Human Rights In Catholic Tradition: A Brief History

To write a historical discourse is to presuppose both an objective reality and a point of view. History is a science in the pre-Modern sense of sapientia, a rational discourse tending towards wisdom and understanding. From the literal infinity of historical datapoints, the historian necessarily selects, and this selection necessarily betrays a point of view, a host of presuppositions, and so on; but if one believes that historical discourse is a possibility at all, one believes that despite the necessity of the point of view, an “objective” reality can nonetheless be described.

This is what the following exercise attempts to do: by necessity, I prune, choose, select and (over)simplify. It is possible to grant all of this while nonetheless asserting that the following nonetheless describes a reality with some faithfulness; that the following narrative is a picture of reality at once impressionistic and reliable.

With this prolegomenon out of the way, here is how I would frame the history of “human rights” as a concept in Catholic Tradition.

The most radical “meme” infected into Western and human consciousness by the irruption of Christianity into history has been the idea of the intrinsic and transcendent dignity of every single human being. Intrinsic in the sense that it characterizes every single human being, regardless of his or her station at birth, or physical or mental attributes. Transcendent in the sense that this dignity is not subject to human whims, always there, eternal, in some sense infinite, non-negotiable, total, and demanding. This belief, that David Bentley Hart has termed “total humanism”, shone with force from the light of Easter morning and completely changed how people saw the world. And because of its radicality–one might even say otherworldliness–what this idea might exactly mean has been working itself out in human thought for 2000 years.

The other concept to grasp in order to understand the history of the notion of human rights is the notion of natural law. From my purposes it is not necessary to give a full treatment of the idea. To understand natural law for our purposes, all we need to understand is that natural law says that moral law is: (a) objectively existent independent of human subjectivity; (b) fundamentally rational; (c) discoverable by human beings thanks to the use of reason. The obvious analogy here is mathematics: just like (let us presume) mathematical truths such as the Pythagorean Theorem exist independently of us but we can discover them through deductive logic, so it is with moral truths. This is what the “natural” in “natural law” means. It means that moral truths are part of the “givenness” of the cosmos available to our powers of rational inquiry. It has nothing to do, per se, with “nature” in the sense of trees and birds and animals, or even with observable physical reality as such. There is, in other words, such a thing as this natural law, that compels obedience. To use a metaphor, natural law is to be obeyed not in the sense that, say, I obey the third law of thermodynamics, since it’s impossible not to obey it, but in the sense that airplanes that “obey” the laws of physics can fly, and those that don’t, can’t. The natural law theorist would say that man is “ordered towards” the moral good, and that just like designing and flying a functioning plane (a plane being a thing “ordered towards” flight) requires understanding of, and fealty to, the relevant laws of physics, a life well lived requires a similar relationship to the moral law. Just like a plane that ignores, or contravenes, the relevant physical laws will never accomplish its “vocation” to flight, a man who ignores, or contravenes, the natural law will never accomplish his “vocation” to what might be called the fullness of humanity. (Again, this language is merely metaphorical and illustrative.)

Of course, the concept of natural law will forever remain associated with Aquinas and with the Scholastic Movement more generally, who truly represent a magnificent flowering of this concept. To Aquinas, the natural law was rooted in, and an expression of, God, but it was available to secular as well as religious reason; again, the analogy with mathematics helps: it’s impossible, I think, to be a theist and not see mathematics as, in a real sense, “the language of God” (or “a” language of God), but it doesn’t mean that you need to be a theist to understand mathematics. And the concept of the natural law is perfectly within its place in the general “Christian world picture” of an utterly transcendent and benevolent God who created a rationally intelligible cosmos and peopled it with rational men ordered towards God’s divine will.

Though it’s not why it’s called that way, there’s another way in which “natural law” is “natural”: it presupposes that everything has a nature. This seems obvious, perhaps, and indeed would have seemed obvious to everyone until roughly 150 years ago, but it is still worth saying. There is such a thing as the nature of a flower, say, and the best thing for a flower to “do” is to best exemplify its “flowerness.” More to the point, there is such a thing as human nature, not in the sense that humans are typically more angry or more nice or what have you, but in the sense that every human being possesses, or instantiates, the defining quality of “humanness.”

Once these two concepts, total humanism and natural law, are grasped, it is possible to understand the great innovation of the Enlightenment. And yes, here, I will describe “the Enlightenment” as a univocal phenomenon, which, of course, it is not. Here I am talking of “the Enlightenment” in much the same way that I spoke of “Christianity” earlier: not so much as any particular writer or set of authors or body of doctrine, but rather as a broad cultural force that forever changed the “world picture” of the culture in which it grew. Seen as such, we can analyze “the Enlightenment” as a phenomenon and a set of ideas, and what new ideas it gave birth to, independently of any particular thinker.

In my view, and for our purposes, the Enlightenment did a few important things.

The first was to take Christianity’s “total humanism” and turn it into a postulate. In Christian ethics, needless to say, the transcendent dignity of human beings is inseparable from the Christian concept of God and in particular the kerygma and the Mysterium Paschale. It is because God so loves men that He became Man that Man is to be held of infinite worth; it is because God took the form of a slave that even the slaves and the poorest of the poor have transcendent dignity. The Enlightenment decided to essentially bracket the question of the why of transcendent human dignity and instead treat it as an axiom: let it be assumed that human beings have intrinsic and transcendent dignity; therefore, XYZ. From the standpoint of the Enlightenment it was and is perfectly acceptable to believe that this intrinsic dignity is true because Christianity is true, but this is treated as a separate question.

A lot of people believe that in doing so the Enlightenment necessarily set the stage for its own self-contradiction; I am not concerned with this question here. Let us however state a few things. The first is that, formally, this is a perfectly defensible move: any coherent philosophy must have some axioms that it treats as axioms, since infinite logical regress is not possible; and so, at least formally, one is perfectly justified in just “picking” an axiom and “starting from there”, since this is an unavoidable step; conversely, it is the most boring kind of critique to just point out that someone’s axiom is an axiom. The second is that it is only what natural law already does: treat morality as a coherently system intelligible by unaided, secular human reason. Blame Aquinas.

The second important thing that the Enlightenment did was to get at a key insight, which is the following: if there is a rational natural law that must be obeyed, and if all human beings have an intrinsic and inalienable dignity, then it must follow that, particularly in relation to states, human beings are endowed with rights that states are bound by natural law to respect. To put it another way, if there is a rational, natural, moral law that must be obeyed; if one of the axioms/findings of this law is that human beings have intrinsic and alienable dignity; then there are some things that one may not do to human beings without seriously contravening the natural law; or, to put it in another, rather memorable way, every human being is endowed with inalienable rights.

This is the concept of natural rights; that is to say rights that originate not from any human law, but rather from the nature of human beings and the cosmos. It is in the nature of human beings to have rights [axiom]; or, and this is simply a restatement of the previous from another perspective, it is impossible to do certain things to human beings without contravening the natural law.

So the Enlightenment took two essentially Christian (and, more to the point, essentially Roman Catholic) ideas–total humanism, natural law–and essentially ran with them. And, at least for me, the concept of universal human rights, as such, from the standpoint of Christian ethics, essentially amounts to “2+2=4″. If total humanism and natural law are true, then it seems obviously correct to describe human beings as being endowed with natural rights.

In a sense, then, the Enlightenment concept of natural rights was an obvious logical consequence of basic concepts of Christian ethics. But in another sense they were (so to speak) revolutionary, because they ushered in a radically new relationship between human beings and the state. Which in the post-Westphalian world was, to use a bit of an understatement, quite a touchy subject. For example, the notion of natural rights radically and defiantly subjugated even the notion of the common good to the intrinsic dignity of every human being. For example, it may well be true that it would be better for the common good to suppress seditious and heinous ideas; countless millions of lives might have been saved, perhaps, if Karl Marx had been locked in some deep dungeon and the key thrown away before he could publish The Communist Manifesto; but the defiantly non-consequentialist notion of universal human rights treats that consideration as utterly irrelevant, since even Karl Marx has a natural right to free speech.

As I said above, Christian total humanism is such a radical notion that we are still working out its consequences 2000 years later. From our current standpoint it may, at least I hope so, seem self-evident how harmonious the notion of universal human rights is with the broader symphony of Christian ethics. But “official” Catholic thought did not see it that way for a long time. It is certainly true that the Enlightenment not only produced the notion of universal human rights but also the French Terror. The relationship between Modernity and totalitarianism is a fascinating one and one on which I have a lot of things to say, but it is beyond the scope of this short essay; maybe the notion of universal human rights really does necessarily lead to the gas chamber, as some claim; maybe not; I am here only merely interested in tracing its history as it relates with Catholic Tradition. In any case, from the point of view of the Counter-Reformation, when the spread of noxious heresies grievously fractured Christendom, and of the Congress of Vienna, after Modernity gave birth to the “rational” mass murder of the Vendée and Napoleonic total war, only those with no empathy can say that skepticism towards the Enlightenment was mere obscurantism. And, of course, nothing corrupts Christianity like proximity to political power, and this is certainly a problem the Catholic Church was not immune to in those days.

The Church radically broke with its refusal of the Enlightenment with the Ecumenical Council of Vatican II. The declaration Dignitatis Humanae is ostensibly chiefly concerned with religious liberty, but as its intellectual lineage, its text, its logic and its very title indicate, it is clearly intended to incorporate the entire logic of human rights into Catholic Tradition. Or, perhaps, rather, to reincorporate it, since after all, or so I have been arguing, such logic has always been implicit in the total humanism and natural law concepts central to Catholic moral theology. Human rights are welcomed back, essentially, as the Prodigal Son: the Council Fathers saw the Enlightenment’s secularized axiom of human dignity floating as an orphan ready to be welcomed back into his family or, to switch metaphors, grafted the branch back onto the tree.

The choice of religious liberty as the key human right proclaimed by the Council is, in and of itself, very telling. In countries that obeyed the Vatican (if such a thing has ever existed), the Vatican II Council did nothing to radically change the everyday life of non-Catholics since, after all, before Vatican II the Church already allowed toleration of non-Catholics. But the conceptual leap was nonetheless immense: in the toleration regime, while, in practice, non-Catholics may worship in peace, this “right” was entirely contingent; there was no reason in principle why governments might not curb the rights of non-religious believers. Because it is contrary to reason that error should have equal rights to the truth.

And, indeed, it is worth, if only for the sheer practice of thinking outside our normal frames of reference, meditating on what, conceptually at least, a warrant and even incentive for immorality proclaiming a right to religious freedom is. After all, it really is objectively the case that the Catholic religion is true and all other religions are false! And it is true that heresy is a grievous offense against God and the soul!

And from the standpoint of elementary moral thinking, the idea shocks; after all, morality is simply the name for orienting our actions and our thoughts towards God, who is the summit of all Beauty, Truth and Goodness. It is a contradiction in terms to speak of a “right” to refuse God’s Truth; indeed, it is, strictly speaking, nonsensical to talk of any “right” at all in relation to God; man, who is entirely sustained into existence by God, has no “right” towards Him.

Of course, this is something all the Council Fathers were well aware of. The key point is that human rights concern man’s relationship towards the state. One has, properly speaking, absolutely no moral “right” to error. But one nonetheless has, or so the Council proclaimed, under natural law, an inherent civil right to religious liberty. That heresy is (definitionally) immoral matters not one iota, because human beings have such transcendent God-given dignity according to the natural law that there are some things the state simply may not do to them, even if they are committing immorality, under whatever circumstances, and whatever consequential benefits there may or may not be.

Some people claim that the language of human rights is “non-Christian” and therefore alien to Christian thought. As I hope to have shown, if it’s “non-Christian” there’s a heck of a family resemblance. More broadly, would it blow those people’s minds if they found out that the language the Church used to describe the Trinity (hypostasisOusia) is “non-Christian” in that it comes from Pagan Greek philosophy? The Church has been baptizing “foreign” ideas from the beginning. As Justin Martyr wrote, because God is the absolute Good, the Church has a claim on everything good anyone ever did. Though, again, as I hope to have shown, as far as “non-Christian” ideas go, this one is one of the most Christian around.

It’s a commonplace to say that Vatican II was the moment when the Church accepted Enlightenment liberalism–that’s because it’s true. Not wholly and not uncritically, of course–human rights must remain rooted in the God-given dignitatis humanae, not simply postulated ex nihilo into our moral systems; and human rights are neither the fullest nor the most absolute expression of our moral dimension as human beings, though it remains an important one. This is why the post-Vatican II Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite comfortable with rights-language, as, for example, in the domain of private property, and all post-Vatican II Popes have used rights language in countless documents. It’s hard to find rights language in, e.g., the Church Fathers, but from the perspective of Catholic Tradition it matters not, since even the consensus patrum is merely one strand of Holy Tradition (alongside, say, the Scholastics, the Carmelite Doctors, and so on…), and always subject to Ecumenical Councils and the Pope. Augustine did not write a commentary on Aquinas’ theory of natural law, or for that matter give us a sermon on the proper use of Facebook and Twitter, believe it or not, and yet Aquinas’ theory of natural law still has a pretty important place in Catholic Tradition.

Augustine did write that faith is the beauty ever ancient and ever new, and the history of human rights, this beautiful, direct, and in retrospect obvious consequence of the total humanism that Christianity came into the world preaching, yet only reincorporated properly into our Tradition 2000 years later, is a good example of that.

If I should end, it’s really worth pausing and meditating on how felicitous it is that the Church allows us unequivocally to use this kind of rights language, because, at least in retrospect, it’s really obvious that outside of human rights there is only barbarism, isn’t it? Looking at a history book, it seems obvious that the idea of intrinsic, universal human rights is one of the criteria of enlightened (in every sense of the term) civilization, and that respect for human rights is a rough but reliable benchmark for civilization overall. That this should even have to be said is a bit disquieting, but then again, nothing satiates the human will to power and nothing frustrates it like the idea that every single human person, being of transcendent dignity, has intrinsic rights that frustrate utopian social schemes, and there are always those who would consign this bedrock principle of Christian civilization to, so to speak, the ash heap of history. This is, of course, precisely why the concept is so important.


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  • montanajack1948

    Did Judaism have no role in setting the stage for Christianity’s (and human rights’) “irruption” into history? Granted the distinction between Christian universalism and Jewish tribalism (though, tribal as it may have been, Judaism still taught that ultimately all “the nations” would be subject to Yahweh), wasn’t the notion of human dignity, conferred by divine creation, already present in Jewish scripture and Jewish tradition?

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry


  • Robert Landbeck

    Nothing has undermined “the idea of the intrinsic and transcendent dignity of every single human being” in my own mind more that the growing environmental crisis. Demonstrating that human nature remains an unfinished project. Without the wisdom or insights necessary for sustainability. And without sustainability, claims of morality or spirituality and “intrinsic and transcendent dignity” are just the emperors new clothes!

    Natural law as the foundation of any ‘moral’ law has self evidently failed in it’s necessary practical effect. That is to guide humanity into greater flourishing. Unfortunately history has been written otherwise. The fundamentals of war and conflict, social and economic injustice remain untouched by any moral law that ‘reason’ or religion pretends to comprehend.

    Understanding human ‘rights’ misses the point completely. Morality, that is the nature of law, is about human responsibility. When law and responsibility conflict, whatever law may suggest, it is of man and not of God.

    Our species remains the most destructive and self destructive of any within creation. That does not make us beings of ‘transcendent dignity” but a corruption of the natural order and no fit stewards of God’s creation.

    With a sixth mass extinction in the offing, it would appears as if humanity, whatever it’s view of itself may be, is headed not for the Kingdom, but strait for ‘the ash heap of history’.

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      L. O. L.

  • Yonah

    I would be interested in you delineating your assertion of causation of Karl Marx and the Manifesto to the lives of millions lost. Is that on account of Marx and the Manifesto themselves or subsequent folk who effected their own applications?

  • Donalbain

    According to Catholic teaching, do I have the human right to be a heretic without being killed for it?

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      Not according to Aquinas, among others.

    • JohnE_o

      “Error has no rights.”

  • JohnE_o

    After all, it really is objectively the case that the Catholic religion
    is true and all other religions are false! And it is true that heresy is
    a grievous offense against God and the soul!

    This gives me pause to reflect on how fortunate I am to live in such a time and place that the representatives of the Catholic Church have no ability to force me to submit to submit to their authority.