Christianity and Human Rights
NICHOLAS P. WOLTERSTORFF
The relation of Christians to human rights is a troubled relationship. It was not always so; it became so in the twentieth century. What I mean is that the relation of Christians to the claim that there are human rights became a troubled relationship. The relation was always troubled in that Christians, along with others, violated human rights. What happened in the twentieth century is that large numbers of Christians became hostile to the very idea of natural human rights. Though not absent among Catholics, this hostility was mainly to be found among Protestants. The entire argument in the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 is based on the natural human right to religious liberty.
In his ground-breaking book, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law and Church Law 1150–1625,1 Brian Tierney tells the story of the employment of rights-talk, including that of natural rights, by the canon lawyers of the twelfth century. Charles J. Reid, Jr., a student of Tierney, fleshes out the story in his Power over the Body, Equality in the Family: Rights and Domestic Relations in Medieval Canon Law.2 In The Reformation of Rights,3 John Witte, Jr. tells the story of the near-profligate appeal to natural rights by the early Calvinists. The story of appeals to natural rights in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance has been told by Richard Tuck in Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development.4
It was often said in the past, and is still said by many today, that the idea of natural rights was devised by the secular political philosophers of the Enlightenment, especially Hobbes and Locke. The studies mentioned above show decisively that this is false. The idea of natural rights emerged from the legal culture of the Christian West in the Early Middle Ages and has been employed by lawyers, theologians, philosophers, political theorists, and social and political activists ever since. The philosophers of the Enlightenment inherited the idea from their Christian forebears; they did not devise it.
The historical facts mentioned above are compatible with its being a matter of pure happenstance that the idea of natural human rights emerged from the legal culture of the Christian West and has been employed by Christian thinkers ever since. Some writers have argued exactly this, that Christian thought has no integral connection with the idea of natural human rights. Others have argued for the even stronger position that a deep understanding of the idea of natural rights shows it to be inimical to Christianity; the fact that Christians have embraced the idea reveals an almost inexplicable obtuseness on their part.5 I will be getting to