Teaching on Human Rights

Excerpts on Human Rights from
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
(Emphasis Added)



a. The value of human rights

152. The movement towards the identification and proclamation of human rights is one of the most significant attempts to respond effectively to the inescapable demands of human dignity[302].  The Church sees in these rights the extraordinary opportunity that our modern times offer, through the affirmation of these rights, for more effectively recognizing human dignity and universally promoting it as a characteristic inscribed by God the Creator in his creature[303]. The Church’s Magisterium has not failed to note the positive value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, which Pope John Paul II defined as “a true milestone on the path of humanity’s moral progress”[304].

153. In fact, the roots of human rights are to be found in the dignity that belongs to each human being[305]. This dignity, inherent in human life and equal in every person, is perceived and understood first of all by reason. The natural foundation of rights appears all the more solid when, in light of the supernatural, it is considered that human dignity, after having been given by God and having been profoundly wounded by sin, was taken on and redeemed by Jesus Christ in his incarnation, death and resurrection[306].

Marriage and the Human Rights of the Child

Connected to marriage are the human rights of a child, which are often ignored or neglected.

“The child has the right to be … brought up within marriage: It is through the secure and recognized relationship to his own parents that the child can discover his own identity and achieve his own proper human development. The parents find in their child … the permanent sign of their conjugal union, the living and indissoluble concrete expression of their paternity and maternity”
~ Donum Vitae IIA1
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987 

See also:
1. §155 below for specification of human rights. Note human right to procreate must be subordinated to the rights of the child. (More)
2. Support for the human rights of the child by the U.N.

The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings[307], in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator. These rights are “universal, inviolable, inalienable”[308]. Universal because they are present in all human beings, without exception of time, place or subject. Inviolable insofar as “they are inherent in the human person and in human dignity”[309] and because “it would be vain to proclaim rights, if at the same time everything were not done to ensure the duty of respecting them by all people, everywhere, and for all people”[310]. Inalienable insofar as “no one can legitimately deprive another person, whoever they may be, of these rights, since this would do violence to their nature”[311].

154. Human rights are to be defended not only individually but also as a whole: protecting them only partially would imply a kind of failure to recognize them. They correspond to the demands of human dignity and entail, in the first place, the fulfilment of the essential needs of the person in the material and spiritual spheres. “These rights apply to every stage of life and to every political, social, economic and cultural situation. Together they form a single whole, directed unambiguously towards the promotion of every aspect of the good of both the person and society … The integral promotion of every category of human rights is the true guarantee of full respect for each individual right”.[312] Universality and indivisibility are distinctive characteristics of human rights: they are “two guiding principles which at the same time demand that human rights be rooted in each culture and that their juridical profile be strengthened so as to ensure that they are fully observed”[313].

b. The specification of rights

155. The teachings of Pope John XXIII,[314] the Second Vatican Council,[315] and Pope Paul VI [316] have given abundant indication of the concept of human rights as articulated by the Magisterium. Pope John Paul II has drawn up a list of them in the Encyclical Centesimus Annus (Enumeration, breaks and bolded italics added for emphasis):

  1. “the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception;
  2. the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality; (more on human rights)
  3. the right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth;
  4. the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth’s material resources, and to derive from that work the means to support oneself and one’s dependents; and
  5. the right freely to establish a family, to have and to rear children through the responsible exercise of one’s sexuality.

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”[317].

The first right presented in this list is the right to life, from conception to its natural end,[318] which is the condition for the exercise of all other rights and, in particular, implies the illicitness of every form of procured abortion and of euthanasia.[319] Emphasis is given to the paramount value of the right to religious freedom: “all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits”.[320] The respect of this right is an indicative sign of “man’s authentic progress in any regime, in any society, system or milieu”[321].

c. Rights and duties

Digging Deeper on Marriage

Social Doctrine Related to Marriage, Family and Children from the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church

156. Inextricably connected to the topic of rights is the issue of the duties falling to men and women, which is given appropriate emphasis in the interventions of the Magisterium. The mutual complementarities between rights and duties — they are indissolubly linked — are recalled several times, above all in the human person who possesses them.[322] This bond also has a social dimension: “in human society to one man’s right there corresponds a duty in all other persons: the duty, namely, of acknowledging and respecting the right in question”.[323] The Magisterium underlines the contradiction inherent in affirming rights without acknowledging corresponding responsibilities. “Those, therefore, who claim their own rights, yet altogether forget or neglect to carry out their respective duties, are people who build with one hand and destroy with the other”.[324]

d. Rights of peoples and nations

157. The field of human rights has expanded to include the rights of peoples and nations: [325] in fact, “what is true for the individual is also true for peoples”.[326] The Magisterium points out that international law “rests upon the principle of equal respect for States, for each people’s right to self-determination and for their free cooperation in view of the higher common good of humanity”.[327] Peace is founded not only on respect for human rights but also on respect for the rights of peoples, in particular the right to independence.[328]

The rights of nations are nothing but “‘human rights’ fostered at the specific level of community life”.[329] A nation has a “fundamental right to existence”, to “its own language and culture, through which a people expresses and promotes … its fundamental spiritual ‘sovereignty”’, to “shape its life according to its own traditions, excluding, of course, every abuse of basic human rights and in particular the oppression of minorities”, to “build its future by providing an appropriate education for the younger generation”.[330] The international order requires a balance between particularity and universality, which all nations are called to bring about, for their primary duty is to live in a posture of peace, respect and solidarity with other nations.

e. Filling in the gap between the letter and the spirit

158. The solemn proclamation of human rights is contradicted by a painful reality of violations, wars and violence of every kind, in the first place, genocides and mass deportations, the spreading on a virtual worldwide dimension of ever new forms of slavery such as trafficking in human beings, child soldiers, the exploitation of workers, illegal drug trafficking, prostitution. “Even in countries with democratic forms of government, these rights are not always fully respected”.[331]

Unfortunately, there is a gap between the “letter” and the “spirit” of human rights,[332] which can often be attributed to a merely formal recognition of these rights. The Church’s social doctrine, in consideration of the privilege accorded by the Gospel to the poor, repeats over and over that “the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others” and that an excessive affirmation of equality “can give rise to an individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good”.[333]

159. The Church, aware that her essentially religious mission includes the defence and promotion of human rights,[334] “holds in high esteem the dynamic approach of today which is everywhere fostering these rights”.[335] The Church profoundly experiences the need to respect justice [336] and human rights [337] within her own ranks.

This pastoral commitment develops in a twofold direction: in the proclamation of the Christian foundations of human rights and in the denunciation of the violations of these rights.[338] In any event, “proclamation is always more important than denunciation, and the latter cannot ignore the former, which gives it true solidity and the force of higher motivation”.[339] For greater effectiveness, this commitment is open to ecumenical cooperation, to dialogue with other religions, to all appropriate contacts with other organizations, governmental and non-governmental, at the national and international levels. The Church trusts above all in the help of the Lord and his Spirit who, poured forth into human hearts, is the surest guarantee for respecting justice and human rights, and for contributing to peace. “The promotion of justice and peace and the penetration of all spheres of human society with the light and the leaven of the Gospel have always been the object of the Church’s efforts in fulfilment of the Lord’s command”.[340]


[302] Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Declaration Dignitatis Humanae, 1: AAS 58 (1966), 929-930.
[303] Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 41: AAS 58 (1966), 1059-1060; Congregation for Catholic Education, Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church’s Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests, 32, Vatican Polyglot Press, Rome 1988, pp. 36-37.
[304] John Paul II, Address to the 34th General Assembly of the United Nations (2 October 1979), 7: AAS 71 (1979), 1147-1148; for John Paul II, this Declaration “remains one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time”: Address to the Fiftieth General Assembly of the United Nations (5 October 1995), 2: L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 11 October 1995, p. 8.
[305] Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 27: AAS 58 (1966), 1047-1048; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1930.
[306] Cf. John XIII, Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), 259; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 22: AAS 58 (1966), 1079.
[307] Cf. John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), 278-279.
[308] John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), 259.
[309] John Paul II, Message for the 1999 World Day of Peace, 3: AAS 91 (1999), 379.
[310] Paul VI, Message to the International Conference on Human Rights, Teheran (15 April 1968): L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 2 May 1968, p. 4.
[311] John Paul II, Message for the 1999 World Day of Peace, 3: AAS 91 (1999), 379.
[312] John Paul II, Message for the 1999 World Day of Peace, 3: AAS 91 (1999), 379.
[313] John Paul II, Message for the 1998 World Day of Peace, 2: AAS 90 (1998), 149.
[314] Cf. John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), 259-264.
[315] Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 26: AAS 58 (1966), 1046-1047.
[316] Cf. Paul VI, Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations (4 October 1965), 6: AAS 57 (1965), 883-884; Paul VI, Message to the Bishops Gathered for the Synod (26 October 1974): AAS 66 (1974), 631-639.
[317] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 47: AAS 83 (1991), 851-852; cf. also Address to the 34th General Assembly of the United Nations (2 October 1979), 13: AAS 71 (1979) 1152-1153.
[318] Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, 2: AAS 87 (1995), 402.
[319] Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 27: AAS 58 (1966), 1047-1048; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, 80: AAS 85 (1993), 1197-1198; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, 7-28: AAS 87 (1995), 408-433.
[320] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Declaration Dignitatis Humanae, 2: AAS 58 (1966), 930-931.
[321] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis, 17: AAS 71 (1979), 300.