The Problem When Christians Talk About Human Rights

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in Modernity. I believe, when properly understood, it is thoroughly Christian. I believe the concept of human rights is fundamentally important.

But I sometimes cringe when Christians, and particularly the highest authorities of the Church, defend positions using the rhetoric of human rights. This rhetoric is entirely appropriate in many cases, especially when talking to people who value the rhetoric of human rights highly, but still.

First of all, there’s a rhetorical reason: when the Church equates justice with human rights, when we say that, for example, we build hospitals because people have a “right to health”, we are implicitly making Christianity subject to Modernity. We are implicitly saying that Christianity is subject to human rights and acceptable only insofar as it is compatible with (your interpretation of) human rights. That’s not what you’re actually doing or meaning to do, but rhetorically that is what you are doing. You are using not your terms but somebody else’s. You are not proclaiming the Gospel. Martin Luther King sometimes spoke in the language of rights, but that’s not what we remember most, and that’s not why he had such an impact.

But more importantly, here’s what Christianity teaches: God created man and woman in His image, and as such they have inherent dignity. This means that, in relationship with the body politic, each man is indeed endowed with certain inalienable rights. It is true. But it is only a part of the story of what Christianity says about humanity. The fundamental thing about man is not that he has rights. The fundamental thing about man is that he is made in the image of God. He is more than a bundle of rights awaiting fulfillment.

When we rip human rights out of this broader tapestry, we lose important things.


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  • Antiphon411

    “The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.”

    Pope Leo XIII, encyclical Tametsi futura prospicientibus (1900)

  • 1. “…we build hospitals because people have a “right to health”, we are implicitly making Christianity subject to Modernity.”
    Who is your “we” here? Because I’m thinking that a lot of people who build hospitals because people have a right to health aren’t making Christianity subject to Modernity (whatever you mean by that); they would just repudiate Christianity entirely. (Generally, I think your post here has a “we” problem, of which this sentence is a specific case. It sounds almost like you think the whole world is Catholic, or at least that you can expect it to be so.)

    2. “We are implicitly saying that Christianity is subject to human rights and acceptable only insofar as it is compatible with (your interpretation of) human rights.”
    Not necessarily. Another option could be that Christianity doesn’t govern the sphere of hospital-building (that being a secular function), but where it governs, it governs absolutely.

    • You seem to live in a bizarre world, where Christians don’t build hospitals and don’t use rhetoric like “right to health”. Isn’t it something like one third of hospitals in the US that are run by the Catholic Church?

      • That bizarre world would be Canada, where the government builds hospitals.
        Point taken, though: your “we” is Catholics-building-hospitals, then?

        • BTP

          {sigh}. The google lists many, many hospitals built by Catholic groups in that exotic and frozen land. You might want to consider buying some of this google stock, their search engine thingy is gonna make it big one day!

          • My understanding is that the majority of them had shut down years ago, but it seems that you are right to note that many are still open. My mistake.

            FYI: no need to be an ass about it.

          • BTP

            Eh, there was a bit of a need, actually. If completely missing the point of the post and then doubling down on ignorance of easily-available facts doesn’t deserve a little snark, well, that’s not a world I want to live in.

  • mochalite

    “We are implicitly saying that Christianity is subject to human rights and acceptable only insofar as it is compatible with (your interpretation of) human rights.”
    Charles C.W. Cooke suggests that we substitute the phrase “what I want” for the word “justice.” I tend to agree. So, “social justice,” which has been thoroughly embraced by many Christians, has little to do with God’s call on our lives and a lot to do with what we want in and for the world.

    • “Social justice” is an expression that was coined by….the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. (Which makes it very funny when it drives US conservatives into conniptions.)

  • Kasoy

    I see your point. Human rights issue has grown so disproportionately important that almost everything must conform to its demand even our Christian moral values and beliefs have to align to human rights as defined by the secular world. Liberation theology was one of its offsprings. Presently, marriage rights, abortion rights, assisted-suicide rights, socialist agenda etc. are hammering Christian societies to conform, or be persecuted.

    Antiphon411 gave a good reference for reflection on this: Pope Leo XIII, encyclical Tametsi futura prospicientibus (1900). It is really worth reading.

    [When Human Rights are Divorced from True Morality based on Divine Faith]
    We have but too much evidence of the value and result of a morality divorced from divine faith. How is it that, in spite of all the zeal for the welfare of the masses, nations are in such straits and even distress, and that the evil is daily on the increase? We are told that society is quite able to help itself; that it can flourish without the assistance of Christianity, and attain its end by its own unaided efforts. Public administrators prefer a purely secular system of government. All traces of the religion of our forefathers are daily disappearing from political life and administration. What blindness! Once the idea of the authority of God as the Judge of right and wrong is forgotten, law must necessarily lose its primary authority and justice must perish: and these are the two most powerful and most necessary bonds of society. Similarly, once the hope and expectation of eternal happiness is taken away, temporal goods will be greedily sought after. Every man will strive to secure the largest share for himself. Hence arise envy, jealousy, hatred. The consequences are conspiracy, anarchy, nihilism. There is neither peace abroad nor security at home. Public life is stained with crime.

    We must restore Christ to this His own rightful possession. All elements of the national life must be made to drink in the Life which proceedeth from Him- legislation, political institutions, education, marriage and family life, capital and labour. Everyone must see that the very growth of civilisation which is so ardently desired depends greatly upon this, since it is fed and grows not so much by material wealth and prosperity, as by the spiritual qualities of morality and virtue.

  • Dignity means more to me than rights. Take away every right- if you will but give me dignity.