As part of a joint project, Religion Dispatches contributing editor Austin Dacey has written a series of posts on The Immanent Frame‘s recent discussion on Christianity and human rights. The last in the series asks what is the true extent of Catholicism’s contribution to the contemporary discourse of human rights:
[Cardinal Pietro] Parolin is correct that for some time, popes have spoken of the dignity of the human person, a phrase that may sound familiar from the U.N. Charter and Declaration of Human Rights. But as his statements lay bare, this Catholic usage is strikingly different from the usage in the contemporary discourse of human rights. What to make of the human rights legacy of Christianity, and conservative Catholic thought in particular, is the subject of a vigorous debate among historians at The Immanent Frame.
Dacey had previously laid out Moyn’s position, which challenges the popular history of human rights that underscores continuities between today’s human rights discourse and past incarnations:
In Moyn’s narrative, human rights are no older than Generation X.
The eighteenth century discourse of droits de l’homme or “rights of man,” he argues, was not a human rights discourse because it was designed to legitimize the national sovereignty of the new revolutionary states rather than limit the national sovereignty of all states. Although the 1940s brought an annunciation of human rights in the United Nations Charter—with its faith in “fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women”—and in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this message “fell on deaf ears” among broader publics. It was a generation later that human rights was reborn as a “utopian” mass movement that “emerged in the 1970s seemingly from nowhere” in reaction to a widespread sense in the West that the credibility of prior utopian projects—Marxist, anti-colonialist, and anti-communist—had exhausted themselves.
Dacey also tackled Moyn’s argument that Christianity has been the driving force behind modern understandings of human dignity and equality:
Moyn might respond that the older rights traditions are sufficiently different from the Catholic personalist concept that we are justified in calling it a new concept. The success of this response turns on whether the Catholic personalist concept was in fact the concept that came to prevail among mid-century elites.
For there were a number of concepts of rights and personal dignity circulating during this period and, contra Moyn, plenty of non-Christians enthusing about them along with Christians enthusing for non-Christian reasons. My next post will sketch some of their stories.
Finally, Dacey has emphasized that other actors, such as the NAACP, played a role in human rights history:
The sociologist and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois lobbied the State Department to extend an official invitation to the NAACP. As Carol Anderson details in Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955, DuBois was joined by the educator and black feminist activist Mary McLeod Bethune and the NAACP’s executive director and chief investigator of lynchings, Walter White, in pressing for an enforceable international bill of human rights and independence for all colonized peoples. Their ultimate goal was to bring the United States’ systematic violation of black citizens’ human rights before the United Nations.
Read the entire series at Religion Dispatches.
This collaboration with Religion Dispatches is made possible by funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.