Our Debt to De Vitoria: A Catholic Foundation of Human Rights

By Araujo, Robert John | Ave Maria Law Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Our Debt to De Vitoria: A Catholic Foundation of Human Rights


Araujo, Robert John, Ave Maria Law Review


It is exciting to be here with you as we consider and study the foundation of human rights and the contributions from Catholic minds. Moreover, I am delighted to be a part of a community of scholars who recognize the extraordinary contributions of Catholic thinkers to this crucial topic. In particular, I salute those of you who acknowledge the significance and relevance of thinkers such as the two Francises: de Vitoria and Suhrez. I am further delighted that a number of you have addressed their work at this conference.

Here we are, more than half a millennium later, recalling and celebrating their pioneering work to the eminent field of human rights that some argue is quite new. (1) Although for some, the events of sixty-three years ago, when the U.N. General Assembly voted on a resolution adopting an international charter of basic rights may seem like an eternity ago. Nevertheless, since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December of 1948, most individuals have had some exposure to the phrase "human rights"--both the idea itself as well as some application of it in their respective lives or the lives of people with whom they are familiar. It is clear that recognition of this idea and its implementation did not enjoy much popular acclaim before the end of the Second World War, so it would be understandable to assume that human rights are essentially a product of the contemporary age subsequent to the Second World War.

This outlook was recently acclaimed in a review of Professor Samuel Moyn's new book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, (2) appearing in a recent issue of the Columbia alumni magazine. (3) The title of the review is: "Human Rights: Newer than You Think," and the author is quoted by the reviewer as stating that while there were early sources of human rights discourse, the popular concept is of recent generation. (4) Professor Moyn is quoted as saying, "It's not that there weren't early sources, but at the level of common speech, the idea of international human rights doesn't become widespread until the 1970s." (5)

In spite of this interesting perspective held by some contemporary scholars, we must acknowledge that a crucial source of human rights is to be found in the writings of Francis de Vitoria. One of his most influential works regarding the natural law and its application to human rights discourse is De Indis. (6) By failing to understand his contribution, it would be easy to assume that human rights concepts and principles and the laws addressing them are products of the contemporary age, thereby leaving Professor Moyn's position intact. However, doing so would discount the extraordinary pioneering work of the Neo-Scholastic scholars of the sixteenth century to whom we owe a great debt--especially to de Vitoria.

Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546) (7) lived during the age of the Conquistadors and the Reformation. He was for much of his adult life a Dominican friar and professor of theology at Salamanca. (8) Like the Jesuits Suarez and Bellarmine who were to follow, the source of de Vitoria's legal principles dealing with human rights matters was founded in the natural law and the method of legal reasoning that accompanies this school of legal thought. (9) It was this foundation that led him to consider the notions of popular sovereignty and self-determination, essentially unheard of before his time, as vital elements of human rights doctrine. (10) Moreover, he reached conclusions about the legitimate claims of both native peoples and Europeans that established the foundation for fundamental rights that are addressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("Universal Declaration").

The Universal Declaration begins with an important and remarkable claim: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. …

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