Redeemer of Man – Importance of Rights

Pope John Paul II was a great champion of human rights. He spoke of human rights very often throughout his many travels and in his many discourses. He has been criticized for this frequent and emphatic use of “rights discourse.” But we must understand why and how he uses the discourse about rights. I will briefly comment upon the context for this discourse, the principle of human rights, the purpose of these rights, and the order of these rights.

The context of rights discourse: The philosophy of human rights originated in the seventeenth century with Hobbes and Locke. Both transformed the tradition of political philosophy by lowering the goal of political society from virtue to public safety or peace and by appealing to self-interest properly understood instead of the nobility or intrinsic good of moral life. The great beneficiaries of the new discourse were the bourgeoisie and the owners of property. In three hundred years much has intervened. Suffice it to say that the background rise of totalitarianism and the devastation of two world wars sets the context for John Paul II’s rights discourse. Human rights are to be a “fundamental principle of work for man’s welfare.” §17

The principle: the principle for human rights is the “welfare of the person in community.” John Paul formulates the notion of human rights differently from the way Locke and Hobbes did so, on assumptions of individualism, the priority of property and self interest. Instead, he uses the notion of rights to stimulate action for solidarity among all people and for the true flourishing of the person.

The purpose: the discourse of rights should encourage the participation of the person in the political community and to promote human flourishing.

The order of rights: there is a clear priority to the right of conscience and the freedom of religion.
“Certainly the curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but it is above all an attack on man’s very dignity, independently of the religion professed or of the concept of the world which these individuals and communities have.”
“Actuation of this right is one of the fundamental tests of man’s authentic progress in any regime, in any society, system or milieu.” §17

John Paul II’s account of rights is very similar to that given by Jacques Maritain. I compare Maritain with Locke and contemporary theorists in a chapter entitled “Three Philosophies of Human Rights,” in Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, found here..

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