3.3.2 Upholding human rights

Back to 3.3.1

Unit 3 Contents


When first introducing CST in Unit 1, I gave a list of the main documents that can be seen as the global Church’s social teaching since Rerum Novarum.  You might wish to look at this now: 1.2.3.  One thing that is very striking in this list is to do with the documents’ dates.  During the seventy years after RN, there was only one further encyclical that now is generally seen as forming part of CST, namely Quadragesimo Anno of 1931.  The seventieth anniversary of RN, in 1961, was marked by a further document, Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra.  But then the pace increased: this was the first of five major statements in the 1960s alone – three encyclicals and two documents of the Second Vatican Council.  Since 1970 there have been about 10 more, depending on what should count as ‘major’.  Page 1.2.3 lists 18 publications during the 50 years from 1961 to 2011.

I mention this here because, as that acceleration suggests, the 1960s was a period of great development in CST.  Probably the most important dimension of this was the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’, of which you are already aware from Unit 2 (2.4.6).  Especially in the 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, and also then in the ‘Declaration on Religious Freedom’ (Dignitatis Humanae) issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the Catholic Church embraced very fully the language of human rights.  It came to see this as one way of articulating some, even much, of what CST requires.

What are human rights?  We addressed this briefly in Unit 1, in the context of looking at CST’s main principles, in particular respect for human dignity – see 1.3.4.

Here is a summary of some basic points about duties and rights.  These introduce a reading from the twin VPlater module, Unit 7, where rights and duties can be studied much more fully.

‘Human rights’ is a label for those things that are due to persons simply because we are human.  In order that we can have the possibility of living in a way consistent with our God-given human dignity, persons must have access to these – things such as food, health care when ill, and freedom to speak the truth.  If we lack these things, we lack what no human being ever should.

Human rights can be distinguished into:

  • ‘benefit rights’, which are rights to have access to specific goods or benefits, such as food and health care; these are sometimes called ‘positive rights’
  • ‘freedom rights’, which are rights to be left free from interference in certain kinds of activity, such as speaking, associating with other people, and practising religion; these are also known as ‘negative rights’.

In Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII affirmed forcefully that human rights include a full range of both benefit rights and freedom rights.  He also emphasizes that the rights of which he spoke “are inextricably bound up with as many duties” (#28).

Recognizing that human rights are about what is due to persons shows that upholding human rights is a matter of justice.  You will remember the formal definition of justice: to do justice is to render what is due (1.3.1, 3.1.2).

In the light of these introductory points about human rights, now read two pages from Module A, Unit 7.  These will place those points in context and should enable clearer and fuller understanding of what the term ‘human rights’ means.


Reading (4pp)

VPlater Module A, Unit 7, pp. 7.1.2 and 7.1.3


On 7.1.3 there is an exercise.  It will be worth looking at the ‘response’ to this or, if you have time, doing the exercise, in order to understand clearly the difference between so-called ‘benefit rights’ and ‘freedom rights’.


That unit in Module A continues by outlining how rights are related to duties and responsibilities.  It is important to understand this, for which reason you might wish to do the following optional reading also.


Optional reading  (12pp)

VPlater Module A, Unit 2, p. 2.2.5, and Unit 7, p. 7.1.5


The second of the two documents mentioned above, Dignitatis Humanae, affirmed for the first time in Catholic teaching that all persons have a human right to freedom of religious belief and practice, regardless of whether those beliefs and practices are Christian.

Spend a few minutes reading the page in the Compendium headed, ‘Religious Freedom, a Fundamental Human Right’, which quotes several times from Dignitatis Humanae.


Reading (1p.)

Compendium, ##421-423 (chapter 8, sec. VI.A)


Since those pivotal documents in the 1960s, CST’s embrace of the language of human rights has been evident often, especially in many statements by Pope John Paul II. He repeatedly emphasized the importance of religious freedom.  (See Module A, 7.2.5.)

The significance of human rights for our study in this unit is that, since Pacem in Terris, CST has used this language prominently when describing the role of government.  This is evident especially in the Compendium of 2004.

I mentioned earlier that the Compendium does not expound the responsibilities of government at any length.  Very surprisingly, its chapter on ‘The Political Community’ includes only one subsection which does that directly – less than a page.  But it is very striking that it does it there in the language of ‘the rights and duties of the person’.

The next reading comprises this subsection, which is headed ‘Defending and promoting human rights’, and the one before it, which is included to give the context in which human rights come up.


Reading (3pp)

Compendium, ##384-89 (chapter 8, sec. II, (a) and (b))


If you looked at the footnotes to ##388-389, you might have picked up that about half the text in these sections comprises quotations from Pacem in Terris.  We now turn to this source directly.  The next reading is one of the most important passages in CST directly on the responsibilities of government.


Reading (3pp)

Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, ##60-66


A few pages later, Pacem in Terris sums up very straightforwardly what it has said about the state’s responsibility to uphold rights.  In the constitutional law of each state,

relations between citizens and public authorities [should] be described in terms of rights and duties.  It must be clearly laid down that the principal function of public authorities is to recognize, respect, co-ordinate, safeguard and promote citizens’ rights and duties. (#77)

The fact that the Church affirmed human rights very clearly in those documents of the 1960s does not mean, of course, that there are no potential problems in using this terminology.  For instance, just because someone claims to have a right to X or Y doesn’t mean they really do – they could be wrapping up mere self-seeking in what they hope will be effective rhetoric.

What human rights does the Catholic Church actually recognize? We have already seen that Pope John XXIII affirmed a range of both freedom rights and benefit rights in Pacem in Terris.1The Church also endorses what is in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.  Indeed the Church has subsequently celebrated this Declaration on anniversaries of its signing, such as the 50th in 1998 and the 60th in 2008.  It is very worthwhile being familiar with this statement.2


Reading (3pp)

UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at:



I mentioned just now one potential problem with the language of human rights, namely that it can just be a cover for self-seeking.  This and some other significant objections to ‘human rights’ are also examined in Module A, Unit 7.  For this reason, again, we don’t consider them further here – but you might well wish to do look at the pages on which that is done.


Optional reading (4pp)

VPlater Module A, 7.3.2-7.3.5


To sum up, whereas the principle of subsidiarity is primarily about justice for groups, associations and institutions of many kinds, human rights are about justice for each and every distinct human person. According to CST, it is government’s role to secure justice in both these ways.


End of 3.3.2

Go to 3.3.3 Directing society to the common good

Module B outline

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  1. Reading more of this encyclical would give fuller understanding of this; however it is not set as reading here in order not to duplicate what is in Module A, Unit 7 (see 7.2.4). 

  2. Given recent controversy about marriage, it is worth being aware that Article 16’s ‘right to marry’ is a freedom right – that is, a right to freedom from being coerced either to marry or not to marry. This Article no doubt assumed that ‘marriage’ refers to a certain kind of male-female relationship, that is, the first of the two meanings distinguished at the end of the last screen (3.3.1).  The right to marry in the Declaration is fully met if there are effective legal guarantees of freedom from coercion in relation to entering a marriage.