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Chapter Seven


"I believe in human rights." We could call this the last article of "enlightened" Western man's creed. But what are rights, and where do they come from? Rights, which include our legitimate liberties, can be defined as a legal entitlement to the things we need to fulfil our destinies. We need life, food, work, truth, love, a family, reasonable security, all sorts of things. But the right to them is not something we give ourselves. Like law, rights are a gift from the Author of existence. Without Him there are no rights there is only the superiority of force or cunning. If God does not exist, said Dostoevsky, anything is possible. In different words Nietzsche said the same thing. It was the foundation stone of his philosophy of the superman.

A look at the Ten Commandments (the oldest declaration of human rights and duties) gives us an additional insight. From the point of view of Western man. the Ten Commandments put things back to front. The Decalogue is a list of our neighbour's rights in regard to us, not our rights in regard to him. The command not to kill is a declaration of his right to life; not to steal, of his right to property; not to commit adultery, of married people's right not to have their spouses filched from them. In other words, for every right there is a corresponding duty and we are meant to think about our duties towards our neighbour before we start thinking about his duties towards us. The first three commandments, of course. are about God's rights over us. We have none over Him.

Groups as well as individuals also have rights, as does the community as a whole, or the government acting on behalf of the community or on behalf of God, because, human life being social, there is a common good to be pursued as well as a multitude of individual goods.

Harmonising this multiplicity of interlocking goods and claims has always been one of the chief tasks and difficulties of government. Where individuals, groups and the community as a whole all have their rights, there is justice. Justice is not equality or sameness but right order; everyone doing what they ought to be doing and receiving what they should receive. But anything approaching this state is only possible when men are just, which means willing to give God, as well as our neighbour, His due. Because justice now mostly means justice between men without reference to God, the older word "righteousness" better describes what the Bible has in mind  when it speaks of "justice" True justice involves three parties, not two.

This is where the Church comes in. It is not the Church's business, as we have already seen, to provide a detailed blueprint for social and political life Her role is to make men just in the above sense, by feeding them with religious and moral truth and the means of grace. Good laws and institutions can help to keep men just or righteous. But they cannot make them so.

Added to all this, the Church has recently been insisting that the search for rights and justice will be futile without mercy and charity, another lesson the 20th century should have taught us by now.

We tend to think of mercy as opposed to justice, a concession to sentiment. But we come nearer the truth if we see it as justice looking down on men and things from a higher plane, and therefore able to take in motivations and mitigating circumstances often invisible to human justice. "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" was the voice of Justice viewing injustice from this loftier position. A passion for justice without mercy eventually corrupts the heart as surely as a passion for money does. "Justice without mercy becomes cold and cutting."35

Such, more or less, is the Church's view of justice and men's rights, of which the modern quest for justice and human rights is a well-meant but disordered offshoot. Once again, history helps to explain what went wrong as the movement, step by step, cut itself loose from its Christian moorings.

Anglo-Saxon in origin, it began, like the quest for liberty, with an aristocratic and gentry demand for the limitation of royal or central government authority (subsequently enshrined in the English Bill of Rights, the American Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights, and the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man). From the start, therefore, there was a tendency to absolutise the individual's rights without a corresponding emphasis on duties, an imbalance which did serious damage to the common good.

Some early drafts of the French Declaration had sought to introduce a list of duties. 36 But the attempt was defeated. Had the duties been listed or given equal emphasis in these declarations, and had the European middle classes, who were the immediate beneficiaries, paid more attention to them, the next century might not have seen the demand for rights become, to the extent it did, a conflicting working-class demand for the limitation of the Power of employers in favour of employees with a corresponding agitation for an increase of central government authority.

Meanwhile, God's rights were being increasingly ignored, and the belief was gaining ground that relations between men can be made just and a state of absolute justice reached without making men themselves just. "Social and political structures" can do the work of religion and ethics.

Certainly when rights are genuine and sought within the context of the common good, the Church unhesitatingly supports their pursuit. Bad laws and institutions should, within the limits of what is possible, unquestionably be corrected. But if you give people in general the impression that all they have to think about is their rights, they will not only start imagining they have rights to things they have no right to, but you are training them for social war rather than social living.

However, what has given the Church the most trouble since the 1960s is one particular right rather than the pursuit of rights in general. I refer to the right to freedom of speech, of opinion and of expression, particularly of religious belief and opinion.

In the liberal camp there is general agreement that this right, like other rights, comes from man, not God but about the extent of any limitations there is disagreement. For libertarian liberalism, only one thing is certain. Restrictions should be as few as possible. Words that could result in damage to person or property should in most cases be discouraged. But the possibility that they might cause moral or spiritual damage is dismissed as of no consequence.

Authoritarian or dogmatic liberalism, on the other hand, while agreeing with its libertarian counterpart that the question of moral or spiritual damage is irrelevant, has always been more restrictive. Wherever it gets into the saddle, it has never been reluctant to limit free speech about the things that concern it. What, for Christians, are blasphemous films may be tolerated. But insulting references to people's race or sex should be punished by law, and political opinions considered to be smacking of "fascism" curtailed fascism too often being understood as anyone or anything opposed to liberal opinions. Dogmatic liberalism is not permissive or unprincipled. It simply has different principles or priorities. 37

The views of only too many Western Catholics are now an uneasy synthesis of the libertarian and strict liberal views. What authoritarian liberalism condemns (racism, sexism, fascism) will be condemned, and what libertarian liberalism clamours for (abortion, divorce, pornography) will, in the name of pluralism, be considered to some degree allowable, with theologians, in the name of academic freedom, claiming an unlimited right to teach what they please, even if it conflicts with the aims of the university or college employing them. In doing so, they are in fact invoking a spurious individual right to destroy other people's right to freedom of association.

For the Church, what God has given to in the first place is not a right to think and say whatever we please, but a duty to seek and speak the truth. Man is by nature a being made to look for truth, above all the Truth which is God. This, not an illusory human autonomy, is the basis for the right to religious freedom.

The right to religious freedom, therefore, is not a right to think or say what could be wrong or erroneous. Because God wants men to come to him freely, it is simply a right (for groups as well as individuals) not to be impeded by the state from expressing our sincerely held religious beliefs and opinions, even when erroneous, unless they genuinely do serious harm to our neighbour, public morality, public order or the common good. Such is the main thrust of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on religious liberty Dignitatis Humanae.

Hitherto the Church had taught that other religions could be tolerated for the sake of the common good, but had no right as such to existence. She was thinking of those religions as systems of belief impregnated to a greater or lesser degree with error, which cannot be the subject of rights. Dignitatis Humanae moved the focus of attention from the systems to their members considered as men and women in some way in search of God and trying to please Him.

In giving this teaching, the Declaration states, it is developing the teaching of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society (Leo X111, Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII are cited in the footnotes), while leaving intact the traditional reaching on the moral duties of individuals and societies to the one true religion. If they see it is true, they must embrace and uphold it. 38

But what do the terms "harming our neighbour," "public morality," "public order," and "the common good," the sole limitations on the right, mean? How far do the rights of the state in limiting public expression of religious belief extend?

For the Church, "public order" and "public morality" mean more than keeping crime to a minimum and preventing riots in the streets ("public peace"). Public order means that the state has a duty to sec that a country's public life and laws are in accord with the natural law. (The state cannot prevent all vice, but it should try to limit it and certainly not encourage it.) God has given social as well as personal life a shape with the natural law for its outlines. It should also favour belief rather than irreligion. Since we are social beings, the best state of affairs, consequently, even if it is no longer the normal state of affairs, is when a people together with its rulers publicly acknowledge God's existence and sovereignty. Things are then better for everybody, even unbelievers. This was clearly the view of the majority of the American founding fathers: "In God we trust."

Dignitatis Humanae does not see the morally and religiously neutral state as the ideal either, even if a superficial reading can give that impression. It also allows state recognition of the majority religion, provided that minority religions, with the already mentioned provisos, can practice their beliefs freely As for states which use force "to wipe out religion throughout the world or in a particular region" they are violating the rights of men and of God. 39

Where Dignitatis Humanae chiefly differs from earlier teaching about the obligations of the state is in not claiming that governments have in all  circumstances a duty to recognise the Catholic Church's claims.

Here, it seems to me, we see the Church recognising the implications not only of a changed historical situation, but of the fact that faith is a gift.

For many centuries her teachings in this field had been directed mainly at Christian rulers and societies. It was assumed that they knew or had the power to know who and what she is. But since the 1920s she has been increasingly drawn into relations with non-Christian rulers and states who do not (as yet) have the gift of faith. The Church bears manifest signs of its divine origin. But to give full assent to her claims, a special grace is needed which may not have been granted. Non-Catholic and non-Christian rulers, can, however, have access to the truths of natural religion (existence of God and natural law) through the exercise of their reason. This far, then, they do have moral and religious obligations.

So with regard to religion; `the common good" has two elements. Everyone should be able to seek and serve God freely: but not in a way that threatens public peace, offends against the natural law (public order and morality), or jeopardises the genuine rights and stability of other religious bodies. 40

Confusion about the teaching of Dignitaris Humanae is due to the suddenness with which it swung the focus of attention from the requirements of the common good to the good of the individual, and to its having failed to show satisfactorily how its developments related to the traditional teaching. 41 The beginnings of the attempt to bridge the gap at the level of official documents can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see the references to Dignitatis Humanae in the index). 61

How, in the light of the Church's present teaching are we to understand the restrictions imposed in the past on minority religions in Catholic states? By the requirements of the different elements of the common good in particular circumstances. We don't have to maintain that statesmen and churchmen in every age applied those requirements in the best possible way. But we need to remember that most of the minority religions that the Church had to deal with entered history as revolutionary movements committed to her overthrow, not to mention that of the political and social status quo.

This raises a question of a more general kind. Is not any society, whether secular or religious, going to try and protect itself against attempts that threaten to destroy what it holds most precious? Whether we like it or not, the Church's attitude in the past was not unlike that of the Allies after World War II in putting the Nazi leaders to death. And what are liberals most concerned about today? The religious liberties of the fundamentalist sects? Or the need to control them? 42

We also, I think, need to ask whether any government or state can ever be religiously or philosophically totally neutral as Fr Courtney Murray seems to have believed. 43 Can a people or state hold together in the long run without some kind of consensus about life's meaning or what should and should not be done? And if that consensus is not Christian and Catholic, what is it going to be? The history of the twentieth century suggests that the theoretically neutral liberal state is either an illusion or a transitional stage on the way to something very different. "Political correctness" is already giving us a foretaste of what that different something will be. In "political correctness" we see "liberal fundamentalism" levering its own Decalogue into place. Genuinely libertarian liberalism will soon be a thing of the distant past.

This should be no cause for surprise. Over two hundred years ago. Jeremy Bentham, English liberalism's earliest "moral theologian," a man full of well-intentioned plans for making men happy according to his own view of what was best for them, had called talk about rights "nonsense on stilts:" And so, without a transcendent Giver of rights, it is.


35.  John Paul II, message for World Day of Peace, 1 January 1998.

36.  W. Doyle. Oxford History of the French Revolution, 1989.

37. The case of the French sociologist Roger Garaudy. a convert to Islam. is a good recent example. In February 1998 he was fined £12.000 for infringing a law making it illegal to question anything defined by the French state as a "crime against humanity." (Daily Telegraph. London, 28/2/98) He had claimed that the holocaust, while an "atrocity," was morally no worse than the bombing of Hiroshima and Dresden. However, neither French nor European law regards these latter events as crimes. So it is legitimate to approve of them, as it is of abortion.

38. "They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it." Lumen Gentium,14 and Ad Gentes, 7.

39. Contrary to what many Catholics now seem to think, Dignitatis Humanae does not regard religion and irreligion as on the same level. "The civil authority ... must recognise and look with favour on the religious life of its citizens ... it must help to create conditions favourable to the fostering of religious life ... It has the right to protect itself against possible abuses committed in the name of religious freedom" (art. 6)."It is a serious transgression of God's will and men's rights when force is applied to wipe out or repress religion either throughout the world or in a single region" (art. 7). However, the American Fr John Courtney Murray, one of the principal advocates for a shift or development in the Church's teaching about religious freedom, and an important contributor to the text of Dignitatis Humanae, found questionable "the prominence given (in the final text) to man's, moral obligation to search for the truth, as somehow the ultimate foundation of the right to religious freedom." The fact that "the notion appears four times" he finds excessive and a misunderstanding by the Council Fathers of the "twentieth century state of the question." However, the main point, surely, is not the number of times the notion appears, but whether it is true for the 20th, 21st, and any other century.

40.  The common good: "The sum total of those conditions of social life which enable men to obtain a fuller measure of perfection with greater case. It consists chiefly in safe≠guarding the rights and duties of the human person" who "has a moral obligation to seek the truth especially religious truth" (D.H., art. 6).

41.  "Substantial identity of doctrine was indeed affirmed but not demonstrated" These words, which could well have been said of Dignitatis Humanae, were actually written about the Council of Chalccdon. 451 AD. in relation to some of the formulas of the preceding Council of Ephesus, 431 AD (Tixeront, History of Dogmas. Maryland. Christian Classics, 1984). According to Bishop de Schmedt of Bruges. the relator who introduced and defended the draft of D.H. at Vatican II, the demonstration of the identity of its teaching with the traditional teaching would have to be done by theologians after the Council. Unfortunately, only too many of its interpreters have confused "public order" with "public peace:' In other words they only allow the state the right to intervene in matters religious where they seem likely to provoke public disturbances, not where they involve an infringement of the natural law.

42. Outside the Anglo-Saxon political sphere, so-called "liberal" states had never had any qualms about restricting religious freedom; for example. the French third republic, Switzerland, Mexico, Ataturk's Turkey, or contemporary Russia.

43. For a criticism of Murray on this point. see David L. Schindler, Communio, Winter 1997. pp. 748-9. Underlying Schindler's criticisms of Murray is his different view of the relations between nature and grace.

Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018

Version: 16th February 2021


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