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WHEN MIGHT BECOMES HUMAN RIGHT:Essays on Democracy and the Crisis of Rationality

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 Contents - Feb 2008AD2000 February 2008 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Can Catholic schools recover their 'salt' - Michael Gilchrist
Spe salvi: Benedict's second encyclical calls for a rediscovery of hope in Christ - Michael Gilchrist
News: The Church Around the World
Grace under fire: ordinations, and first Holy Communion in Iraq - Babette Francis
Technical school: Salesians continue to help post-tsunami Sri Lanka - Michael Lynch SDB
Paganism: 'New Age' activities continue in Brisbane Archdiocese - Tim Pemble-Smith
A remarkable father remembered - Maria Rankin
How to reform Catholic education: get the world view right - Chris Hilder
The need for solitude and reflection amid today's cacophony - Andrew Kania
What the social reign of Christ means today - Bishop Peter Elliott
Letters: Dissent - Frank White
Letters: Natural Law - Fr Bernard McGrath
Letters: New look Mass - Jessie Roger
Letters: Virgin Birth - Eamonn and Pat Keane
Letters: True Church - John Frey
Letters: 'Schoolies' - Fr. M. Durham
Letters: Poor communication - Don Gaffney
Letters: Vatican II - Anthony Bono
Letters: From India - Fr. A. Alex Prabhu
Books: NO PLACE FOR GOD: The Denial of the Transcendent in Modern Church Architecture - Tony Evans (reviewer)
Books: WHEN MIGHT BECOMES HUMAN RIGHT:Essays on Democracy and the Crisis of Rationality - Tim Cannon (reviewer)
Books: A YEARBOOK OF SEASONS AND CELEBRATIONS, by Joanna Bogle - Eric Hester (reviewer)
Books: Books available from AD2000 and Freedom Publishing
Reflection: Devotion to Our Lady: eclipse and revival - Br Barry Coldrey

Essays on Democracy and the Crisis of Rationality
by Janne Haaland Matláry
(Gracewing, 2007, 204pp, $30.00. Available from Freedom Publishing)

Australian Catholics, and their counterparts in the rest of the increasingly secular West, enjoy little respite from the oppressive march of so- called progress. Gay marriage, legalised abortion, euthanasia, unbridled consumerism, free-market sexuality and other such agenda are constantly being pushed.

While the nature of the social reform agenda which saturate our media and political arenas is increasingly extreme, it is the unashamed use - or, more correctly, abuse - of international human rights conventions to justify such agenda that gives greatest offence.

By couching their causes in the language of international human rights, socially 'progressive' interest groups are enjoying unprecedented success in achieving legislative reform at the national level.

A new book by Norwegian academic and former State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Janne Haaland Matláry, examines this new and troubling phenomenon.

First published in Norway in 2006, When Might Becomes Human Right is an incisive exploration of the far-reaching implications of the rising influence of international human rights law on national legislation.

In her book Matláry demonstrates how special interest groups influence the development of inter- national human rights laws and conventions by applying concentrated pressure on international organisations such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

By achieving change at the international level - a process which is gradual, and demands a generous measure of stamina on the part of the interest group in question - lobbyists operating at the national level use the new, or newly defined, international conventions to effect changes to the law within a given nation-state.

In this way, interested actors promote a specific agenda by pressuring their native state to fall into line with a carefully manipulated 'international consensus.'


Matláry identifies a range of problems with this increasingly common process. She points out that special interest groups, which are particularly well suited to developing cohesive (and well funded) international networks because of their limited focus, are rarely representative of the broader population. As a result, international conventions on many social issues are beginning to reflect extreme positions, rather than real community standards.

In this way, the application of pressure on national governments to conform to these new 'international standards' enables special interest groups to by-pass, and to some extent undermine, the democratic process within their own countries.

The author thus identifies a major shift in international governance. Human rights are becoming more and more important as the basis of national law, since they are seen to override national sovereignty itself. Matláry notes that this marks a major break with traditional thinking: national sovereignty was once unassailable; now human rights issues are seen as legitimate grounds for international intervention in the affairs of the sovereign state.

This in itself, Matláry argues, is a positive development, reflecting the Church's position that laws which contravene the inherent dignity of man are unjust and must be opposed. An international standard of human rights which must be upheld by all people at all times is therefore highly desirable.

However, as the author notes, the existence of such a standard demands not only agreement on what human rights are - what they actually mean - but, more importantly, it implies that a fundamental, objective set of human rights actually exists, and that these are knowable. While this is in agreement with the Catholic doctrine of natural law, it is at loggerheads with the relativist philosophy which underscores most 'progressive' causes.

It is Matláry's critique of this highly problematic and fundamental contradiction in the use of human rights reasoning by 'progressive' social movements which forms the central thesis of this excellently argued and timely book.

In a measured analysis which draws on her many years of academic research, her experience as a State Secretary of Foreign Affairs in the Norwegian government, and her time as diplomat serving both Norway and the Holy See, Matláry clearly and concisely shows how any fundamental human right must be based on an objective and unchanging view of both morality and human nature.

By contrast, popular 'progressive' causes find their basis in a relativist, constructivist world view. For example, advocates of the right of gay men and women to raise children argue that, since the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that all men and women have the right to marry and found a family, laws which restrict marriage and child-rearing to heterosexual couples contravene the rights of gay men and women.

Gay rights activists openly seek to overthrow the traditional concept of 'the family', pushing rather to establish a constructivist view of the family - such that the term 'family' refers to whatever one wants it to refer to, including a variety of unconventional groupings of adults and/or children.

When constructivism prevails, Matláry points out, the universal human right to found a family loses all meaning. It ceases to be a concrete, universal right because it is based upon a concept - the family - which itself has no universal, concrete meaning.


Matláry views this dangerous subversion of human rights as part of the spread of relativist thinking on a far broader level. 'Self-referential man' typifies our times; concepts such as 'human nature' and 'right and wrong' are seen as unknowable. Preferences rule, and especially majority preferences.

By contrast, the author shows how the classical basis for democracy depends not merely upon popular consensus, but on a shared commitment to 'the common good'. This 'common good' is necessarily pre- political, and therefore beyond politicisation. It is the standard against which laws themselves must be judged.

The 'common good' establishes that it is always and everywhere wrong to kill except in self-defence; the laws of the state then reflect this pre-political standard. The 'common good' is the guarantee which prevents a people from enacting an unjust law.

Without such guarantees, the author argues that democracy becomes nothing more than a tyranny of popular opinion. 'Rights' may be redefined, and new ones created, according to the whims of one's political agenda and the trends of the day.

The book concludes with a look at the contribution of Christianity to both European democracy, and to the establishment of the global human rights movement itself. There is a fascinating summary of the diplomatic activity of the Holy See under Pope John Paul II, with whom the author worked closely in a diplomatic capacity for several years.

A final chapter looks at the philosophical and theological writings of our current Pope Benedict XVI. Matláry draws attention to Benedict's persistent call for a return to natural-law thinking in the secular West, a call which is evident and authoritatively argued throughout his vast body of academic writing, as well as in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

When Might Becomes Human Right is an excellent book for our time, and essential reading for anyone with an interest in the future of democracy in the West.

Tim Cannon is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 21 No 1 (February 2008), p. 17

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