How the Catholic Church Understands Human Rights

Cardinal Michael Czerny SJ writes:

In April 2021, Pope Francis’s universal intention is for fundamental rights. “We pray for those who risk their lives while fighting for fundamental rights under dictatorships, authoritarian regimes and even in democracies in crisis,” he says.

Since Pope John XXIII in the 1960s, human rights have been of central importance to Catholic social teaching and practice. Yet the approach of the Church to human rights is often different from that of the secular world.

First, the Church emphasizes daily rights. When St John XXIII listed the fundamental rights in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in terris, he began with what today are regarded as economic ones. “Man has the right to live,” he says, “He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.” Today, Pope Francis has the same emphasis, stressing in particular the rights to work, housing, land and food security – in Spanish, tierra, techo y trabajo. How important these prove to be during the COVID-19 pandemic!

Catholic social teaching roots human rights—economic and others—in the dignity of the human person. All the rights are interwoven, and all contribute to integral human development—the all-round development of each and every person along all dimensions of life from beginning to end, including future generations. Freedom connects them: people must be free to become active agents of their own development and care for our common home.

The second Catholic feature is that fundamental rights are not just individual. They are always rooted in the common good, not the satisfaction of individual desires. Hence Catholic social teaching has no truck with libertarian ideologies….

Third, our Catholic approach links fundamental rights with fundamental duties. St John XXIII regarded them as two sides of the same coin….While this reciprocity of rights and duties is to be found between persons, it also engages the state in its positive role of promoting the common good and actualizing human rights.