Monday, January 18

A View From the Mountaintop: The Dignity of the Human Person and Human Rights

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we take a look at two key concepts that were and are essential to social change and social teaching: the dignity of the person and human rights. Indeed, at the core of Catholic Social Thought (CST), and indeed in many religious traditions and denominations, is the notion of human dignity. The fundamental basis for this is found in Genesis, where man and woman are made in the image and likeness of God and thereby have inherent dignity and value. However, CST is not the only movement that has addressed basic human rights and dignity. In fact, since 1946, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) has had a Commission on Human Rights. Two years later, the United Nations drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). There are a number of reasons given in the document for respecting human rights, some of which compare and some of which contrast with with CST. It is important to highlight the similarities, as each person is called to uphold and live out their dignity, and realize that each person has human rights - something that we remember especially on this day of remembering Dr. King.

Historically, the work of Bartolomé de las Casas in the late 1400s-early 1500s was one of the first major contributions to the notion of universal human rights, which were rooted in the dignity of the human person. Significantly, this dignity existed for las Casas regardless of the religious tradition or ethnic background that the individuals or groups belonged to.1 Las Casas was a Dominican friar and Spanish historian, and he used his work to protect Native Americans. This early form of human rights and social mission of the Church did not end with las Casas, and the mission of both the Church and the United Nations was later informed in part due to this early work.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote the papal encyclical Centesimus Annus in commemoration one hundred years after Pope Leo XIII wrote his breakthrough document that jump-started the modern Catholic Social Justice movement - Rerum Novarum. In this encyclical, concerning the Catholic Church and the United Nations on human rights, we read:
After the Second World War, and in reaction to its horrors, there arose a more lively sense of human rights, which found recognition in a number of International Documents and, one might say, in the drawing up of a new "right of nations", to which the Holy See has constantly contributed. The focal point of this evolution has been the United Nations Organization. Not only has there been a development in awareness of the rights of individuals, but also in awareness of the rights of nations, as well as a clearer realization of the need to act in order to remedy the grave imbalances that exist between the various geographical areas of the world. In a certain sense, these imbalances have shifted the center of the social question from the national to the international level.2
This shift from the national to the international level owes a great deal to modern globalization efforts. The United Nations became focused on human rights, which was embodied in their UDHR. The reality of the situation is that our world is not yet a utopia. There is not total, universal peace, harmony or complete respect and upholding of human dignity and human rights. Consider the fact that more than 30,000 children die each day from hunger, from deprivation and other factors, according to the USCCB declaration, A Place at the Table. This document pointed out that “Disease and debt, corruption and conflict are threatening the lives and dignity of millions in our increasingly globalized world.” 

It is therefore very important to continue the ongoing discussion concerning these world issues - not to simply talk about the issues and concerns facing our increasingly globalized world, but to directly address them and take action. As the epistle of James says “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

In short, it is important to be aware of CST principles or the human rights agreed upon by the United Nations in the UDHR, but what is also important is how we apply and integrate these principles, concepts and ideas into practical means and actualize them in reality, rather than only on paper.

The United Nations and Catholic Social Tradition
One of the ways in which people can continue to come together on the topic of human dignity and human rights is by understanding the similarities and differences between traditions, nations, societies, and so forth. For example, when drawing up the UDHR, it is a little known fact that Eleanor Roosevelt and others actually based much of their human rights and principles in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.3

There is, therefore, already a professed link between CST and the UDHR. By examining the Preamble to the UDHR, however, one can begin to highlight some of these key points of contact and dissimilarity. The Preamble begins with the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”4

The document also declares that “human rights should be protected by the rule of law,” and that it is essential “to promote the development of friendly relations between nations.” Also of note, and perhaps most importantly - the UDHR proclaims that this is all rooted in the “dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women.” For those well-acquainted with CST, some of the similarities and dissimilarities are strikingly clear. First of all, both the UDHR and CST see the root of social justice and human rights to be found in the dignity of the human person. However, CST provides the reason for this human dignity: it comes from the fact that we are created equal in the image and likeness of the Creator. The UDHR, however, does not find such a source, and does not specify the source or originator of this human dignity - it simply states that the dignity and worth of the human person is the root of human rights. However, for Christians, Genesis declares that “every person is made in God's image and likeness and endowed with inalienable dignity, regardless of who we are, where we are born, or what we accomplish. As believers, we are called to treat all people—especially those who are suffering—with respect, compassion, and justice.”5

On the other hand, the Preamble of the UDHR is more concerned with relationships between nations and states rather than religious concerns. CST sees its duty and responsibility in the call of the gospel and the call to transformation and respect for human dignity to apply to everyone, equally. But the Church, in its mission and social doctrine, is also concerned about nations and states. It is concerned with issues that strip human dignity - the the poverty issue, human trafficking, poor wages and working conditions, the pornography industry, or any kind of violence or injustice done to a human person. Indeed, it is “about the virtues we practice in our own lives and the values we promote in public life. And this is about whether there is a place at the table for all in our communities, nation, and world.”6

The Franciscan tradition in the Church would speak of a new and growing understanding of “fraternal economy.” This is a way in which one may begin to grasp the economic problems we are faced with today and approach them from a Christian perspective, with roots in CST. The current economic situation, one thinks both CST and the UDHR would agree, offers both solutions and problems for many of the troubles of the world. This is in large part due to globalization. Pope John Paul II encouraged Christians to foster a global culture of solidarity, and often spoke of the principle of solidarity.7 In fact, for the sake of comparison, Pope John Paul II spoke of a number of human rights in his aforementioned papal encyclical:
  • Rights of the worker (3)
  • Right to associations of employers and workers (3)
  • Right to private property (6)
  • Right to religious freedom (9)
  • Right to a just wage (8)
  • Right to private ownership (10)
Each individual is called to defend as well as promote the dignity of the human person and rights of human person regardless of personal bias. The former Pope realized, in keeping with the tradition begun by Rerum Novarum, that peace is built on the foundation of justice.8 By way of comparing and contrasting, the Preamble of the UDHR essentially speaks of the dignity and rights of the worker, the right to private property, a just wage, human dignity as a whole and private ownership. The Church’s mission however, impels it to transform the human person, the family, society and the global world based on its social doctrine. There are rights which one may attain by working, and there are others which flow from the dignity of the person.9 The Church is committed to defending and promoting human rights, just as the United Nations is. 

As a final note - although the UDHR, in its Preamble, does not address it, one of the most fundamental (and controversial) rights that the Church defends is the right to life. This right to life begins when the child is developing in their mother’s womb “from the moment of conception.”10 This also extends to living in a moral environment in a home that will contribute to the health and growth of the child, the freedom to seek out truth, the right to make wise use of the church’s resources, the right to establish a family, and the right to responsibly express one’s sexuality.11 The Church holds that “In a certain sense, the source and synthesis of these rights is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of one's faith and in conformity with one's transcendent dignity as a person.”12

Racism and Human Rights
One of the other major issues that unfortunately still faces the Church today is that of racism. Racism has been seen throughout human history. In the book of Esther, the adviser to the king, Haman, out of his spite for the Jewish people issues an edict in the king’s name that would result in their genocide. Fortunately, the Queen of Persia happens to secretly be a Jew, and is able to put a stop to this attempt. At another point, there is detectable contempt seen in the New Testament times between the Jews and Samaritans, so that when Jesus told his famous parable of the Good Samaritan, it may have been the equivalent of the Good Black-man in the South in the 1850s. Further, one sees in the time of Mahatma Gandhi a disconnect between Indians and Englishmen. The Indian people were not allowed to be seen walking down the street with a white man - and it was against injustices such as this that Gandhi rebelled. He had been thrown off of a train by Englishmen for his skin color. This is racial prejudice.  

Historically, although many of the explorers known in the history books during the period of great discovery and exploration did not all have racial prejudices ruling their decisions, their traders and soldiers did not share such a respect, but “they killed in order to take possession of the land, and reduced first the ‘Indians’ and then the blacks to slavery in order to exploit their work... It was at the end of the eighteenth century that the word "race" was used for the first time to classify human beings biologically... as a contest between strong races and weak ones, with the latter being genetically inferior to the former.”13

In the United States, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln around the time of the Civil War helped to free the African American slaves, and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as figures such as Rosa Parks helped to free us from segregation. But issues of slavery still exist with human trafficking. Issues of segregation still exist in many parts of the world. Discrimination, even if outlawed, is a moral problem, not one that the legal system can necessarily speak to save by force. This is one of the major differences between the UDHR and CST - the Church can speak to the morality of the people, and provide reason to be moral. It encourages Christians as well as people of all religious traditions and all walks of life to uphold human rights and human dignity, including, but not limited to, the problem of racism and discrimination.

Application and Analysis
As Fr. Francis DiSpigno, Franciscan friar at St. Bonaventure University has stated, “With vivid memories of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and the escalation of racial tension on Staten Island and in our nation following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, it was very easy to recognize that the racial divide in our society is still very present.”14 Indeed, it seems that even with the social doctrine of the Church, acts of injustice still occur even in churches themselves. Sometime between January 21-22 of 2015, a Martin Luther King Jr. display of what was called the “Witness Walk” was vandalized in the University Chapel at St. Bonaventure University in Western New York, leaving a note that we should be giving attention to the birthday of Lincoln or Reagan.15 This speaks to a deeper problem, one which is rooted in human dignity. Was this an act of racism? Was this an act of equality that was misunderstood? If so, it was undertaken in the wrong way. Vandalism is not the answer. The MLK event was focused on civil rights, not simply a day of celebration for the African American community - it was for all. This includes what Presidents Lincoln and Reagan would have stood for.

The man who made this display, Sean Conklin, said that “On a personal level, to see work that I’ve put so much time and energy into creating be mindlessly destroyed is very disheartening. However, on a larger level, the act itself only serves to highlight why these icons were created and why the Witness Walk took place... If anything, this act demonstrates the continued need for these types of conversations and events to happen and the continued support they deserve at our university.”16 Several individuals at St. Bonaventure University wrote in to their newspaper, the BonaVenture, in response. One student, Dennis Riordan, argued that students should “turn the other cheek,” as Dr. King did - and as one may point out, as Jesus taught his followers to. Our normal emotional response in such a situation is anger, but in an effort to continue to foster a sense of the deep-rooted human dignity in each person, Riordan contended that students, faculty and staff ought to respond with love.17

Br. Kevin Kriso, another Franciscan friar, responded to the situation by speaking to the mission of King stood for. It was not “just about the inclusion of one type of people into American society. His legacy is about including all people into American society. Before he was cut down, he and others were planning a Poor People’s March. It did not matter what color the poor were. Poor was poor. There were to be people of color from the city ghettos and poor rural whites marching together.”18 What transpired in the University Chapel at St. Bonaventure was an educative experience from start to finish. The guest speaker, on the night of the celebration, spoke about people joining together in love and unity to promote peace and injustice in the face of hatred and injustice. Further, what followed the celebration with the desecration - in a sacred space, no less - of the artwork was in many ways a stripping of human dignity. It showed that the person or persons involved likely felt threatened or desired to prove a point by an act of unwarranted violence instead of peaceful discussion. It further proved the point of the celebration of civil rights and human rights.  

The UDHR and CST would both speak to these. As we are all created in God’s image, this means that all men and women - African, Asian, European, British, Indian, Australian, South American, North American, and others - are all born with this inherent dignity. As such, the act of vandalism only further emphasizes that all of our world’s problems are not simply solved by modern globalization. They have not been fully resolved by the Catholic Church, or by the United Nations. This is why we still need to continue working together.

“Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” - Micah 6:8

The issues facing the world today are not some abstract, academic topic to discussion in a forum. Most certainly, discussion is necessary in order to continue to foster and grow the awareness of global and local issues among people. At the same time, both Catholic Social Thought and the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights help certain people groups to grow in understanding of human rights and human dignity. What is at stake here? Peace among people and nations is at stake. Peace in our cities, in our neighborhoods, and in our families. We must always remember opus solidaritatis pax - peace is the fruit of solidarity.19 Our history shows us that when we fail to recognize basic human rights, whether it concerns the rights of workers, right to life, right to religious freedom, right to free speech and others, it almost always ends in violence.20 

In his final speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the view from the mountaintop, calling to mind the experience of Moses in ancient times. Dr. King declared that he had looked over the mountaintop and seen the promised land, though he did not believe he would live to see it. That Promised Land still exists, and although we have made leaps and bounds in the past few decades, human beings still have a long way to go in recognizing basic human dignity and human rights for everyone. It is the mission of the Church to provide the Body of Christ with a sense of justice, with a sense of mercy, and most importantly, with a sense of love.

There is a place at the table for all. 


[1] Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. The Church and Racism: Toward a More Fraternal Society. 1988. Print.
[2] John Paul II, Pope. Centesimus Annus: One Hundred Years. 1991. 21. Print.
[3] Couturier, Fr. David. Personal interview. 27 Feb. 2015.
[4] "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights." UN News Center. UN, 1 Jan. 1948. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.  
[5] "A Place at the Table." United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 1 Nov. 2002. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Centesimus Annus: One Hundred Years 5.
[9] Ibid., 11.
[10] Ibid, 47.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] The Church and Racism: Toward a More Fraternal Society.
[14] DiSpigno, Fr. Francis. "Do We Want Peace or Division?" The Bona Venture. 29 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
[15] Mericle, Julia. "Security Investigates Vandalism." The Bona Venture. 29 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2015. 
[16] Ibid.
[17] Riordan, Dennis. "SBU Community Must Resist Urge to Be Angry at Vandals." The Bona Venture. 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2015./ 
[18] Kriso, Br. Kevin. "MLK Vandals Missed Real Meaning behind Celebration." The Bona Venture. 29 Jan. 2015. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. 
[19] The Church and Racism: Toward a More Fraternal Society 23.
[20] Ibid., 32.

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