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Human Rights

Christian Perspectives on Development Issues

Author(s): Linda Hogan

ISBN13: 9781853904967

ISBN10: 1853904961

Publisher: Veritas

Extent: 48 pages

Binding: Paperback

Size: 20.6 x 15 x 0.5 cm

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  • Linda Hogan records how a Catholic theory of human rights took shape gradually in the aftermath of Pope Leo XIIIs encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. She traces this development in a chapter from her book Human Rights.

  • Linda Hogan



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    The second edition of this very readable book explores the history and theology of human rights in the Catholic tradition. The authour suggests that despite many limitations, the concept of human rights is the best attempt so far to express our commonality.

    There is a challenge facing Church to continue as an advocate and a prophetic voice of human rights in the world. By developing a fuller concept human rights can become a universal way to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

    The author concludes with a vibrant discussion of the challenges which human rights pose to all Christians.

    - Irish Catholic

  • CHAPTER 4: Development of a catholic theory of human rights
    Modern Catholic thinking on human rights began with Pope Leo XIII, in particular with his ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891. In this text Leo affirmed some of the basic tenets of the Churchs subsequent teaching on social justice, and as a result, of human rights.


    Primacy of the individual
    The encyclical dealt with the condition of the working classes in industrial society. While it denounced all Marxist analysis, it did argue for the granting of certain rights to all workers. These rights were built on the recognition, explicitly developed in the encyclical, that all human beings have a natural right to procure what is required in order for them to live. From this he went on to argue for a just or living wage for workers and for certain limitations on the rights of employers. But in addition to the case it made for these particular rights, Rerum Novarum also formulated a principle which was to have a more far-reaching significance. This was the principle of the priority of the personal. In the words of the encyclical: 'Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the sustenance of his body'.


    This stress on the primacy of the interests of the individual over and above those of any state eventually became an important dimension of the doctrine of human rights. It suggested that, regardless of the ideological basis of the political or legal order, the state exists to serve persons, and not vice versa. It established the grounds for insisting that human beings can never be treated in an instrumental or utilitarian fashion, nor can their value be subordinated to any other end. The precedence of the person over the state is based on the claim that every single individual has to be respected for his or her inherent and inalienable worth.

    However, commentators point out that certain tensions existed within this bold pronouncement. A difficulty existed with the absolute distinction Pope Leo made between the interests of the individual and those of the state. He failed to develop any sense that the state is constituted by individuals who are social beings, and that it functions to harmonise their interests in the light of the common good. This was something which later social encyclicals remedied.

    There were also tensions relating to the political consequences of this idea. In the encyclical Leo insisted that all persons share an essential equality. However he was nervous about the libertarian consequences of these claims, which were associated, in his mind, with the secularism and anti-clericalism of the French revolution. As a result he sought to minimise the democratic implications of his own thinking by endorsing the existing hierarchies in the social order. Although this tension was not resolved properly until the middle of the twentieth century, Leo XIIIs norm of the primacy of the person was a genuine source of insight in the development of an explicitly Catholic understanding of human rights.

    Acceptance of principles of democracy
    The pontificates of Pius XI and XII (1922-58) also saw significant changes in Catholic social teaching and human rights. There were some theological innovations, but the main development of this period was the Churchs gradual acceptance of the principles of democracy. In Divini Redemptoris Pius XI provided a list of the rights which every person is due. These were "the right to life, to bodily integrity, to the necessary means of existence, the right to tend towards ones ultimate goal ... the right of association and the right to possess and use property'. He also tried to deal with the tension, already alluded to in Rerum Novarum, between the teaching on the basic equality of all persons and the Churchs tendency to support the existing social hierarchies. Although he did not confront the inconsistency head on, he indicated that he was aware of the issue when he spoke of the ways in which social conditions can frustrate and limit human dignity and human rights.

    Pius XI also developed and gave renewed importance to the concept of the common good which, although present in Catholic thinking before this, was not particularly prominent. In Quadragesimo Anno especially, Pius XI promoted the idea that the human rights of individuals must be harmonised under the common good. He insisted that people must respect each others rights, fulfill their duties to one another and contribute to the common welfare of the community. There should not be an inherent conflict between the interests of the individual and the common good because the nature of the common good requires that all individuals share in that good. This concept of the common good is not equivalent to a utilitarian calculation of the greatest good. It is an attempt to harmonise the conflicting claims and interests of individuals, while recognising that each member of the community has a stake in the collective welfare.

    Principle of subsidiarity
    Pius XI gave expression to another key concept in Catholic social teaching which has implications for human rights. This is the principle of subsidiarity which states that government or state intervention is justified only if it helps the individuals or smaller communities of which society is composed. This limits the power of the state to intervene in the lives of individuals and communities and gives them the power of self-direction. Thus "the limits of government intervention must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the laws interference , the principle being that the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief". This essentially means that the persons most directly affected by a policy or decision or law should be centrally involved in its formulation.

    Pius XII dealt with issues of social justice and human rights with tremendous vigour and enthusiasm. Indeed he addressed such questions more frequently than did any of his predecessors. As a result social justice became one of the central pre-occupations of the Church. He intervened in many political debates and engaged the Church more centrally in this sphere than any other pope before him. Although it is not possible to enter into debates about the adequacy of the Churchs condemnation of Nazism and the protection of the Jews, one must keep in mind that this was a particularly dark period in history.


    Respect for human dignity
    The basis of Pius XIIs vision for society was respect for human dignity, which he believed was a realisable moral imperative. His distinctive contribution was his belief that 'although the moral claim that this dignity makes is unconditional, it is a claim which is structured and conditioned by the limitations and possibilities of persons in society. Furthermore the finite conditions which are necessary for the promotion of human dignity are human rights'. He analysed the operations of the major social institutions such as family, property and government specifically with reference to how they shaped human dignity.

    On that basis he identified a number of human rights and corresponding duties. His Christmas address of 1942 is a typical example of his many statements on human rights. In that text he says that respect for human dignity entails respect for and the practical realisation of the following fundamental personal rights: the right to maintain and develop ones corporal, intellectual and moral life and especially the right to religious formation and education the right to worship God in private and public and to carry on religious works of charity; the right to marry and to achieve the aim of married life; the right to conjugal and domestic society; the right to work, as the indispensable means towards the maintenance of family life; the right to free choice of a state of life, and hence too, of the priesthood or religious life; the right to the use of material goods, in keeping with his duties and social limitations.


    Formalised approach
    The classic text for the Catholic doctrine of human rights is the 1963 encyclical of John XXIII, Pacem in Terris. It synthesised and developed many of the themes already elaborated in the preceding century. Whereas the approach of his predecessors was rather unsystematic and haphazard, that of John XXIII was highly formalised. That which set Pacem in Terris apart from all its forerunners was the fact that it laid out an explicit framework for a Catholic theory of human rights.

    The commitment to the concept of human rights is obvious from the opening paragraph. John XXIII began by insisting that 'Any human society if it is to be well ordered and productive, must lay down as a foundation this principle, namely that every human being is a person, that is, his nature is endowed with intelligence and free-will. Indeed precisely because he is a person he has rights and obligations flowing directly and simultaneously from his very nature. And as these rights are universal and inviolable so they cannot in any way be surrendered'.


    From here Pacem in Terris goes on to develop the consequences of this moral claim for society. It is extremely wide-ranging in its scope, discussing the impact of these claims on the relationships between individuals, between individuals and the state, between nations and the international community. The encyclical discusses the context of the correspondence between rights and duties: 'A well ordered society requires that men recognise and observe their mutual rights and duties'. The individuals duties flow from the respect for human dignity which each person is due. Respect for human dignity is the basis of all the particular human rights to which individuals have a claim and which they have a duty to uphold.

    Pacem in Terris then goes on to compose the most elaborate and systematic list of rights to which individuals may lay claim. Although the language is very reminiscent of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the discussion of the basis of these rights is far more sophisticated and convincing. Pacem in Terris discusses these rights in different categories. They include rights relating to life and an adequate standard of living; the rights to life, bodily integrity, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, necessary social services, security in case of sickness, unemployment, widowhood, or old age; rights concerning moral and cultural values, including rights to freedom of communication, to the pursuit of art, to be informed truthfully, and to a basic education and higher education in keeping with the development of ones country; rights in the area of religious activity; rights in the area of family life, with equal rights for men and women, including rights to the economic, social cultural and moral conditions necessary to support family life; economic rights,including humane working conditions, a just wage, and the right to own property; and rights of assembly and association, to freedom of movement and to political rights, including the right to participate in public affairs and to juridical protection of all ones human rights.

    Continuing a tradition
    There have, of course, been important developments in the Catholic theory of human rights since 1963. However, they each depend on the framework formulated in that encyclical. But one must see Pacem in Terris as an integral part of a tradition rather than as a radical innovation. The encyclicals of John XXIIIs predecessors, together with the Churchs traditional commitment to social justice, contributed significantly to the Churchs theory of human rights. Many of the foundational ideas about human rights existed in the earliest Jewish and Christian communities, albeit clothed in different terminology. The political and philosophical events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also were influential in that they challenged the Church to accept the social and political implications of its own theological analysis. The Church could no longer teach about the inalienable dignity of human beings and the existence of human rights, while supporting hierarchical social institutions.

    It is really with Pacem in Terris that one can see the Church making a radical break with its conservative past and being prepared to criticise existing social and legal institutions. Here it abandoned its traditional reluctance to criticise the status quo and was led by the demands of human rights and social justice. In this Pacem in Terris heralded a new era in the Churchs approach to human rights.

    Although, as we have seen, the Church was indeed concerned with human rights issues from its very beginning, its commitment was somewhat limited by its natural inclination to protect the hierarchical ordering of society and to resist the radical social consequences of its own message. Pacem in Terris put human rights at the very centre of Christian social doctrine. It did this by insisting that, in the ever shifting social context the mechanism of protecting human dignity is human rights.

    Reading the signs of the times
    In the late twentieth century the Catholic Church has become a remarkable advocate of human rights. Vatican Council II was one event which extended the thinking of Pacem in Terris. In Gaudium et Spes the Church developed its thinking by explicitly affirming that the dignity of persons can only be affirmed in the concrete conditions of history. In so doing the Church acknowledged two important realities. First it suggested that using the language of human rights is not sufficient, recognising that its commitment cannot be purely theoretical, but must also be executed in practice. Secondly, in acknowledging the importance of the historical context, Gaudium et Spes places responsibility with individuals and communities, to read the signs of the times and to determine the precise form which human rights should take in the concrete circumstances of political and social life.

    This recognition is significant because it suggests that the articulation of the content of human rights must be context-sensitive, and must take account of the social and political conditions of existence. Thus human rights cannot be identified exclusively with any particular political ideology or form of government. The specific manner in which human dignity is realised through human rights may differ in each context. This is the inevitable implication of recognising the important role of cultural and historical conditions in the development of human rights. Gaudium et Spes provides an important impetus for the development of a context-sensitive theory of human rights.

    Structural and institutional concerns
    Another influential document of the time was Populorum Progressio. This was a social encyclical and not one of the documents of the Council. However it too is highly significant in terms of the growing sophistication of Catholic human rights thinking because here the Church explicitly addressed structural and institutional concerns. Populorum Progressio emphasised that poverty is a worldwide issue which needed to be tackled on a global scale. It introduced the concept of development to Catholic thinking and argued for radical change in order to combat the inherent institutional injustices in the worlds economic and political order.

    Vatican II will also be remembered for the dramatic shift in the Churchs attitude to religious freedom. This issue has been closely allied with human rights from the very beginning. Among the rights which were enshrined in the American Constitution was the right to religious freedom. However, although the Church benefited from this freedom, it was still influenced by its own tradition of error having no rights. In this case error could mean any religious tradition or denomination other than Catholicism. Dignitatis Humanae reversed this completely and recognised the right to religious freedom as an important human right. In so doing it dissolved one of the most glaring inconsistencies of the Churchs human rights tradition.

    Liberation theology
    Vatican II had many other important implications for the tradition of human rights. Perhaps the most important was the impetus it gave to the emergence of liberation theology. Associated primarily with Latin America in the early years, liberation theology has subsequently grown to be a context-sensitive, justice-oriented coalition of theologies from every part of the globe. Liberation theologies articulate the demands of social justice and human rights from the perspective of the marginalised. It is the experience of the poor in history and not the logic of academic debate, which shapes and forms the myriad theologies which have emerged from the underside of history.

    The specific contribution which liberation theology has made to the Catholic theory of human rights is that it has insisted that the interests of the marginalised should be at the heart of the Christian vision and that political work for justice is a requirement of the gospel. The preferential option for the poor and the denunciation of all forms of economic and social privilege are regarded as the ways in which the Christian should work for the establishment of the kingdom on earth. Liberation theologians, such as Gustavo Gutierrez, Ivonne Gebarra, Jose Miguel Bonino and many others, helped the Church to clarify the uncompromising nature of its work for human rights.

    There are many other aspects of liberation theology which have had an impact on the way in which the Church has subsequently conceptualised and implemented its work for social justice. In fact for all his warning to the liberation theologians, one can see very clearly that in his social encyclicals, Pope John Paul II has been significantly influenced by their theology. It is difficult to convey the enormous impact which liberation theology has had on the Churchs understanding of human rights. To a certain extent the main ingredients of its approach have been evident in the Christian tradition from its beginning. So too was the full blown theology of human rights already expressed in Pacem in Terris, which was published almost a decade before Gutierrezs seminal work of 1971, A Theology of Liberation. Nonetheless, when liberation theology exploded onto the theological stage, it relocated the entire discussion about human rights. The analysis transformed the traditional approaches and gave them new vigour. In addition it led to the reconceptualisation of the Christian understanding of mission, replaced the work of charity with justice and developed the kind of vision which was the basis of the new style of Catholic development agency.


    Working for the implementation of human rights worldwide, especially for those who are unable to articulate and claim those rights for themselves, is now regarded as an essential element of Christian discipleship. In some senses one might say that thinking on human rights has come a full circle in that the radical vision of the earliest Christian communities is that which contemporary Christians are inspired to pursue, except that now it is on a global scale.

    Theory of rights and John Paul II
    In the pontificate of John Paul II, Catholic thinking on human rights and social justice has become sophisticated, subtle and passionate. He has produced an extraordinary number of encyclicals and addresses which have dealt explicitly with human rights issues worldwide. His commitment to human rights as the way in which human dignity is promoted is unequalled in Catholic history. In many respects this can be seen as a reflection of the status which the language of human rights has acquired on the world stage. It is now considered to be the way in which governments, organisations and individuals can work to promote human well-being. It is certainly the case that the Catholic Church has contributed to growing acceptance of the language of human rights as the way in which human beings can express our equality and solidarity.

    The other feature of the social encyclicals of John Paul II noteworthy from this perspective, is the degree of economic, social and political expertise which they exhibit. As a result they are serious and convincing documents, not mere rhetoric or utopian sentiment. John Paul II has reiterated, on every possible occasion that honouring and implementing human rights is the responsibility of individual citizens and of governments, and that furthermore it is a responsibility which is demanded by the challenge of being human, that is created in Gods own image.
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Human Rights