No one interested in how human rights became the idea of our time can ignore how Christians learned to champion them. But they changed their meaning in the process. This is changing under Francis, and that might be a good thing.
The idea of rights as something humans intrinsically haves traces its origin to medieval Christianity. Yet for most of modern history, Catholics, from the pope on down, condemned rights — which they associated with the American and French Revolutions, and correctly so — as baleful sources of wicked modern secularism and relativism. As a late 19th-century pope insisted, “It is quite unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, of speech, or writing, or of worship, as if these were so many rights given by nature to man. For, if nature had really granted them, it would be lawful to refuse obedience to God, and there would be no restraint on human liberty.” Protestants often felt the same way; as one put it just as World War II began, “Of course you can dress up the ideas of 1789 and adapt them to the conditions of 1940. But the present situation is the result of secularism. … No amount of secular Declarations, no number of claims for human rights, without spiritual sanctions, will save us from destruction.”
From the late 1930s, however, some began to rehabilitate what they had once disdained. After the ill-fated flirtations of Christians with the politics of the far right both in the Vatican’s Italian home and across Europe, Pius XI and XII warmed to human rights. Many Christians sympathized when Francisco Franco toppled liberal government in Spain. But as right-wing states rolled back the achievements of secular modernity (most obviously, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, which trampled church prerogatives), Christians realized that extremists could be just as prejudicial as secular governments to Christian values.
When he offered some famous peace points during World War II, in fact, Pius XII may have done more than any spokesman at the time to forecast the role human rights would play after the conflict. “He who would have the Star of Peace shine out and stand over society should cooperate,” Pius XII explained on Christmas Day in 1942, “in giving back to the human person the dignity given to it by God from the very beginning… [We] must awaken again the consciousness of a juridical order resting on the supreme dominion of God, and safeguarded from all human whims.” The “unforgettable rights of man” were to be part of this order. Thanks to documents like the Charter of the United Nations (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such language later became familiar around the world. No other world spokesmen did more during World War II to insist that the conflict was ultimately about “human dignity” and “human rights” — not even President Franklin Roosevelt himself.
But this wasn’t a victory for the same liberal and secular human rights as before. Rather than broadening the message of human rights so that they applied to all people regardless of religion, Pius XII and his other conservative followers down to John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI, reinterpreted human rights to achieve traditional ends in a new way.
In particular, Christians were able to make the once-secular and revolutionary principles of human rights synonymous with the pursuit of moral order that Christians had long supported — about God’s dominion, rather than human freedom. Outside the Iberian Peninsula, a new kind of political movement called “Christian Democracy” arose in Western Europe, dominating politics for decades in regimes that reconciled human rights with political conservatism and religious values.
In papal history, there was one great counterexample to the conservative reformulation of moral commands as a matter of human rights, and that was the first great reformer John XXIII, especially in his epoch-making encyclical Pacem in Terris. John, the first to invoke and to celebrate the Universal Declaration (Pius XII never mentioned it), succeeded, unleashing a series of events often called the aggiornamento that liberalized the Church’s teachings. Yet that liberalization was precisely what later popes and especially John Paul II and Benedict XVI attempted to undo. Human dignity now demanded the consecration of the human rights championed by the United Nations. It was a far cry from the interwar period when Catholics had been tempted to dismiss the League of Nations as a victory for Jews and masons.
Following John Paul, however, Pope Benedict insisted that human rights serve conservatism not reform, insisting they were compatible with harsh stands on social morality. As he explained at the United Nations in 2008, our highest freedoms “are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean … yielding to a relativistic conception.” He added: “Efforts need to be redoubled in the face of pressure to reinterpret [human rights] towards the satisfaction of simple interests, often particular interests.” Those deemed “relativistic” and “particularistic” in the pope’s eyes were thus condemned to betray the very freedoms they thought they were pursuing.
That Christians reinterpreted human rights in the name of moral unfreedom is hardly surprising. Catholics and Protestants are always asking what Jesus would do; and while according to the Gospel of John, Jesus came to set you free, it was certainly not for a life of dissolute immorality, but rather for conformity with God’s will. A vestige of this alliance between Catholics and Protestants appealing to human rights against public authorities for the sake of religious morality is still to be heard in recent American politics, where the right to freedom of conscience has now become a cudgel against secular norms such as antidiscrimination and this-worldly policies such as government health care.
So it’s interesting to watch Francis sidestep the language of “human rights.”
It is not so much that he has dropped human rights as that he is more interested in structural problems that individual rights do not solve and often perpetuate. “Sometimes it is a matter of hearing the cry of entire peoples, the poorest peoples of the earth,” Francis noted in 2013. “Sadly, even human rights can be used as a justification for an inordinate defense of individual rights or the rights of the richer peoples. … To speak properly of our own rights, we need to broaden our perspective and to hear the plea of other peoples and other regions than those of our own country.”
This need to turn to our structural problems — not the defense of individual rights alone — came through even more strongly in his summer encyclical on the environment. In that document, Francis makes a notable reference to the cutting-edge right to water but otherwise approaches environmental degradation as the collective problem demanding collective solutions that it is.
At the same time, Francis has never really broken from the critique of secular relativism that once inspired his papal forebears to make Christian human rights central. Outsiders court the sin of opportunism when they read inside sources such as papal encyclicals for their own purposes, but it is also fair to take what is valuable from them and reject what is not.
For about a half century, we have lived in an age in which human rights have often been pursued as a Christian cause. But now it seems as if Francis is saying that Christian teachings ought to matter for other reasons — not so much for constraining human freedom, but also for achieving social justice.