One of the most vexing issues of global ethics is the question of how to provide a conceptual foundation for human rights. Human rights supposedly provide a universal standard for the treatment of persons, yet the diversity of the world’s cultures and religions makes it difficult if not impossible to find agreement on why persons have human rights, or even whether they exist and how they ought to be enumerated. It has often been noted that while the nations of the world were able to agree to the rights listed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they could not agree on the rationale behind them.
This question is particularly pertinent for Catholics because the Catholic Church has come to embrace human rights as an important part of its social teaching. Catholic social teaching explains that human rights are grounded in the dignity of the person. In theological terms this dignity arises from the human person’s creation in the image of God, although the church also asserts that the dignity of the human person is a truth knowable through reason and not simply an article of faith.
The theologian Meghan Clark, in her recent book The Vision of Catholic Social Thought and elsewhere, has attempted to provide a conceptual foundation for human rights consistent with Catholic teaching but providing a universal grounding for human rights. She argues that human rights must be grounded in anthropology; the only sure foundation for human rights is in the dignity of the human person, created in the image of God. Unlike many other accounts of human rights, she also claims that because the person by nature exists in community, human rights come with corresponding mutual obligations and responsibilities. Although Clark is ultimately right that human rights must be grounded in a correct understanding of the human person, and she provides one of the best accounts of the Catholic understanding of human rights, she skirts the issue of universality—how can one assert the universality of human rights when not everyone shares the anthropology Clark puts forward?
The Hong Kong theologian Mary Mee-Yin Yuen provides a different approach to human rights drawn from the Chinese experience. For several decades the Chinese government has rejected international human rights norms as an imposition of Western imperialism, instead arguing that Confucian ethics provides a different but no less valid set of ethical norms for regulating social life. At the same time, the Chinese government has violated the civil and political rights of its citizens, at least according to those same international norms, and it has suppressed rights activists who appeal to those norms to criticize the government’s behavior. More recently the Chinese government has attempted to impose restrictions on the candidates allowed to run for political office in Yuen’s native Hong Kong, allowing only regime-approved candidates to run. The ensuing Umbrella Movement protests appealed to international standards of democratic participation in calling for a more open election process, whereas the government justified its actions by claiming that democracy can take different forms according to the diversity of cultures.
In this context, Yuen attempts to provide an account of how one might appeal to the universality of human rights in the midst of cultural pluralism. Yuen avoids resorting to a foundation for human rights that exists outside or independently of the cultural particularities that shape people’s worldview. Rather, she proposes the method of mutual enrichment through dialogue.
She points out that the Catholic tradition itself only gradually came to accept the moral framework of human rights through dialogue with secular movements that had long been advocating for human rights. Although scholars like Brian Tierney and Richard Tuck have made clear that the notion of rights is not foreign to the Catholic tradition, it remains the case that in the modern context the church’s adoption of human rights discourse was an innovation in its social teaching. Yuen argues that this example can serve as an analogue for how the Chinese Confucian tradition can develop to include human rights norms, building on already-existing elements of the ethical tradition. She claims that Chinese Christians in particular can encourage this development through dialogue with their own culture.
In Yuen’s account, human rights are universal ethical norms, but agreement about their scope and foundation only comes about through dialogue. This may mean that irresolvable differences remain concerning how diverse peoples understand and implement human rights, but dialogue also provides a way to encourage mutual understanding when faced with these differences.
Yuen’s analysis of human rights has much in common with the “dialogic universalism” proposed by the American theologian David Hollenbach. In Hollenbach’s view, in appealing to human rights, Catholics make universal moral claims while recognizing that those claims remain grounded in their own particular religious tradition. Catholics must retain a sense of humility about the nature of their claims about human rights, remaining open to corrections and new insights achieved through dialogue with members of other cultures and religions.
Whereas Yuen proposes that Chinese Catholics can be a spur for a deepening understanding of human rights within Chinese culture, perhaps American Catholics have a responsibility for ensuring that they maintain sufficient humility about their own understanding of human rights, given the very real tendency of Americans to confer universal legitimacy on their own values and interests. Perhaps American Catholics should make an effort to explore how dialogue with other cultures and religions can enrich our own understanding of human rights. For example, as Yuen’s work illustrates, Confucian ethics has a much stronger sense of mutual obligation and commitment to the common good than is found in America’s individualistic culture, and therefore dialogue with Chinese culture could enrich the communitarian dimension of the Catholic view of human rights that Clark emphasizes in her work.
Clark, Meghan J. “Reasoned Agreement or Practical Reasonableness: Grounding Human Rights in Maritain and Rawls.” In Heythrop Journal 53 (2012): 637-48.
Clark, Meghan J. The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014.
Hollenbach, David. The Global Face of Public Faith. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003.
Yuen, Mary Mee-Yin. “Crosscultural Solidarity in the Pro-Democratic Umbrella Movement of Hong Kong.” In Doing Asian Theological Ethics in a Cross-Cultural and an Interreligious Context, ed. Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, James F. Keenan, and Shaji George Kochuthara, 97-110. Bengaluru, India: Dharmaram Publications, 2016.
Yuen, Mary Mee-Yin. “Human Rights in China: Examining the Human Rights Values in Chinese Confucian Ethics and Roman Catholic Social Teachings.” In Intercultural Human Rights Law Review 8 (2013): 281-321.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.