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Dignitatis Humanae and the Catholic Human Rights 'Revolutuion'

by Dr. Samuel Gregg

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  • Description:
    A lecture given to the Society by Dr. Samuel Gregg which explains why Dignitatis Humanae proved so important for the Church’s engagement with modernity in the closing decades of the second millennium. At the same time he outlines some of the reasons why he believes that the Church and Catholics involved in political and legal activity, should begin to adopt a more circumspect approach to the topic of rights.
  • Publisher & Date:
    St. Thomas More Society, March 23, 2000

I. INTRODUCTION

In the mid 1980s, the American theologian George Weigel found himself in conversation with Sir Michael Howard, the then-Oxford Professor of the History of War. During that discussion, Sir Michael remarked that there had been, in his view, two great revolutions in the 20th century. The first was the Bolshevik hijacking of the Russian Revolution in October 1917, which began the world’s first disastrous experiment with totalitarianism. The second, however, was taking place in the here-and-now. It was, in Howard’s view, the Catholic Church’s transformation from bastion of the ancien régime to the world’s foremost institutional defender of human rights.

The implication underlying Howard’s remark was, of course, that until relatively recently, the Catholic Church had refused to accept the social transformations precipitated by the emergence of the idea of rights in the writings of thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke. Nor had it accepted legal and constitutional manifestations of this idea in documents such as the American Declaration of Independence as well as the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

The reality, however, is somewhat more complex. Catholicism’s use of the language of rights did not begin, as some commentators suppose, with the Second Vatican Council. In 1963, John XXIII’s Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris had spelled out the human rights and duties that are man’s by virtue of our dignity as the Imago Dei. Over twenty years earlier, Pius XII had outlined almost everything that Pacem in Terris would state about human rights in his 1941 Pentecost Message and his Christmas Messages of 1942 and 1944. Within the Catholic intellectual world, Neo-Thomist scholars such as Jacques Maritain employed the language of rights years before Vatican II.

There is also the argument articulated by the Oxford Professor of Jurisprudence, John Finnis, that careful study of the treatment of the Roman phrase ius by Thomas Aquinas and later scholastics, most notably the Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suarez, indicates that what we would call ‘rights’ today has even earlier antecedents in the Catholic tradition. While the word ius begins its career in the Roman law, there are many debates about its meaning in the Roman texts. But when one turns to Aquinas’ study of justice, there is little ambiguity about what ius means. The primary meaning, Aquinas states, is ‘the just thing in itself’, and the context of this statement establishes that by ‘thing’ Aquinas means acts, objects and states of affair, considered as the subject-matter of relationships of justice between people. Just over 300 years later, we find Suarez in De Legibus approaching the topic in a slightly different but compatible way. He contended that ‘the true, strict and proper meaning’ of ‘ius’ is ‘a kind of moral power [facultas] which every man has, either over his own property or with respect to what is due to him’. Ius, then, is something that someone has, and above all a power or liberty. ‘It is’, as Finnis remarks, ‘Aquinas’s primary meaning of "ius", but transformed by relating it exclusively to the beneficiary of the just relationship, above all to his doings and havings’. If then, one accepts that the notion of ‘rights’ is generally used to express a type of moral power that people exercise over themselves or as concerning things that are simply due to people, then it would seem that the idea of rights has long enjoyed a firm place in Catholic thinking.

Sir Michael Howard did, however, have a point. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Catholic Church, most notably through the medium and magisterium of Pope John Paul II—or as I sometimes call him, Pope John Paul the Great—has articulated human rights language in a manner unprecedented for a religious institution. The primary catalyst for this was Vatican II’s Declaration of Religious Liberty Dignitatis Humanae, which underscored the proposition that ‘the human person has a right to religious freedom’ with the full weight of the Church’s magisterial authority. In this evening’s lecture, I would like to explain why this text proved so important for the Church’s engagement with modernity in the closing decades of the second millennium.

At the same time, however, I also intend to outline, albeit in a preliminary form, some of the reasons why I believe that the Church and Catholics involved in political and legal activity, should begin to adopt a more circumspect approach to the topic of rights. We live, unfortunately, in a culture saturated by what the Harvard Professor of Law, Mary Ann Glendon, aptly calls ‘rights talk’. Yet we are also members of a Church that states that it has something to teach the world—that ‘something’ being the truth about God and man, the truth that is embodied in Jesus Christ. For this reason, I suggest that it will become the lot of Catholics, lay and clerical, in private conversation and public discourse, in season and out of season, to maintain that rights are grounded in truth—the truth about what man is—and they serve to allow people to realise themselves as persons through participation in what some scholars call ‘basic goods’. This will, moreover, entail pointing out that what some claim to be ‘rights’ are no more than demands articulated through a particular discourse which positively resonates in contemporary culture.

II. CRITICALLY ENGAGING MODERNITY

At the heart of the Second Vatican Council was the acknowledgment of freedom of religion as a natural right of the human person. Dignitatis Humanae not only notes this fact, but openly confesses that, although the Church has always maintained that noone can be forced to believe, Churchmen did not always live up to this principle and tried, directly and indirectly, to obtain consent to the Faith by coercion.

During the third and fourth sessions of the Council, the issue of religious freedom posed as a problem for Catholic philosophy and theology that appeared difficult to solve. The arguments that were advanced against religious freedom may be summarised in this way. Faith, it was held, provides Catholics with the certainty that Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is truly Lord of the universe and history. Hence, there is no higher moral duty than to follow Him by adhering to the Church that He founded. Moreover, through faith and reason, the Catholic knows the existence of an objectively true moral order, to which one must conform one’s actions in order to be good. The violation of this order constitutes an objective evil. Moreover, anyone who consents to evil acts, when he could possibly prevent them, himself becomes an accomplice. If, then, Catholics enjoy authority over others in any respect, they are obliged in conscience to use that authority to prevent them from doing evil. To not do so, it follows, is to give in to religious indifferentism (the notion that one religion is just as good as another—a phenomenon, I would suggest, increasingly characteristic of Australia) or, worse still, philosophical subjectivism (also characteristic of much Western secular and religious discourse) in the sense that one holds that good and evil to be simply a matter of opinion.

Taken in its entirety, this argument certainly amounts to a formidable case for the proposition that error has no rights. On the other hand, there was little question that at the time of the Council, the issue of religious liberty touched the very heart of the engagement between the Church and modernity. But what the Church had to say on this subject was also vital in light of a broader jurisprudential argument that had and has been going on for some time. On one side, there is what Robert George of Princeton University calls ‘the Central Tradition’. This maintains—with Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant—that there is truth; that people can know it through reason; that they can conform their lives to it through free will; and that the law plays a legitimate role in guiding people towards knowledge of truth and self-realisation of the good. Opposing the Central Tradition are those such as Nietzsche and Sartre who believe that there is no truth, or at least none that humans are capable of knowing, as well as (in more recent times) liberals such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin who argue that individual rights should be identified and political and legal institutions designed ‘without employing any particular conception of the good life or of what gives value to life’. The Catholic contribution to this discussion in the context of the subject of whether man had a right to religious liberty was therefore much anticipated.

In the end, the Council Fathers overcame the apparent impasse with which they were faced by grounding the right to religious freedom within the human person; that is, they formulated a moral argument derived on the basis of what man is (i.e., a creature of free will and reason) as well as Divine Revelation. In the case of the former, the Council recognised that it is precisely in order to direct oneself toward the truth in a way that is proper to man that the person needs to be free.

It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore bearing personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth. But men cannot satisfy this obligation in a way that is in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy both psychological freedom and immunity from external coercion. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective attitude of the individual but in his very nature.

We see, then, that a true human act of freedom is constituted neither by conformity to external violence nor by giving in to passions and desires which are not orientated to truth. Rather, it reflects the fact that humans are obliged, in the light of their capacity for reason and free will as well as their possession of conscience—in other words because of what they are by nature—to seek the good and adhere to the known good. To quote Cardinal Newman, ‘Conscience has rights because it has duties’.

From this standpoint, religious liberty is neither the freedom of indifference nor the beginning of the slippery slope to nihilism. As one of the leading advocates of religious liberty during the Council debates, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Kraków, stated: ‘It is not sufficient to say "I am free". It is necessary to say rather that "I am responsible". . . . Responsibility is the necessary culmination and fulfilment of freedom’. According to the Council, one can only become free by freely choosing to what one ought to do in light of knowledge of the good.

What, then, were the consequences of Dignitatis Humanae for the Church’s engagement with the modern world? Let us begin by noting what Dignitatis Humanae did not do. For one thing, it did not compromise the Church’s decidedly non-relativist teaching that, as the Declaration itself states, the ‘one true religion [unicam veram religionem] subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men’. Nor, secondly, did the Declaration compromise the Catholic view that the law has a positive role to play in assisting man to acquire moral good. Dignitatis Humanae states, for example, that

the private and public acts of religion by which men direct themselves to God according to their convictions transcend by their very nature the earthly and temporal order of things. Therefore the civil authority, the purpose of which is the care of the common welfare, must recognise and look with favour on the religious life of the citizens.

The Council’s position, then, is not that the state should be neutral about religion or regard it as a ‘lifestyle choice’ to be treated by law like any other expression of human volition. Rather, Dignitatis Humanae holds that the state should regard religion favourably. It holds that the intrinsic value of religion, considered as a human good, provides a rational motive not only for government to respect religious freedom, but also for government to encourage and support religious reflection, faith and practice, though without using external coercion. Robert George makes a similar point when reflecting upon the same section of text. While, he states, the norms ‘requiring respect and protection for religious liberty, limit the means by which the government may legitimately act for the sake of religion[,] these norms do not . . . defeat the reasons that government have to take account of the religious life of the people and show it favour’.

More specifically, however, Dignitatis Humanae proved vitally important for the Church’s approach to public policy issues. First, it confirmed that Catholicism entered the debate over the right ordering of society as the defender of the human person who, made in God’s image, with reason and free will, was the bearer of rights and duties that were man’s by nature, and prior to his status as a citizen subject to state authority. Dignitatis Humanae was, then, in the second instance, a profound challenge to totalitarianism. While the Second Vatican Council issued no condemnation of communism per se, it is difficult to imagine a more anti-totalitarian statement than Dignitatis Humanae. As Weigel states, it ‘struck at the roots of the totalitarian enterprise: as a worldview, as an anthropology, and as a system for the organisation of . . . life’. Nor could the Church be accused of making a political claim that was rooted solely in an eccentric religious opinion. According to the Council, the right of religious liberty could be known by reason itself. All people and states were therefore bound to acknowledge it.

As such, Dignitatis Humanae inevitably raised, in the third place, the issue of political structures. By saying that the human person had a right to religious freedom, the Council implicitly condemned any political system that denied that liberty as a matter of state policy. More positively, it asked where, under modern conditions, one found political systems that acknowledged in principle and defended in practice the right of religious liberty. At the time, the answer, of course, was democracy. To this extent, the Declaration provided an intellectual platform for the Church to advocate democratic secular arrangements within and against authoritarian and totalitarian states. Dignitatis Humanae therefore gave Catholicism powerful leverage in the wider struggle for human rights. Having declared the right to religious freedom to be the right of all, the Church could no longer be accused of acting simply for its own institutional advantage.

But Dignitatis Humanae has also had consequences for the Church’s life within democracies. For one thing, acknowledging that there is a right to religious liberty discloses important truths about the structure of rightly ordered political arrangements. The democratic state that acknowledges religious liberty in the sense outlined by the Council is by definition a limited state. It acknowledges its fundamental incompetence in important spheres of private life and civil society. From the standpoint of Dignitatis Humanae, for example, neither the state nor any state official (in his capacity as state official) has anything to say about the dogmas, doctrines and moral principles that Catholic schools seek to instil in those who attend them.

A High Court Judge, for instance, can make as many statements that betray a basic ignorance of Catholic teaching about sexual morality as he likes (though a sense of good manners would suggest that such statements are best made elsewhere than in a church school and to audiences more mature than a group of adolescent boys). But neither the judge, nor the state, nor a Human Rights Commission for that matter, can use judicial, legislative or administrative powers or bring the weight of their public office to bear in the public forum to demand that the Church or Church schools cease teaching what the Church believes to be the truth.

The most that the state can do, according to the Declaration, is ‘protect itself against possible abuses committed in the name of religious freedom’. This, however, must be done ‘in accordance with legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order:’ i.e., the natural law. But the state’s primary role is, to cite Dignitatis Humanae again, ‘to recognise and look with favour on the religious life of the citizens’. Thus defined, the right of religious freedom means that the state’s basic function vis-à-vis religious institutions and beliefs is to protect the religious freedom of all its citizens. This is quite different to adopting a position of ‘neutrality’ that amounts, in some cases, to nothing less than an unofficial programme of state-sponsored secularism.

III THE DRAMA OF RIGHTS

In many senses, Dignitatis Humanae represented the culmination of the Church’s entry into the language of rights. One advantage of this was that it allowed the Church to address that significant and growing proportion of the world that was, as a consequence of the Glorious, American and French Revolutions, familiar with the language of rights. Moreover, following the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Catholic intellectuals such as the neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain played a significant role in drafting, the language of rights quickly entered into international law and documents, and influenced increasing numbers of judicial institutions.

Another Thomist philosopher, however, albeit one of a more Aristotelian bent, has been insisting since 1981 that the comprehensibility to society of any one form of discourse—moral, political or jurisprudential—depends heavily upon public knowledge of and agreement with the tradition within which it has been conceived. By tradition, Alasdair MacIntyre means:

an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal, interpretative debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.

Thus it is the case that what I will call, after George, the Central Tradition of the relationship between law, morality and rights involves a certain understanding of the nature of the good, free will, reason and conscience that developed over the centuries. It is a tradition that began with Aristotle, and includes figures such as Aquinas and Kant. The Catholic understanding of rights began and continues to exist within this tradition—a tradition based upon a certain moral anthropology of the human person.

There are, however, two difficulties presently confronting the Church in its use of the language of rights. The first is that, for some time, the discourse of rights in the West has been increasingly dominated by what might be loosely called the ‘orthodox liberal’ tradition. This is most commonly associated with figures such as Rawls and Dworkin. Few, I suspect, would question that their ideas currently dominate the teaching of jurisprudence in the West, when it comes to conceptualising the nature of rights. Nor should it be doubted that there is an agenda associated with this tradition. Over the past forty years, orthodox liberals have sought to obtain legal recognition for morally controversial activities that they consider a matter of individual rights. The most controversial claims in this regard concern issues of human sexuality and reproduction. Orthodox liberals maintain that these are (almost always) ‘private’ matters, which therefore as a matter of right should be left to individuals to decide for themselves.

The basis of this argument, at least as posited by Dworkin, is that everyone enjoys what he calls ‘the right to moral independence’, a right which in turn is based on what Dworkin refers to as the abstract right to equality. Though Dworkin nowhere explains from where this right is ultimately derived (a perennial problem for most secular jurisprudence) he defines it as the right to be treated by the state with ‘equal concern and respect’. The state violates this right to equality whenever it restricts individual freedom on the ground that one citizen’s conception of the good life is superior to another’s.

Many commentators have pointed out the more glaring problems underlying Dworkin’s position. It is not, for example, at all self-evident that a legal concern for the morality of individual persons indicates any form of disregard for those persons whose preferred conduct is restricted. In fact, such legal restrictions, as Finnis states,

may manifest, not contempt, but a sense of the equal worth and human dignity of those people, whose conduct is outlawed precisely on the ground that it expresses a serious misconception of, and actually degrades, human worth and dignity, and this degrades their own personal worth and dignity, along with that of others who may be induced to share in or emulate their degradation.

Despite the strength of such critiques, the orthodox liberal view of rights wields a powerful influence in legal discourse. I would also guess that, as far as any tradition informs the thinking about rights that pervades Anglo-American popular culture, the orthodox liberal view prevails.

The problem, then, that this presents for the Church is that the traditions informing Catholic teaching about rights and the orthodox liberal view differ greatly in the respective foundational premises that each brings to any discussion about rights. Is it any wonder, then, that we find that many of the rights upheld by the Church, such as the right to life, are evidently incompatible with various orthodox liberal propositions, such as the notion that women have a ‘right’ to abortion or that there exists a general ‘right’ of voluntary euthanasia? In this light, we should not be surprised that, to cite MacIntyre, ‘the most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements’ and ‘the most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character. I do not mean by this just that such debates go on and on and on—although they do—but also that they apparently can find no terminus’.

There is, however, a second problem that is likely to make the Church’s engagement in the discourse of rights even more difficult in the future, at least in the West. This is the culture of ‘rights talk’ that dominates American political and jurisprudential discussion and seems to be slowly engulfing the Australian public square.

What, then, is ‘rights talk’? The phrase, coined by Mary Ann Glendon, is a phenomenon whereby political discourse is slowly impoverished by an explosion in the use of the word ‘rights’ to the point whereby it becomes harder to define critical questions, let alone debate and resolve them. It is a discourse through which we try to settle problems of right and wrong through articulating rights, but which repeatedly proves inadequate or, as Glendon states, ‘leads to a stand-off of one right against another’. It facilitates a rights culture noted for being prodigious in bestowing the rights label, its legalistic character, its hyper-individualism, and its deafening silence with respect to personal and civic responsibilities. For all these reasons, rights talk destabilises the moral habits and free institutions that, as the French philosopher Count Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the first volume of Democracy in America (1835), are essential not only for maintaining a free society but also distinguish a free society from one of anarchy.

Rights talk is all around us. Apart from fitting neatly into ten second sound-bites, we hear the expression ‘rights’ attached to a rapidly expanding number of words: smokers, union, business, children’s, employee, employers, consumer, homosexual, retailers, women’s, men’s, animal, land etc. As Glendon relates, not only does this often trivialise the meaning of rights, but it also leads to a ‘tendency to frame every social controversy in terms of a clash of rights’. This impedes, she claims, ‘compromise, mutual understanding, and the discovery of common ground’. It also produces a penchant for absolute formulations that we hear so often in expressions such as ‘It’s my body. I have the right to do whatever I want with it’. A moment’s thought indicates that this is simply not true. We have, for example, criminal laws that put rather strong limits on our ability to do anything that we want with our bodies.

But rights talk, I would contend, also has a more sinister dimension. In 1989, the Czech president, Václav Havel, described words like ‘human rights’ as galvanising entire societies ‘with their freedom and truthfulness’. Havel then added, however, that the very same words that at times are ‘rays of light’ may turn in other circumstances into ‘lethal arrows’. One need only think of phrases like ‘reproductive rights’ (codeword for the ‘right’ to abortion) that various groups have been attempting to have ratified in United Nations documentation but—thanks in no small measure to the efforts of John Paul II, the Holy See and Catholics throughout the world—have largely failed to realise. Other examples are Articles 12 and 13 of the UN-sponsored Convention on the Rights of the Child. These articles define the ‘child’s right to express an opinion in matters affecting the child and to have that opinion heard’, and ‘the right to seek, receive, and impart any information through any media’. As the American Thomist philosopher Russell Hittinger states, these Articles effectively declare it a human right’s violation for a parent to tell a ten-year-old to turn off the television and go to bed.

We need not concern ourselves here with the details of how the culture of rights talk has emerged, given that we are more concerned with assessing what this culture means for the Church’s use of rights language. I would note, however, that, given the extent to which rights talk presently dominates so much popular and legal discourse, I have grave reservations about the wisdom of introducing a Bill of Rights at either state or federal level in Australia. Apart from the immense difficulties involved in agreeing in our increasingly rights talk orientated culture upon what is and is not a right, I also believe that in such a culture a Bill of Rights would simply facilitate more rights talks, promote unrealistic expectations, facilitate occasions for civil discord, regularly promote sporadic crisis intervention over systematic measures, provide even more opportunities for specific groups to promote particular interests over the common good, and serve to undermine further the concepts of obligations to self and others that the Central Tradition has always integrated into its vision of rights.

This leads us, finally, to the question: What—in light of the relative dominance of orthodox liberal thinking about rights and the increasing prevalence of rights talk—should be the Church’s attitude towards the discourse of rights?

For one thing, it is worth stating that the Church should not abandon the language of rights. After all, the Church has made significant, if not decisive contributions to the formation of the idea of rights over the centuries and there is no reason why Catholics should vacate the field for others. It would only lead to further deterioration in the quality of discussion. More generally, we also know that legally enforced rights can assist people living in a heterogeneous country like Australia to co-exist in a reasonably peaceful manner. They have given the weaker members of society a way to articulate claims that majorities often respect, assisted in defending the poor, and protected the unborn, the disabled and terminally ill from those who believe that such people are unworthy of life. The paradigm of rights has also helped bring to light, and marshal opinion against, oppression. Dignitatis Humanae’s affirmation of the right of religious freedom, for example, helped the Catholic Church in Communist Eastern Europe resist totalitarianism. It may also be suggested that vigorous affirmation of this right will be necessary in the future if the Church is to resist those who seek to marginalise it in Western societies in the name of separation of church and state.

But equally importantly, the language of rights provides the Church with a way of engaging with the world about contentious issues using terminology familiar to many non-Catholics, not least because it relies on the articulation of reasons. It is therefore a basis for the Church to engage in a critical dialogue, properly understood, with others. Moreover, Catholic scholars have never shied away from arguing a case based on reason. In his later career as a professor in Paris, for example, Aquinas was asked: should one settle disputed questions by reason or by authority? His response remains as relevant now as it was then:

Any activity is to be pursued in a way appropriate to its purpose. Disputations have one or other of two purposes.

One is designed [ordinatur] to remove doubts about whether such-and-such is so. In disputations of this sort you should above all use authorities acceptable to those with whom you are disputing; with Jews, for example, you should appeal to the authority of the Old Testament; with Manichees, who reject the Old Testament, you should use only the New; with Christians who have split off from us, e.g., the Greek [Orthodox], who accept both Testaments but reject the teaching of our [Catholic] Saints, you should rely on the authority of the Old and New testaments and those of the Church teachers [doctores] they do accept. And if you are disputing with people who accept no authority, you must resort to natural reasons.

Then there is the professorial academic disputation, designed not for removing error but for teaching, so that those listening may be led to an understanding of the truth with which the professor [magister] is concerned. And here you must rely upon reasons, reasons which track down the root of the truth and create a real knowledge of how it is that your assertions are true. Otherwise, if professors settle questions by bare authorities, listeners are indeed told that such-and-such is so, but gain nothing in the way of knowledge or understanding [scientiae vel intellectus] and go away empty.

The time has come, then, for the Church to match its emphasis on securing recognition and protection of human rights with an effort to generate a wider, more substantial debate about the nature of rights. Certainly, Catholic intellectuals such as Finnis, George and Germain Grisez, and to a lesser extent (though I would argue, less adequately) David Hollenbach, S.J., have been contributing to this debate. So too has Pope John Paul II. Remarkably few commentators have noticed that this pope, often described as the world’s most prominent human rights advocate, referred in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae to the scandal of people using human rights language to claim ‘the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia’. It remains, however, that the number of serious Catholic scholars involved in the on-going debates about the origins, nature and ends of rights is, at present, woefully inadequate for the task.

What form, then, should be taken by the Catholic engagement in this discussion? There are, I would suggest, at least three areas where Catholic jurists could make significant contributions. The first is to point out where Catholic intellectuals, leaders or institutions contribute, unwittingly or otherwise, to the proliferation of rights talk or where they base their arguments, unwittingly or otherwise, upon assumptions that are derived from traditions antithetical to the Catholic view. The second is to engage in critical dialogue with other traditions of rights, so as to highlight their strengths and weaknesses, as well as underline the fact that there are other, perhaps even better ways of thinking about rights than the orthodox liberal perspective.

But both of these, I would argue, are heavily dependent upon much work being done in a third area: clarification of the Catholic understanding of where rights come from, their character and the end to which they are directed. These criteria may be found in many papal, conciliar and church documents endowed with varying levels of authority. I believe, however, that it is in Dignitatis Humanae’s treatment of the right of religious freedom that we discover a particularly succinct treatment of these themes. Having served the Church well in the struggle against totalitarian regimes, Dignitatis Humanae may have a significant role to play in helping Catholics to distinguish rights from what are no more than demands peddled under the rubric of rights. Here one should remember that in the Declaration itself, the Council stated its intention of ‘dealing with this question of [religious] liberty’ in such a way that they ‘develop[ed] the teaching of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and on the constitutional order of society’.

So why, one may ask, do people have a right to religious freedom? Orthodox liberals claim as since all religions are equally true or untrue or that religious belief is a purely subjective matter, religion belongs to that sphere of personal autonomy with which the state may not interfere. Pragmatists, on the other hand, claim that we must accord people the right of religious liberty because it helps maintain social order.

None of these views, however, accord with the position of Dignitatis Humanae. The Council, we recall, grounds the right to religious liberty in not only Revelation but also the belief that, by their very nature, people are bound to seek the truth. This is considered good because truth seeking is in accordance with the human being’s dignity as a person. No further explanation is necessary for the right of religious liberty: it gives direct effect to this good of truth seeking. It is, in short, something that is due to people because people are by nature truth seekers.

Many people of a non-religious bent will be satisfied with this argument. But some will not, so let me explain why I believe that agnostics and atheists can recognise this explanation as sufficient grounding for the right of religious liberty. As George notes:

Whether or not unaided reason can conclude on the basis of a valid argument that God exists—indeed, even if it turns out that God does not exist—there is an important sense in which religion is a basic human good. Agnostics and even atheists can easily grasp the intelligible point of considering whether or not there is some ultimate, more-than-human source of meaning and value, of inquiring as best one can into the truth of the matter, and of ordering one’s life on the basis of a reasonable judgment.

What is this ‘intelligible point’? It is this: that if there is a transcendent origin of the universe, humanity and human reason, then one’s choices and actions are disordered if they are not bought into harmony with whatever is known or revealed about ‘that transcendent other and its lasting order’.

On this basis, then, we may say, whether we be theist or atheist, that religion is a ‘basic good’: that is, it is a basic reason for action, inasmuch as one has reason, without appeal to ulterior motives, to ascertain the truth about ultimate or transcendent realities and order our lives to accord with that reality. When we think about this further, we realise that there are other values that everyone has reason to act freely for, without appealing to ulterior motives. These basic goods include the pursuit of knowledge, aesthetic experience, sociability, the realisation of one’s talents etc.

Crucial, however, to the realisation of these goods is that one chooses them freely. To take the case of religion again, you cannot pursue knowledge of the transcendent without the constant interior decision to do so. To force someone to be religious eliminates the element of the interior choice for the good of religion by overwhelming it with the inner deliberation to avoid harm. By the same token, to attempt to deflect or hinder a person’s decision to pursue the good of religion is to deny truth: that is, the fact that people have a basic reason to seek and consequently order their lives to the transcendent.

We see, then, that because the right of religious freedom is linked to man’s basic reason to act to self-realise the good of religion, it can neither be coerced nor impeded by the state. The state’s responsibility is rather to coordinate people’s pursuit of religion as a basic good along with their pursuit of other goods. It is through this coordinating function that the constitutional order limits each person’s exercise of his natural rights and subsequent duties.

This brief outline of Dignitatis Humanae’s treatment of one particular right reveals much about the nature of rights. One is that they do not exist apart from the truth about man. Rather, they are grounded in the human being as a freely choosing, truth seeking, rational creature. Hence, we cannot decide in an arbitrary fashion what our rights are. We can only discern what these rights might be by reflecting upon our nature as human persons. Second, rights are directed to a purpose, that is, man’s self-realisation as a person, the self-realisation that comes from consistently choosing and acting for moral good. Third, Dignitatis Humanae makes it very clear that there is a duty attached to every right. If one has a right to know truth, it is because one has the duty to pursue truth. If one has the right to work, it is because one has the duty to work. John XXIII made the same point in Pacem in Terris. This in turn leads to a particular vision of freedom so aptly captured by Lord Acton’s statement that liberty is ‘not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought’.

Taking this vision of rights in its entirety, we see that Catholics must above all insist that rights do not emancipate us from the truth or the duty to acquire moral good. Instead, they free us to serve truth and the good. For this reason, Catholics must always reject the proposition that human rights and human reason serve man’s passions and desires. Here the Catholic view necessarily conflicts with David Hume’s proposition that ‘Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions, and may never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’. In Hume’s view, reason’s role is not to identify what is rational—i.e., what people should want or ought to do—but merely to devise means of obtaining goals that people simply desire or are even inclined to desire.

The Catholic answer to this position is that the Church has a view about human good and the constitution of human nature which is much more like St Paul’s and Aquinas’s (and for that matter, Plato’s) than that of Hume’s or Hobbes’s. The Church teaches that a person’s nature, in the sense relevant to moral judgement, is constituted by human goods which give man reasons (and rights) to act, and to refrain from acting, and not by desires which may, rightly or wrongly, also motivate him. To cite Robert George:

Far from being reducible to desires, basic human goods give people reasons to desire things—reasons which hold whether people happen to desire them or not, and even in the face of powerful emotional motives which run contrary to what reason identifies as humanly good and morally right.

This surely is the answer that any Catholic articulating an understanding of rights from within the Catholic Tradition must give to those who contend that one has a right to do anything one wills, provided it does not harm others. In this sense, the Catholic view of rights conflicts directly with John Stuart Mill’s contention that in ‘what merely concerns himself’, the independence of the individual ‘is, of right, absolute’. For the Catholic, by contrast, that which always concerns each and every individual is the truth. The challenge for the Church is to demonstrate by word and deed that its teaching about human rights, a tradition which holds that rights are derived from and serve the Truth, is one that leads to true fulfilment and greater happiness for each and every human person than any utilitarian calculus devised by modernity could ever imagine.


Samuel Gregg is a moral philosopher who has written and spoken extensively on questions of social and business ethics, civil society, and religious and political thought, as well as Catholic social teaching. He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy from the University of Oxford which he attended as a Commonwealth Scholar. While pursuing his doctorate under the supervision of Professor John Finnis, he taught moral philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford.

Since completing his doctorate in 1998, he has been Resident Scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Challenging the Modern World: Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching (Lexington Books/Oxford University Press: Lanham, MD/Oxford, 1999) as well as many articles.

Copyright 2000 © by Samuel Gregg. For permission to cite, reproduce or circulate this paper, please contact the author at The Centre for Independent Studies, PO BOX 92, ST LEONARDS NSW 1590 AUSTRALIA. Ph 61-2-9438-4377. Fax 61-2-9439-7310. E-mail sgregg@cis.org.au

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