Excerpts of this interview appeared on EWTN’s Vatican Report programme in 2011.
Lord Alton of Liverpool is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Dignity. He explains in this recent interview why the Institute is vital in defending the dignity of the human person in a world where it is increasingly under threat, why there is an urgent need for the Institute’s Universal Declaration of Human Dignity, and the need to be counter-cultural in the battle to protect all people born in the image and likeness of God.
Lord Alton, why is this Institute so needed today?
G K Chesterton famously once said that when you lose any respect for human dignity, not long after you lose respect for human rights as well. Those two things always go together and it’s based for us as Christians on the biblical principle, in the book of Genesis, that every single person is imago dei – made in the image and likeness of God, man and woman. We are made in God’s image regardless of our colour, creed, sex, orientation, abilities. We are therefore precious and unique to him, though it’s incredibly important if we, as John Paul II put it, are counter-cultural. It’s very important if we’re to affirm the rights of every human being, the thinking that comes from natural law, the thinking that the philosopher Jacques Maritain promoted in his great books. It’s very important that this should be promoted in some kind of systematic way. So the Institute for Human Dignity is one of the most important initiatives probably in the world today because it is deeply counter-cultural. It is saying something that those who talk in the flaccid language of rights and entitlements aren’t saying. It’s talking about responsibilities, duties, obligations, the needs of the voiceless and the powerless.
How urgent is the need for this Institute?
The timing for creating the Institute for Human Dignity could not be better. It’s a providential moment. When you look at the threats to human life from fertilization to natural death, but also the whole spectrum of life; when you look at the persecution for religious or political beliefs; when you look at the undermining of human dignity in areas of conflict; when you look at areas like the sales of arms into zones of conflict, or you look at the promotion of drugs, both legal and illegal, trying to give some people some kind of escapism from the world in which they live, then people are losing their dignity.
When you look at the sink estates where we throw people, living in often wretched conditions and abandoned; when you think about the million people in Britain for instance who don’t see a friend, relative or neighbour in the course of an average week; when you see the way we treat the elderly – when you see all those things, you can see a need for an Institute for Human Dignity. And when you look at a country like the United Kingdom where we abort 600 babies every single day, and where moves in Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and the US state of Oregon to introduce legalized euthanasia have been successful (those attempts are being made in the UK and in other countries as well), you can see the need to try and galvanise public opinion to soften hearts, open minds and then to mobilize parliamentarians as well.
How optimistic are you this can take place in the West’s increasingly secular countries?
You could talk yourself into the slough of despond if you just talked about Church attendance. But if you look at some of the surveys in Europe and in other parts of the world, the numbers of people who do believe in God, even in the godless United Kingdom, around 80-90% of people say they still believe in God. We need to get them to do something about that, reaffirming Judeo-Christian ideals and not forgetting who we are.
When he came to Westminster Hall last year, Pope Benedict talked about not forgetting who we are and what our roots are and the importance Christian roots have played in our society, I think there is much more support for those ideals than you would probably believe. Certainly my experience, speaking on university campuses, is that there are many young people who are searching as well. It’s for the Church, therefore, to be there to offer salt and light which is what Jesus himself says in the Gospel: that we have to be salt and light in society around us.
How did you get involved in the Institute?
The Institute asked if I would like to create the first working group in the United Kingdom and so now in the British parliament we have an All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Dignity which I’ve chaired since its formation. It’s all party group from people across the political divide and can be from people of all religious backgrounds and none. But this belief in human dignity is its foundational principle. One of those who’s been to speak to that group was Dr Alveda King, who came and talked us about how she herself had had three abortions but nevertheless believes that one of the most important human rights campaigns is for the unborn child. She said it’s the civil rights movement, pioneered by her uncle, the late Dr Martin Luther King, equivalent in modern times. It was a fascinating talk. We had one of our Secretaries of State, Ian Duncan Smith, who talked about welfare and welfare reform – not making people dependent on the state but giving them the dignity to work and be able to make their full contribution to society.
Other groups like this have been formed in other parliaments and so it’s important that they should network with one another and also bring in the next generation as well. I’m a great believer in the importance of handing on the baton to those who will follow. I think we really have to start doing more formation with people who feel a calling to public or political life. It’s not an easy business, they’ve got to be ready for the storms they’ll have to face. There’s the whole of the rights-based agenda which is often subverted and used to promote such things as reproductive rights which will lead to worldwide things like gendercide in China and India, but even in western countries as well where gender might become a reason for aborting a baby girl. The Economist magazine for instance puts the numbers of baby girls aborted at 100 million people worldwide. That has come out of the whole of the rights-based agenda. Against that we need to have something counter-cultural and that is to assert the principle of human dignity.
Could you tell us a little about the Universal Declaration of Human Dignity? How does it differ from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
In 1948, after the awful horrors of Auschwitz – the Holocaust – 6 million Jewish people were followed by homosexuals, gypsies, by people who had mental illness or disabilities. Then those, because of their religious or political beliefs, were taken to camps. From that experience the United Nations promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Interestingly, one of the key articles of that is that everyone will have the right to life, but how that is interpreted today beggers belief. Clearly, against that, we need to have a declaration of human dignity. The Institute for Human Dignity has done well in bringing together its own articles based on promoting human dignity, on which I think we should encourage legislators worldwide to support. We need to get it into the parlance, the common vocabulary, of legislators worldwide, as is the universal declaration of human rights.
How optimistic are you that a change in approach to these matters can be achieved?
If I could give an optimistic example from my own country, from England: At the end of the 18th century, Britain was a pretty secularised society. People had abandoned the Church and it took the Holy Spirit to come and animate men like Charles Wesley and George Whitfield – the evangelicals. Then there was the Tractarian Oxford movement, Pusey and Keble, and Newman, and then Newman and Manning through to the Catholic Spring. It took all of that religious renewal in society to lead political reconstruction and then reform – those three “r’s” helped together. And one of the products of that religious belief sweeping through the de-Christianised country of that time was a young man who came into parliament and was not a Christian. His name was William Wilberforce. He was a Member of Parliament for Hull, and he became a Christian. In fact the very last letter that John Wesley wrote was to him, to encourage him to continue in his campaign to abolish slavery – my right to choose to own another man or woman merely because of the colour of their skin. It took Wilberforce 40 years, and he took St Augustine seriously when he said “pray as if the entire outcome depends upon God, work as if the entire outcome depends upon you.” I think that’s a pretty good example for the Institute for Human Dignity to take. It may not come in our time, it may require a Wilberforce, it may take persistence, but it will be a combination of pressure, prayer and a lot of persistence which will see this come to a successful conclusion.