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Why is Pope Francis shunning rights language?

6:00:00 AMAlexander S. Anderson

Professor Samuel Moyn points out something rather fascinating about Pope Francis. That is, despite the fact that Pope Francis is often seen as being to the ideological “left” of his predecessors Pope Saint John Paul and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, he has not presented the Church’s teaching in terms of human rights, as they did.


This isn’t to say that his views have drastically changed from theirs -  we have no reason to doubt Pope Francis claim that he does “not speak to you with my voice alone, but in continuity with the words of my predecessors.” (1) In fact, he continues to speak strongly on immigration, the poor, and the right to life.


He’s just not using the language of rights that we have become accustomed to. Why? Moyn thinks that part of the reason is that the problems the pope wishes to point out are more structural problems where the language of rights simply isn’t that helpful. As Moyn puts it: “It is not so much that he has dropped human rights as that he is more interested in structural problems that individual rights do not solve and often perpetuate.”


Problems like poverty, the “throwaway culture” (2) of modern consumer capitalism, and the worldwide crises of migrants seems to demand a more structural approach, and even a more personal approach, than is usually offered by the often cold and individualistic language of human rights.


Some credence toward this thesis might be offered by Pope Francis’s reviving the “human rights” language not for any of the above-mentioned causes, but for the more reliably “conservative” issue of conscientious objection to gay marriage or the birth control mandate.


I think there’s another way to go at this issue, though. Moyn argues that the Catholic embrace of human rights is of very recent vintage, and this seems undeniable. Popes as recent as the late nineteenth century eyed rights very warily, as Pope Leo XIII attests:


It is quite unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, of speech, or writing, or of worship, as if these were so many rights given by nature to man. For, if nature had really granted them, it would be lawful to refuse obedience to God, and there would be no restraint on human liberty. (4)


Moyn thinks that this suspicion of rights began to change in the years between the first and second world wars, especially among personalists such at Jacques Maritain. But he, too, denied the sort of rights that Pope Leo XIII decries above, saying that they derive from an  “erroneous individualist metaphysics.” Instead, Maritain links his acceptance of human rights with natural law. Natural law is eternal, but positive law (how we understand and implement the natural law) changes. Each particular time period and culture manifests the natural law in different way through their positive law. So “Maritain is able to carve out the space for a justification of human rights as the specific form assumed by the Christian conception of natural law in the context of modernity.” (5)


If we take this specific understanding of human rights, then, it is a time-bound thing, a specific way of understanding how humans are to follow the natural law in a specific, particular circumstance. If this is the case, perhaps Pope Francis thinks that these particular circumstances have passed away or will pass away. Or perhaps he thinks this specific language is losing the moral force it once had.


We can see this in the pope’s stress, again and again, of encounter. It’s easy to simply “respect” or “give space to” someone when we view their dignity in terms of rights. Pope Francis desires that our response to the poor, the sick, and the refugee is something more than that, something that requires an intimate encounter  with the other. This, I think, is why Pope Francis is shunning human rights talk.


  1. Pope Francis, as quoted by John Allen, “Francis 2.0 emerges in America: Pope and Church are a package deal,” Crux, Sept. 23, 2015.
  2. Samuel Moyn, “Pope Francis has given up on human rights. That’s a good thing,” The Washington Post, Sept. 17, 2015.
  3. Pope Francis, “Pope decries ‘throwaway culture’, calls for generational solidarity,” Vatican Radio, June 16, 2014.

  4. Pope Leo XIII, Libertas, encyclical, June 20, 1888.
Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, “From personalism to liberalism?” The Immanent Frame, June 11, 2015.

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