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May 28, 2012

The expected objection to the Canadian bishops' Pastoral Letter on Freedom of Conscience and Religion is that conscience rights cannot be given as high a priority as human rights. By allowing individuals to exercise their freedom of conscience in the public arena, so the argument goes, one is allowing them to infringe on the rights of others.

Human rights, one must respond, should and do receive the highest priority in Church teaching. The Church not only applauds the growing moral sensitivity to human rights, in fact it was precisely people inspired by Christian teaching on the dignity of the human person who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yet, Catholics also deplore the distortion of what constitutes a human right in which the notion of rights is disconnected from truth and the common good.

In the Western world, human rights are increasingly seen as an exercise of one's subjective preferences regardless of moral truth and the good of society. This understanding of rights quickly leads to the individual seeing every other person as a potential threat. The bonds of solidarity are eroded and the quest for the common good made more difficult.

Rights themselves, meanwhile, are seen as determined not by the objective moral order – as are rights such as those to food, clothing and shelter – but by a decision of the government or the courts. A true human right stands above the state and above the courts as a principle that judges their actions. Human organizations are the servants of rights, not the creators of rights.

When politicians and judges are seen as having the authority to create rights, society has taken a major step towards dictatorship. Power, not morality, determines rights and this power relationship advantages some and disadvantages others. Without respect for objective morality, the powerful can be counted on to hoard power for themselves.

In short, society cannot flourish without a respect for objective moral truth. Many will say there is no such thing as moral truth - only my truth or your truth. That view exalts the individual to a god-like status and gives unlimited power to the referees of competing rights - the state and the courts. It is a sort of religious faith too and it is a far from compassionate one.

A world that respects the human person is one that sees itself as subservient to moral truth. In recognizing that subservience, it also recognizes the right to conscientious objection. It recognizes that people have a right to refuse to participate in that which they find, not subjectively distasteful, but morally abhorrent.

Conscientious objection is not a threat to human rights, but rather a basic protection for the common good and for civilization itself.