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July 18, 2011

Along with the rights to freedom of speech, food and water, and various others, we need to be cognizant of the human right to tenderness. The future Pope John Paul spoke of this right in his 1960 book Love and Responsibility, but in the intervening 51 years it has yet to gain much notice.

Every person needs to experience tenderness on an ongoing basis. It is essential to human flourishing. In a marriage, tenderness is essential and each person has the right to receive tenderness from one's partner and the responsibility to give it. But tenderness is also essential outside the marriage bond. The sick, the dying, the rejected, those suffering emotional traumas, the single, the widowed and divorced, single parents, children and infants all need tenderness.

However, the right to tenderness is not something lawyers, courts or governments can guarantee. Far from it. Tenderness without love is empty. A display of tenderness where love is absent is liable to be used to exploit or manipulate the person for one's own gratification.

Moreover, there is no obligation to receive tenderness. The potential recipient of tenderness is right to be wary of anyone who offers it before friendship has been established. Even then, a person always has the right to refuse the offer of tenderness.

What is tenderness? Tenderness is part of the emotional foundation of love. Today, our society is prone to see love as entirely emotional. Popular songs, greeting cards and movies constantly portray it in emotional terms. Such "love" is really all about me - what I feel, what the sight of you does to me.

It is easy to over-react and say love is purely an act of the will, the perseverance in living out a commitment. But that avoids the question of why I love this person rather than another. It avoids the fact that love is rooted in mystery.

"Tenderness," the future pope wrote, "is the ability to feel with and for the whole person, to feel even the most deeply hidden spiritual tremors, and always to have in mind the true good of that person." While tenderness seeks to communicate to the other a feeling of closeness, this outward manifestation is not the essence of tenderness, which is primarily an inner disposition.

We all need at least one person who approaches us with tenderness and whom we can approach in a similar way. The world has seen the extreme example of the orphanages in the former Soviet bloc where tenderness was absent. The human development of infants raised without tenderness was severely distorted, not only emotionally, but in every respect.

In a world that is often cold and unfeeling, a renaissance of tenderness is needed. There is no game plan for assuring the exercise of the right to tenderness, only the recognition that each and every person requires it.