The Pope took full advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak out before the United Nations on behalf of human rights, giving it primacy over national sovereignty. The historic implications of this decision were analyzed by Father Dennis H. Holtschneider, President, DePaul University, during his remarks at a Center for Church/State Studies’ Breakfast Forum, held at the Union League Club, on July 9, 2008.
On April 18th, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI’s addressed the United Nations on the 60th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. He spoke in support of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). In so doing, according to Father Holtschneider, he “made a notable contribution to the body of knowledge known as Catholic social teaching.”
R2P is one of the earliest products of 21st Century international legal thought. It contends that the world community has a moral duty to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state when grave and widespread violations of human rights occur which the state itself can not contain. Father Holtschneider said a major point of the Pope’s U.N. address was his contention that, “national boundaries have their place, but they are not absolute.”
Holtschneider regards this view as a “stunning reversal,” of perspectives about the community of nations that goes all the way back to the Treaty of Westphalia. Signed in 1648, Holtschneider stated that, “the Treaty acknowledged a shift in the center of power from the physical body of the ruler to the land controlled by the ruler. With that comes an agreement to respect boundaries which has held since 1648.” R2P, according to Holtschneider, is emblematic of a “sea change,” about the need give primacy to human rights values over that boundary consciousness.
Father Holtschneider noted that Pope Benedict XVI’s speech to the United Nations was his first; and that, since he is 81 years old, likely his only opportunity to do so. But he made the most of it, advocating on behalf of R2P and, “putting the weight of the Catholic Church behind it.” The Pope offered a theological justification for his view, stating it is rooted in a recognition of the human family and of the innate dignity of every man and woman. Holtschneider said the Pope,” called on to the world to uphold the principle that “if we assert inviolable human rights, we are committed to act on their behalf.” At the same time, Holtschneider clarified that this was a statement of the Pope’s opinion and was not dogma. As he mentioned during a Q&A afterwards.“We are at a minimum watching an idea take hold in the church and the church is helping this idea take hold in the world.”
By Dan Ursini
See Dan Ursini's piece in the Winter 2008 issue of the Rinn Law Library Newsletter:
"Prof. David Scheffer Speaks on R2P at DePaul: A Personal Reaction by Dan Ursini"
Link to photos of Pope's visit