Saturday, January 22, 2011

From Alleged Rights to No Rights at All: Benedict on No One's Right to Marriage

If news reports today are accurate, Pope Benedict told the Roman Rota today, "No one can make a claim to the right to a nuptial ceremony."  The report by Nicole Winfield to which I've just linked says that Benedict also stressed the need for better formation of couples preparing to marry--which strikes me as a valuable point on which to insist.

But, "No one can make a claim to the right to a nuptial ceremony"?  That may well be true if we're speaking of a religious nuptial ceremony.  Churches definitely have the right to decide whom they'll marry.

However, if the pope is speaking of a civil marriage ceremony, he appears to be rejecting the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the Catholic church has, in the past, supported.  And which states, 

Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

It's beyond doubt that the leaders of the Catholic church want to maintain that same-sex couples do not have a right to civil marriage.  But the church's approach to this issue has not, in general, been to deny the right of marriage, period.  Not for heterosexual couples.  The Catholic approach up to now has not been to deny that there is a universal human right to marriage--which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights unambiguously affirms.

Much of the confusion in the debate about same-sex marriage has to do with the lack of clarity about the distinction between religious marriage, to which no one has a right, and civil marriage, which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms as a human right.  In opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples, the Catholic church is seeking to impose its religious understanding of marriage on civil society--something it does not do in many other respects, in modern pluralistic democratic societies, comprised of citizens with many different viewpoints, religious beliefs (or none at all), and philosophies.  But something it seems bent on doing in the case of gay and lesbian persons . . . .

In recent weeks, Benedict's trend has been--and this should worry advocates of human rights--to chip away at definitions of universal human rights by speaking of rights like the right of gay and lesbian persons to civil marriage as "alleged rights."  And by claiming that, in the very act of attacking gay and lesbian rights, the church is actually serving and upholding human rights by asserting the most fundamental human right of all--the right of religious freedom (and here).

I say that this process of chipping away at the human rights of some groups of people by religious authority figures ought to be of concern to advocates of human rights, because the role of religious groups in defending the human rights of marginalized minorities around the world has often been very important.  And so when the leaders of a major world religion that claims to be all about love, justice, and defense of the human rights of all begins to whittle away at widely understood notions of universal human rights long accepted by civilized people across the globe, it's worrisome, indeed.

And in this case, the whittling away at human rights appears to involve not merely the gay and lesbian minority community, but everyone, as the pope appears to argue that the Catholic church's understanding of marriage from a religious standpoint ought to govern how civil societies look at marriage, and to whom they extend marriage--which is, this statement of Benedict appears to suggest, not a human right at all.  Only a privilege controlled and doled out by religious groups . . . .

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