Re(dis)covering Humanity. The Catholic Church and Human Rights

V22High on the list of the deep, often soul-wrenching issues with which we are confronted in today’s perpetually evolving world is that of the ongoing tension between the globalisation process and the specificity of human cultures. As from the mid 1990s, in the West, the growing fear of seeing such cultural specificity as subsists finally eroded because of globalisation,[1] has frequently triggered a spontaneous counter-reaction, expressed in the trend towards the return to one’s “roots”, to one’s identity, often more or less implicitly considered as superior and polemically, or even violently asserted facing the other.[2]

In apparent contradistinction with the assertion of such cultural and value-based claims, another trend, which seems to grant an absolute value to other cultures per se, in a form of cultural fundamentalism which turns a blind eye to any repressive or inhumane components which may be present, has come to the fore. Here cultures are considered not only to be different, but also as incommensurable, following the illusory nostrum that men can live in isolation from one another.[3] From which ensues the implicit conviction that cultural dialogue is useless, for each participant will do no more than mirror his own certainties. In the end, it is hoped, everyone will thus learn to “agree to disagree”

Though they are both extremely widespread, the two trends have a common flaw, that of providing an oversimplified and banal – essentialist – overview of the issues at stake: cultures are defined as if their homogeneity and internal coherence were absolute, and their differences irreconcilable, as though they finally had no element in common. It has thus seemed possible to trace a dividing-line in the area of customs, languages, and geographical frontiers, while overlooking the two-way permeability of this sort of frontier, as if the latter could be anything more than a wavy line drawn on sand.[4] Moreover, this vision considers cultures as if they had always remained self-identical, and were destined to remain so throughout history; thanks to a relativistic and sceptical decree, the impossibility, even the utter inanity of any confrontational dialogue[5] is posited. Above all, the fundamental element which cultures have in common, that is to say humanity[6]itself, is systematically omitted from the debate.

On the contrary, not only do the different cultures derive from this common trunk but, throughout their history, have also brought to light, recognized and asserted the importance of principles which, albeit minimal, represent an essential common legacy: notably, the dignity of each and every human being and compassion towards any person who suffers.[7] It was precisely on the foundation of such principles that Human Rights were erected, as a modern, codified version of this dignity and this capacity to commiserate. At the same time, it is only against the background of different contexts, cultures and heritages that Human Rights and the values they encapsulate can today come to the fore and demonstrate their universal nature.[8]

 The aim of this paper is thus to prospect one of these histories, that of the relationship between Human Rights and the magisterium of the Catholic Church, which has progressively (re)appropriated this language.

1791-1891: Supernaturalism

 In the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, on March 10, 1791, in a long-overdue declaration[9], Pope Pius VI addressed to the Archbishop of Aix and the whole Church of France the Brief Quod aliquantum. The Pope’s purpose, in his text, was more particularly to condemn the dispositions dictated by the recent Constitution civile du clergé (Civil Constitution for the Clergy). The Pope wrote:

We have learnt that the National Assembly, towards the middle of the month of July, published a decree which, while purporting to be merely a Civil Constitution for the Clergy, as its title seemed to promise, in fact casts down the most sacred dogmas, and the most certain discipline of the Church, destroying the rights of the first Apostolic See, those of the bishops, priests, religious orders of both sexes, and of the whole Catholic community, abolishing the most holy ceremonies, seizing and impounding ecclesiastic estates and revenues, and causing such calamities, that one would be hard put to believe the latter, were they not all too tangible.

As can be seen here, in order to condemn the effects of the Revolution, the Pope was not averse to using the concept of «rights» (and indeed does so frequently in his text), but always in evoking the sacred rights of the Creator, of the Church, and the rights of the first Apostolic See, in order precisely to affirm his disagreement with the rights granted by the National Assembly to the civil administrations. Nevertheless the Brief Quod aliquantum associated with this condemnation of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, that of one “Human Right” in particular:

It is with this in view that this absolute freedom has been established as a Human Right in society, which not only guarantees the right not to be disturbed because of one’s religious opinions, but, beyond that, grants the freedom to think, say, write and even print as one will everything and anything that may pass through the most unruly of imaginations: a monstrous right, which however appears to the Assembly to result from the equality and the freedom natural to all men.[10]

In other words, here Pope Pius VI was not merely targeting the Constitution; he was also seizing the opportunity to firmly condemn Human Rights, because their principle was, at the time, in total contradiction with the Catholic doctrine, on the origins of the State, social inequalities and religious freedom.[11]

Seventy years later, in 1864, in the Encyclical Quanta Cura (followed by the condemnation of 80 propositions known as the Syllabus), Pope Pius IX, quoting his predecessor Gregory XVI, still more explicitly qualified as a state of “delirium” the assertion that freedom of conscience and worship is a “Right proper to each man”. There again, the Pope condemned this right precisely because it was founded on the natural, in contradistinction with the supernatural, which was typical of the Catholic tradition.[12] Freedom of conscience turned out to be the nodal breaking-point between the Church and political modernity, and perhaps – if the question of its anteriority is set aside – the most fundamental of “Human Rights”.[13] The Syllabus was later to particularly condemn the following assertion:

LXXIX. It is false that civil liberty for all forms of worship, and full freedom to openly and publicly manifest all their thoughts and all their opinions, precipitate peoples all the more easily into corruption of body and spirit, and propagate the plague of Indifferentism.

By inversely parsing the sentence, one can induce that the Pope had indeed said that freedom of worship and freedom of conscience may precipitate peoples all the more easily into corruption of body and mind, and could propagate the plague of indifferentism towards religious truth.

1891-1931: Neo-Scholastic Natural Law

However, something was soon to change: a century after the starting point of our itinerary, in 1891, Pope Leo XIII published his Encyclical Rerum Novarum, origin and true monument of the social doctrine of the Church, in order to denounce the “indigence” to which the multitude of workers had been reduced by the industrial revolution.[14] In it, for the first time in a positive sense, the formula “the Rights which innately belong to every man” is to be read. This formula essentially designated the right of property (against socialist doctrines), and thus somewhat paradoxically coincides with John Locke’s philosophical position.[15] The rights mentioned here are those to salary, to property, to life, to means of existence, to marriage, down to citizenship and Sunday rest; all these rights are deemed to be founded on Natural Law (§11-12):

The same principle [of private ownership] is confirmed and enforced by the civil laws – laws which, so long as they are just, derive from the law of nature their binding force. The divine law adds its sanction, forbidding in severest terms even to covet that which is another’s […]. The rights here spoken of, belonging to each individual man, are seen in a much stronger light when considered in relation to man’s social and domestic obligations.

Human Rights, those of the person, are here still only relevant within an organicist conception of society, founded on the reciprocity between rights and duties, based on family and associative life. In his Encyclical Quadragesimo anno, published in 1931,Pius XI, reverting, after the great 1929 crisis, to the social doctrine of the Church, expressed a position which was oriented still more clearly in this sense. This Encyclical reasserted the principle of the right to property and the right of association formulated in Rerum Novarum, insofar as they derived from Natural Law. However, Pius XI’s Encyclical shows signs of having been influenced by the corporatism exalted by Fascist Italy, and more generally characteristic of the inter-war years.

Setting aside the issue of the origins of the idea of Man’s subjective rights in the history of Law and of Theology,[16] it is clearly visible that the magisterium of the Church had fundamentally become aware of the problem on the basis of the social question raised in the 19th century and the working-class movement. That for a very precise reason: a Church which saw itself as a societas perfecta, a juridically perfect society, in parallel with a State with which it was, so to speak, “juxtaposed,”[17] could not turn a blind eye to the social problem raised by the wretched condition of working people. It was however to be not so indulgent towards the right of freedom of conscience, a right which we have taken to be the Ariadne thread of our enquiry: the latter was not to figure among those decreed by the magisterium, at least not until Vatican II.

1959-1965: Vatican II Personalism

After Rome’s declarations during the 19th century, reiterated without much substantial change during the first half of the 20th century, and characterized by a counter-revolutionary spirit of intransigence, rooted in experience derived from the Ancien Regime, i.e., a Christendom-centred regime[18], and after the last decade of the Pacelli papacy, the Vatican II Council represented a watershed of self-questioning and new elaboration within Catholicism. Three major changes may be singled out: (1) that of the relations between the Church and the political sphere, within which the idea of Christendom was critically challenged; (2) the affirmation of an increasingly positive conception of history, through a reading of the “signs of the times”; (3) the progressive awareness of the central character of the human person and his or her dignity, in an affirmation of religious freedom based on a subjective conception of Natural Law.

  1. Less than 90 days after his election as a successor of Pius XII, on January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII announced his decision to summon an ecumenical council, in a context dominated by the climate of Cold War between the Soviet and Western blocks, within which an immobile, hide-bound Catholicism had complacently made do with its certitudes. The years characterized by what, under Pope Pius XII, had been called “monolithic Catholicism”, had come to an end.[19] This immobility was offset by a growing sense of disquiet nourished by the conviction that the centuries-old reciprocal support between political institutions and churches was in definitive decline. The modern version of Christendom seemed less and less a relevant and convincing model.[20]
  2. The Council on the other hand was, in the immediate post-war period, that is to say, after the shock-wave of the Shoah, thrust onto the threshold of a “new” era characterized by the institutionalisation of the United Nations Organisation, and by the accession of the colonies to independence. Facing these historical sea-changes, a different conception of the relationship between the Church and the world can be seen to be emerging. To reiterate the French Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu’s words: “What is at stake is not the Church building for itself a Christian world of its own alongside “the world”, but proceeding to Christianize the world in the process of being built.”[21]
  3. On the eve of the Council, in other words, this theologian envisioned nothing less than the end of an era of the Church – which he called the Constantinian Era – characterized by an alliance between the temporal and spiritual powers and their mutual collusion.
  4. This calling into question of the pattern of relations between the throne and the altar which had self-perpetuated for more than fifteen hundred years was founded on a conception of history more positive than was characteristic of the recent past. Father Chenu seems to have clearly understood what was at stake in the epochal event of the Council, that is: «It was necessary to begin from the conviction that great events of history and great social changes have some bearing on the realization of the kingdom of God, and to learn to recognize the signs of the times as theological sources».[22]

Just such a comprehension of History is very clearly and distinctly to be found in the great Gaudet mater ecclesia speech pronounced by the Pope on the occasion of the opening of the Council. On October 11, 1962, John XXIII proclaimed to the whole world: “The Church, illuminated by the light of the Council, may be enlarged with spiritual riches, and look undaunted toward the future, through fitting measures of renewal.” No doubt, to so do, it would be necessary to read the signs of the times, surpassing the insinuations of those who,

though they are full of fervour and zeal, are by no means equipped with an abundant sense of discretion and moderation, seeing in the modern era nothing but transgression and disaster, and claiming that our own age has become worse than previous ones. [We] must dissent from these prophets of doom, who are always announcing some ominous event, almost as if the end of the world were upon us.[23]

As had been the case with the medieval scholar Chenu, there was no longer, in John XXIII’s speech, the idea of a golden age of the Church in the History of the World, that of the Catholic State in a Christian polity, after which Christian life had allegedly fallen into an increasing decadence. The Church thus had to relinquish the ideal of the restoration of any such a Golden Age.[24] So novel a conception of the church, no longer conceived of as a perfect society, a State within or alongside the State, authorized a reappraisal of the most recent conquests of humanity.

From these first two evolutions derived the third: Pope John XXIII’s humanism, expressed in a more optimistic anthropology, reconsidered in the light of the 20th century renewal of Thomism. This humanism revolved around the concept of the person – for instance here in his testament, the Encyclical Pacem in Terris:

Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature, which is endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable.

It was by basing himself on the principle of the person that the Pope was inspired to write, quoting almost literally the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights[25], that:

Man has the right to live. 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. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.

Freedom in the quest for truth also had its place:

Man has a natural right to be respected. He has a right to his good name. He has a right to freedom in investigating the truth, and – within the limits of the moral order and the common good – to freedom of speech and publication.

For the Pope, rights were inconceivable without their corresponding duties, and both are said to be relative to the human person, defined in Pacem in Terris as “a nature endowed with intelligence and free will”. However, as the Encyclical Mater et magistra had already highlighted that «the foundation, the cause, and the end of every social institution are individual human beings»,[26] the concept of the person thus enabled the Pontiff, while respecting the ecclesial tradition, the better to converge with the hopes of the men of his own time, by revitalising the idea of subjective natural rights, whose roots were to be found in the History of the Church itself.[27] As we have observed, in John XXIII’s 1963 Encyclical, “there was henceforth a fundamental and most felicitous coincidence between the doctrine of the Church and the rights of States concerning the defence of the person, in his dignity and his rights”.[28]

During the session for the solemn conclusion of the Council, on December 7, 1965, Vatican II finally concluded its work by proceeding to approve the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the contemporary world, Gaudium et spes, and the Declaration concerning religious freedom Dignitatis humanae. In the former, the Council confirmed that:

The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any particular system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other.[29]

The Dignitatis humanae declaration, on the other hand, essentially reiterated the doctrine formulated by John XXIII in Pacem in Terris, asserting: «The council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society. This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom».[30] This final derivation towards religious freedom had become a necessity, as it had been at last realized that «man’s response to God in faith must be free».[31] The Jesuit Hollenbach emphasized the importance of the verb “to develop” in Dignitatis humanae, observing that «the reorganization of the normative foundations of the Catholic understanding of human rights was produced by the same social force which precipitated the Declaration on Religious Freedom, namely, the reality of pluralism».[32]

Despite the difficulties encountered before this document was finally approved, the “Declaration on Religious Freedom" was almost unanimously perceived as a point of no return for Catholicism”.[33] The late lamented Church historian Giuseppe Alberigo, in his most recent contribution to the history of Vatican II, comments this text as follows: «By developing the teaching on religious liberty the Council gave theological depth to the proclamation of human rights».[34]

Closing Considerations

The history of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Human Rights did not come to an end with Vatican II. During Paul VI’s papacy, for instance, the theme had already been broached in the Encyclical Populorum progressio.[35] It was nevertheless to be during John Paul II’s papacy that the theme of Human Rights was to become the focus of growing attention and occupy a pivotal position.

It is not always easy, particularly in view of the quantity and diversity of the materials concerned[36], to precisely delineate Pope Wojtyla’s thinking on this topic: while displaying a deep respect for John XXIII’s Encyclical and for the magisterium of the Council, which centred Human Rights round the concept of the person, accents very much his own are also perceptible. This Pope tended to more directly bracket together abuses against human beings and those which impact nations, or again seemed more specifically to emphasize issues of a bioethical order. At times, the use of terminological expressions such as “the objective Rights of Man” ran the risk of clouding over the traditionally subjective conception of natural rights reasserted by John XXIII and endorsed by the Council.

Human Rights, which the Church absorbed into its doctrine in the 1960s, are what remain to bear witness to the ravages of a century which lived through the tragedies of Nationalism, Fascism, two World Wars and the Shoah[37], an indispensable testimonial guaranteeing to all persons, all living women and men, a bulwark against the violence of society; a testimonial which, for the same urgent reasons, has finally superseded the corporative dimension of the purportedly objective rights and modular declensions of Natural Law.

Such a testimony should not be forgotten today, when so many communities through their differences throw together a world enriched with multiple meanings and identities, but also rife with conflicts, intolerance and violence. For wherever Human Rights are at issue, «what is at stake is not the failure or the success of an idea, but finally it is a matter of the fates and viability of real human beings».[38]


Giuseppe Alberigo, History of Vatican II. English Version Edited by Joseph A. Komonchak (Maryknoll, ny – Leuven: Orbis – Peeters, 1995-2006).

Giuseppe Alberigo, A Brief History of Vatican II. Foreword by John W. O’Malley, S.J. (Maryknoll, ny: Orbis, 2006).

Roger Aubert, “Religious Liberty from «Mirari Vos» to the «Syllabus»”, in Historical Problems of Church Renewal (eds. R. Aubert and A.G. Weiler; Glen Rock, nj: Paulist Press, 1965), 89-105.

Roger Aubert, “L’encyclique Rerum Novarum, une «charte des travailleurs»”, in Le monde catholique et la question sociale (1891-1950), (eds. F. Rosart and G. Zelis; Bruxelles: Éditions Vie Ouvrière, 1992), 11-28.

Franco Biffi, “I diritti umani da Leone xiii a Giovanni Paolo ii”, in I diritti umani. Dottrina e prassi (ed. G. Concetti; Roma, AVE, 1982).

Pier Cesare Bori, From Hermeneutics to Ethical Consensus among Cultures (Atlanta, ga: Scholars Press 1994).

Pier Cesare Bori, Universalismo come pluralità delle vie (Genova-Milano: Marietti 1820, 2004).

Antonio Cassese, I diritti umani oggi (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 2006).

Carlo Cereti, “Libertà e diritti della persona nella «Pacem in terris»”, in Annali della facoltà di giurisprudenza. Scritti in memoria di Antonio Falchi (Milano: Giuffrè, 1964), 91-102.

Jean Chaunu, ed., Droits de l’Église et droits de l’homme. Le bref Quod aliquantum et autres textes introduits et annotés par Jean Chaunu (Limoges: Critérion, 1989).

Vincenzo Ferrone, “Chiesa cattolica e modernità. La scoperta dei diritti dell’uomo dopo l’esperienza dei totalitarismi”, in Chiesa cattolica e modernità. Atti del convegno della Fondazione Michele Pellegrino. Università di Torino, 6 febbraio 2004 (eds. F. Bolgiani, V. Ferrone and F. Margiotta-Broglio; Bologna: Il Mulino, 2004), 17-131.

Giorgio Filibeck, ed., Les droits de l’homme dans l’enseignement de l’Église: de Jean xxiii à Jean-Paul II. Recueil de textes du Magistère de l’Église catholique de Mater et Magistra à Centesimus Annus (1961-1990) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1992).

Jerzy W. Gałkowsky, “Jean-Paul II et les droits de l’homme”, in The Common Christian Roots of European Nations (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1982), 1130-1138.

Marianne Heimbach-Steins, Menschenrechte in Gesellschaft und Kirche. Lernprozesse – Konfliktfelder – Zukunftchancen (Mainz: Grünewald, 1997).

David Hollenbach, S.J., “Global Human Rights: An Interpretation of the Contemporary Catholic Understanding”, in Official Catholic Social Teaching (eds. C.E. Curran and R.A. McCormick, S.J., New York – Mahwah, nj: Paulist Press, 1986), 366-383.

John Langan, S.J., «Human Rights in Roman Catholicism», in Official Catholic Social Teaching (eds. C.E. Curran and R.A. McCormick, S.J., New York – Mahwah, nj: Paulist Press, 1986), 110-129.

Giovanni Miccoli, “Two Sensitive Issues: Religious Freedom and the Jews”, History of Vatican II, (dir. G. Alberigo; vol. iv), 95-193.

G. Piana, “I diritti dell’uomo nel magistero di Giovanni Paolo II”, in De dignitate hominis. Mélanges offerts à Carlos-Josaphat Pinto de Oliveira (eds. A. Holderegger, R. Imbach and R. Suarez de Miguel; Freiburg-Wien: Universitätsverlag-Herder, 1987), 471-485.

René Rémond, Religion and Society in Modern Europe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).

Silvia Scatena, La fatica della libertà. L’elaborazione della dichiarazione Dignitatis humanae sulla libertà religiosa del Vaticano ii (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2003).

Achille Silvestrini, I diritti dell’uomo nell’insegnamento di Giovanni Paolo II (Firenze, Le Monnier, 1987).

Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights. Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law and Church Law 1150-1625 (Atlanta, ga: Scholars Press, 1997).

Caroline Vander Stichele, Ad van der Helm and others, eds., Disciples and Discipline. European Debate on Human Rights in the Roman Catholic Church (Leuven, Peeters, 1993).

Ph. André Vincent, “Les droits de l’homme de Pie vi à Jean Paul ii”, in Droits de Dieu et droits de l’homme (eds. J.-B. d’Onorio, J.-M. Trigeaud and others; Paris: Téqui, 1989) 65-81.

Gianmaria Zamagni, “La «Fine dell’era costantiniana» in Friedrich Heer e M.-D. Chenu (1938-1963). In tre quadri e un epilogo al Concilio vaticano II”, in Cristianesimo nella storia 1 (2008) (forthcoming).


[1]    A good example is the book by George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society. An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life (Thousand Oaks, ca: Pine Forge, 1993).

[2]   The book by Gilles Kepel, The Revenge of God. The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World (University Park [pa]: Pennsylvania State University Press) was published in 1994, that of S.P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster) in 1996.

[3]   Concerning this discussion the reaction by Clifford Geertz facing Claude Lévi-Strauss is worth consulting: C. Geertz, The Uses of Diversity, in Id., Available Light. Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, (Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 2000), 68-88.

[4]   It is certainly worthwhile to read l’incipit de Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian. The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism, London, Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 1: «Draw a distinction. Call it the first distinction. Call the space in which it is drawn the space severed or cloven by the distinction. […] The distinction I am concerned with in this book is the distinction between true and false in religion that underlies more specific distinctions such as Jews and Gentiles, Christians and pagans, Muslim and unbelievers. Once the distinction is drawn, there is no end of reentries or sub-distinction. […] Cultural or intellectual distinctions such as these construct a universe that is not only full of meaning, identity, and orientation, but also full of conflict, intolerance, and violence».

[5]   See, among others, Ulrich Beck, What is globalization? (Malden, ma – Oxford: Polity, 2000), in part. «On the possibility of inter-cultural critique», pp. 77-86, and Carlo Ginzburg, History, Rhetorics and Proof. The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures (Hanover, nh: University Press of New England, 1999).

[6]   Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs (1994): 24: «Arabs, Chinese and Westerners, however, are not part of any broader cultural entity. They constitute civilizations. A civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people short of that which distinguishes humans from other species».

[7]   Cf. Hans Küng and Karl-Josef Kuschel, eds., A Global Ethic. The Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (London: SCM, 1993), 20: «We are convinced of the fundamental unity of the human family on Earth. We recall the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. What is formally proclaimed on the level of rights we wish to confirm and deepen here from the perspective of an ethic: the full realization of the intrinsic dignity of the human person, the inalienable freedom and equality in principle of all humans, and the necessary solidarity and interdependence of all humans with each other». I have devoted a book to the study of the hermeneutical and theological backgrounds of the global ethic: G. Zamagni, La teologia delle religioni di Hans Küng. Dalla salvezza dei non cristiani all’etica mondiale (Bologna: EDB, 2005).

[8]   See Pier Cesare Bori, “Diritti umani e religioni”, in Religioni e modernità. Nuove tematiche e prospettive (ed. G. Filoramo, iv vol., Torino: Einaudi, 2008, under press).

[9]   Cf. René Rémond, Religion and Society in Modern Europe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999),60 s.: «After keeping silent for too long, on 10 March 1791, Pius VI issued the papal brief Quod aliquantum condemning the provisions of the law [of the Constitution civile du clergé] and still more its inspiration, which was confused with that of the Declaration of the Rights of Man»; see, also, Mario Tosti, Una costituzione per la Chiesa. La proposta di un Concilio ecumenico negli anni della Rivoluzione francese (Firenze: Nerbini, 2005) 13, which shows the interpretative hypotheses provided in Gerard Pelletier, Rome et la révolution française. La théologie et la politique du Saint-Siège devant la Révolution française, 1789-1799 (Rome: École française de Rome, 2004), and in Luigi Fiorani and Domenico Rocciolo, Chiesa romana e rivoluzione francese, 1789-1799 (Rome: École française de Rome, 2004).

[10]    [10] Bref “Quod aliquantum”, in Droits de l’Église et droits de l’homme. Le bref Quod aliquantum et autres textes introduits et annotés par Jean Chaunu (Limoges: Critérion, 1989), 89-146, 90-91 et 97. Cf. again here: «Where is this freedom of thought and action which the National Assembly grants to social man as an imprescriptible right of nature? Is not this chimera of a right contrary to the rights of the supreme Creator, to whom we owe our very existence and everything which we call ours?  (“Où est donc cette liberté de penser et d’agir que l’Assemblée nationale accorde à l’homme social comme un droit imprescriptible de la nature? Ce droit chimérique n’est-il pas contraire aux droits du Créateur suprême, à qui nous devons l’existence et tout ce que nous possédons?»).

[11]   Cf. R. Aubert, “La chiesa cattolica e la rivoluzione”, in Storia della chiesa (ed. H. Jedin; Milano: Jaca Book, 1992) 26.

[12]   Pie ix, Quanta cura (1864) and Grégoire xvi, Mirari vos (1832); on this part, cf. R. Aubert, Le pontificat de Pie ix (1846-1878) (Bloud & Gay: Saint-Dizier, 1952), in Histoire de l’Église depuis les origines jusqu’à nos jours, vol. 21, pp. 254 s.; R. Aubert, “Religious Liberty from «Mirari Vos» to the «Syllabus»”, in Historical Problems of Church Renewal (eds. R. Aubert and A.G. Weiler; Glen Rock, nj: Paulist Press, 1965), 89-105, 93: «There was no intention of deliberately throwing away the great apostolic advantages that were thought to reside in the system inherited from the ancien régime, in which the civil power lavished its favors on Catholicism»; and again, p. 105: «a slow maturation of Catholic thinking has had as its consequence a progress in doctrine, reaching from the encyclicals of Leo xiii, through certain of the discourses of Pius xii and the declarations of Pacem in terris, to the Schema on Religious Liberty presented at Vatican Council ii».

[13]   Cf. Max Weber, “The Autonomy of the Individual in the Sect and the Ability to Form Democratic Communities. Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience”, in Max Weber. Readings and a Commentary on Modernity (ed. S. Kalberg; Malden, ma – Oxford: Blackwell, 2005)283; but cf. P.C. Bori, “Teologia politica e diritti umani”, in Universalismo come pluralità delle vie (ed. P.C. Bori; Genova-Milano: Marietti 1820, 2004), 134-151, 141 s.

[14]   [14] R. Aubert, “L’encyclique Rerum Novarum, une «charte des travailleurs»”, in Le monde catholique et la question sociale (1891-1950) (eds. F. Rosart and G. Zelis; Bruxelles: Éditions Vie Ouvrière, 1992), 11-28; cf. C. Cereti, “Libertà e diritti della persona nella «Pacem in terris»”, in Annali della facoltà di giurisprudenza. Scritti in memoria di Antonio Falchi (Milano: Giuffrè, 1964), 91-102, 98.

[15]   This position was developed by Father Tapparelli in his Saggio teoretico di diritto naturale appoggiato sul fatto (Roma: Civiltà cattolica, 1855); cf. R. Aubert, “L’encyclique…”, p. 27 s., n. 34; L. de Sousberghe, “Propriété «de droit naturel». Thèse néoscolastique et tradition scolastique”, in Nouvelle Revue Théologique, t. LXXII, 1950, pp. 580-596 and P.D. Dognin, in Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques, t. XLVI, 1962, p. 64; elsewhere (p. 22) Aubert calls it «a “metaphysical” defence of the right to property».

[16]   The reference is obviously here to Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights. Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150-1625 (Atlanta, ga: Scholars Press), 1997.

[17]   Cf. for instance A. Dulles, Models of the Church (Garden City, ny: Doubleday), 1979.

[18]   Cf. G. Miccoli, “Two Sensitive Issues: Religious Freedom and the Jews”, History of Vatican II (dir. G. Alberigo; vol. iv), 95-193.

[19]   Cf. P. Scoppola, La «nuova cristianità» perduta (Rome: Studium, 1985), 53-66.

[20]   G. Alberigo, A Brief History of Vatican II. Foreword by John W. O’Malley, S.J. (Maryknoll, ny: Orbis, 2006), p. 2.; the work of reference is of course G. Alberigo, ed., History of Vatican II. English Version Edited by Joseph A. Komonchak (Maryknoll, ny – Leuven: Orbis – Peeters, 1995-2006).

[21]   M.-D. Chenu, “La fin de l’ère constantinienne”, in Un concile pour notre temps. Journée d’études des Informations catholiques internationales (eds. Jean-Pierre Dubois-Dumée, J. De Broucker and others; Paris: Cerf, 1961), 59-87 (then in Id., La Parole de Dieu, 2 vol., Paris, Cerf, 1964, vol. II, L’Évangile dans le temps, pp. 17-36), p. 84. On this aspect, cf. my article “La «Fine dell’era costantiniana» in Friedrich Heer et M.-D. Chenu (1938-1963)”, to be published in the review Cristianesimo nella storia.

[22]   G. Alberigo, A Brief History…, p. 101; cf. M.-D. Chenu, Une école de théologie. Le saulchoir(Kain-lez-Tournai-Étiolles: Le Saulchoir, 1937; new: eds. G. Alberigo,  M.-D. Chenu, É. Fouilloux, J.-P. Jossua and J. Ladrière, Une école de théologie: le Saulchoir. Preface by René Remond; Paris: Cerf, 1985), 142 ss.

[23]   G. Alberigo, A Brief History…, p. 22. Cf. A. Riccardi, “The Tumultuous Opening Days of the Council”, in History of Vatican II (dir. G. Alberigo; vol. ii) 1-67.

[24]   A. Riccardi, “The Tumultuous Opening Days of the Council”, 14 ss.

[25]   See the synopsis offered by Marianne Heimbach-Steins, Menschenrechte in Gesellschaft und Kirche. Lernprozesse – Konfliktfelder – Zukunftchancen (Mainz: Grünewald, 1997).

[26]   Jean xxiii, Mater et Magistra (§ 219): «Quam catholica Ecclesia doctrinam tradit et pronuntiat de hominum convictu ac societate, ea sine ulla dubitatione perpetua vi pollet. Cuius doctrinae illud est omnino caput, singulos homines necessarie fundamentum, causam et finem esse omnium socialium institutorum; homines dicimus, quatenus sunt natura congregabiles, et ad ordinem rerum evecti, quae naturam exsuperant et vincunt» («The permanent validity of the Catholic Church’s social teaching admits of no doubt. This teaching rests on one basic principle: individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution. That is necessarily so, for men are by nature social beings. This fact must be recognized, as also the fact that they are raised in the plan of Providence to an order of reality which is above nature»).

[27]   Cf. Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights…, p. 343: «According to the teaching of Pacem in terris, natural rights and natural law are both derived, not from some vision of cosmic nature (“the laws… which regulate the blind elemental forces of the universe”), but from our perception of human nature as “endowed with intelligence and free will”. Rights and duties, the pope wrote, flow as a direct consequence from human nature so understood. Such ideas are not new. The popes of our age, who have embraced so enthusiastically the idea of natural rights, after their predecessors condemned it for many years as an irreligious, Enlightenment aberration, have been returning, unwittingly perhaps, to a tradition rooted in the Christian jurisprudence and philosophy of the Middle Ages».

[28]   Pape Jean xxiii, Pacem in terris (1963) ; J.-Y. Calvèz, “Johannes XXIII und die Menschenrechte”, in Freiheit und Ordnung, 46 (1966); C. Cereti, “Libertà e diritti della persona nella «Pacem in terris»”, in Annali della facoltà di giurisprudenza. Scritti in memoria di Antonio Falchi (Milano: Giuffrè, 1964), 91-102, 102.

[29]   Gaudium et spes(1965), § 76.

[30]   Dignitatis humanae (1965), § 2. On the declaration, cf. S. Scatena, La fatica della libertà. L’elaborazione della dichiarazione Dignitatis humanae sulla libertà religiosa del Vaticano ii (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2003). On the issue of «development», cf. J.C. Murray, “Vers une intelligence du développement de la doctrine de l’Église sur la liberté religieuse”, in Vatican II. La liberté religieuse (Paris: Cerf, 1967), 111-147, and D. Hollenbach, S.J., “Global Human Rights: An Interpretation of the Contemporary Catholic Understanding”, in Official Catholic Social Teaching (eds. C.E. Curran and R.A. McCormick, S.J.; New York – Mahwah, nj: Paulist Press, 1986), 366-383, 367 s.

[31]   Dignitatis humanae (1965), § 10; cf. S. Scatena, La fatica della libertà, p. 69.

[32]   D. Hollenbach, S.J., “Global Human Rights”, p. 368.

[33]   S. Scatena, La fatica della libertà, p. 562.

[34]   G. Alberigo, A Brief History…, p. 171.

[35]   This Encyclical, by subordinating the right of property to a just repartition of wealth, notes, between parentheses, the existence of a right of resistance: «Everyone knows, however, that revolutionary uprisings – except where there is manifest, longstanding tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country – engender new injustices» (Paul vi, Populorum progressio, § 31). 

[36]   A good example is the collection published by G. Filibeck, Human Rights in the Teaching of the Church. From John XXIII to John Paul II. Collection of Texts of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church from Mater et Magistra to Centesimus Annus (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994).

[37]   Cf., on this, Achille Silvestrini, I diritti dell’uomo nell’insegnamento di Giovanni Paolo II. Human Rights in the Teaching of John Paul II (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1987).

[38]   K.-W. Merks, “Anthropocentrism and Faith”, in Disciples and Discipline. European Debate on Human Rights in the Roman Catholic Church (eds. C. Vander Stichele, A. van der Helm and others; Leuven: Peeters, 1993), 169-180, 170.

>Acknowledgements: First published in Kattell Berthelot (dir.), In Quest of a Common Humanity, volume collectif(À la recherche d’une humanité commune. La dignité humaine et le rapport à l’Autre dans les religions de la Méditerranée), Brill, Leyde, 2011.