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Theology and the Boundary Discourse of Human Rights.

THEOLOGY AND THE BOUNDARY DISCOURSE OF HUMAN RIGHTS. By Ethna Regan. Washington: Georgetown University, 2010. Pp. xii + 243. $44.95.

Moved by working with street children in Trinidad, Regan seeks an ethics that protects the rudiments of decent human living but also extends toward human fulfillment; that is universal yet incorporates the particularity of history and cultures; that is religious but also includes the secular; that focuses on rights and still listens to other approaches to life; that is social, interpersonal, and individual; that sounds the alarm in response to evil but also illuminates inspiring ideals; that covers not only political but also socioeconomic issues; and that is not only theoretical but also deeply involved with the practical. The agenda is wonderful, the follow-through is much less comprehensive, and the path taken is interestingly circuitous.

R. begins by rehearsing the fragile negotiations that resulted in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, explaining how the real, recently experienced suffering of World War II had enabled consensus among otherwise disparate parties. She then traces official Catholic teachings from the rights and duties stressed by John XXIII through the optimistic humanism of Vatican II to the antirelativism of Benedict XVI. She observes how John Paul II's writings thickened the Church's social teaching on human rights but also increasingly opposed the secular world, even to the point of ignoring what is good in that culture and selectively emphasizing the Church's contributions to human life.

R. next turns (curiously) to theologians outside the human rights tradition. (In these treatments, she presupposes certain familiarity with the authors she surveys.) Moltmann, she suggests, typifies those theologians who contrast or deemphasize human rights in favor of God's right. R. herself holds that, fundamentally, human rights are grounded in the doctrine of the imago Dei. Yet she turns to Karl Rahner, who does not appeal to this image in his understanding of the dignity of being human, and who does not use the language of human rights. Nevertheless, R. reviews his theology for its shift toward anthropology, insisting that his exploration of freedom and transcendental experience offers a new foundation for human dignity. She criticizes Rahner for individualism and a farsightedness that overlooks how present sufferings prevent, say, abused children from experiencing the generosity of existence. Rahner remains important, however, because he formed a generation of theologians who took from him the turn to the subject and, thus, a religious turn to the one who has dignity and bears rights. In the process R. corrects Rahner's somewhat ahistorical and asocial approach.

R. then evaluates the ethics of memory in the Guatemalan Catholic truth and justice commission and in Metz's political theology. Rights are not prominent in either, but R. holds that rights language can help testify to horrors where human rights have been violated. Metz's memory of Auschwitz eventually disrupted his theology and set him on a new path. Memory, though often inadequate and sometimes harmful, can build solidarity, make people attentive to suffering elsewhere, and evoke prophetic action.

R. admits that liberation theology, which she considers the most significant theological movement of the last century, also resisted using rights language, thinking that such discourse promotes an individualistic liberal anthropology. Still, when Ellacurfa and others insisted that theology account for the burden of reality, they were led to claim that the poor deserve a preference of both viewpoint and practice. As liberationists eventually employed a discourse of rights to argue for systemic institutional reform, their concern remained less with the theory and more with the historical plight of the poor and their mystagogy that points to action for the poor as the locus for hearing God.

R. rounds out her review with three postliberal authors who strongly reject the use of rights language. Millbank, Hauerwas, and Bell, she writes, have a disdain for the secular, understood as the realm of rights. Second, they prefer theological politics that centers on the life of the church rather than on political theology that brings theological reflection to the polis. Third, they impatiently reject the provisional compromises of capitalistic, militaristic statecraft in favor of the purity of the gospel lived within the church. R. argues that these Augustinian postliberals exaggerate the goodness of the ecclesial realm and ignore the ethical possibilities in the earthly city.

R.'s metaphor of boundary allows her to explore some of the edges of mainstream human rights debates. She mainly discusses those who do not use its language but are kindred spirits, and those who disagree with it. She brings into critical conversation several people who do not fit the usual human rights discourse, to point out their weaknesses and to stretch the range of concerns usually associated with individual human rights. The metaphor of boundary also enables her to let the lives of people at the margins of society critique those debates.


Boston College School of Theology and Ministry
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Author:Vacek, Edward C.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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