Catholic Social Teaching and Human Rights

The foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching is respecting the life and dignity of the human person whatever its condition or stage of development. Human rights stem both from reason (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 153) and from our inherent dignity as human beings, because all human beings were given life by God and are made in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:27). Although our inalienable and inviolable dignity as human beings was profoundly wounded by sin, it was redeemed and restored by Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection. The Church recognises that her essentially religious mission includes the defence and protection of human rights including within her own ranks (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 159).

Pope St John XXIII, in his encyclical, Pacem in Terris, recognised the necessity for each state to have  a clear and precisely worded charter of fundamental human rights to be formulated and incorporated into the States’s general constitutions. Australia still does not have this. In his address to the United Nations in 1979, Pope St John Paul II called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) “a true milestone on the path of humanity’s moral progress”. His predecessor Pope St Paul VI, called for the UDHR be ratified by all Governments and for it to be fully observed by all (Octogesima Adveniens).

Pope St John Paul II, in his address to the United Nations in 1995 recognised the importance of protecting human rights as a whole and noted that it was a matter of concern that some deny the universality of human rights. This is especially disturbing in circumstances influenced by ideologies which have obscured the awareness of human dignity, yet the Church has affirmed clearly and forcefully that every individual bears the image of God and therefore deserves respect (Pope St John Paul II, Centisumus Annus, 22) A few years later he also recognised “There is an even more profound aspect which needs to be emphasized: freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth.” (Evangelium Vitae, 19)

St John Paul II continued to recognise the Church’s duty to speak out in courage on behalf of those who have no voice because they are being oppressed or denied in their fundamental human right to life (Evangelium Vitae, 5). He noted that it was particularly disturbing that direct crimes against life like abortion and euthanasia have been interpreted as legitimate expressions of individual freedom to be protected as actual rights. This is especially so a society which makes the affirmation and protection of human rights its primary objective and its boast. He said that “These attacks go directly against respect for life and they represent a direct threat to the entire culture of human rights.” (Evangelium Vitae 18). In a previous encyclical Christifideles Laici he also noted that all other human rights would be false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right were not “defended with maximum determination.” In Australia and other parts of the world today, the right to life is frequently violated by an increase in direct abortions and euthanasia as well as potential threats to human life from the deleterious effects of climate change.

The Church recognises as her particular duty, guided by love and concern to care with special attention for the unborn who are the most innocent, defenceless, and unborn among us (Evangelii Gaudium, 213) because today people are taking unborn lives and preventing anyone from stopping the practice of abortion. However, the church maintains “Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development…Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be.”

Pope John Paul II has drawn up a non-exhaustive list of human rights in the Encyclical Centisumus Annus:

  • the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception;
  • the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality;
  • the right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth;
  • the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth’s material resources, and to derive from that work the means to support oneself and one’s dependents;
  • and the right freely to establish a family, to have and to rear children through the responsible exercise of one’s sexuality.

He concluded this list with the recognition that the “source and synthesis of these rights is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person” The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (155) notes that The first right presented in this list is the right to life, from conception to its natural end, which is the condition for the exercise of all other rights and Emphasis is given to the paramount value of the right to religious freedom.

In his address to the United Nations in 1995, John Paul II said: “we can see how important it is to safeguard the fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, as the cornerstones of the structure of human rights and the foundation of every truly free society.” Because there should be “a common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty. And the “soul” of the civilization of love is the culture of freedom… lived in self-giving solidarity and responsibility.”

The Church has recognised in Dignitatis Humanae, that authentic love and freedom, “all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits”

In exercising authentic freedom, guided by love one would recognise one cannot exercise their own freedom to violate someone else’s dignity.