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  • Human Rights as Natural Juridical Goods and the Juridical Domain of the Principles of Catholic Social Doctrine
  • Petar Popović


In recent years, research has flourished concerning the historical occurrences and particular contextual settings of the term "human rights" in the magisterial documents of the Catholic Church—along with its other, usually interchangeably used,1 equivalents such as "natural rights," "basic rights," or "fundamental rights."2 It is no exaggeration to say that [End Page 909] magisterial documents' consistent use of the term "human rights" or its equivalents is practically coextensive with the development of official teaching on various issues of Catholic social doctrine. In fact, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church dedicates an entire section of its chapter 3 ("The Human Person and Human Rights") to the concept of "human rights,"3 thereby indicating that this concept is an integral part of the Catholic social doctrine (CSD).

However, the exact meaning of the concept of "human rights" is significantly less obvious than the historical consistency of its usage in CSD. Granted, the magisterial documents that mention "human rights" contain certain elements that, taken together, present at least a partial understanding of what is understood by this concept. Nonetheless, some authors regard these elements as insufficient for a clear doctrinal understanding of the concept, as well as for its precise connection with other essential principles of CSD.

Roland Minnerath argues that the magisterial "rights" talk risks implying a subjectivist shift toward a consideration of the person as the focus of rights while disregarding the objectivist perspective of that which is, according to nature, due in justice to the person.4 In Russell Hittinger's opinion, the magisterial usage of rights language, especially when not accompanied by a reference to the metaphysical scheme of duties arising from the natural law, is vulnerable to confusion with the "thin accounts of the human good that are so typical of contemporary liberal thought,"5 where rights are envisioned as mere conceptual extensions of a "negative anthropology."6 Jean-Yves Calvez and Jacques Perrin, in their defense of [End Page 910] the magisterial teaching on human rights, construe a rather provocative, "straw-man" critique: from the premise that "man has rights, in himself, before even we consider his relationships with other free persons or with society," it follows that human rights in CSD might contain a foundational reference to individualism; now, "is not this simply a new edition of the … belief … of those who proclaimed rights of man in 1789?"7 In a trenchant critique of the concept of human rights in general, the French legal historian Michel Villey asserts that "the appearance of human rights bears witness to the decomposing process of the concept of right."8 In his opinion, the theoretical attempt to "measure a [juridical] relationship which includes plural terms by taking as the starting point only one of these terms, namely man (or his desires, his will or the individual's subjective understanding),"9 inevitably leads to a concept of right that promotes radical individualism.10

These and similar perplexities may be summed up in the following question: "Cannot the word 'rights' be used without endorsing a whole series of propositions that would be judged incompatible with the Christian tradition?"11

Most of the authors who express such perplexities are prepared to defend the thesis of the compatibility between the concept of human rights and CSD. The crucial question is: under what conditions? What are the exact elements that a doctrinal position on the concept of human rights [End Page 911] should possess in order to faithfully reflect other essential claims of CSD?

Certainly, the Catholic Church considers the coherence between the concept of human rights and CSD to be one of the pillars of its social teaching.12 The social magisterium seems to employ the concept of human rights as if there is no room for potential perplexities regarding its usage.

In the first part of this article we shall argue that the academic understanding of CSD's underlying conception of human or natural rights is in need of a more adequate and more explicit synthesis. Moreover, we are convinced that this synthesis must also be...


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