finger-pointing’ on the Human Rights Commission.” “Finger-pointing” is code for the American effort to call human rights abuses by their proper names: slavery in Sudan, repression of democrats in Cuba, religious persecution in China.
Has Europe lost its nerve? Or, perhaps better, has Europe lost any sense of itself as a defender of humane values in world politics—values which are a European patrimony?
There are many reasons to worry about Europe’s future. Western European countries have the lowest birth-rates in history; when societies refuse to create the human future in the most elemental sense of begetting the next generation, it seems reasonable to suggest that a crisis of civilizational morale is underway. A crude utilitarianism prevails in much of western Europe on the life issues; it is exemplified in the new Dutch euthanasia laws (which will make involuntary euthanasia even more widespread) and in Britain’s rush to human cloning. Another disturbing indicator is the reluctance in Germany to place obituary notices of family members in newspapers, or to have names and dates put on gravestones: if we come from oblivion and return to oblivion, why bother to note or remember a life?
Reflecting on all this, one cannot help be reminded of Aleksandr Solzehnitsyn’s famous explanation of why the countries of Europe, “bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation” in 1914: “Men have forgotten God.” That forgetting produced the colossal slaughters of the First World War, which in turn led to the Bolshevik Revolution, history’s first experiment in totalitarianism, and thence to the greatest persecution in the history of Christianity. The stupidities of the Treaty of Versailles produced Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Second World War—at the end of which the victors consigned half of historic Europe to the tender mercies of Stalin’s Soviet Union, a failure of nerve only remedied forty-four years later by the Revolution of 1989.
Europe had a very bad twentieth century. The widespread cynicism, secularism, and moral relativism that have followed in its wake help explain the European Union countries’ recent behavior on the U.N. Human Rights Commission. A Europe which has lost faith in its own historic political values is a Europe unlikely to risk construction contracts in order to defend persecuted Christians in China. A self-centered Europe focused on its pleasures is a Europe unlikely to care much about slavery in Sudan.
The Vatican has put great emphasis on European unification for half a century. The theory had it that a reunifying Europe would be compelled by history to seek the deep sources of its civilizational unity, which would raise the question of Christianity in post-Christian western Europe and thus open the doors to a new evangelization. The stunning narrow-mindedness European states have displayed at the UNHRC suggests that whatever unification is happening today is happening around something other than deeply rooted Christian values.
The ninety thousand French young people and the hundreds of thousands of their Italian counterparts who attended World Youth Day 2000 in Rome have their work cut out for them.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.