Catholic Social Doctrine and Human Rights: From Rejection to Endorsement?

The Catholic Church is today widely regarded as one of the staunchest advocates of human rights, a perception that Vatican authorities have done much to both uphold and foster over the course of the past few decades. At least since the second half of the 1960s, reference to the notion of human rights has been pervasive in the official discourse produced by the Catholic Church, and the institution is also deeply implicated in the material support of a vast array of “humanitarian” organizations across the world.1

Nevertheless, when the notion of human rights first appeared on the stage of world history toward the end of the eighteenth century, the position adopted by Vatican authorities with respect to it was one of radical rejection. In a message he addressed to the French bishops on March 10, 1791, for example, Pope Pius VI declared that human rights are “contrary to religion and society.”2 This remained more or less the Vatican’s official position throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.

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