These days it is almost universally recognized that human beings have certain rights afforded to them by virtue of the fact that we are humans. I say almost – because although most nations of the world would agree to this claim, there is little agreement about the origin of said rights. Some nations, like the United States, claim that these rights are innate, given to human beings by our creator. The claim here is implicit: that there is a God who created human beings and in that act of creation comes inherent dignity.

In reality we know that not all accept such a claim. Look, for example, at the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was written in 1948 following the atrocities of the Second World War. The document itself is remarkable – it is the basis for international agreement and cooperation in the area of human rights. Yet if you read through it carefully you will not find any claim of a creator – nay you will not find any universal claim about the source of these rights.

What does the Catholic Church have to contribute to this conversation? What kind of theological basis is there for the belief that human rights and human dignity come from God? Two come to mind: (1) a natural law (right) foundation, characterized as a foundation that ascends from below; and (2) a Christological foundation, characterized as a foundation that descends from above. Both methods of argumentation depend on the Good News, on an acceptance and acknowledgment of the amazing worth and dignity granted to all human beings by the Gospel.

The “ascending” approach posits human nature (endowed with intelligence and freedom) as the foundation of human dignity. This means that every human being, believer or non-believer, can discern the law of God through experience, the use of reason, and the following of each individual’s conscience. Consequently, the universal validity of human rights derives from the capacity that all men and women have to “listen” to and follow their conscience.

Yet from a Catholic perspective this does not quite seem to be enough. This is why the “descending” approach is based upon two things: (1) the fact that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and (2) that we have been redeemed by Jesus Christ. Each of us reflects the radiance of the Creator, even though that image has been marred by sin. This is why the Church opposes things like the death penalty. We believe that all people – no matter what they may have done – are still images of God, and thus their dignity must be protected. Even more, because of our common nature as human beings, every individual human being is united in Christ, thanks to his Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection. The gift of the Holy Spirit bestows upon each man and woman a new dignity and a new freedom: the dignity and freedom of the children of God.

With this in mind, one thing is clear: it is possible to use both our reason (the ascending approach) as well as divine revelation (the descending approach) to conclude that all human beings have innate dignity and fundamental rights afforded to them. Both of these approaches are complimentary, and can contribute to a wider conversation among the human family about the dignity of human beings. In the next few posts, we will unpack this and explore what exactly that means, and see how the Church has made unique contributions to the modern conception of human rights.

This introduction was contributed by Br. Brent Bowen, O.P. and Fr. Leo Almazan, O.P.