Catholic Social Thought, Political Liberalism, and the Idea of Human Rights
Christian Legal Thought, Spring 2011
12 Pages Posted: 24 May 2009 Last revised: 7 Aug 2014
Date Written: May 19, 2009
As the dominant moral vocabulary of modernity, the language of human rights establishes significant points of contact between the religious and the secular. Yet, the human rights movement increasingly finds itself in a contested relationship with religious ideas and communities. Even as the idea of human rights draws on the inherited moral resources of religion, the movement, at least in many of its dominant institutional and intellectual expressions, has established itself as an autonomous moral discourse. In this respect, the human rights movement, as an expression of western liberalism, presents itself as a totalizing moral theory that challenges countervailing theological accounts of human rights. This paper considers the distinctive account of human rights which has emerged out of Catholic social thought’s engagement with political and economic questions. Particular attention is given to the process by which Catholic thinking about human rights has embraced the possibilities of political liberalism while also bounding liberalism within a particularistic theologically-informed account of the human person. The distinctiveness of the Catholic account of human rights raises questions about the role of Catholicism, and religious communities more generally, in shaping the law of human rights. To what extent can secular and religious approaches to human rights law find common cause and overlapping consensus? How does a Catholic account of human rights rooted in theological anthropology relate to a regnant secular tradition which rests on theological categories shorn of religious content (and which has become its own intellectual and moral tradition that is, in important respects, a counter-theology)? While a Christian theological jurisprudence must maintain a concern with the common good, the fractured moral consensus of late modernity equally demands that the goods identified be described with reference to the internal resources of the tradition. Catholicism, in this respect, might both advance and challenge the universalistic impulses of the human rights movement.
Keywords: catholicism, religion, catholic social thought, human rights, religious freedom, theological anthropology, personhood, Rerum Novarum, Centesimus Annus
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