Calo on Catholicism, Liberalism and Human Rights

Zachary Calo (Valparaiso) has posted Catholicism, Liberalism and Human Rights, on SSRN.  The abstract follows. — MLM

Human rights is the dominant moral category of modernity. As both a theoretical concept and the basis of legal norms, human rights shapes the way we think and talk about personhood, social justice, and political obligation. Yet, it is also the case that there is no one account of human rights, but rather competing traditions of human rights that strive for primacy. Human rights, in short, is a deeply contested category through which different moral visions aim to shape institutions and policies. In spite of the label, human rights claims are not universal, either methodologically or substantively. Rather, under the umbrella of human rights is located a constant struggle between the universal and the particular. How this tension unfolds, and whether it does so in a constructive or disruptive manner, is one of the foundational questions that must be engaged in coming years.

In the past, the tension between universality and particularity was considered most commonly in the context of cultural relativism, with particular attention given to the ways in which human rights was a western construct that could not adequately account for different forms of communal values. This issue remains important, though this paper advances the claim that the most significant point of tension is not between human rights values and non-human rights values, but rather a tension within the idea human rights. More specifically, the primary fault line concerns the role of religion and religious traditions as they relate to human rights. This tension has long been pregnant within the modern human rights movement, though it has received greater attention in recent years. Increased sociological awareness of the continued relevance of religion, a questioning of the secular, and certainly the engagement between Islam and the West, has generated new interest in the role of religion within political ideas and movements. This sensitivity, in turn, has opened space for exploring religious accounts of human rights, just as it has provoked an awareness of the ways in which there is a secular tradition of human rights that rests on its own assumptions, methods, and anthropology. The plurality that resides within the liberal human rights tradition, particularly that located on the boundary of secularism and religion, is a necessary backdrop to engaging emerging debates about such significant topics as religious pluralism and religious law. It also must shape our reflections on foundational questions about the limits and possibilities of human rights law.

This paper does not engage these broader contested issues but rather considers the background question of how religious traditions, in this case the social thought of the Catholic church, has engaged the idea of human rights and the liberal tradition more generally. In particular, this case study aims to illuminate the process by which Catholicism developed a native human rights tradition and how, in turn, this tradition is distinguished from its regnant secular counterpart. While there is much within the Catholic tradition that is compatible with the secular liberal conception of human rights, the two traditions nevertheless stand at odds on matters of fundamental import. The Catholic church has therefore increasingly found itself trying to cooperatively advance the cause of human rights while at the same time prophetically challenging the coherence and sustainability of the secular tradition. The church’s understanding of human rights more and more embodies a counter-narrative to the secular human rights tradition, as much as it represents a potential bedfellow. This tension between the Catholic and liberal human rights traditions will likely continue to expand, particularly given the growing divergence of opinion on religio-cultural issues.

By considering the relationship between the Catholic and secular human rights traditions, this paper aims to texture and ultimately complicate our understanding of the idea and history of human rights, thereby bringing attention to the plural moral and political traditions that reside under the rubric of human rights. This is a story that can and should be retold from the perspective of other traditions, and it is a story that is now unfolding within strands of Islamic thought. The story outlined in this paper is thus one that is largely historical, and concerned with intellectual history at that, but equally one with profound implications for thinking about how religious traditions, in both theory and practice, can relate to the broader human rights movement. Only by assessing the theological particularly of religious traditions can we begin to engage the idea of human rights in its prospective universality.

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