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Catholicism, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Excerpts from a book chapter by Ingrid Shafer in 
Alan Race and Ingrid Shafer, eds. Religions in Dialogue: From Theocracy to Democracy.   Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2002. Forthcoming.

When we examine the various documents, encyclicals, and speeches issued by Pope John Paul since his election, it becomes clear that he speaks movingly of human rights when he argues for peace, concern for the environment, economic justice, and antisemitism, and in order to condemn such perceived evils as abortion, consumerism, secularism, and totalitarianism. However, he is consistently silent concerning possible human rights violations within the Church, especially pertaining to the rights of theologians, women, married couples, and homosexuals. 

As we consider the history of the Church, any support of the notion of human rights – except for economic justice issues since Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) -- by a pope would have been unimaginable as late as the 1950s. In the 19th century the popes saw themselves as staunch defenders of a feudal, hierarchical Christian civilization under attack by secular political radicals and godless liberals. 

In that spirit. Rome vehemently opposed the very notions of freedom, equality, and fraternity – the essential civil liberties of the French Revolution. Yet, those notions had not emerged in a vacuum. They were developed in a cultural matrix steeped in Catholicism by men almost all of whom were baptized Catholics who were generally educated in Church-run schools. Francois Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire, for example, had received an excellent education at the Jesuit College Louis-le-Grand. Denis Diderot, was also educated by the Jesuits before graduating with an MA from the University of Paris. Jean Le Rond D’Alembert, an illegitimate child, named for the church Saint-Jean-le-Rond where his mother had left the newborn, was educated at a vaguely Jansenist College des Quatre-Nations where his professors advised him to study for the priesthood. 


While the Enlightenment along with the Declaration of Human Rights had originated in France, other European regions were profoundly affected, and especially among educated Catholics the ideals of human rights came to be seen as flowing naturally from the best Christianity could be. 

Between 1802 and 1827, Ignaz Heinrich von Wessenberg (1774-1860) was Vicar General of Constance, the largest and most populous diocese in Germany with a population of about 1.5 million and over six thousand secular priests, monks or friars, and women religious. . . . Enlightenment Catholics such as Wessenberg had no intentions of forming a separate church; they wanted to reform their church from within. Enlightenment Catholics called for freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and representative government. They argued that under certain conditions, divorce and remarriage should be allowed. They also considered the official position that all children in a mixed marriage should be raised Catholic unfair to the Protestant partner, and suggested that both Catholic priests and Lutheran pastors should be involved in the wedding ceremony.

Enlightenment Catholics wanted all elements within the Church to participate in the decision making of the Church. They called for “diocesan synods made up of lay and clerical representatives of the whole diocese ought to be called to help decide the most pressing questions of the day.” Enlightenment Catholics were also opposed to the law of mandatory celibacy. In the 1840s a petition opposed to mandatory celibacy was signed by 600 priests, almost 70% of the secular clergy in the diocese of Freiburg. Deep concern with these human rights related issues and even the method of using petitions are eerily reminiscent of the current “We Are Church” movements that involve Catholics all over the world, most of whom do not even realize how much they owe to an earlier generation of Catholic idealists whose efforts were buried under the full weight of the Roman might.

In the conservative backlash orchestrated by Rome, Enlightenment Catholics were condemned as enemies of the Church. Their opponents called themselves “kirchlich” (of the Church), and the so called “kirchliche Bewegung” (Movement of the Church) was characterized by total support of authoritarian rule by the bishops and the Pope. Wessenberg’s diocese was gradually reduced in size until it was dissolved. Liberal theologians at universities and seminaries were replaced by conservatives. Liberal journals and other publications were suppressed. Pope Gregory XVI’s encyclical Mirari vos (15 August 1832) was directed not only at French Modernist thinkers but also at the Germans. Toward the end of Wessenberg’s life, two of his works in which he severely criticized Roman intransigence and triumphalism were placed on the Index. By 1850 liberal Catholics had been defeated–at least for another century. History books are written by the victors. Hence it is not surprising that in the 1912 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, Wessenberg is dismissed as “entirely unfit for the position.” However, as Arnold Toynbee tells us, unresolved challenges tend to recur periodically until they have been met. In many ways the Second Vatican Council represents a major, if belated and still partial, victory for Enlightenment Catholics. The “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” for example, was clearly anticipated by the Enlightenment Catholics who had insisted on religious liberty and freedom of conscience. They even wanted to ensure religious freedom for Jews, a freedom finally legislated in Vatican II’s decree on Non-Christian Religions.

We read in The Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis humanae), promulgated on 7 December 1965: “The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others.”


The Catholic Church is not a monolith and should not be reduced to the governing hierarchy. Ever since the formative centuries of the Christian tradition there have been two concurrent manifestation of the Catholic Church -- the institutional Church and the Church as the “People of God,” the “Church of the bishops and popes” on the one hand, and the “Church of the parish priests and the people” on the other hand. In the Middle Ages, the “Princes of the Church” were usually drawn from the nobility, especially from among second sons who according to the law of primogeniture were not entitled to inherit their fathers’ estates. Parish priests, on the other hand, were generally educated commoners who in terms of their world view were much closer to their congregations than the bishops. This split has continued to the present, as we can see by the contemporary support of priests for various democratizing movements within the Church. One of the major points of discord was the enforcement of celibacy among parish priests by bishops in the eleventh century, a struggle that continues to the present age.

In addition, apart from their power over diocesan priests, bishops saw themselves as relating to sovereigns and temporal lords not only as their equals but from an elevated position, as vicars of God on earth, a super-aristocracy. This understanding led the Church to disregard the fundamental orientation toward freedom that is one of the most essential human characteristics. It allowed the Church to become an institution that participated in crusades and conquests, severely censured words and even thoughts, threatened persecution, torture, exile, and death by fire, and converted by forced baptisms. Even after losing his supremacy over temporal rulers, the Pope remains the sovereign of the Holy See, the official name of the State of the Vatican City, a “monarchical-sacerdotal” state. 

While both of these branches share through Yeshua the Jew the common root of the Hebrew tradition, they developed quite differently, as shepherds and sheep found themselves challenged in diverse ways. Theoretically, Christianity inherited the Jewish emphasis on radical human equality. The People Israel as well as foreigners are considered children of the same father. Men as well as women are envisioned as created in God’s image and equal in the Covenant of the people with its God. The Decalogue and the Torah in general stress the duties inherent in the relationship of men and women to one another and express what now would be called human rights from the perspective of the obligation to respect those rights among others–among neighbors, the oppressed, orphans, widows, and even passing strangers. Job condemns slavery, and in Leviticus, the law of the jubilee prescribes the release of all Hebrew slaves, no matter when first enslaved, at a fixed date, once every fifty years. As for gentile slaves, they are to be treated kindly and, if possible, set free. 

For the nascent Christian community, Paul argues that all human beings are sisters and brothers, members of the same family. In the Christian analogical universe there is to be no distinction between Jew and Gentile, between free men and slaves. However, this equality in Christ is an equality of saved souls after death; it does not apply to life on earth. While Paul asks Christians to treat slaves humanely, he does not question the institution itself. People are equal before God, but this equality is a future equality after death to be anticipated in hope and faith by men and women who accept their station in life in humble fulfillment of their divinely appointed duties toward God, their neighbors, and whatever authorities are placed above them. Eighteen hundred years later, the automatic acceptance of slavery and the inferior position of women were still so pervasive that neither the U.S. Bill of Rights nor the French Declaration of the Rights of Man addressed slavery or women’s rights, since only property holding European males were considered citizens. 

As Gregory Baum notes in his “Catholic Foundations of Human Rights,” there are actually two types of human rights affirmed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights – political and socio-economic rights. The latter have long been closely aligned with the Catholic tradition. Political rights, on the other hand, and especially rights pertaining to liberty of thought and conscience, have been viewed with alarm and suspicion. Leo XIII’s spirited defense of social justice for the “working classes” in his encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) and his support for the abolition of slavey (1888), in no way negated his above mentioned condemnation of the doctrine of human rights in Libertas praestantissimus. 

In the encyclical, Leo insists that “the highest duty is to respect authority, and obediently to submit to just law” for “it belongs to the perfection of every nature to contain within itself that sphere and grade which the order of nature has assigned to it, namely the lower should be subject and obedient to the higher.” All rational beings have a natural liberty of choosing “means fitted for the ends proposed.” However, disobedience constitutes an abuse and corruption of this freedom of choice and is automatically punished by relegation to a lower state of being and, therefore, loss of liberty. Leo quotes Saint Thomas’ dictum that “the possibility of sinning is not freedom, but slavery.” Hence, the very condition of human liberty is “obedience to some supreme and eternal law, which is no other than the authority of God commanding good and forbidding evil.” On this basis Leo annihilates the doctrines of nineteenth-century liberalism – sovereignty of the people, democracy, and the liberties of conscience, religion, speech, and the press.

And yet the Second Vatican Council happened, and at the threshold of the third Christian Millennium, even the Pope is beginning to view all human right as rooted in Catholic soil, based not on political liberalism but concern for the common good of society. In the words of Gregory Baum

[T]he theoretical basis for civil liberties and all human rights is the common good of society, i.e. the values, institutions, laws and structures that mediate relationships between persons and groups in accordance with their human dignity. Thus the right to dissent, to religious worship, to form associations and organize opposition are not granted simply because the subjective demands of the person must not be violated, but rather because the objective order, the common good, the structures that mediate communication between people, would be damaged whenever these rights are missing. Violation of civil rights does not only harm the people who experience repression; it also damages the common good, the quality of life in society, and hence all sections of the population. If the structures that mediate the interaction of persons or groups in society are unjust or distorted then not only is each member of society in potential danger but the defects in the objective order will affect public consciousness and create a perverted moral sense in the whole of the population. Without these freedoms society as a whole communicates a false and distorted self-understanding to its members. The violation of political freedoms and in fact of all human rights creates a false and potenitally [sic] dangerous perception of the social reality, a social illness as it were, with damaging effects on all levels of society.

Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

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

Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Last updated 20 March 2002
Electronic version copyright © 2002 Ingrid H. Shafer
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