Theology of Human Rights
"Look around" and continue.


Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. “If you’re looking for his legacy,” reads Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph, “just look around.” By this inscription at his burial place in St. Paul’s Cathedral, posterity was invited to seek Wren’s true memorial in the shape of early-18th-century London, whose inspiring architectural landscape formed Wren’s enduring legacy.

This same invitation–”just look around”–applies with still greater force to any preliminary assessment of the legacy of Pope John Paul II. But it is no easy task to put in proper perspective the whole of John Paul’s teaching and witness over the past quarter century. In fact, his legacy for the Church and for the world is so large, complex, and near to us in time that it’s hard to even discern its broad outlines, much less the proper relation of its components to the larger whole. What’s more, certain aspects are visible only through the eyes of faith. But one way to put his overall legacy in some perspective is through the lens of his abiding commitment to religious freedom, which John Paul understood as the cornerstone of human rights generally, and the key to the relationship between freedom and truth in particular.

In fact, the political impact of John Paul’s papacy results largely from the renewed theological basis of modern Catholic teaching on religious freedom as embodied by John Paul’s personal witness. Until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), church teaching favored the status quo, if not ancien regime throne-and-altar arrangements (domination where possible, toleration where necessary). Only a radically new understanding of religious freedom–shaped in part by the 45-year-old archbishop of Krakow in 1965 and applied vigorously by the 58-year-old Bishop of Rome beginning in 1978–can explain the paradox of the Roman Catholic Church’s becoming the principal institutional defender of human rights around the world.


Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (known by its Latin title Dignitatis Humanae or DH) broke new ground by shifting the whole basis of church teaching from particular church-state arrangements to humans as a free and responsible subjects. To simplify, prior teaching held that “error has no rights,” meaning that the ideal state would suppress “error”–public expression (but not private worship) of other Christian denominations and non-Christian faiths–and impose Catholic moral norms through the civil law. But the Council fathers recognized that while “error” (however defined) may have no rights, persons do: “The right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.”

Basing the teaching on human dignity, rather than on some ideal constitutional order, was the key step toward regaining the proper theological and practical freedom of the church (libertas ecclesiae), especially from outmoded and indefensible throne-and-altar arrangements (like Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal). According to DH, “This right of the human person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right,” but its concrete expression depends on local cultural, historical, and political circumstances.

Basing the teaching on human dignity also made it compatible in practice with the secular understanding of human rights first set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The UDHR holds that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” It is precisely this shared recognition of human dignity as the basis for all human rights that long enabled practical collaboration between believers and non-believers, despite irreconcilable differences regarding the ultimate source of human dignity. And it has also fostered broad agreement on the elements of religious freedom, notably in Article 18 of the binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).


What exactly are the essential elements of religious freedom? In both Catholic theology and in international law, religious freedom means that no one should be (a) restrained from acting in accordance with his religious beliefs or (b) coerced into acting contrary to his religious beliefs. These freedoms for and freedoms against–rights and immunities in legal parlance–are subject only to certain narrow and well-defined public-order limitations (for the sake of public peace, morality, and justice). What’s more, these same freedoms belong not only to individual persons but also to religious groups, and include, among other rights, maintenance of institutional integrity and participation in public life. This institutional dimension of religious freedom proved critical in opening up social space–and offering essential political protection–for reformers in closed societies as diverse as Poland and the Philippines or East Germany and East Timor.

John Paul II literally seized the moment to promote religious freedom, publicly raising the plight of the persecuted church four times in the first three days of his papacy. Two months later, he marked the thirtieth anniversary of the UDHR by urging that “freedom of religion for everyone and for all people must be respected by everyone everywhere.” By emphasizing (as DH does) that this right belongs to all believers and all faiths, John Paul elevated the discussion from the realm of special pleading for the Roman Catholic Church and its institutional interests.

Right from the start John Paul also made clear that freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are the prerequisites for the exercise of all other basic human rights. In theory and practice, all these rights, such as free expression and free association, depend on the prior guarantee of a free conscience. Certainly the historical reality is that where religious freedom is denied, so too are other basic human rights. And the indivisible character of all human rights was part of the message John Paul brought to practically every corner of the world. Small wonder that dictators found his message unwelcome when, as Samuel Huntington puts it, “John Paul seemed to have a way of showing up in full pontifical majesty at critical points in democratization processes” where authoritarian regimes hung in the balance.


John Paul’s many successes in Huntington’s “third wave” of democratization are too familiar to recount. What unfinished business in human rights does he leave for his successor?

There are three principal challenges. First, China and much of the Muslim world still deny religious freedom and other basic human rights.

China’s totalitarian leadership denies all civil and political rights for fear of following in the U.S.S.R.’s footsteps. According to this view, any lessening of state control would lead inexorably to chaos and loss of the Communist political monopoly. While international human-rights law requires as much freedom as possible, and as little restriction as necessary, the Chinese authorities expressly forbid whatever isn’t explicitly permitted. The overall situation of religious believers is dire; and China remains the only state that presumes to appoint Catholic bishops and otherwise control the internal life of the church.

The Muslim world, on the other hand, lacks a theology of religious pluralism that recognizes the equal dignity of every human person. Its historical experience is one of Muslim domination and non-Muslim dhimmitude (legally enforced inferiority in every sphere of life). Despite some welcome political changes now taking place in the Middle East, it remains unclear whether Islam has the theological resources to develop–and the institutional capacity to apply–an authentically new understanding of its own tradition.

There is some indication that the Vatican is now rethinking its inter-religious dialogue with Muslim religious leaders, widely reckoned a dismal failure. Its inter-religious dialogue and state-to-state diplomacy have long been hampered by the effective status of Christian minorities as hostages in the Arab world, but lack of reciprocity is leading to second thoughts. Recently the Vatican asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to raise with the Saudis the plight of some two million Christian guest workers denied any pastoral care and forbidden any outward expression of their faith. This would have been unthinkable as recently as when the Italian government sought and received the Vatican’s tacit permission for the Saudis to erect a gargantuan mosque in Rome. Then as now, of course, there are no churches in Saudi Arabia, nor any publicly declared priests or ministers.

Second, there is the challenge posed by the mounting intellectual and moral confusion of the secular human-rights establishment, as evidenced by the collapse of support for human rights as indivisible, universal, and grounded in human dignity.

The framers of the UDHR settled on human dignity as the cornerstone of human rights as a practical compromise dictated by intellectual, religious, and political pluralism. It was possible to agree that humans possess inherent dignity without specifying the ultimate sources. Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher who helped prepare the UDHR, famously remarked: “Yes, we agree about the rights, but only on condition no one asks us why.”

For Christians, the reason why is that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ. For many others, however, formerly self-evident truths based on practical reason are no longer evident or true. That is why human rights are no longer a moral imperative but merely a policy preference or intellectual fashion choice. At least two broad consequences follow.

One is that human rights have been increasingly instrumentalized–and trivialized–as a vehicle for attacking American interests and values, especially in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. That is increasingly the approach taken by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and various U.N. bodies. Such selective indignation and lack of proportion diminish respect for human rights generally. Another consequence is the ongoing effort to detach religious freedom from other basic human rights on the ground that it is dispensable or even dangerous. This was made unmistakably clear when a Catholic/Evangelical/Jewish coalition struggled to secure passage of the International Religious Freedom of 1998, while the secular human-rights establishment–and several mainline Protestant churches–remained indifferent or hostile. Today international religious freedom still remains the neglected redheaded stepchild of the human-rights movement.

Third, there is the challenge of the naked public square, where religious or moral arguments are increasingly ruled out of bounds as an effective establishment of “theocracy.” That is likely to be one of the enduring lessons of the Schiavo case. And it’s one the Vatican learned the hard way through its unsuccessful efforts to include a reference to Christianity in the potted history of Europe that prefaces the European Union’s new constitution. This latter episode also appears to have provoked some second thoughts about the European project in the Vatican, where uncritical support long prevailed.


But there’s more at stake in the larger unresolved tensions in John Paul’s teaching on freedom and democratic institutions. Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian philosopher who worked closely with John Paul, correctly identifies this “general principle” as underlying the pope’s whole teaching: “Nothing good can be done without freedom, but freedom is not the highest value in itself. Freedom is given to man in order to make possible the free obedience to truth and the free gift of oneself in love.”

How does one reconcile authentic freedom with mere license? Can the two co-exist without one suppressing the other? Is broad–though not universal–consensus possible on the outlines of an objective moral order based on some understanding of natural law? Or is objective truth simply outmoded and irrelevant?

Such are a few of the human-rights challenges John Paul’s successor faces at this moment in the life of the church.

John F. Cullinan formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops, focusing on human rights, religious freedom, and international law.


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