The Catholic Church doesn’t believe in human rights — Huh?

I found the reckless accusation, “The Catholic Church simply doesn’t believe in human rights” wedged between several other statements of supposed “facts” about the Catholic Church in the comment section of a recent online op-ed posting.

Unfortunately, the sad fact is that there are many non-Catholics and Catholics alike who believe this is true to varying degrees.

To accurately address where this confusion lies, we need to approach the issue by asking the right questions. It is not “Does the Catholic Church believe in ‘human rights’?” Rather, the questions are “What is the Catholic Church’s conception of ‘human rights’?” And, perhaps in some cases, “Why do I think that it is at odds with mine?”

In her essay, “The Moral Structure of Freedom,” former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon analyzes Pope John Paul II’s 1995 address to the U.N. General Assembly.

She notes that multiple competing notions of “freedom” exist and that discourse concerning rights has become difficult because the presence of these competing visions of freedom escape notice. More specifically, the competing ideas about “freedom” differ as to how they view its relation to truth, responsibility and, most important, an understanding of the person and what constitutes authentic human flourishing.

Differing dialects

Glendon situates the conflicting ideas within two central forms of political discourse. The “libertarian” dialect, which emphasizes rights as “immunities”— that is, freedom from restraint — and the “dignitarian” dialect, which emphasizes that with political and civil rights come certain obligations on the part of the state toward its citizens and on the part of its citizens toward one another.

One basic way of looking at the tension is how we define freedom. Is freedom the ability to do what we want or the ability to do what we ought?

No political system or culture takes a purely “libertarian” or “dignitarian” approach. While they vary in degree throughout the world, these “dialects” of freedom manifest themselves throughout law, economics and culture. As Glendon states:

“Rights discourse of the type commonly found in countries influenced by English common law confers its highest priority upon individual freedom from government constraints. Rights tend to be formulated without mention of their limits,

their relation to responsibilities, or to other rights. . . . Rather than aiming at the common good, it tends to be an end in itself.

“The dignitarian rights language that one finds . . . in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church is characterized by a more nuanced dialect of freedom and responsibility. . . . [R]ights are envisioned not only as protected by fair procedures, but as grounded and situated in a normative framework based on human dignity.”

In America today, we tilt strongly toward the “libertarian” dialect. And, as a result, discussions about how policies affect “the common good” seem unintelligible and fall on deaf ears. But recovering a “dignitarian” approach is necessary if we hope to construct a just social order, especially one that safeguards the role of the family as the first social “cell” of society.

Understanding freedom

The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and many “dignitarian” constitutions provide that the family is under special protection for the society and the state.

It is worth noting that the Catholic Church analyzes marriage law in civil society with this “dignitarian” approach. A man and a woman have the right to have their marriage recognized by the state because they publicly embrace the responsibility to nurture the children that result from their union.

The law helps to promote stable, two-parent households that provide a mom and a dad for a child. The right to marriage is not grounded in the legal recognition of individual romantic preferences. Rights are rooted in responsibilities — the ability to do what we ought, not what we want.

As Catholics, we are called to view every question of “human rights” and public policy in these terms.

We should weigh the validity of “freedoms” by the extent to which they support or undermine the common good.

We must find ways to promote the “unique worth of each individual” while we honestly scrutinize how our individual actions diminish or promote broader human flourishing, and then support laws that do the latter.

Jessica Zittlow is communications associate with the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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