How the Catholic Church learned to love human rightsby Jonathan Derbyshire / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
On Christmas Day 1942, when the Second World War had yet to take a decisive turn in the Allies’ favour, Pope Pius XII delivered his seasonal message. It was entitled “Dignity of the Human Person” and announced the Church’s commitment to “respect for and the practical realisation of… fundamental personal rights.” In his new book, “Christian Human Rights,” the American intellectual historian (and occasional Prospect contributor) Samuel Moyn describes Pius’s invocation of the “unforgettable rights of man” as a “critical turning point”—both in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and in the development of the discourse of human rights.
It’s also a historical puzzle: why did the Catholic Church, which had previously rejected the secular language of human rights, then adopt it? When I spoke to Moyn recently, he told me that the roots of Pius’s apparently sudden conversion lay in the 1930s.
SM: Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, had been the pioneer in making human rights a Catholic political language at the highest levels of the Church. I think the reason was that, like many Catholics in the rank and file, the popes had had their own fliration with the far right in European politics—most of all with Mussolini in Italy. And while they never turn their back on the far right in places like Spain and Portugal, they realise that secular statesmen could betray them, even when they claim to be Christians. The popes realised that trying to Christianise states was a dangerous game. So they decided they had to have a way of marking the limits of states and of secular power. [Talking about] rights was their way of doing so.
JD: It seems to me that your argument in this book is aimed in two directions at once: on the one hand, against secular liberals who deny any connection between the idea of human rights and Christian doctrine; and, on the other, against Christians who claim that the Christian lineage of human rights is a long one.
That’s right, though I’d also add a third audience, which is the contemporary left. There’s this fascinating battle going [in the UK] right now about the Human Rights Act. It’s very clear to historians working on the 1940s that it was the Tories, and Winston Churchill in…