The topic of human rights remains controversial, especially where discourses attempt to link the theological perspectives with the secular use of the term. In many cases, the main issue of contention is how the language is used in both contexts where significant strains can be observed. However, it can also be observed that, despite the strains, the Catholic teaching on human dignity provides a solid basis for framing the secular or postmodern view of human rights. Such authors as Lockwood-O’Donovan1 explain that theologians tend to be frequently engaged in facile and naïve appropriation of the language of rights. While this essay seeks to prove this point, there will also be a focus on the key areas of strain and how the language in both contexts can be aligned to remove the conflicts.
The Language of Human Rights
The language of human rights has been used differently in various contexts, where the variations can be seen as the attempts of different groups to emphasize certain points. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights2 and other treaties regarding human rights can be used as the representatives of the secular view on the one hand. On the other hand, the teaching of Catholic theology is used to display the areas of tension. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights3 states that all people are entitled to the rights and freedoms set forth without distinction of any kind. The language used hints at the notion of universality where such issues as race, religion, sex, language, and property do not interfere with the application of human rights. According to Hollenbach4, “Roman Catholic social ethics understands the human person as a being whose significance and worth are deeply rooted in a relationship with God”. Such an observation has been made by multiple authors, including some recent publications on the subject5. Therefore, a slight difference in the perception of human being emerges.
It can be accepted that religious statements are critical in analyzing the contributions of the Roman Catholic to the subject. However, the fact that the Catholic teachings define human rights in terms of the relationship between God and humans raises concerns. Firstly, there is a question of what those people who do not share the Christian are supposed to interpret this view of human rights6. Secondly, it becomes clear that there is a significant tension in the understanding of morals between the secular world and the religious beliefs. Even so, the concept of human dignity as the basis for human rights has offered the secular world a foundation on which to frame its view of human rights. The basic argument is that both sides tend to oppose the evils done against people by others. For example, both the Catholic neo-Thomism, which was represented by Jacques Maritain, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were all united in their opposition to the Nazi racist ideology and its cult of Master Race7. Such unity can be used to illustrate where the two languages can be aligned.
It is generally accepted that human dignity, which is the foundation of the theological view of human rights, is the founding value of the secular perspective on the same subject. However, the secular framing of the same ideas differs, especially when some teaching attempts to clarify the nature of human dignity. For example, an encyclical letter by Pope Leo XIII in 1942 refused the premise that people could select their political leader, arguing that all power came from God89. Such a view means that liberal, emancipatory, and democratic ideals are not endorsed. This standpoint can be contradicted by the efforts of the Catholic ethicists to fight for human rights. For instance, some activists feel that crimes against humanities are committed in workplaces because of the powerlessness of the employees concerning their employers and supervisors10. In essence, the Catholics who do not believe in democracy and liberal ideals attempt to use the same ground to advocate for worker’s justice.
Therefore, the language used in Catholic teachings can sometimes be confusing. In the example given above regarding workers’ rights, the freedoms and rights preached include unionization, which can be perceived as a democratic movement uniting the workers11. It can also be argued that only the papacy is opposed to the ideals of democracy because there are not many other publications that oppose it. However, even human freedoms are limited to the extent that the relationship with God defines what people can and cannot do.
The use of the language can be seen as leaving the Catholic theology with a lot to explain regarding certain constructs associated with human dignity. Even the relationship with God, which has been questioned since not all people share this faith, has been interpreted in many ways. For example, the Catholics believe in the principle of Incarnation, “which holds God took on human form in Jesus Crist and thereby became united to all human beings…”12. The keyword, in this case, is “all human beings,” which can be used to argue that even those who fail to follow this faith can still be perceived as human beings. Therefore, all human beings deserve to enjoy their rights despite their faith, which is the same point that the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights makes13. Despite the strains, it is still possible to align the two perspectives as long as the theological interpretation recognizes that not all people will share the same faith.
The naïve and facile appropriation of rights language is the result of the historical development in the conceptions of human dignity. For example, human dignity in Greco-Roman antiquity held two conceptions: meritocratic and civic dignity. In the former, a person’s position in society was determined by a set of characteristics, including courage, uprightness, and virtue. Civic dignity held that all male citizens were equal since they could equally participate in public affairs. In contrast to these earlier conceptualizations, the biblical notion included women in the conversation and upheld the position that all human beings are a special creature of God14. It can be observed that the language keeps changing in the Catholic theological view of human dignity, which proves that point by Lockwood-O’Donovan regarding the naivety of the language.
With the slight differences in the use of language, some scholars have sought to explore the difference between human rights in the secular domain and theology. According to Langan, there are twelve areas of contrast between the two perspectives15. Of these, the main areas include the fact that human rights are critical while theology is apologetic and priestly, which serves political and religious elites. In other words, human rights, as envisioned in the Univeral Declaration of Human Rights16, are universal and not confined to certain religious or political groups. Additionally, theology seems to state the general and ultimate norms of human dignity, whereas human rights tend to be more specific, and in some cases, the conceptualizations are subordinate to the general norms. This is the point where an acknowledgment can be made that the Catholic teachings on human dignity are the foundations of the secular view of human rights.
Another concern is the fact that theology tends to be exclusive and particularist. Langan expresses that “ theology is particularist and exclusive; human rights reflection is universalist and inclusive”17. However, it is also important to acknowledge that the relationship with God can also be perceived as universalist based on the assumption that theology believes all humans are creatures of God regardless of the faith. Such a position may require clarification from the Catholic teachings where a conceptualization of non-Christians needs to be understood. The use of language can be understood to target the people pursuing the faith. Human rights language clarifies that there are no exceptions in the application of human rights. The emphasis on Christian faith in theology in describing human dignity is the key area of criticism.
Regardless of the criticism associated with the conception of human dignity in theology, there are many areas in which the two can be aligned. As mentioned several times, the theological view of human dignity can be seen as the foundation for the secular perspective of human rights. In the teaching of Leo XIII and Thomas Aquinas, the word dignity is associated with goodness, which is a value inherent to the possessor. It is based on the notion that the human soul is incorruptible and has free will18. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes a similar notion in Article 1, which states that all people are born free and equal in rights and dignity19. Therefore, the understanding of the conceptualization of the term dignity can offer a starting point in aligning the two. Other articles of the human rights declaration emphasize specific aspects of human rights. Examples include slavery, torture, recognition as a person, and equality before the law20. Therefore, all aspects of human dignity can be reflected in human rights.
In conclusion, the understanding and interpretation of human rights between theology and the secular domain differ significantly. However, the basic contrast between the two is the conceptualization of human beings and human dignity. The Catholic teachings refer to human beings as created in the image of God. It is this relationship with God that raises the question of what is to be regarded of those who do not share this faith. On the other hand, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights dictates that all humans are equal regardless of, among other things, language and race, religion. It means that the secular view is more universal and not specific to a particular group. Theology is applied in religious settings among people who share Catholic beliefs. However, the key point where the two can be aligned is the fact that the theological view of human dignity lays the foundation for the conceptualizations of human rights. Similar ideas regarding human dignity can serve as unification elements, but theology would have to clarify what to perceive people who do not share their faith.
Beyer, Gerald. “Advocating Worker Justice: A Catholic Ethicist’s “Toolkit”.” Journal of Religious Ethics 45(2) (2017): 226-250.
Hollenbach, David. Claims in Conflict: Retrieving and Renewing the Catholic Human Rights Tradition (New York: Paulist Press, 1979).
Langan, John. “Contrasting and Uniting Theology and Human Rights.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 6(2) (1998): 249-255.
Loughlin, John. “Human Dignity: The Foundation of Human Rights and Religious Freedom.” Memory and Civilization 19 (2016): 313-343.
Łuków, Paweł. “A Difficult Legacy: Human Dignity as the Founding Value of Human Rights.” Human Rights Review 19 (2018): 313-329.
O’Donovan, Joan, Lockwood. “Historical Prolegomena to a Theological Review of ‘Human Rights.'” Studies in Christian Ethics 9(2) (1996): 52-65.
Reginald, Alva. “The Catholic Church’s Perspective of Human Dignity as the Basis of Dialogue with the Secular World.” Stellenbosch Theological Journal 3(2) ( 2017): 221-241.
United Nations. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. Web.
XXIII, John. “Pacem in Terris: Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty.” Journal of Catholic Social Thought 1, no. 1(1) (2004): 157-199.
- Joan Lockwood O’Donovan. “Historical Prolegomena To a Theological Review of ‘Human Rights.” Studies in Christian Ethics 9, no. 2 (1996): 52-65.
- United Nations. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. Web.
- United Nations, Declaration of Human Rights
- David Hollenbach. Claims in Conflict: retrieving and Renewing the Catholic Human Rights Tradition (New York: Paulist Press, 1979).
- Alva Reginald. “The Catholic Church’s Perspective of Human Dignity as the Basis of Dialogue with the Secular World.” Stellenbosch Theological Journal 3, no. 2 ( 2017): 221-241.
- Hollenbach, Claims in Conflict, 107
- John Loughlin. “Human Dignity: the Foundation of Human Rights and Religious Freedom.” Memory and Civilization 19 (2016): 313-343
- Paweł Łuków. “A Difficult Legacy: Human Dignity as the Founding Value of Human Rights.” Human Rights Review 19 (2018): 313-329.
- John XXIII. “Pacem in Terris: Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty.” Journal of Catholic Social Thought 1, no. 1 (2004): 157-199.
- Gerald Beyer. “Advocating Worker Justice: A Catholic Ethicist’s “Toolkit”.” Journal of Religious Ethics 45, no. 2 (2017): 226-250.
- Beyer, Advocating Worker Justice, 228.
- Bayer, 228.
- United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Loughlin, Human Dignity.
- Langan, Contrasting and Uniting Theology and Human Rights.
- United Nations, Declaration of Human Rights.
- Langan, Contrasting and Uniting Theology and Human Rights, 251.
- Łuków, A Difficult Legacy.
- United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.