Christopher Columbus meets the Indians of the New World 

Although her current whereabouts are unknown, many heaved a sigh of relief when Asia Bibi, a Christian wife and mother, was declared innocent of blasphemy charges in Pakistan early November. The sentence was seen to uphold judicial independence and due process over mob pressures and violence. It was also considered a beachhead for rights of conscience and religious freedom in a predominantly Muslim country.

Meanwhile, halfway around the globe, thousands of Central Americans trudged along northwards in a migrant caravan through Mexico. In response, President Trump sent an almost equal number of US troops to the border as a “welcome party”. We still don’t know how this meeting will end. Will claims of asylum rights be heard or will they be silenced by force, based on opposing rights to national security?

These two, seemingly unrelated events serve to show how the language of human rights dominates global ethical discourse nowadays. They also manifest the extreme difficulty of adjudicating between oftentimes incompatible rights claims.

How does Catholic social thought stand with regard to such “rights talk”? Examined closely, the two have never enjoyed a straightforward relationship.

On the one hand, Catholic teaching in moral matters has been traditionally explained in reference to the Ten Commandments and the virtues. Aquinas’ treatise on moral theology reflects this basic structure. The Decalogue, originally received from the Jewish faith as part of the Mosaic Law, contains duties and obligations toward God, first, and fellow human beings, second.

Although it originated in a covenant between God and the chosen people, it was not meant to give rise to a “bill of rights”. God possessed every right over the chosen people while the chosen people had nonesuch claims before God. The content of the Decalogue came to be identified essentially with the provisions of the “Divine Positive Law” through contact with the Natural Law tradition as developed mainly by the Stoics. Similarly, Scriptures are filled with accounts of the virtues, particularly the Beatitudes, which are supposed to paint in words a portrait of Jesus Christ for his followers.

Catholic teaching on the virtues incorporates a lot of aretaic [virtue] theory and moral psychology from the ancient Greeks, specifically Plato and Aristotle, with accommodations for supernatural and theological virtues, especially charity, the perfection of all the virtues, as Augustine emphasized.

Again, although virtues such as justice entail acknowledging what is due to others, they do not insist so much on making absolute claims or “rights”. Rather, virtue ethics avers that it is preferable to suffer injustice than to commit it, for instance, through a wrongful rights claim.

Compared to Natural Law and the virtues, the language of human rights in ethics is more recent, coming into circulation with post-Enlightenment liberalism.

In varying degrees, rights theory largely presupposes that human beings are, by nature, individuals who enter into social contracts to further their own purposes or private ends. Hence, in its origin, conventional human rights theory denies that people are by nature social or relational beings, as personhood affirms. There is no “natural society” such as the family or the political community; only fully-constituted atomistic individuals who seek their self-interest. Neither is there a shared or common good, perfective of human beings. Because of disagreement on the good, the most to which individuals can aspire is a just distribution of the means society provides for each to achieve their distinctive fulfillment (procedural social justice).

Rights are the means guaranteed by the political community for each individual to satisfy their mostly material desires. The political community (roughly equivalent to the state or even society in general) is but an instrument, like rights themselves, for the fulfillment of individual self-interests.

On the other hand, a Catholic philosopher as eminent as Jacques Maritain was actively involved in drafting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain thought that although people disagreed about their philosophical, religious, or moral justifications, they could agree on a basic list of rights as reasonable and practical conclusions from such beliefs.

However, rights have been used since then not as practical conclusions, but as premises for purportedly correct behaviors. For instance, the right to free speech does not contain any specific command or prohibition. Rather, based on the right to free speech, people think it is wrong, for example, to censor editorials critical of government policies. Yet nothing in human rights theory explains why people should believe or support freedom of expression. Human rights are used in a “positivistic” or “fundamentalist” manner; they are imposed without consent or agreement and no rational grounds are offered for upholding them.

Ironically, thinkers as far apart as Friedrich Nietzsche and Alasdair MacIntyre would be in agreement in their critique of this point. Nietzsche would call human rights another “mask” of the “Will to power” while MacIntyre dismisses them as a “moral platitudes”. Human rights are no different from taboos. 

Yet the Vatican, which represents the Catholic Church in temporal affairs, actively engages with human rights as permanent observer in the United Nations. For instance, heading the Vatican delegation to the Beijing Conference on Women’s Rights in 1995 was the eminent Harvard professor and legal rights scholar Mary Ann Glendon. And more recently, in 2015, Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si wholeheartedly endorsed a human right to global environmental and climate justice. Rights, therefore, seem firmly entrenched in Catholic social teaching, together with the principles of human dignity, common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity.

Despite the difficulties outlined above, is it possible to integrate human rights with Catholic social thought? There may be grounds for optimism so long as we look to a personalist, non-contractualist source as the one presented by Francisco de Vitoria, a 16th Century Spanish Dominican friar from the School of Salamanca, in his ius gentium (“law of the peoples”).

De Vitoria wrote his treatise on ius gentium in response to the need for a moral justification of Spanish settlements in the New World. The “titles of conquest” then offered revolved around Pope Alexander VI’s Bulls of Donation (1493), concessions of heathen lands to the kings of Spain and Portugal, and to Charles V’s claim to “universal primacy” as Holy Roman Emperor.

Despite being subject to both the Pope and the Emperor, de Vitoria rejected these “titles” because he thought the Pope did not have temporal power over the New World or the Emperor a “divine right” to American territories which were already politically organized. De Vitoria defended not only the separation between temporal and spiritual or religious powers, but also the autonomy of each of these realms.

For de Vitoria, moral justifications of Spanish settlement in the Americas ought not to be based on religious or political grounds, but on a common human nature.

De Vitoria was convinced from the very beginning that both American natives and Europeans equally shared the same essence or humanity, consisting of an embodied reason and freedom. American natives were not sub-human, irrational brutes, by nature inferior and meant to be governed by Europeans. Despite cultural and other differences, they belonged to the same orbs, “universal community” or “family of peoples (gentium)” and were subject to the same law (ius). This essential equality gave rise to reciprocal claims or rights between them.

Political communities on both sides of the Atlantic were sovereign because all peoples (gentes) had rights to self-government, limited only by Natural Law. All peoples were in equal standing before Natural Law and none were superior to others in humanity. Representing rudimentary political communities, the gentes or “peoples” were to be integrated within the orbs, where the universal temporal common good perfective of human beings was to be sought and realized. The orbs, however, was not conceived as a super-state or a feudal empire, and its function was not simply to coordinate actions between political communities or gentes.

Rather, all human beings and peoples belong and participate in the orbs not contractually, but by virtue of their shared nature. Their flourishing or temporal final end can only be achieved within its limits or horizon.

In the second part of this essay we shall deal with ius gentium elements that provide a legal basis for the rights of American natives. We shall also clarify the connections between the ius gentium, on the one hand, and the Natural Law, civil law, and international law on the other. Lastly, we shall explain the normative potential of the ius gentium as a non-contractualist theory of human rights consistent with Catholic social thought in global ethical debates.

Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. For the academic year 2018-2019, he is a visiting professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He is an editor of the recently published “Business Ethics: A Virtue Ethics and Common Good Approach” (Routledge 2018). He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission.

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...