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Catholic Scholars and Faith Leaders in the U.S. Challenge State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights Draft Report

July 22, 2020

We are progressive Catholic theologians, community leaders, ministers, and advocates who write to express our strong concerns about the current draft of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. As persons who live and serve in this nation, we cherish and affirm our founding documents and the development of human rights in our country. These have enabled us to strive for a more perfect union and they affirm that all persons “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

First, we note with dismay the inappropriate way in which the Report was rolled out. Soliciting Cardinal Timothy Dolan in order to all but baptize it through his inexplicable presence and prayer raises serious concerns for us, as Catholics, to the intentions of the Commissioners. Cardinal Dolan’s presence conveys the distinct impression that the Report reflects a Christian, perhaps even a Catholic perspective, rather than taking seriously the separation of Religion and State.

Second, we enumerate three specific concerns about this Report related to: 1) the right to religious freedom, 2) the global interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, and 3) the selective, ambiguous, and problematic nature of the Report’s historical interpretation of the development of human rights in our country.

(1) Religious Freedom. The Report focuses on “inalienable rights” and highlights religious freedom, together with property rights, as primary. Apart from a brief historical explanation and numerous references to these rights, it does not address the development of religious freedom from the time of the Framers to the present. The ramifications of the plurality of religions, respect for an individual’s religious views and conscience, and the legal ramifications of the separation of state and religion are missing.

The writers presuppose that the United States is a country that embraces its Protestant, republican, and liberal traditions, without elaborating on what the cultural changes over the last two hundred years mean for their interpretation. Human rights are founded not only on a Christian (natural law) theory, but have a home in many other religious and non-religious traditions. The Commissioners ignore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ perspective on religious freedom, as well as the internal debates with regards to religious freedom, race, equal rights of women, and LGBTQ+ rights.

Most egregiously, the document misses the present context of religious freedom – namely the discrimination and danger which members of various religions, among them Islam and Judaism, experience in the United States.

We therefore recommend more nuance regarding the understanding of religious freedom and its relation to other human rights.

(2) Global interdependence. The Report elaborates in several sections on the positive role of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, it is very clear from the text that the U.S. not only cannot but should not be bound by international agreements. This position undermines the validity of the overall human rights project, which seeks international collaboration and accountability in pursuit of global justice. This position contradicts our country’s self-understanding since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

While the Report emphasizes the commitment to international development and recommends that the United States “lead by example,” it fails to acknowledge that the United States has recently pulled away from several international agreements that seek to protect basic life conditions on Earth, our Common Home, including the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The United States has failed to ratify other Conventions including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

We respectfully recommend that the Commissioners take these facts into account, and revise the position on international cooperation in order to reflect the will of the majority of the American people on these issues.

(3) The Report’s historical interpretation of the development of human rights in our country. The authors offer their own interpretation of U.S. history – as a history of progress in the implementation of human rights. It acknowledges that “Progress toward the securing of rights for all has often been excruciatingly slow and has been interrupted by periods of lamentable backsliding” (see page 9). However, the authors are reluctant to clarify when they are writing descriptively and when they infer normative claims about the history of the U.S. They do not question their own philosophical and religious principles that frame their historical interpretations and the resultant ramifications for establishing criteria to assess the validity of claims to human rights.

Finally, they never name the violations of human rights in the present – even though there are ample examples by the current administration, from the violation of religious freedom (Islam), to the violation of the right to asylum and refuge, the caging of immigrant children and their families, the failure to protect the political rights and the social and economic security of its citizens during the pandemic, the re-installment of the federal practice of the death penalty, and many more.

In order for the United States to lead by example, as the Report states, the Trump administration should account for its present human rights violations and address these immediately.

In contrast to the Commissioners, our Catholic faith calls us to embrace the following commitments to universal, indivisible human rights:

We reject this Report’s efforts to undermine the cohesion of human dignity and all human rights. Faithful to the principles enshrined in our nation’s founding documents and equally committed to the core principles that shape our Catholic faith, we seek to determine priorities of actions arising in contexts and situations of human rights threats and/or human rights violations, rather than drawing a line between civil and political rights on the one hand, and social and economic rights on the other. We affirm the necessity to fight for the realization of universal human rights, both domestically and in U.S. foreign policy.

We hold that one of the core principles of Catholic Social Teaching, namely, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, requires us as Catholics to demand that our government set action priorities with special regard for the human rights of women and children, as well as political, religious, racial, and sexual minorities.

We emphasize explicitly that the right to religious freedom comes with the obligation to protect the rights of members of all religions and those who adhere to no religion, as well as the obligation to protect and promote all human rights. Furthermore, religious freedom must not be prioritized over other human rights, nor must it be weaponized to discriminate against any person, community, or nation.

We hold that more rights do indeed create more justice. Likewise, rights for more people, beginning with those who have been excluded from basic protections, create more justice.

We hold that global justice requires the cooperation of all nations, with no nation claiming to place itself first, above others. The commissioners’ position that the United States may interpret human rights in view of its national interests, requires the explicit clarification that such accommodation must occur within the framework of human rights, not against it. Otherwise, our country would undermine the international solidarity that the human rights framework calls for and needs today to respond to global threats, such as climate change and pandemics like Covid-19.

As Catholics, we stand in solidarity with all witnesses of human rights violations, and we commit ourselves to assure the human rights of every member of the human family, independent of cultural, political, or religious allegiances. We support civil, political, social, economic, and cultural human rights. We urge the U.S. to re-commit itself to the effort to overcome human rights violations, wherever they may occur, and to support fully international collaboration necessary for global justice and peace.


Dr. Simon Mary Aihiokhai

Karen A. Allen

T. Andino

Edward M. Andrews

Dr. Maria T. Annoni

Jorge A. Aquino, Ph.D.

Jane Audrey-Neuhauser

Regina Bannan, PhD

Frank L. Barham, MD, MSHA, MMH

Michael Barrett

Joseph A Batya

Rev. Kathleen Bean

Betsey Beckman

Leoanrd Bernardo

Rev. Dr. Beverly A. Bingle

Kathleen Blank Riether

Rev. Bernard (Bob) Bonnot

Guilherme Borges Pires

Thomas Borkowski 

Patricia A. Boroughs

Nora Borso

The Rev. Gene Bourquin

Sharon Brady

Robert F. Brady, Jr.

Iris Brenk

Roy Brooks-Delphin 

Helen Brown

Roberta Brunner

Bruce Byrolly

Rev. Joseph D. Calderone, OSA

John Clay Calhoun

Sharon Carpenter

Gloria Ray Carpeneto

Susanne M Cassidy

Terrence Charlton, S.J.

MaryEllen Cocks

Michael Contreras-Cheatwood

Nancy Corcoran, CSJ

Tom Cordaro

Jeanne M. Cotter

Margarita Covarrubias

Elaine Crawford

Pastor Michael-Vincent Crea

Gordon Creamer

William Curran

Patricia A. Daly, OP

Dr. Neomi De Anda

Nick De Los Reyes

Roger De Silva

Francis DeBernardo

Carol J. Dempsey, OP, Ph.D.

Kathleen Desautels,SP

Rev. Michael C. DeSciose

Miguel H. Diaz, Ph.D.

Samuel (Sammy) Diaz

Dr. J. A. Dick

Elizabeth S. Dirr

David Dirr

Mary Kay Dobrovolny, RSM

Rev. Penny Donovan

John Kevin Donovan

Eleanor Anne Dote

John Doyle

Denise Dreher

Heather DuBois

Marianne Duddy-Burke

Suzanne R Dunn

Adolph Dwenger

D. Alexandra Dyer

Patrick F. Earl, S.J.

Dr. Jerry Fath 

Ann Fenelon

Laura Fitzgerald, OSF

Loretta J Fitzgerald 
Val Flanagan

Brian P. Flanagan
Dr. Dave Fletcher

Susan J. Forbes

Fred M Fosnacht

Rev. Jeanne Fournier

Rev. Mark R. Francis, C.S.V.

Jane Fredricksen

Jerry and Lucy Furlong

Rosalyn Gallo

Rosemary Ganley, M.Ed.

William George

Kathleen Gibbons Schuck

Pat Gorman

Jeannine Gramick, SL

Kathleen  Greenaway

Fr. Joseph K Grieboski

Leslie C. Griffin

Susan M. Grimes

Joseph Grochowski

Kevin Grose

Richard D Gullion

Luis T. Gutierrez

Bertha Haas

Teri Hadro, BVM

Elli Haffey

Hille Haker, Ph.D.

Billy Halgat

Margaret Hanson

A D Harris-Jacobs Ph D

Sharon Hartley

Willey Michael Hartnett

J. Hassan Barbara Havekost

Judith Heffernan, M.Div

Dr. L. E. Hess Jacqueline Hidalgo

John P Hilgeman

Scott Hill, OMI

Susan Hillis

Rosalind F. Hinton

Paula Hoeffer

Ed Hoeffer

A.P. Hopper

Genevieve Hornof

Joseph Hostetler

Manford Dwight Hotchkiss

Rev. Joan M. Houk

Janice A. Hughes

Soline Humbert

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D.

Mary Jo Iozzio  

Martha Jaegers

Scott Jessup

Zach Johnson

Andrea M. Johnson

Pat Shannon Jones

Joyce Kahle

Theresa Kashin
Lawrence Kavanaugh

Carolyn B Kellogg

Esther Kennedy OP

Dr. Claire King

Daniel J. Knepper

Elizabeth Koopman

Fr. Myron Kowalsky

Diane Krantz

Barbara Krawczyk

Isaac Daniel Kreutzer

Mary Kay Kusner

Phil Laughlin

Bradley A. Leger

Robert D. Lepisko

Elizabeth Linehan, RSM

Mariana López 

Robert Lord-Schell

Lara Lynch

Bernárd J. Lynch

Patrick Lyons

John M. Kingery

Timothy J. MacGeorge, MDIV, LCSW 

Pax Christi Maine

LaDonna Manternach

Nancy and Henry Mascotte

I Christopher Mathews, M.D.

Kevin B. Matthews

Michael J, Mattioli,  Ph,D.

David S. Matz, CPPS

Michelle McDonough

Muriel McDonough

Arlene McGarrity

Rev. Elsie Hainz McGrath

Jim McIntosh, OFM

Brian McLauchlin

Brian McNaught

Ginger Megley 

Dr. Peter Mena

Danila S. Mendoza 

Joan Mertens

Scott Meyer

Nancy L. Meyer

Lawrence Mick

Susan M Mielke

Alexander Mikulich

Br. Ernest J. Miller, FSC

Maria A. Miranda

Kyle B. Moninger

Mary Montour

Michael Moran

Eugene S. Morris

Kenneth Morrision

Michal Morsches

John Mulreany, SJ

Silvia M Munoz

Jim Musumeci

Michael Myers

Dr. Diann L. Neu

Jon Nilson

Darlene Noesen

Patricia Novinski 

Patrick and Vera Nugent

Dr. Lauren O'Connell

Myrna Ohmann

Jennifer O'Malley

Dr. Kate Ott

Mary D. Ott

Kori R. Pacyniak

Charles Paglia

Ronald Pagnucco

Sr Dorothy Pagosa

Beatrice Parwatikar

Ruth Payn

Kat Pearthree

Jane Pelletier

Ann Penick

Joseph Pepe

Elizabeth Perry

Rhodes Perry

Bro. Dylan Perry, FSC

Linda Pinto

Ralph Pinto

Paul Pisano

Claire Donohue Pluecker

Tom Pluecker

Edward Poliandro, Ph.D

Elizabeth Powell Piekarczyk

Shawn Priggel

Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe

Rev. Chava Redonnet

Conor Reidy

Maureen Reimer

Noraleen Renauer 

Michael Reynolds

Katie Riney

Dolores Ritter

Charles A. Rizzuto, LICSW

Dr. Marian Ronan

Helen Rose

Richard J. Rosendall

Dr. Susan A. Ross

Ish Ruiz

Prof. Jean Sanborn

Patricia Sandall

Joy Scavo
Susan Schessler

Judith Schiavo
Rev. David E Schlaver

Arline M. Schoenberger 

Betty Scholten

Christine Schroder

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza

Karen A. Schwarz, Ph.D.

Irene Senn

Janice Sevre-Duszynska 
Joan P. Shea

Martha Sherman

Annette Shine

William Shine MD

Don E. Siegal

Meg Siewert

Mary E Sikora

Father Norbert Sinski

Prof. William H. Slavick

S. Kathy Slesar, OP

Mary Smith

Rev. Mary Frances Smith

The Reverend Murdock Smith, PhD

Kenneth F. Smits

Dr. Jose A. Solís-Silva

Mary Nicholas Sommerfeldt

Lewis Speaks-Tanner

Kathy Sprague

Mary Ann Steutermann

Carolyn Stobba-Wiley

Art Stoeberl

Jeffrey A. Stone

Anthony Suárez-Abraham

Larry Sutter

Maureen Tate

Yannik Thiem 

Dr. Terrence W. Tilley

Rev. Toni Tortorilla

Cristina L.H. Traina

Terry Travis

Gloria Ulterino

Jerry Valenta

Medora Van Denburgh

Wayne Vanek

Patricia Keane Vhay

Thomas Vhay

Mary Elizabeth Vigil 

Ted von Eiff

Kim Wayne

Rev. Dr. Diane S. Whalen

Win Whelan, OSF

Gary Wiesmann

Tamara Wilcox

Donna Wilhelm, SSJ-TOSF

Kathleen F. Wilson

Jane Wilson-Marquis

Rev. Steve Wolf

Mary T. Yelenick, Esq.

Carmen Zabalegui

Ann Zech

Robert Zillich

Dr. Nancy P. Zimmerman