On the same day last week, the world had a chance to see two kinds of human rights policies being advanced. One was bold and humane, the other self-serving and manipulating.
In Manila, Pope John Paul II spoke as a genuine world leader eager to use his moral force on behalf of the oppressed in the Philippines. "Even in exceptional situations that may at times arise," he said, with the brutal President Ferdinand Marcos sitting a few feet away, "one can never justify any violation of the fundamental dignity of the human person or of the basic rights that safeguard this dignity."
In Washington, Alexander Haig went to Congress to win support for the Reagan administration's enthusiasm for the junta in El Salvador, a regime implicated in some of Central America's grossest human rights violations. Haig's effort was part of the administration's announced withdrawal from what it sees as useless human rights advocacy.
The words of the pope were forcefully direct, with no follow-up clarifications need from the Vatican's explainers-of-papal-subtleties. If any doubts existed, the pope did his own clarifying: No government, no matter "the exigencies of security," can claim "to serve the common good when human rights are not safeguarded."
With world attention on him, Marcos was as pious as an altar boy serving his first Mass. "Forgive us, holy father," the dictator said of past church-state differences. "Now that you are here, we resolve we shall wipe out all conflicts and set up a society that is harmonious to attain the ends of God."
The syrup is impressive, except that another pope -- Paul VI -- was in Manila 11 years ago. God's ends haven't been much served since then, except for a little air-brushing of the sordid a month ago when, with another pope about to fly in. Marcos lifted martial law.
Being in a predominantly Catholic country, John Paul II was doing much more than issuing a rebuke to a regime that in the last decade has held and tortured thousands of political prisoners. He was stirringly engaging in "prophetic criticism," a phrase of ROSEMARY ruether, the American theologian who wrote in a recent issue of Commonweal: ". . . the stance of prophetic criticism is not one of attack on other people's religion or society, but a faithful judgment on one's own religious and social community; a calling it back to faithfulness to its own professed ideals."
In a secular context, this is the tragedy of the Reagan administration's dismissal of human rights advocacy. Suddenly, the nation's professed ideals don't matter, as it rights advocacy were merely something that an overly zealous Jimmy Carter cooked up.
It wasn't at all. In 1975 Congress passed a provision in the Foreign Assistance Act that said, "A principal goal of the foreign policy of the United States is to promote the increased observance of internationally guaranteed human rights."
With Ernest Lefever selected by Ronald Reagan to be the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humantarian affairs, this law is likely to be ignored or broken. Two years ago, Lefever told a House subcommittee that "it shouldn't be necessary for any friendly country to pass a human rights test before we extend normal trade relations, before we sell arms, or before we provide economic or security assistance. This approach, I believe, should be adopted toward adversary states like the Soviet Union."
With the murderous junta of El Salvador well within this definition of "friendly" -- and what's the killing of a few nuns or other "moderately repressive" acts among buddies? -- the victims of human rights violations can only feel betrayed by the United States.
In Congress, some hope exists. Reps. Gerry Studds, Robert Edgar and Barbara Mikulaki have introduced legislation to cut off U.S. arms sales to El Savador. It will lead only to more violence, they argued, as well as create more enemies for the United States. Our role should be to join the effort for a negotiated settlement of the revolution. It should also be a recognition that a bold position by the church on human rights is sound morality -- and for a nation, it is sound politics.