Disturbing news about human rights

St. Thomas Aquinas' theory of natural law provided a foundation for Human rights.


St. Thomas Aquinas' theory of natural law provided a foundation for Human rights.

April 28, 2014

A significant Catholic scholar of the post-Vatican II era is struggling to be heard on a deeply Catholic subject – human rights.

New York University emeritus professor Gabriel Moran – who 40 years ago gave a whole new basis to Catholic thinking on education and was a significant part of a generation of Catholic thinkers who reincorporated Scripture, psychology and human experience in theology – could not find a publisher for his latest book.

Instead, Moran had to self-publish his book on the history and philosophical roots of human rights, the first time he hasn't had a publisher backing him up.

Uniquely Human: The Basis of Human Rights is available from the custom printing house Xlibris.

"I think the reason I couldn't find a publisher was that I had something even a little bit positive to say about religion," Moran told The Catholic Register.

"Authors (writing about human rights) avoid religion or they assume it's an obstacle. One of the reasons they don't go into the history is obviously because the Catholic Church is part of the history that led up to human rights."

Moran's thinking about religion and human rights goes deeper than the happy coincidence that "catholic" means "universal" and the word "universal" has been attached to human rights ever since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nor does Moran pound away at Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain's role in drafting the 1948 document.

Instead, Moran goes back to mediaeval Catholic philosophers who began exploring the notion of natural rights as they came to terms with a newly-emerging scientific understanding of nature. As theologians began to explain morality in terms of the nature of the world and the human, the idea of natural rights and natural law began to coalesce in the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Moran finds a large gap between St. Thomas' thinking and modern talk about human rights. But he also sees a disconnect between conservative Catholic moral theology and how St. Thomas thought.

"Thomas Aquinas is used as a catechism, rather than trying to understand what the Middle Ages were talking about, and then translating it into a way that would make sense today," said Moran. "When I hear Church officials say 'This is against natural law,' nobody ever picks them up and says, 'Well, explain that.'"


If he's a little critical of some Catholic authors on universal morality, he's even more suspicious of secular experts in human rights.

Gabriel Moran

Gabriel Moran

"I don't think most of the literature is very good," he said. "I find that a lot of it is just tired sermons that aren't going to go anywhere."

There's more to morality than rights, says Moran.

"I don't trust a morality that is built exclusively on rights," he said. "I don't think that's the place to start. The proper place to start is responsibility."

Christian ethics are about abundance and the full flourishing of human and natural existence. Jesus announced a kingdom in which the poor inherit the earth. By contrast, the purpose of human rights is to set a floor, a bare minimum of conditions which are proper to human beings.

While these minimums are not the Christian ideal, they are necessary. They are also a pathway to a conversation about a common morality we can share across cultures, religions and nations.

"I do talk about human rights because it's the only currency at the moment out there," Moran said. "But I distrust human rights as a basis for an entire morality because it's only a minimum. But it's a crucial minimum to at least get the human race to stop torturing each other or starving each other before we can go on to search for an abundance of life."

While Moran is cautious about using human rights as a substitute for morality, he also writes that "Human rights is one of the better ideas that the 20th century produced."


Moran doesn't doubt that being a woman or an African or a homosexual in a world where human rights are applied is better than a 17th-century world where slavery was normal, women were property and gays were fair game for murder.

"There could not be a realization of rights applicable to every member of the human race until (the term) 'human rights' was coined," Moran writes.

Moran argues that religions are an indispensable ally of human rights as the only repository of human values that transcends mere law. But the Catholic Church can only play its role in extending human rights to all by embracing a less stripped down, bare bones version of its tradition.


"The Roman Catholic Church during the last 75 years has failed to carry through on the valuable principles that are part of its tradition," he writes.

"Catholic tradition is much richer than is evident in official Church teaching today. Catholic tradition had a central role in the evolution of natural rights, an idea that provides a backdrop to the 20th century's human rights."


In Moran's mind, religion can do more for the human rights movement than give it a dimension beyond legalism. He also believes religion can help extend the bare minimums of rights to the Earth's threatened natural environment.

"My central concern is that human rights emerge out of a reflection on the entire living environment, rather than being thought of as separate or even opposed to the environment," he said.

At 79 years old, Moran is still a fighter, unwilling to either appease the human rights establishment or cast his lot with Church apologists.

"I know my chances of being heard are one in 1,000, but I took a shot at it. Maybe someday somebody will read the book."