7.2.3 The ‘Catholic human rights revolution’

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Unit 7 Contents


During the twentieth century, very significant Christian contributions, both Catholic and Protestant, have been made to human rights thinking and practice.  Here are three, all of which pre-date the full endorsement of human rights in official Catholic Social Teaching:

  • You will recall encountering Jacques Maritain in Unit 2 (2.2.8) – you did a short reading from his book, The Person and the Common Good.  In the early 1940s, Maritain wrote powerfully about the full compatibility of human rights with Catholic Christianity.  A few years later he was directly involved in the drafting of the UN Universal Declaration.  I shall say more about this below.
  • There was extensive involvement by Protestant Christians also in the initiative that led to the UN Universal Declaration.  The story of this is told in an excellent book by John Nurser, For All Peoples and All Nations.1
  • Amnesty International, the best known human rights campaigning body in the world, was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, after he spent time in prayer in St Martin’s-in-the-Field church in London.  This is an Anglican church, although Benenson had become a Catholic in 1958.  For many years Amnesty focused on prisoners of conscience, although in more recent years it has broadened the range of issues on which it campaigns.  Below is a link to a short article about Benenson.


Optional reading  (2pp)

At website of Pax Christi, ‘Peter Benenson’


In fact Christians, including not least Catholics, have been at the forefront of work for human rights in the past century.  Against the longer term historical background of strong rejection by the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century of the idea of the ‘rights of man’, that might seem surprising.  Looking at a 40-year period between 1930 and 1970, there was a great shift in where Catholics stood in relation to human rights.  Before about 1930 almost no Catholics had argued for a general embrace of the idea of what were still often called ‘natural rights’ or the ‘rights of man’.  This is even though, as you have seen in Unit 4, Pope Leo XIII had appealed in Rerum Novarum to rights to a just wage and to use one’s income to purchase property.  But with Pacem in Terris in 1963, strong and clear endorsement of human rights became part of official Catholic teaching.

One prominent Catholic writer, George Weigel (who was mentioned in Unit 5), has referred to this shift as the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’.  In 1995 he wrote:

In the mid-1980s, I found myself in conversation with Sir Michael Howard, the distinguished English historian.  [Note: This is not the Conservative Party politician with the same name.]  In the course of our discussion, Sir Michael remarked that, in his view, there had been two great revolutions in the twentieth century. The first had taken place when Lenin’s Bolsheviks expropriated the Russian Revolution and began the world’s first experiment in totalitarianism. The second revolution was taking place even as we spoke: the transformation, as Sir Michael put it, of the Catholic Church from the last bastion of the ancien regime to the world’s foremost institutional defender of basic human rights.2

Weigel goes on to defend this view.  Even though Weigel has been a hugely controversial figure among Catholic contributors to public debate (because, for example, he strongly advocated the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq from long before it happened, in diametric opposition to Pope John Paul), many scholars of CST would agree that the Church’s shift on human rights can be called revolutionary.

Here is a reading which sets this ‘revolution’ in a longer term historical context.  This shows that what emerged in Pacem in Terris had developed from some earlier statements.


Reading (9pp)

Robert Traer, ‘Catholics and Human Rights’

This is revised from a chapter in Traer, Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (Georgetown University Press, 1991).


Near the end of this article, Traer asks whether there are Catholics who reject the teaching of the Catholic Church about human rights by engaging in terrorist acts of violence.  In response he has a short discussion of terrorism in Northern Ireland.  This is just one example that shows that what can seem abstract discussion is in fact about practical issues that are close to home and highly challenging.




In the light of reading Traer’s historical outline, do you think Weigel’s characterization of the development of the Catholic Church’s position on human right as a ‘revolution’ is right, or is it exaggerated?


It is surprising that Traer does not mention Jacques Maritain in this article.  The ‘Catholic human rights revolution’ was indebted to the work of Maritain probably more than to that of any other single person.  Maritain was a lay Catholic scholar who wrote very extensively on a wide range of both philosophical and very urgent practical topics from the 1920s to the 1950s.  He was an authority on St Thomas Aquinas and in 1943 he published a book called The Rights of Man and Natural Law.  This benefited from being very short – it was very widely read.

Maritain made a powerful argument that not only is traditional Catholic teaching about natural law, as articulated by Aquinas, consistent with an affirmation of human rights, but that the language of rights is a good way of presenting much that that teaching stands for.  Maritain’s book was written in acute consciousness of the need there would be before very long for rebuilding countries shattered by the Second World War.  He thought that what Catholic Christianity could say both about natural law and about human rights could be immensely valuable in that context, as it proved to be.

Maritain was already a very prominent figure, and had written on the same subject before.  But this book catapulted him into deep involvement with the work that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

One of the amazing things about the Universal Declaration is that it was endorsed very quickly by political leaders who had deeply different religious and philosophical positions.  In one way, this can be argued to be a vindication of what Unit 6 showed is one of the two aspects of Catholic teaching about natural law, namely what I called its epistemological sense (following a distinction made by Maritain) (6.2.2).  The claim is that all people with the capacity of reason can reflect on human nature and can identify some of the things that make for human wellbeing, indeed that are absolutely necessary for it.  It’s obvious enough that, for example, food, shelter, health care, and some freedom to think and to talk, all make for human wellbeing.

In one of Maritain’s major books, Man and the State, he gives a moving account of what actually happened when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being written, as people of deeply different convictions found they could support the same things.  This is the next reading.  Whatever we make of Maritain’s account of this, it is certainly food for thought now, in an era that is widely seen as ‘postmodern’ – a term that denotes insuperable diversity of belief about everything.


Reading (4pp)

Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, chap. IV, sec 1 entitled, ‘Men mutually opposed in their theoretical conceptions can come to a purely practical agreement regarding a list of human rights’ (pp. 76-80)

The link above should take you direct to the start of chap. IV at Google Books. If it doesn’t go to Man and the State and search inside using “men mutually opposed”.


When the most prominent European Catholic writer of the day had been so centrally involved in the formulation of a statement of rights that had been endorsed across the world, perhaps the Catholic Church’s own human rights revolution was inevitable.

In passing, let me say that Maritain’s influence was by no means limited to the area of human rights.  His writing about democracy during the same period was a major inspiration for the Christian Democratic political parties which formed in many European countries after World War Two, for example in France and Germany.  These were pivotal in the recovery from war and initiated the movement towards European unity.  You have the opportunity to look at this topic in Module B (in units 4 and 5).  During that period, Maritain was very widely known in the English-speaking world and in Latin America, as well as across mainland Europe.  Arguably he was one of the most influential intellectuals in twentieth century history.

It has been said that ‘Maritain’s fingerprints are all over Pacem in Terris’, to which we now turn.


End of 7.2.3

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  1. J. Nurser, For All Peoples and All Nations: Christian Churches and Human Rights (World Council of Churches and Georgetown University Press, 2005).  For an outline of this book, see: www.press.georgetown.edu/book/georgetown/all-peoples-and-all-nations

  2. G. Weigel, ‘The Catholic Human Rights Revolution’, a lecture given in 1995 at a conference in Rome marking the 30th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, published in Crisis magazine, Jul/Aug 1996, accessible (June 2011), at: http://www.ewtn.com/library/CHISTORY/HRREVOLU.TXT