The Church and Human Rights – an anthropological challenge


Julia Meszaros

The Catholic Church has made a name for itself as an advocate of human rights. For long, it was, to be sure, skeptical, even antagonistic to the emerging human rights discourse. Pope Gregory XVI had decried the right to liberty of conscience as an ‘absurd and erroneous opinion, or rather insanity,’ a view shared also by his successor Pius IX. The freedom of conscience and of religion, as well as free speech and free press, were all rejected by the Church. Yet with Pope Leo XIII there emerged a gradual change of perspective, an opening to the world and its concerns and discourses, that enabled the Church’s increasingly large role in the articulation and promotion of human rights. The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, advisor of both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, famously played a central role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and wrote the foreword of the same. The Church explicitly endorsed human rights in the encyclical Pacem in Terris of Pope John XXIII (1963) and embraced the human right to freedom of religion in the second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae (1965). Since then, it has been so vocal an advocate of human rights that Pope John Paul II was asked to address the United Nations on the occasion of the 50 year anniversary of the Universal Declaration.

However, the Church’s relationship with human rights does not lack ambiguity. Despite calling the nations of the world to sign the declaration of human rights, the Holy See has not done so itself. And while ecclesial canon law lists the ‘duties and responsibilities’ of the faithful, it lacks a declaration outlining the inalienable and universally possessed rights of the individual. Moreover, while the second Vatican Council’s defense of the dignity and freedom of the human individual follows the line of reasoning that undergirds the UN Declaration, it does not adopt the latter’s secular phraseology. Most importantly, perhaps, there appears to be a gap between the Church’s advocacy of human rights in the world and its respect of human rights in its own, inner affairs.

Such at least was the assumption of a recent conference on the Church’s implementation of human rights 50 years after Pacem in Terris: The Church, this critique suggests, falls short of its own insight that, as Walter Kasper has put it, ‘if we understand the Church as the institution of Christian freedom, its task should be to stand up for human rights within the Church and outside of it as the fundamental precondition of Christian freedom.’[1] The Church’s failure to enable the individual’s democratic participation in Church politics, its rejection of freedom of conscience in the secular sense of the term, its limitations on the speech of theology professors and its failure to come anywhere near contemporary understandings of gender equality constitute only some of the Church practices that are often perceived as violations of human rights on the part of the Church. As such, they undermine the Church’s credibility, and hence compromise her ability to mediate in international conflicts that violate human rights. The perceived discrepancy between the Church’s stance on human rights ad intra and ad extra increasingly creates tensions also with the modern state and its attempt to ensure respect for human rights: calls for state interference in Church affairs are arguably bolstered by the Church’s seeming inability to live up to its own standards.

Whether or not we share the view that various aspects of the Church’s inner structure and practices violate human rights, we must note that they, at the very least, sit uneasily with a host of the human rights the Church advocates in the world. Indeed, the very perception of an inconsistency between the Church’s stance ad intra and ad extra can be seen as a reflection of the Church’s own unclarity about its position with regard to human rights as they are currently being proclaimed and endorsed.

What does this unclarity consist in? As I would suggest, the Church champions the dignity and inviolability of each and every human person, yet struggles to convey this in its own traditional language. It is in the face of this communicative impasse and a general opening of the Church to the world, that the Church has been on a keen lookout for new ways of defending some of its core beliefs about the human person and their moral implications. This is one factor in the Church’s endorsement of human rights. At the same time, it seems that the Church remains uneasy about the plurality of principles undergirding the concept of human rights. Despite Jacques Maritain’s eloquent defense of it, the pragmatism underlying the drafting of the Universal Declaration always sat ill with the Church’s universalizing tendency and its missionary spirit. The ever growing list of (increasingly contradictory) human rights seems to cast further doubt on the sustainability of embracing human rights on different principles. It is, indeed, hardly obvious whether, when speaking of human rights, Church and world even have in mind the same subject. This is complicated by the fact that the Church is struggling to formulate a contemporary account of the human being, while many other signatories of the Declaration are skeptical of (and hence uninterested in) the mere attempt to  develop a systematic answer to this question. Hence, it remains unclear, for instance, to what extent the idea of human rights can or cannot be separated from the kind of modern notion of human autonomy that Veritatis Splendor (1993) rejects (VS 46). (This may be one reason why the Church today seems more sympathetic to social rights as opposed to political rights, where the divisive issue of human autonomy becomes most pressing).

If the contemporary Church has an uncertainty regarding the question of whose rights we are even talking about, it seems hardly more confident regarding the concept of rights itself. In imagining the societas perfecta, and hence the kind of humanity we must strive to foster, the Church has arguably taken recourse to a language of Love more than to one of rights – a tendency perhaps exacerbated by the modern crisis of natural and, to some extent, canon law(neither of which enjoys particular respect among contemporary theologians). The Christian ideal, one might say, is not one of mutually recognizing one’s rights but of being united in the Spirit, who is Love. Such an account does not, of course, rule out the notion of rights but has trouble elevating this to the status of an ideal. In effect, however, it arguably obstructs its own cause: without the mutual respect of one’s rights, neither freedom nor love will take root.

If the Church wishes to continue its advocacy of human rights in the world, it must clarify its stance towards them also in respect to its inner life therefore. This arguably requires a creative appropriation of the concept in relation to Christian anthropology and to the Church’s natural law tradition, without which the idea of human rights might never have come underway.

[1] Walter Kasper, Theoloische Bestimmung der Menschenrechte im neuzeitlichen Bewusstsein von Freiheit und Geschichte, in Johannes Schwartlaender (Hg.) Modernes Freiheitsethos und christlicher Glaube. Beitraege zur juristischen, philosophischen und theologischen Bestimmung der Menschenrechte, Muenchen 1981, 285-302, 301-302.