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The Legacy of Dignity

By: Lael Weinberger
October 29, 2015

n 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, declaring the “equal and inalienable rights” of every human being, grounded in the “dignity and worth of the human person.” The Declaration can easily be read as an affirmation of classical liberal tenets about the rights-bearing individual. But according to Christian Human Rights by Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Harvard University, the roots of the central concepts—dignity, the human person, and rights—are found in a religious tradition, and a conservative, anti-liberal tradition, no less. Moyn’s book is no celebration of religion or conservatism, however. Against those who trace human rights back to the Reformation, Aquinas, or the Bible, Moyn argues that the religious turn to human rights was recent, contingent, and even morally troubling.

One would be hard-pressed to find the concept of “dignity” in constitutions or legal documents prior to 1937, nor was it typically connected to rights. The Irish Constitution of 1937 was the first of a new generation of charters to invoke “the dignity and freedom of the individual” in its preamble. Over the following decade, this link would become commonplace: today some 160 national constitutions cite human dignity. What was the inflection point? According to Moyn, the answer can by found by looking at the Catholic Church. Two encyclicals issued by Pope Pius XI in March 1937 condemned Nazism and Communism. In both, Pius defended the “dignity of the human person,” and linked that dignity to rights. Pius called Communism a “system full of errors,” not least of which was that it “denies the rights, dignity and liberty of human personality.” As for Nazi Germany, the pope decried “measures of intimidation” designed to enforce party loyalty and pull Catholics away from the church, a situation that “violates every human right and dignity.”

“Human dignity,” the defense of the “person,” and “human rights” were conceptual tools in a Catholic reshuffling across Europe. Catholics sought a new balance between “secular liberalism and religious authoritarianism” and older elements of Catholic social thought (and politics) were repurposed in the tumultuous years of the 1930s and 1940s. For decades, conservative European Catholics had understood their faith, especially the social teachings of the Church, to be locked in combat with secular liberalism. The liberalism opposed by the Church was radically individualistic, emphasizing autonomy and liberation from constraints. To Catholic intellectuals, such emancipation was materialistic, hedonistic, and godless. Against it, Catholic conservatives supported corporatist and communitarian politics that emphasized the common good rather than individual rights.

As the 1920s turned into the 1930s, a schism arose between Catholic conservatives drifting towards the seemingly lesser evil of fascism, and those uniting in opposition to it. In the ensuing debate, anti-liberal, pro-fascist Catholics favored corporatism, while the anti-fascists sought an alternative, distinct from corporatism, communism, and the secular liberalism they had long opposed. By linking rights to a vocabulary of humanity and dignity, anti-fascist Catholic intellectuals, including Jacques Maritain, sought a distinct position that valued the person yet still invoked communitarian and religious traditions.

The 1937 encyclicals made this link part of Catholic doctrine by incorporating the very language the French Revolution had wielded against the Church. Human rights went global through the Church, not through secular liberalism. Moyn insists, however, that human rights were not a natural outworking of principles embedded in Christianity. They were, rather, widely viewed as unconnected with or even opposed to Christianity. One wing of Catholic Europe embraced rights only out of desperation, when the alternative was to be implicated in the horrors of Nazism. It follows that the modern understanding of human rights reflects something accidental, not essential, about Catholicism and Christianity.

Moyn offers a cautionary tale for those who want “to revive…the promise of secular emancipation,” despite its failures from the French Revolution through the tragedies of the 1940s. Uniting Christianity’s commitment to authority and community with the language of rights and human dignity is the legacy of “Christian human rights.” Thus explicated, human rights are not inherently revolutionary or emancipating, but instead lend themselves to upholding a conservative status quo. Implicit in Moyn’s analysis is the suggestion that this synthesis comes at a cost: progressives in liberal regimes find it difficult to address such issues as income inequality and racial discrimination because “human rights,” linked to the conservatism of the authority and community, provides a cover for preserving the status quo. An understanding of human rights that partakes of a heritage of religious authoritarianism ends up diluting rights.

Alternate versions of this story are possible, however, and could go something like this: One strain of conservative religious thought—a suspicion of state power capable of absorbing and eliminating all other sources of meaning and authority in society—was essential to the rise of modern human rights. This, in turn, comports with key tenets of classical liberalism. Rather than concentrating on the fusion of religious authority and human rights, and subsequent “dilution” of secular rights, we should remember that conservative religious traditions possessed unique resources necessary to resist secular authoritarianism. For conservative Christians, fixed moral standards provided a robust basis for contesting the Nazi state’s claims. The role of religious conservatives should not be romanticized, but neither should it be disregarded. When secular liberals sought to oppose the evils of totalitarianism, they ended up drawing on the moral realism of the religious conservatives. From this arose the modern understanding of human rights.

Those who do not share Moyn’s commitment to secular emancipation may occasionally find his tone grating. Nonetheless, for anyone interested in the relationship of religion and politics, Christian Human Rights is a worthy book to think about, and with.