Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The Catholic Church's view on human rights

1 Comment


A Jesuit comes to Salamanca

I am a Jesuit amongst Dominicans contemplating the Church's view of human rights. I am a human rights practitioner rather than a theologian, aware that human rights discourse is increasingly more universal and secular. Contemplating, preaching and enacting human rights in the 21st Century Church and World, I come asking two questions.

Frank Brennan speaking in the New Chapter House at Convento de San Esteban, Salamanca, with Marcela Soto Ahumada OP from BoliviaFirst, in the human rights space, is the Church now just playing catch up while pleading for its own special interests, or is the Church still a real contributor to the thinking and action realising human rights more universally both in the world and in the Church?

Second, what would a modern day Vitoria, Las Casas or Montesino be asking of us in our preaching, in our actions, in our own Church structures and in our stands in solidarity?

Being a Jesuit human rights advocate, I accept this invitation to share in the celebrations of your 800th anniversary as Dominicans here in Salamanca with some trepidation and also with great delight. First, a word about my trepidation.

When the invitation arrived from Fr Mike Deeb OP, I immediately recalled that Ignatius Loyola had a hard time of it here in 1527 when he arrived in Salamanca. He had been released from prison in Alcala and told by the authorities to go and do four years additional study before offering spiritual advice to people, and to wear ordinary clothes. He sought counsel from the Archbishop of Toledo and then made his way here to Salamanca to join four of his companions. 10-12 days after arriving, he was invited by his Dominican confessor to come to the convent as some of the religious wished to see him. Then on the following Sunday the Dominicans wined and dined him and asked him some questions. 'Why then do you preach?' they asked. 'About what divine things?' This could only end in trouble. Not only was he not a member of the Order of Preachers. He was not even ordained; he had not even studied theology. He was taken away to prison. After 22 days in prison, he and his companions were summoned for sentence. 'Although they were declared to be free from reproach both in their lives and their doctrines, and were allowed to continue their work of teaching the Christian doctrine and of speaking on spiritual subjects, yet they were forbidden to draw any distinction between mortal and venial sin, until they should have spent four more years in study.' With this constraint, Ignatius saw no option but to go to Paris and complete his theology studies. There he shared a room with Francis Xavier and Peter Favre, and the rest is history.

Though Jesuits might be wary about accepting hospitality here at the Salamanca Dominican Convent, we know that it can result only in good, ultimately, despite any temporary inconveniences or constraints on liberty.


In the footsteps of Montesino, Vitoria and Las Casas

Now a word about my great delight.

How wonderful it is to be here in the city, in the very convent, where three of the great Dominican human rights advocates probably studied or lived at some stage of their lives. Being men of the sixteenth century they never thought of themselves nor were they described as human rights advocates. But in today's parlance, they surely were three of the great progenitors of what was to become human rights and Catholic social teaching. I speak of Antonio Montesino (1475–1545), Francisco de Vitoria (1486–1546), and Bartolomé De Las Casas (1484-1566).

We must concede that none of these Dominican advocates argued successfully against Spanish colonization nor against the Pope's capacity to grant jurisdiction to whomsoever he chose. Each of them hoped and prayed that the Indians would be converted to Christianity. Las Casas said:


Whenever a free person and, still more, a free people or community is to be obliged to accept some burden or pay some due and generally when it is a question of something prejudicial, especially to many, it is fitting that all whom the matter touches be called and their free consent obtained; otherwise what is done has no validity.


Tragically as Brian Tierney observes: 'In the end, all the writings on behalf of the Indians did nothing or little to ameliorate their plight. The battles that were sometimes won in the debating halls of Salamanca and Madrid were nearly always lost among the hard realities of life in Mexico and Peru.' But these writings eventually helped provide the basis for the Church to embrace human rights for all. Thus my delight in being able to celebrate with you. These three Dominicans were all men at court, they were all academically astute, and Las Casas and Montesino directly encountered the Indians whose dignity and rights they espoused. They were accomplished at eyeballing both the decision makers and those adversely affected by the decisions. I've often said that at least such eyeballing of both stops you from becoming sanctimonious. This morning, Philippe Denis OP spoke of the synergy between those working on the ground and intellectuals working in their study centres. The friar from Geneva emphasized the need to draw on both the expertise of the academics and the expertise of the victims.


The breadth, depth and universality of human rights in the Catholic tradition

'Human rights' is the contemporary language for embracing, and the modern means of achieving, respect and dignity for all. Reflecting on the final form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mary Anne Glendon observes that Catholic social doctrine is one of the many tributaries which fed into its formation:


[T]he record shows that it is no mere coincidence that the document's implicit vision of personhood, its attention to the mediating structures of civil society, its dignitarian character, and its insistence on the links between freedom and social justice so closely resemble the social teachings of Leo XIII and Pius XI.


Glendon sees the Church's long experience in the dialectic between universal principles and diverse cultures as a help for the international community wrestling with claims of cultural relativism when it comes to the protection of human rights. Some rights are so fundamental that they belong to everyone by virtue of their humanity, and regardless of their culture or nationality.

Pope John Paul II in his homily at Camden Yards in 1995 said: 'Sometimes witnessing to Christ will mean drawing out of a culture the full meaning of its noblest intentions ... At other times, witnessing to Christ means challenging that culture, especially when the truth about the human person is under assault'.

I am constantly bemused at home in Australia that whenever I agitate questions of Aboriginal and refugee rights I will usually be well received in small "l" liberal circles but the very same receptionists are likely to question my clerical entitlement to speak when I decide to buy into debates on issues like euthanasia, abortion and embryonic stem cell research. And if I buy into topics like same sex marriage, I will be attacked with equal intensity for being Jesuitical — one side questioning my right to express a view and the other contesting my standing as a Catholic priest.


Papal affirmations and reservations about human rights

In his earlier encyclicals, Pope John Paul II showed great enthusiasm for human rights discourse, the UN machinery for enunciating and protecting human rights internationally, and the Church's commitment to defend and promote human rights. But by the time he wrote Evengelium Vitae, he was expressing a deep skepticism about the ideological bias of many who espouse human rights without respecting life from conception unto death and without according due regard to the right of religious freedom. He was growing more concerned by the propensity of human rights activists to espouse the individual rights of the autonomous self-determining individual with insufficient regard for the call to solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. He lamented: '[T]he roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them.' Pope Benedict rarely referred to human rights in his encyclicals.

Pope Francis has shown us a whole new way to learn and teach morality and a whole new way to apply the corrective supplied by religion challenging the prevailing ethos or policy which denies the human rights of the poor and the marginalised. His first pastoral visit outside Rome was to Lampedusa, a small Italian island in the Mediterranean. Lampedusa continues to be a beacon for asylum seekers fleeing desperate situations in Africa and seeking admission into the European Union. Fleeing desperate situations in failed states like Somalia, asylum seekers transit another failed state, Libya, before boarding flimsy rafts in the Mediterranean Sea. It would be inhumane to send people back to Libya. Even before the recent outflow from Syria via Turkey, Lampedusa has been a lightning rod for European concerns about the security of borders in an increasingly globalised world where people as well as capital flow across porous borders. That is why Pope Francis went there. At Lampedusa on 8 July 2013, Pope Francis said:


'Where is your brother?' Who is responsible for this blood? In Spanish literature we have a comedy of Lope de Vega which tells how the people of the town of Fuente Ovejuna kill their governor because he is a tyrant. They do it in such a way that no one knows who the actual killer is. So when the royal judge asks: 'Who killed the governor?', they all reply: 'Fuente Ovejuna, sir'. Everybody and nobody! Today too, the question has to be asked: Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours? Nobody! That is our answer: It isn't me; I don't have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me. Yet God is asking each of us: 'Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?'


Frank Brennan with the Master of the Dominicans Fr Bruno Cadore OP.

Another key insight into Francis was revealed when he addressed the United States Congress in September 2015. He commenced: 'I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in "the land of the free and the home of the brave". I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility'. He went in their door but only in order to bring them straight out his. He allowed his listeners to be lulled into the proud contentment of national identity before then turning the tables and establishing their shared geographic identity, underpinning their shared responsibility for the stranger and the one in need south of the Mexican border.

Though he does not write with the same clarity as his predecessors Benedict and John Paul, Francis has a more direct way of calling his listeners and interlocutors to account on human rights: to an account of conscience.

The visits by Francis to Lampedusa, the US-Mexico border and Lesbos provide us all with the incentive and inspiration to revisit Catholic Social Teaching on migration. Francis's symbolic actions of solidarity have given us a new way of learning and talking about human rights in the Catholic tradition.


The Catholic Church and the United Nations' consideration of new rights

One privileged avenue for the Catholic Church to contribute to human rights internationally is its special observer status at the United Nations. In 2008 Pope Benedict XVI told the UN General Assembly that Vitoria was 'rightly considered as a precursor of the idea of the United Nations' The just released Chair's report of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism entitled UN 2030: Rebuilding Order in a Fragmenting World notes:


Human rights is a core pillar of the UN system ... [H]uman rights has long been a political, ideological, and national sovereignty–related battleground between states, within states, and with international civil society. This continues to play out in the ... rolling controversies over the interpretation, application, and compliance or noncompliance with the universal norms outlined in the relevant treaties.


The Holy See's permanent observer at the UN has become increasingly focused in recent years on the controversy about the development of new rights. The Vatican concern about novel rights seems to be focused mainly on issues related to sexuality and gender. In 2012, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See hosted a conference to discuss how to preserve the universality of human rights, insisting on a more balanced dialogue about contested issues. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, who was then the Holy See's Permanent Representative of the Holy See to the UN in Geneva, expressed concern about States and organizations at the UN Human Rights Council promoting 'an agenda to advocate for special rights for special groups, including so-called rights to same-sex marriage and to adoption by homosexual persons'. He was insistent that 'new rights' were not required and that 'any attempts to define "new rights" could result in a deterioration of the universality of human rights and pose a risk to time honoured and recognised protection for marriage between husband and wife, the natural family, and freedom of conscience and religion'. Thankfully this Vatican concern with new rights was more muted when the recent new human rights treaties on children and persons with disabilities and the declaration the rights of indigenous peoples were finalized.

Just last month, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Holy See's new Permanent Observer at the UN, participated in the General Assembly's High Level Thematic Debate on Human Rights commending the UN for all it had done to codify and develop international law and to establish international human rights norms. However, there were then a couple of stern warnings about the need to remain focused on the intrinsic worth of every person 'no matter what race or sex, no matter how young or old, strong or vulnerable, healthy or handicapped, wanted or unwelcomed, economically productive or incapacitated, influential or insignificant'. As is now customary, the Holy See took the opportunity to emphasise the inherent dignity of every human life 'from the first moment of conception'. Then the Permanent Observer restated this now constant Vatican concern: the danger of developing of 'novel rights', warning that 'the term "human right" must be strictly and prudently applied, lest it become a rhetorical catch-all, endlessly expanded to suit the passing tastes of the age. Such an elastic approach would discredit and undermine the very concept of human rights.'

It's a serious mistake for the Church to try and arrest the development of human rights jurisprudence pleading that human rights are now frozen in pre-agreed international instruments which cannot be supplemented or re-interpreted in light of new social phenomena and new emerging norms and social expectations. Let's consider just the case of same sex marriage.

An extension of the international law of human rights to incorporate same sex marriage cannot be categorized as an unwarranted interference with the universality of human rights. For example, were Article 23.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to be amended to provide, 'The right of persons of marriageable age to marry and to found a family shall be recognized', advocates for traditional marriage might rightly claim that the international law of human rights no longer adhered to their notion of marriage (and they might even argue that this might have some adverse social consequences), but they could not credibly claim that such a change would contribute to 'a deterioration of the universality of human rights' or that it would 'discredit and undermine the very concept of human rights'. There will be many who claim that such a change will further contribute to the universality of human rights, enhancing the concept of human rights.

The risk for both sides is that the rhetoric of human rights will be used to disguise the arguments about the common good and the public interest which need to underpin any expansion of human rights and any contest between conflicting rights. Any expansion of the right to marriage requires not just a consideration of the preference of the consenting adults, but also a consideration of the needs and rights of children–those children who are already being raised and nurtured by same sex couples, those children available for adoption, and those children likely to be created in the future. The rights of all persons (including children) and the common good need to be considered when contemplating an expansion of the right to marriage. Such an expansion, after due consideration of all other factors and rights, would not undermine the universality of human rights, but would rather enhance that universality.

Let's not be naïve. Human rights is an ideological battle ground in international civil society. But the debates about the limits and development of rights will be determined and won not by invoking rights as 'trumps' – and frozen trumps at that–but by ascribing rights to those entitlements which pay due regard to all conflicting claims and which promote the common good.


The contemporary challenges for the Church in recognising human rights

In light of the UN's three pillars of security, development and human rights, there is much to be done by modern preachers engaged with those in the pews and the countless others who are preoccupied by: what now constitutes a just war in the conditions of modern warfare; what constitutes sustainable development in the wake of climate change, water shortages, and the loss of biodiversity; and how best to supplement notions of human rights with human responsibilities for each other and for the threatened planet, and to maintain the depth and coherence of human rights without simply following the fads of the age, one of which is to downplay the right to freedom of religion as if it were simply an exception or exemption to the principle of non-discrimination.

Most thinking Catholics today find themselves struggling to live authentically along a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is truth, authority, idealised tradition, hierarchy and papal primacy; at the other end is freedom, conscience, historical consciousness, community and due process. The Church, like all social institutions, falls short in charity and in truth, seeking to respect the full human dignity of those persons who hold differing beliefs as they live and move along the spectrum. Its leaders understandably tend to inhabit one end of the spectrum. But the Church is the earthenware jar which holds the treasure — that truth which sets us free.

The Church's view on human rights will maintain currency in the world in future only to the extent that the Church's own structures and actions reflect the rhetoric of human rights, and only to the extent that those rights are enjoyed by all within the Church. The place of women in our Church and the respect shown to laity when church fathers deliberate and pontificate are key indicators of the Church's capacity to be credible when agitating its distinctive perspective on the human rights challenges of the age.

Vitoria once wrote: 'The office and calling of a theologian is so wide, that no argument or controversy on any subject can be considered foreign to his profession ... perhaps this is the reason why there are now, to put it no more strongly, so few really good and solid theologians.' The same might be said of preachers. The world is crying out for good preachers on human rights. Now we are all called to be human rights advocates and activists promoting and upholding those rights both in the world and in the Church.


Frank Brennan

Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. This is his keynote presentation in Salamanca Spain to the International Congress of Dominicans in the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights: Past, Present, Future on the occasion of their 800th anniversary.

Main images: (1) Frank Brennan speaking in the New Chapter House at Convento de San Esteban, Salamanca, with Marcela Soto Ahumada OP from Bolivia. (2) He then met the Master of the Dominicans Fr Bruno Cadore OP.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, human rights, Salamanca, Dominicans



submit a comment

Existing comments

My Salamanca address on human rights and the Catholic Church is now available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wevG6sTUhs&list=PLffNDOWodDuQ4dQZDmpTBzJtOGzmbu838&index=1

Frank Brennan SJ | 09 September 2016  

Similar Articles

Different country, different culture (or how different legal systems view deal-making)

  • Frank Brennan
  • 11 October 2017

In the 16th century it was the Dominican friars like Vitoria, Las Casas and Montesino in Salamanca who confronted the state and challenged public opinion about the rights of the indigenous peoples in Spain's newly colonised lands. Not even the most nostalgic and forgiving Jesuit would opine that the modern practitioners of Morality with a capital M challenging the powers of the market and the state would be found in a modern monastery.


Religion and violence in Australian-Indigenous history

  • Frank Brennan
  • 26 July 2016

The violence at the pastoral frontier of the British colonies here in Australia was all pervasive. 228 years after it commenced, we are still experiencing the after-effects. When I started advocating Aboriginal rights here in Australia almost 40 years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that the missions and missionaries were all bad news. It will come as no surprise that I have always doubted that Aborigines were well rid of religion and the missionaries in all circumstances.