The Catholic Church, Human Rights, and Democracy: Convergence and Conflict with the Modern State

Article excerpt

IN POPE BENEDICT XVI'S ADDRESS to the Roman Curia of December 22, 2006, he made reference to the Catholic Church's own journey toward embracing human rights and religious freedom. (1) Perhaps surprisingly to some, he gave credit for this development to the Enlightenment, which he said could count human rights and religious freedom as its "true conquests." More predictably to most, he reiterated his longstanding criticism of the Enlightenment's attempt to ground these principles on positivist and skeptical foundations. He argued rather that a constructive synergy of faith and reason was the best foundation for tolerance, human rights, and the preservation of religious freedom.

Benedict's thesis points to an ambivalent historical relationship between the social teachings of the Catholic Church and modern political institutions based on human rights and democracy. It is in part a story of convergence. Gradually, over the course of the twentieth century, then far more rapidly beginning with the Second Vatican Council, following upon several centuries of consistent resistance to the momentum of European politics, the Church came to embrace norms of human rights and democracy reflective of those that appeared in international instruments like the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the constitutions of western democracies. As the term convergence--rather than accommodation or adaptation--suggests, the Church did not simply conform itself to what others had long before pioneered. True, as Benedict argues, a dialogue with the Enlightenment did beget Catholic evolution in certain dimensions of rights, especially religious freedom. But it is also the case, as we point out below, that the Church has articulated a tradition of rights since as early as the sixteenth century. For its own part, the state and the "international society" of states had to evolve, too. The sovereign states system signified by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 clearly evaded the accountability that human rights and democracy demand. The French Revolution and its liberal republican legatees in Europe and Latin America propounded a portfolio of rights, to be sure, but with prominent lacunae, particularly in the case of the religious freedom of the Catholic Church. Indeed, the Church's own willingness to embrace religious freedom at Vatican II arose in part from the assurance that post--World War II Western European democracies as well as the US Constitution provided that the Church could be free under a liberal democratic constitution.

But the long rapprochement between the Church and modern norms of human rights and democracy is neither complete nor uncontested. After Vatican II, tensions between the Church and modern states and international institutions did not disappear; ongoing clashes included the Church's complex confrontation with authoritarian states and its fracases with democracies over abortion, divorce, fetal research, euthanasia, war, and other issues, with the UN overpopulation policy, and with the European Union over Europe's Christian identity and its policies on the family and sexuality.

This article argues that the Catholic Church's relationship to human rights and democracy in the modern world can only be understood through both of the above dynamics: a historical convergence and the persistence of tension. The first half of the article argues for this dual theme in the doctrines of the Church, where today, as over the past several centuries, the Catholic conception of the common good yields both an embrace of human rights and democracy and a critique of their secular espousal. The second half of the article focuses on practice, showing how the Church's efforts to advance its teachings on human rights and democracy sometimes succeed and sometimes encounter resistance, both on account of conceptual differences with modern states and international organizations as well as problems rooted in institutional realities. …

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