Skip to main content

Let's Talk Human Rights

Our Response to the Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights

By Kelly Johnson, Jana Bennett, Bro. Ray Fitz, Vincent Miller, Sandra Yocum

As a human rights center at a Catholic, Marianist University, we look to the insights of our theologians for a Catholic social teaching perspective on some of the most concerning conclusions of the Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

On July 16, the 11-member Commission on Unalienable Rights, appointed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 8, 2019, published its draft report, initiating a two-week public comment period. The establishment of the commission itself, the draft report and the remarks of Secretary Pompeo during its launch has raised profound and manifold concerns within the human rights community.

As a point of departure, U.S.-based advocates of human rights stress that the commission’s work and its draft report cannot be separated from the political agenda of the current U.S. administration, the administration’s policies which have undermined or violated human rights, and the contemporary historical context. A letter from U.S. human rights organizations rejects the premise of the commission, that there is “untenable uncertainty regarding the meaning and scope of the human rights framework.” In this regard, the draft report appears to dismiss and undermine the globally negotiated international treaties, to which the U.S. contributes, that constitute the primary corpus of human rights binding norms or international human rights law. It further disparages the global human rights mechanisms established by treaties or mandated by all countries, including the U.S., to protect and promote universal human rights throughout the world.

The U.S. human rights community is alarmed that the draft report appears to legitimize, primarily through historically constructed revisionist narrative, a new American version of human rights that would prioritize certain rights over others in U.S. foreign policy. In this regard, the commission’s draft report seeks to prioritize property rights and religious freedom over other civil and political rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, which are based in international human rights law and the U.S. Constitution. It further seeks to deemphasize the importance of economic, social and cultural rights even though the draft report recognizes that all human rights are “universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.”

It further selectively dismisses key human rights as “divisive social and political controversies.” It cautions against “new” rights, without explaining the specific concerns. At its core, the draft report could serve as a dangerous invitation to all governments, including the U.S., to undermine their globally agreed human rights obligations and violate individual liberties in light of outdated conceptions of sovereignty and their own national, historical interpretation.

At the University of Dayton Human Rights Center, we share these concerns. As the draft report bases its analysis in part on biblical and religious tradition, we asked our colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies and the Marianist community for a Catholic social teaching perspective on this concerning effort to prioritize certain rights over others. Led in drafting by the Father William J. Ferree Chair of Social Justice, they agreed as follows:

The commission’s report states: “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.”

The report then goes on to defend this priority among rights both as necessary for a free and democratic society and also as consistent with a tradition they characterize as a harmonious blend of biblical, civic republican and liberal (“modern tradition of freedom”) influences.

While we respect the report’s concern to consider the United States in light of substantive philosophical commitments, we want to clarify that the understanding of these two rights as presented in the report is not consistent with Catholic doctrine on the social order.

Regarding property rights, Catholic teaching does advocate the protection of property rights, recognizing not only modern private property but also “the ancient form of community property” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #180). Property rights, however, are strongly situated within the universal destination of goods.

“Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable: ‘On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone’ [372].” (Compendium, #177, quoting John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, #613.)

Because God intends the world to provide for the needs of every person, any arrangements made in a social order regarding the distribution of resources must allow every human person with what is needed for a full life.

“Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood. (8)” (John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, #11, citing Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris, #78; and Pius XII's broadcast message, Pentecost, June 1, 1941, #195-205.)

A defense of property, absent that context, functions to absolve those who own property from responsibility to those in desperate need. Catholic teaching treats the withholding of resources from those in need as a failure of justice, not only of generosity and so private property always comes with a “social mortgage.”

We note the report’s comment on economic rights, in relation to this matter.

"Social and economic rights are most compatible with American founding principles when they serve as minimums that enable citizens to exercise their unalienable rights, discharge their responsibilities and engage in self-government. They are least compatible when they induce dependence on the state, and when, by expanding state power, they curtail freedom — from the rights of property and religious liberty to those of individuals to form and maintain families and communities."

The current highly unequal distribution of wealth in the United States, with its pernicious results on the ability of some communities to endure the onslaught of COVID-19, makes the status of economic rights an urgent issue. The anxiety in the document about the risk of expanding state power is disproportionate to the anxiety it should display over the actual catastrophe unfolding in our society.

The racial injustice this report narrates has had specific economic aspects, and they have not disappeared as civil rights have been gained. That economic deprivation, the result of centuries of injustice, costs lives, and the current crisis only heightens attention to this reality. Individual initiative and civil society volunteerism cannot overcome inequality built deeply into an economic system; government action to honor economic rights is required.

“Still, when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State.” (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, #37).

Regarding religious liberty, we appreciate the careful attention of the report to the matter. Catholic teaching on this right has a complex history. The principle that conscience must not be coerced is clearly established (and was so even in cases where its violation in practice was tolerated). The purpose of the right within Catholic thought is both to make room for the Church’s freedom to give witness to the gospel and also to honor the call of God for every person freely to enter into communion with the divine life.

These two purposes are not at odds. The Church’s witness to the gospel always requires, and we painfully acknowledge that it often has failed in this, strong and decisive defense of the well-being of persons who do not accept the gospel, in keeping with Catholic teaching on human dignity and the common good.

“It is … completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded. In consequence, the principle of religious freedom makes no small contribution to the creation of an environment in which men can without hindrance be invited to the Christian faith, embrace it of their own free will, and profess it effectively in their whole manner of life.” (The Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, #10).

It would be contrary, therefore, to the right as the Catholic Church proclaims it for the right to religious liberty to be invoked in a way that prioritizes Catholic or Christian freedoms in opposition to the human dignity and well-being of other persons.

“The right to religious freedom must be recognized in the juridical order and sanctioned as a civil right; [862] nonetheless, it is not of itself an unlimited right. The just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority through legal norms consistent with the objective moral order.” (Compendium, #422, citing Dignitatis Humanae, #2)

While the document clearly notes the limits of what the U.S. government may do to restrain religious activity, it also frequently refers to the biblical tradition as a source for the foundations of the political order in the U.S. and presents theistic faith as a necessary element of the social order in a free society.

In this way, the report privileges the version of Christianity common among the 18th century founders, bringing it into the sphere of the “special recognition” of which the Compendium writes, “Such recognition must in no way create discrimination within the civil or social order for other religious groups.[864]” (#423, citing Dignitatis Humanae, #6)

Catholic teaching indicates that a society which treats as its foremost concern these two rights, isolated from the context of the requirements of the universal destination of goods, the common good, and the human dignity of all persons, will fail to successfully defend human rights and preserve human dignity.

Kelly Johnson is an associate professor of religious studies and the Fr. Ferree Chair of Social Justice.

Jana Bennett is a professor of religious studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

Bro. Raymond Fitz, S.M. is president emeritus of the University of Dayton and Professor of Social Change in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Vincent Miller is a professor of religious studies and the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture.

Sandra Yocum is an associate professor of religious studies and the University Professor of Faith and Culture.

Previous Post

Is it real concern for change or just for the clout?

Social media campaigns like the recent #BlackOutTuesday can boost influencers’ and corporations’ public images, while making little meaningful change. HRS 200 summer student shares her views on social media as a tool for activism, and how we, as activists and brand consumers, can do better.

Read More
Next Post

From Tragedy to Advocacy: Facing Gun Violence in Our Community

One year after Dayton’s mass shooting, the Human Rights Center and the Center for Social Concern ask what steps have been taken to address gun violence and what more needs to be done. We caution readers that this piece contains content related to gun violence and suicide.
Read More