Having a Civilized Conversation; Venetian Rebirth

Human Rights Afloat Without a Foundation

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 16, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Ah, Venice (to quote Indiana Jones)! Magical, beautiful, but a city built upon water with all the perils that accompany such a precarious foundation.

In her keynote address at the international conference “Life and the Sacred in a Multicultural Society,” held Dec. 9-10 in La Serenissima Republic (as it was once named), Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon likened the universal human rights project to Venice, with its astonishing achievements, delicate underpinnings and need for constant vigilance to stay afloat.

Venice reprised its Renaissance role as a cultural crossroads as it hosted scholars from many countries during a two-day symposium on religion and its role in civil society. Hosted by Professor Carmelo Vigna from the University of Venice Ca’Foscari, legal scholars, philosophers, historians and economists from Italy, the United States, Germany, Austria, Spain and Chile discussed science, politics and the meaning of life.

One of the highlights of the conference was the presence of Professor Robert Spaemann, a living legend in philosophy, who spoke on a theory of sacrifice. The opportunity to interact with this author of important treatises in moral philosophy was itself enough to make the trip to Venice worth it for many.

Glendon’s talk opened the conference on a somber note, even as the high water in the streets at this time of year was alerting Venice to the constant danger of being reclaimed by the sea. She recalled how the human rights project that culminated with the Universal Declaration in 1948 was a hard-fought achievement, rendered possible in part by the horrific displays of disregard for human life during the Second World War.

She pointed out that some of the greatest legal and philosophical minds had planted the seeds of the utilitarian view of the human person in the early years of the 20th century. Max Weber wrote of “the disenchantment of the world,” no longer needing “magical means in order to control or pray to the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Instead, technology and calculations achieve our ends,” effectively proposing science as a new religion.

Glendon described how Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., America’s most famous jurist, had imported his eugenic views into the law, when he voted in the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of a statute providing for the sterilization of mentally ill persons. Holmes said on the occasion, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. … Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

So what are the underpinnings of a concept of universal human rights based on the dignity of the human person? The writers of the Declaration of Human Rights never answered that question. While all agreeing on a basic sense of human dignity, they had differing views on what conferred that dignity. The nebulous conception of what gives dignity to a human being left a dangerous fault line in the human rights project, visible already to its creators.

It was only a matter of time, Glendon noted, before special interest groups would try to capture the concept of human rights for their own use. Campaigns to have sexual liberties and abortion recognized as universal rights came first, to be followed by proponents of euthanasia. Simultaneously, others have tried to dismiss the concept of individual dignity as impeding the progress of science.

Without a sense of the “why” of human dignity, it will be difficult to defend the concept of human rights against these many storms.

The succeeding talks brought out different aspects of human rights, from the very concrete — such as the state’s role in assisted suicide — to more speculative considerations — such as what constitutes holiness. The conference was remarkable for its atmosphere of a free exchange of ideas unstifled by political correctness and unhampered by personal petulance. Although there were disagreements on many points, the exchanges were frank, cheerful and most importantly charitable.

The glue of this intellectual convivium are the founders of the Religion and Civil Society project, Professors Rafael Alvira and Montserrat Herrero from the philosophy department of the University of Navarra, considered by many to be one of Europe’s brightest intellectual centers. While they are the first to admit that their center is one of many different groups pondering the question of religion in society, they are trying to take a different approach.

Instead of focusing on the dividing lines between Church and state, they ask, “Is it possible to have a true society without the presence of religion? Isn’t religion necessary for a civilized society?”

A close analysis of the modern world has brought three main models to light. The first is Islam, where state, society and religion are seen as ideally fully integrated. The second is the secularist post-Enlightenment model, where religion is excluded from public life and society is organized in a purely rational manner. In this form of society, says Alvira, “religion becomes only a private matter and democracy becomes dogma.”

The third vision is still inchoate, but challenges the rigid public-private distinction and points toward an understanding of religion and society where faith and reason are mutually supportive. A key element in that understanding is the renewal of Christianity. In an era when some Catholics are interpreting Vatican II as a license to disregard Church teachings and to participate in the trends forming in society, Alvira and Herrero stand with the herculean undertakings of Pope John Paul II and now Benedict XVI “to bring the Church back to the understanding that the great dogmas haven’t changed.” The most profoundly new aspect of the Second Vatican Council, they claim, “was the emphasis on the role of the laity in the Church.”

This aspect becomes more and more important as churches are pushed out of the public square, particularly in Europe, where societies are increasingly governed by persons who actively seek to eliminate religion from society and public life.

Founded in 2008, the Religion and Civil Society project adopts an interdisciplinary approach to tackle these problems from many angles. Participants think about the definitions used in political terminology and how they condition the way people approach certain topics. For example, the distinction between public and private as almost incompatible opposites has become a common default position, but in reality, good private life continues to undergird good public life. In Europe, where public is always equated with the state, it is not unusual to find that access to “public” service (university education, health care) is limited, while private forms are more widely available. Alvira has examined these terms (public, private, common, state, government) bandied about every day and found that the present definitions create a very unfavorable playing ground.

To this end, the group has organized five conferences — this one, on life and the sacred, was the second. Over the next few years the project will also explore education and religion, human rights and religion and the meaning of secularization. They hope that by bringing scholars together to discuss concrete problems of today’s world, they can produce working ideas that can be applied to civil society.

They also hope that forging friendships among these learned and committed people will help to change the world, one civilized conversation at a time.

* * *

Sifting Through the Glitter

The hopeful outlook toward humanity of the researchers in the Religion and Civil Society project cast a promising ray of light over rainy Venice. Once a nation where society and religion were completely intertwined, Venice is today more tou
ted for its era of decadence than its golden age of profound devotion.

Tourists are dazzled by the costumes and masquerades, once worn by Venetians to hide their identity and social status so they could take more license in their behavior without suffering consequences. Visitors are enthralled by the stories of Giacomo Casanova, renowned for his pathological womanizing, and they love to peer at images of idle Venice daily life, with its toilette, dance teachers, and complicated preparations for infidelity.

Is it any wonder that contemporary art has found a home here, with its love of sensation at the expense of substance? And that movie stars flock to the lagoon to parade in jewels and gowns? Woody Allen’s choice of Venice to marry Soon Yi, the adopted daughter of his girlfriend Mia Farrow and 35 years his younger, symbolizes how far the city has fallen from the days of vaunting the recovery of St. Mark the Evangelist’s body.

But looking beyond the store windows glittering with colored glass and ornate costumes, one can still perceive traces of the devout Venice, which welcomed the Franciscans and Dominicans, glorified the Virgin Mother of God and brought piety to the lay people in the form of guilds and confraternities.

Visiting the Scuola di San Rocco, or the Scuola degli Schiavoni, and looking at the awe-inspiring painting cycles of Tintoretto or Veronese, one sees a Venice that was a hub of beauty and Christian culture transmitted throughout the world by her powerful fleet and her able diplomats.

Perhaps Venice, too, will rise again from her luxurious languor and rediscover her ancient Christian glory.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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