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Catholic Social Thought, Political Liberalism, and the Idea of Human Rights

Zachary R. Calo

Valparaiso University Law School

May 19, 2009

Christian Legal Thought, Spring 2011

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.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 12

Keywords: catholicism, religion, catholic social thought, human rights, religious freedom, theological anthropology, personhood, Rerum Novarum, Centesimus Annus

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Date posted: May 24, 2009 ; Last revised: August 7, 2014

Suggested Citation

Calo, Zachary R., Catholic Social Thought, Political Liberalism, and the Idea of Human Rights (May 19, 2009). Christian Legal Thought, Spring 2011. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1407072 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1407072

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Zachary Calo (Contact Author)
Valparaiso University Law School ( email )
656 S. Greenwich St.
Valparaiso, IN 46383-6493
United States
219.465.7970 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.valpo.edu/law/faculty/zcalo
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