<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Human Rights: Heart of Christian Spirituality ARCC
ARCC Banner
Home Join ARCC Donate Facebook Table of Contents
DHTML JavaScript Menu By Milonic.com

Who we are

What we do

Contact us



Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Human Rights:  Heart of Christian Spirituality

By James E. Biechler

“One of the major problems I have with Catholics like you who are always concerned about rights and about church structures and laws is that these matters have nothing to do with the essential message of Jesus.  When did Jesus ever speak about rights?  Why don’t you put the emphasis where it belongs, on the spiritual life and our relationship with God?”
H. D., Black Butte Ranch, OR

I guess that you, like many Catholics today, are not very familiar with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.  Here’s a lovely quotation from its document, The Church in the Modern World:  “By virtue of the gospel committed to her, the Church proclaims the rights of man.  She acknowledges and greatly esteems the dynamic movements of today by which these rights are everywhere fostered” [41].  Even before ARCC existed, the council expressed its esteem for our work!

Notice how the council connects the gospel with human rights.  It is in virtue of the gospel of Jesus that we are working for the recognition of the rights of persons.  Just because Jesus is not recorded as having preached about rights does not mean that the contemporary human rights enterprise is alien to his mission.  When Jesus began to preach the Kingdom of God he announced his mission with the words of Isaiah:  “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me.  He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor” (Lk 4:18-19).  The essence of Jesus’s teaching is liberation, the transformation of society, the elimination of the injustice which makes people captives, downtrodden and poor.  Jesus identifies with the downtrodden and the oppressed.  

Without using the term “human rights,” no one in history preached its gospel more eloquently than Jesus of Nazareth.  He saw his mission as one of bringing the righteousness of God (divine justification) to his people.  People are “justified” when the justice of God becomes their justice.  Salvation or justification is, quite simply, a matter of justice.  When we say that Jesus saves us from our sins we mean he saves us from our injustice, for all sin is, in essence, injustice.  The church’s saving mission is one of bringing God’s justice to the world.  Since justice is about rights, ARCC’s focus on rights goes directly to the church’s very heart.

At the root of your question may be the misunderstanding which characterized some of the anti-Catholic polemic of the 18th and 19th centuries, seeing the church as the enemy of democracy and human rights.  Unfortunately, the church was somewhat to blame for this situation because it allied itself too closely with the political status quo and existing power structures.  Scholars are now able to show that the development of natural rights theory derived directly from the biblical tradition, with some help from Greek philosophy.  The latter, however, did not recognize the equality of human persons nor the inalienability of their rights.

Your concern about the “spiritual life” of Catholics carries the undertone that this “life” is somehow disconnected from the ordinary daily life of people, implying some kind of divided concern.  Catholic spirituality, especially through the lives of the saints, has long affirmed the the unity of everyday life with that life we have as baptized members of the kingdom of God.  This truth has not always been obvious and has not always been asserted without ambiguity.  Alas, even in the documents of the Second Vatican Council we still find allusions to the “secular” order and especially to the “secular” order as being the proper sphere of lay activity, as if the kingdom of God were somewhere else.

Because Catholic spirituality today recognizes the social order as the arena of God’s own activity there can be “no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other” [43].  John XXIII taught that “we should not foolishly dream up an artificial opposition—where none really exists—between one’s own spiritual perfection and one’s active contact with the everyday world, as if a man could not perfect himself as a Christian except by putting aside all temporal activity” Mater et Magistra [255].  

So you can see how a preoccupation with rights and church structures is not at all peripheral to the authentic Christian life.  Even our active participation in the liturgy leads to and reflects our active involvement in the kingdom of God everyday and everywhere.  As the title of the late Bishop P. Francis Murphy’s paper at ARCC’s symposium last year affirmed, “Human Rights are the Church’s Business” [cf. p. 2 above].  He wasn’t referring only to human rights in the workplace or in the political arena.  He was very much aware of serious rights abuses within the ecclesiastical sphere.  Along with Bishop Murphy, ARCC believes that true scandal is caused by the abuse and denial of these rights by those who preach the gospel.  Church structures do not always reflect the values one can find in other areas of the social order.  Every day the rights of priests, nuns, brothers, deacons and, yes, even bishops, are abused by ecclesiastical actions, not to speak of the rights of those employed in parishes and dioceses.  Working to correct this is truly the work of Jesus himself.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

<--Previous | Next-->
Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
Locations of visitors to this page

Contact Information

, D.P.A., President
(406) 544-5527
Postal address
P.O. Box 6512
Helena, MT 59604-6512


Website design and maintenance:
Ingrid Shafer &
Copyright © 2003-2010,
Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church
DHTML JavaScript Menu By Milonic.com