Human Rights and the Pan-Orthodox Council

Last week, the Eastern Orthodox Church, a communion of 14 autocephalous, national churches with roots in the Byzantine Christian tradition, concluded an historic synod on the island of Crete. Decades in the planning, the Pan-Orthodox Council, known officially as the Holy and Great Council, was meant to gather patriarchs from all 14 churches for deliberation on a series of issues in contemporary church life, including marriage, fasting, the Orthodox “Diaspora,” and relations with non-Orthodox Christians. At the last minute, four national churches, including the largest, the Russian Orthodox Church, declined to attend—a fact which, notwithstanding the protests of the Council’s supporters, seems as a practical matter to undercut the Council’s significance. Nonetheless, the Council is noteworthy for what it had to say on several topics, including the persecution of Mideast Christians and human rights in general. On the latter, the Council’s documents reveal, once again, important differences with the consensus understanding in the West.

First, though, a word about the churches that stayed away. From what I can tell, most (but not all) of these churches demurred in part because of concerns about what the Council might say about relations with other Christians. Ecumenism occasions much dispute within the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some, especially in monastic communities, believe that ecumenism implies that Orthodoxy has abandoned its claim to represent the one true church. Even referring to non-Orthodox Christians as “churches” can cause controversy.

In its declaration, “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” the Council adopted (with all respect) a rather lawyerly solution. Yes, the document indicates, there is only one true church, and that is the Eastern Orthodox Church. But “the Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her and believes that her relations with them should be based on the most speedy and objective clarification possible of the whole ecclesiological question.” In other words, the Council accepts that, historically, other Christian communions have been called “churches” (some of them, even, have been called “Orthodox Churches”!) and will work to clarify the situation. It’s an irenic statement. We’ll see how it is received, especially by those within the Orthodox fold who do not think clarification necessary.

Notwithstanding this hedging on the “ecclesiological question,” the Council did go out of its way to decry the persecution of Christians, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, in the Mideast today. In fact, it condemned the persecution of other religious minorities in the Mideast as well. The encyclical issued at the conclusion of the Council states, “The Orthodox Church is particularly concerned about the situation facing Christians, and other persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East. In particular, she addresses an appeal to governments in that region to protect the Christian populations – Orthodox, Ancient Eastern and other Christians – who have survived in the cradle of Christianity. The indigenous Christian and other populations enjoy the inalienable right to remain in their countries as citizens with equal rights.” The Council refers to two Christian bishops, one Eastern and the other Oriental Orthodox, who were abducted two years in Syria and whose whereabouts are still unknown.

The Council’s official documents also speak about human rights generally, demonstrating, once again, how important the idiom is in contemporary debate. Today, everyone from secular lawyers to church patriarchs declares a commitment to the ideal of “human rights,” based in the concept of “human dignity.” It is the price of admission to polite discussion. But the Council’s documents reveal, once again, how differently people understand those terms. In today’s human rights discourse, people use the same words, but mean very different things.

The Council’s official documents are not always so easy to follow, but, taken together, they stand for these propositions: human dignity derives from the fact of divine creation; human freedom, correctly understood, is the freedom to progress toward spiritual perfection in Christ; and a secular understanding of human rights, which promotes Continue reading

Last Night at First Things

me and Rusty

L-R: Movsesian, Reno

Thanks to Rusty Reno and First Things Magazine for hosting a dinner seminar last night on my new paper, Of Human Dignities. (That’s a picture of me and Rusty at the event, listening in rapt attention to one of the many insightful interventions). I greatly enjoyed the discussion and am grateful to all the participants for their careful readings of the paper. For those who would like to download a copy of the paper, which appears in the current edition of the Notre Dame Law Review, please click here.

Movsesian “Human Dignities” Paper Now on SSRN

For those who are interested, a draft version of my article, “Of Human Dignities,” is now available on SSRN. The article will appear in a forthcoming symposium issue of the Notre Dame Law Review. Here’s the abstract:

This paper, written for a symposium on the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, the Catholic Church’s declaration on religious freedom, explores the conception of human dignity in international human rights law. I argue that, notwithstanding a surface consensus, no generally accepted conception of human dignity exists in contemporary human rights law. Radically different understandings compete against one another and prevent agreement on crucial issues. For example, the Catholic Church and other religious bodies favor objective understandings that tie dignity to external factors beyond personal choice. By contrast, many secular human rights advocates favor subjective definitions that ground dignity in individual will. These conceptions clash, most notably in contemporary debates on traditional values resolutions and same-sex marriage. Similarly, individualist conceptions of dignity, familiar to most of us in the West, compete with corporate conceptions that emphasize the dignity of traditional religions — a clash that plays out in the context of the proselytism and the right to convert. Rather than try to forge agreement on a universal definition of dignity, I argue, we lawyers should commit to a more modest approach, one that accepts the reality of disagreement and finds a humane way to accommodate it.

You can download the paper (more than once!) here.

 

Notre Dame Law Review Symposium on Dignitatis Humanae (Nov. 5-6)

University_of_Notre_Dame_739399_i0Next month, Marc and I will both be presenting papers at a symposium on the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II declaration on religious freedom. The symposium, sponsored by the Notre Dame Law Review, will take place in South Bend. In addition to Marc and myself, panelists include Thomas Berg of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Paul Horwitz of the University of Alabama School of Law, Christopher Lund of Wayne State University Law School; Brett Scharffs of Brigham Young University Law School, Steven Smith of the University of San Diego School of Law, Anna Su of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, and Richard Garnett and Phillip Muñoz of Notre Dame Law School.  The panels will be moderated by Judge Richard Sullivan of the Southern District of New York. The Symposium will feature a keynote address from John H. Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America.

Further details are here. CLR Forum readers, please stop by and say hello!

Dilley & Palpant (Eds.), “Human Dignity in Bioethics”

9780415659314Last December, Routledge published Human Dignity in Bioethics: From Worldviews to the Public Square (2012) edited by Stephen Dilley (St. Edward’s U.), and Nathan J. Palpant (U. of Washington). The publisher’s description follows.

Human Dignity in Bioethics brings together a collection of essays that rigorously examine the concept of human dignity from its metaphysical foundations to its polemical deployment in bioethical controversies. The volume falls into three parts, beginning with meta-level perspectives and moving to concrete applications.

Part 1 analyzes human dignity through a worldview lens, exploring the source and meaning of human dignity from naturalist, postmodernist, Protestant, and Catholic vantages, respectively, letting each side explain and defend its own conception. Part 2 moves from metaphysical moorings to key areas of macro-level influence: international politics, American law, and biological science. These chapters examine the legitimacy of the concept of dignity in documents by international political bodies, the role of dignity in American jurisprudence, and the implications—and challenges—for dignity posed by Darwinism. Part 3 shifts from macro-level topics to concrete applications by examining the rhetoric of human dignity in specific controversies: embryonic stem cell research, abortion, human-animal chimeras, euthanasia and palliative care, psychotropic drugs, and assisted reproductive technologies. Each chapter analyzes the rhetorical use of ‘human dignity’ by opposing camps, assessing the utility of the concept and whether a different concept or approach can be a more productive means of framing or guiding the debate.

Crimm on Muslim Relief Organizations

Nina Crimm (St. John’s) has posted Reframing the Issue and Cultivating U.S.-Based Muslim Humanitarian Relief Organizations. The abstract follows.

Funded by Muslim-American donors, legitimate U.S.-based Muslim charities for decades provided crucial funds and services in geographic areas ravaged by natural disasters, many with Muslim populations. These charities’ humanitarian aid, offered directly or through local non-governmental organizations, benefited the affected people, winning their gratitude and allegiance during the rescue, relief, recovery, and reconstruction operations following tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and other such catastrophes. Their assistance also conserved and expanded opportunities to provide development aid to these same regions and individuals, not only to improve their communities and lives but also to secure their hearts and minds.

The U.S. government’s “war on terror” dramatically impacted these constructive influences and relationships. The post-9/11 counterterrorism laws and their stern enforcement fomented fear and anger among Muslim-Americans, substantially diminishing their goodwill toward the government. The government’s actions also engendered an inhospitable philanthropic environment for Muslim-Americans. These resulted in a significant reduction in Muslim- Continue reading

European Court of Justice on Human Dignity and the Patentability of Human Embryos

An interesting judgment from the European Court of Justice this week relating to work with human embryonic stem cells: In response to a certification from the German Federal Court of Justice, the ECJ held that the European Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions (1998) forbids the patenting of human embryos, or techniques that require the destruction of human embryos, for industrial or commercial purposes, including purposes of scientific research. The Directive prohibits patents for “uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes,” and indicates that this prohibition extends to all processes that “offend against” the fundamental principle of “human dignity.” The ECJ concluded that the Directive’s reference to “human dignity” required that the phrase “human embryo” be “understood in a wide sense” to include not only fertilized human eggs, but also unfertilized eggs and stem cells, if they are “capable of commencing the process of development of a human being.”

The concept of human dignity is a fundamental one in European law; many religious-freedom cases in the ECtHR employ it, for example. The concept is not so prominent in American jurisprudence, which tends to be more libertarian. Some scholars argue that roots of the principle in European law lie in Catholic Social Theory, and the principle is certainly consistent with Christian ethics. I assume that, like most concepts in European jurisprudence, the principle has roots in Enlightenment thought as well. The judgment is Brüstle v. Greenpeace (Grand Chamber) (18 Oct. 2011). – MLM

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