Natural and Un-Natural Law

By Jakob Cornides | May 12, 2010

A mere twenty years separates 1948 from 1968.  Yet a chasm exists between the year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and that year of great social revolution — an annus horriblilis whose repercussions are still felt across Western society.

The language of human rights in the Universal Declaration was grounded in something objective, a truth based in natural law. Its principle drafters — men such as the great neo-Thomist thinker Jacques Maritain and the Maronite Catholic Charles Malik — were schooled in that tradition, which is reflected in provisions such as Article 16, proclaiming that the family is “the fundamental group unit of society.”

That tradition, if not close to becoming extinct, is certainly endangered, as proponents of new theories of “human rights” emerge and dominate the discourse at the United Nations, in the capitals of aid-dispensing countries of the global North and in the academic journals.  There is a proliferation of rights — “reproductive rights,” the right to non-discrimination based on undefined and malleable categories of “sexual orientation and gender,” the right to die — all of which threaten to crowd out long-established rights, such as the rights of conscience, free speech and religious free exercise when the old and the new rights (inevitably) come into conflict.  What happens when the religious minister speaks out on the immorality of homosexual conduct, or the doctor refuses to perform an abortion on grounds of conscience?

And what grounds these newly-minted rights? Is it anything objective? Or are these rights to be imposed on dissenting individuals, and even dissenting cultures — “unenlightened” nations that believe that the unborn should be protected from the moment of conception, or that believe that homosexual conduct is detrimental to individual and civilizational flourishing and the passing on of one’s cultural patrimony from one generation to the next, and therefore should be discouraged (or at least not enabled) in law?

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, noted that removing human rights from their objective, natural law basis, “would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks. This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights.”

Jakob Cornides is a thinker, based in Europe, whose writing deserves wider recognition, not only from American audiences but also those throughout the world.  The monograph that follows — “Natural and Un-Natural Law” — sets forth that clash between the ideals of 1948 and the counter-principles asserted by the generation of 1968.  He exposes the shoddy thinking of those who seek to establish a right to abortion — the ultimate exercise of raw, bloody power over the helpless and powerless.  He brings to light the incipient totalitarianism and anti-democratic elitism of those roughly thirty United Nations and activist human rights “experts” who crafted a manifesto entitled the “Yogyakarta Principles.” The document purports to propound  “binding” human rights norms that are to govern social legislation in the area of “sexual orientation and gender identity,” despite such norms never having been consented to by sovereign states.

After reading “Natural and Un-Natural Law,” the reader is left questioning whether the human rights project begun in 1948 can continue, or whether it will collapse from its accreted weight.  Indeed, one is left with a sobering thought — if rights are simply commodities handed out and enforced by the positivist state, which defines who is a “person” and entitled to be a rights-bearer, then such rights so granted by the state can also be taken away by the state.  Rights are either grounded in something objective or they are changeable and ultimately illusory.

If the human rights tradition is to be saved from those who would ultimately destroy it, then works such as “Natural and Un-Natural Law,” which points to a Truth whose name some dare no longer speak, are an essential part of that reclamation project.