Seventy years ago last month the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). That document has since become a touchstone for the moral evaluation of political regimes around the world as well as for the continuing development of international law. Its passage was clearly part of the world’s reaction to the catastrophic destruction caused by the Second World War.
The document was also extraordinary for addressing the continuing division of the world by radically different moral, political and religious views. The issuing of the document led the great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain to make his now-famous comment on human rights. When Maritain was asked how such agreement on the rights protected in the UDHR was achieved, he replied that we can agree on which rights to protect, “provided no one asks us why.” In this we can see both the promise of the UDHR and the international human-rights movement more generally, but also their perils and limitations.
The Church and Rights
In one very important sense, one can say that the Catholic Church came late to the cause of human rights. The popes of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to see rights, along with democracy, as parts of what was also the radically anti-clerical and often atheistic character of the political revolutions of that era.
This attitude began to change with Leo XIII’s opening to the modern world and his call for engagement through a revival of Catholic intellectual life, including the formulation of modern Catholic social doctrine. This development culminated in the extensive catalogue of human rights in St. John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris, and in the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.
These declarations were anticipated also by the work of Catholic philosophers such as Maritain, who focused increasingly on human rights during the war. But how radical were these developments? Certainly there were and are Catholic thinkers who continue to argue that the language of human rights is at odds with the Catholic view of morality. They emphasize instead virtue, the common good and the natural law as the crucial components of sound moral thinking, rooted as they are in the traditions of classical and medieval thought. Rights, in this view, represent a modern rejection of these Catholic traditions; and so, in contemporary Catholic teaching, any doctrine of rights sits uneasily beside the ancient and scholastic philosophers.
Add to this uneasy harmony, the destructive ways in which human rights have been used in contemporary law and politics — for example, in claims about abortion rights, the so-called right to die, homosexual and transgender rights — and rights to free expression that are often at odds with sound morality. With such erroneous uses of human rights to defend the indefensible, one can see why Catholics might simply reject the language of human rights altogether, as some have.
The Catholic View
We need not draw this conclusion, however. A look at some aspects of Maritain’s view and Conciliar teachings show why human rights remain an indispensable idea in political thought and practice. With the Church as our guide, we can better understand the true meaning of “human rights” in a way that does not entail any of the misappropriated uses of the term just mentioned.
Maritain held, most importantly, that human rights are ultimately a part of the natural law. There is a right to life because, according to the natural moral law, life is a good that must be protected. Human persons also have rights to the very basic necessities of life because, according to the natural law, the things of the world are for the good of human beings and should be distributed in the way that best meets human needs.
Ordinarily such distribution occurs through a regime of private ownership, but such ownership is not absolute and must be consistent with the common good, as clearly taught by St. Thomas Aquinas and in modern Catholic social doctrine. The crucial point here is that natural rights are not opposed to natural law, but follow from it. Therefore, human rights must be seen in such a way that they are consistent with the rest of sound morality.
One might ask at this point why a doctrine of rights is necessary if one has the natural law already. It is important that Maritain and other Catholic thinkers began to emphasize human rights in the middle of the last century. At that time the terrible potential of modern totalitarian states for oppression had become clear.
Modern states generally are very large, bureaucratically organized territorial communities, political entities that monopolize coercive power through the fruits of modern science and technology. Modern totalitarian states possess, therefore, an unprecedented ability to control human beings. The limitation of such states is a requirement of the common good itself, which necessarily includes as a constitutive element the protection of fundamental rights (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1908). This is so because the common good is not opposed to the good of individual persons, but is a part of their good, and so perfective of human persons as such.
Human rights are affirmed in constitutions and protected by legal mechanisms that limit government and provide remedies for abuses. Therefore, such rights are indispensable, given the character of modern states. While not all cultures or political communities agree on the character of the natural law, they could be brought to see the necessity of limiting the power of states through the notion of human rights.
Nevertheless, this consensus has its limitations, some of which are evident in the Council’s document, Dignitatis Humanae. There, the Church affirmed the human right to religious freedom in particular provides immunity from state coercion. This is a point on which many traditions might agree, and similar notions are contained in many modern constitutions (most importantly, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution).
However, it is important to see that the right to religious freedom is more deeply rooted by the Council in the duty to know the truth about God and to worship him rightly. This is an aspect of the natural law and can be argued for on the basis of natural reason. Union with God as the universal good and the final end for human beings is the very foundation of the natural law and so is the foundation of human rights.
This claim, because it is made on religious grounds, means there will inevitably be conflicts over rights, since many contemporary people reject not only the Catholic view of their foundations, but also the idea that there are any real foundations for human rights beyond positive international and domestic law, or the universalized wills and desires of individual persons. Such disagreement remains a great challenge and cannot be avoided in thinking about the future of the human-rights agenda.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI saw this issue in the preface he contributed to the recent important — and quite critical — book on human rights by Marcello Pera, a philosopher and former president of the Italian Senate.
For Benedict, the idea of human rights concerns especially the character of the state and requires a proper understanding of the prior relationship of man to God: “It does not seem unjustified to me to define the duty of man’s obedience to God as a right with respect to the state. And in this regard it was entirely logical that John Paul II, in the Christian relativization of the state in favor of the freedom of obedience to God, should see human rights as coming before any state authority.”
The rights of man, therefore, are rooted in man’s ordering to God, whether we describe this strictly in terms of duty or simply as the order of creation. The Catholic defense of human rights, therefore, must go hand in hand with an effort to evangelize the world about the proper context of human rights, that is, in light of the natural law impressed on us by the Creator.
Given the pluralism that exists not only in the contemporary world, but in our own nation, this may seem like a tall order. But no one wants to live in modern states that do not protect human rights — and those rights must be protected in such a way as to promote the common good and the true dignity of the human person. But such an approach ultimately requires more than pragmatic compromise, even if that is where one must begin.
No Easy Solutions
Maritain’s quip about being able to agree on what human rights should be protected, “provided no one asks us why,” has sometimes been dismissed as naïve. I suspect, however, that it was more ironic than people think. Maritain understood that this global agreement was, however necessary, also incomplete and, therefore, problematic.
It remains a task for Catholic defenders of human rights to show that a fully adequate understanding of human rights is not possible without an understanding of the truth about man, which is also the truth about God.
V. Bradley Lewis is an associate professor,
School of Philosophy, and fellow, Institute for Human Ecology,
The Catholic University of America.