Many readers of this publication will probably recall a provocative November 2021 address given by the legendary Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in which he eviscerated the language of “human dignity” as secularized, overly individualistic, and rooted in liberal conceptions of the human person. MacIntyre, a longtime critic of the concept of human rights, posited in his address that an undue emphasis on the human person is foreign to both the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic philosophical tradition more broadly. As an alternative, MacIntyre proffered a philosophical position and interpretation of Aquinas that he stated was “informed by Charles de Koninck’s insights,” a nod to the mid-twentieth-century Université Laval philosopher, perhaps most well-known for his scathing critique of efforts by “personalists” to rank the flourishing of individual human persons above the common good of society. For de Koninck, and as echoed by MacIntyre in his address, the flourishing of individual persons cannot be made ultimate ends; instead, the well-being of society or the particular community must take precedence. According to this theory, “human dignity,” in its focus on the intrinsic worth of the individual human person and the “rights” possessed by persons, quickly becomes a problem.
Catholic voices on the “postliberal” Right were quick to laud MacIntyre’s speech and hail what they saw as the potentially groundbreaking nature of the ideas he sought to revive. Patrick Deneen framed MacIntyre’s address as something of a “come-to-Jesus moment” for Catholic conservatives supportive of dignity and rights at the expense of what Deneen argued was the “more demanding, teleological standard of Thomistic justice.” C. C. Pecknold praised the speech and published a separate article alleging that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights misunderstood “the person in relation to a proper notion of the common good,” while also accusing the eminent Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, a contemporary interlocutor of de Koninck and zealous defender of human rights, of being “in lock-step with a basically liberal individualist account of the human person.” The Catholic writer Patrick Smith declared that MacIntyre’s speech represented “a call” to affirm the thesis that “the idea of rights as inviolable powers is corrosive to the common good.” An article in the blog Ius et Iustitium argued that MacIntyre’s address demonstrated that universal notions of dignity and human rights should be set aside in favor of “jurisprudence, the science of saying what is each person’s due in a particular case.”
Anyone following recent developments in American Catholicism knows that among a growing segment of young people, figures like Deneen and Pecknold command a loyal following, postliberalism and neo-integralism are the ideologies of the day, and anything perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be “liberal” is tantamount to political junk science. So we should all take note of the increasing skepticism of human rights emanating from figures associated with this movement—while recalling that the Catholic Church is far from agnostic on the subject. While explicit magisterial support for human rights first began to emerge in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which the pontiff described a set of “sacred and inviolable rights” handed down to persons by God, it was not for several more decades that concrete historical circumstances and a desire to confront a changing world prompted the Church to speak more openly on the subject of human rights.
Pacem In Terris and the Church’s Human Rights Legacy
Earlier this year, the papal encyclical Pacem in terris celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. The landmark encyclical, described by Pope John XXIII as his “Easter gift” to the Catholic faithful upon its release in April 1963, is notable for several reasons—for one, it was the first papal document to be published in its entirety in the pages of The New York Times, and its vociferous defense of the “universal and inviolable” rights and duties of human persons drew reaction from world leaders on a scale that is plainly unmatched by papal exhortations of more recent memory. The prominent Catholic intellectual Mary Ann Glendon, a student at the University of Chicago when Pacem in terris was released, gave the following assessment of the document in 2013:
[The Pope’s] emphatic insistence that “racial discrimination can in no way be accepted,” his affirmation of women’s roles and rights in contemporary society, and his praise for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—all those things contributed to our sense of being on the cusp of historic changes, and gave us a sense of pride that our Church’s leaders were in the forefront. Lest we forget: the previous year Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel of New Orleans had excommunicated three powerful Louisiana political figures for opposing the desegregation of schools. It felt like a great time to be a Catholic!
But perhaps the greatest achievement of Pacem in terris was what it represented for countless Catholics throughout the world, then beset by Cold War-era threats of authoritarian injustice and totalitarian oppression along with the all-too-real possibility of nuclear eradication (the Cuban missile crisis, after all, had occurred just sixth months before the document’s publication). Pacem in terris was the Catholic Church’s first comprehensive reply to post-World War II efforts seeking international consensus on the meaning and importance of “human rights,” that is, rights universally and inalienably possessed by individual human persons qua their status as persons. What began with Catholic involvement in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—most notably by Jacques Maritain—culminated in the Church’s full-throated endorsement of the thesis of inalienable human rights, first in Pacem in terris and later in several documents of the Second Vatican Council.
Among the human rights outlined in Pacem in terris are the right to “worship God in accordance with the right dictates of [one’s] own conscience,” the right of parents to educate their children, the right of association, and the right “—within the limits of the moral order and the common good—to freedom of speech and publication.” Importantly, and consistent with the Catholic Church’s long-held understanding of inherent rights as directly correlative of duties, Pacem in terris declared rights and duties to be “inextricably” linked. For instance, while parents have the right to oversee the education of their children, they also have a correlative duty to ensure their children receive a morally acceptable education. Similarly, one’s right to liberty of religious practice as one’s conscience dictates is correlative with a duty to seek religious truth earnestly and honestly. Rights and duties are two sides of the same coin; liberty of conscience is not explained in its fullness without reference to the truth-seeking duty of persons to freely discern error and renounce it.
And, of course, not every asserted “human right” is one. In an era in which the mantle of human rights has been claimed by secular activists to justify actions and positions far outside the bounds of both Church doctrine and practical reason, it’s important to remember that the Catholic Church’s account of human rights is—and always has been—one firmly grounded in correlative duties and the natural law. Indeed, when Aquinas teaches that the object of the particular virtue of justice is the rendering to the other person their right (their ius — what is justly due to them) he outlines a framework of rights-as-duties based on the obligation to give to the other what is rightfully theirs.
Pacem in terris explicitly affirms this conception of rights as the correlates of duties, rather than mere appeals to abstract notions of liberty or autonomy as goods in themselves. And, as any philosopher would be quick to point out, misapplications of the rule do not invalidate the rule itself. Abusus non tollit usum.
Indeed, Pacem in terris was the first of many successive endorsements by Church authorities of human rights in both conceptual and applied terms. Various references to “man’s rights,” “natural rights,” “human rights,” and “the fundamental rights of human persons”—along with condemnations of violations of such rights—are found to varying degrees in the Second Vatican Council documents Gaudium et spes, Dignitatis humanae, and Nostra aetate, along with a litany of post-conciliar papal texts ranging from Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus to Pope Francis’s Fratelli tutti. Along with being the Church’s position, this is also the fundamental conception of rights set forth by Thomas Aquinas (John Finnis, Dominic Legge, and others have written on this), but is one that was de-emphasized by many Church authorities during the nineteenth century as fears of anti-clerical secular progressivism and moral relativism dominated the Vatican’s attention in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
Recycling Old Arguments Against Human Rights
As with many debates involving Catholic teaching, not everyone was happy with the Church’s post-World War II turn toward a doctrine of universal human rights. Knowing very well the Church’s endorsement of Aquinas’s thought as the gold standard of Catholic philosophy and theology, philosophers like Charles de Koninck, Henri Grenier, and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange attempted to revive an account of Aquinas that minimized the rights of persons qua persons in favor of a more communitarian view that subordinates the person to the common good of society. To put what this account alleges in simple terms: human rights are neither an intrinsic good nor an end; instead, “rights” are properly had by persons qua members of their particular community. Those who do harm to others or to their community—morally, physically, or otherwise—have failed to participate in the common good and consequently might not possess the same claim to have their rights as a person qua community member respected. Put another way, what is intrinsically good is the ultimate end of the community through its members, not protecting any universal rights of individual persons as such.
Some in this camp, like Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, a highly accomplished theologian dubbed the “Sacred Monster of Thomism” by critics and admirers alike, deserve to be remembered for more than flawed political ideas and to have others seriously engage with their philosophical work. Still, most of these names faded into relative obscurity (save for select seminaries and whispering corners of the Catholic philosophical academy) when, by the latter half of the twentieth century through documents like Pacem in terris, the Church had definitively declined to adopt many of their political and philosophical ideas.
Nevertheless, spurred perhaps by a mixture of reactionary cultural sentiment and dissatisfaction with contemporary church authorities—and with the encouragement of outspoken public voices—a predominantly younger and traditionally minded class of Catholics has begun to rediscover and reconsider the merits of these ideas. But the Catholic Church’s enduring support of human rights will not, and cannot, change. That some may choose to ignore, whitewash, or downplay the clear and unambiguous endorsements of person qua person rights given by the Church in Pacem in terris and a multitude of teaching documents since is unfortunate. But it should not sway the minds of interested Catholics, who ought to remember that the doctrines of rights-skepticism and anti-personalism were all as well known to the Church in the 1960s as they are today. These old (and unconvincing) temptations were as mistaken then as they are now.
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