Question 143:

What is the Christian understanding of justice, human rights and freedom? Does Christianity want this for all people, that is, including non-Christians?


Answer: In the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” ( the Church has stated the eternal principles that constitute the intrinsic pivotal points of this doctrine. This deals with the principle of the dignity of the human person on which every other principle and content of social doctrine is based. The principles of social doctrine form in their entirety each initial formulation of truth regarding society that invokes and invites each and every conscience to act in freedom and in joint responsibility with others and for others. These principles have a profound moral significance in that they address the ultimate foundation for social life: the principle of the common good, the principle of the universal destination of goods (including the preferential option for the poor), as well as the principles of subsidiarity, participation and solidarity.

In addition to these principles, which must form the foundation of a society created to respect human dignity, the Church’s social doctrine also addresses basic values. All social values relate to the dignity of the human person and demand its authentic development. This primarily concerns truth, freedom, justice and love. Respect for the rightful autonomy of earthly realities hinders the Church from reserving for herself any specific technical and secular competencies. However, it does not prevent her from intervening and making clear to what extent these values are confirmed or abused in the various decisions that humans make (cf. n. 198).

Truth: Men and women have the specific duty to move always towards the truth, to respect it and bear responsible witness to it. Living in the truth has special significance in social relationships. In fact, when the coexistence of human beings within a community is founded on truth, it is ordered and fruitful, and it corresponds to their dignity as persons. The more people and social groups strive to resolve social problems according to the truth, the more they distance themselves from abuses and act in accordance with the objective demands of morality … (Compendium n. 198).

Freedom: Freedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image and, consequently, is a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person. Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognised as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. The meaning of freedom must not be restricted, considering it from a purely individualistic perspective and reducing it to the arbitrary and uncontrolled exercise of one’s own personal autonomy: Far from being achieved in total self-sufficiency and the absence of relationships, freedom only truly exists where reciprocal bonds, governed by truth and justice, link people to one another. The understanding of freedom becomes deeper and broader when it is defended, even at the social level, in all of its various dimensions (ebd. 199).

The value of freedom, as an expression of the singularity of each human person, is respected when every member of society is permitted to fulfil his personal vocation; to seek the truth and profess his religious, cultural and political ideas; to express his opinions; to choose his state of life and, as far as possible, his line of work; to pursue initiatives of an economic, social or political nature. This must take place within a strong juridical framework, within the limits imposed by the common good and public order, and, in every case, in a manner characterised by responsibility. On the other hand, freedom must also be expressed as the capacity to refuse what is morally negative, in whatever guise it may be presented, as the capacity to distance oneself effectively from everything that could hinder personal, family or social growth. The fullness of freedom consists in the capacity to be in possession of oneself in view of the genuine good, within the context of the universal common good (ebd. 200).

Justice: Justice is a value that accompanies the exercise of the corresponding cardinal moral virtue. According to its most classic formulation, it consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour. From a subjective point of view, justice is translated into behaviour that is based on the will to recognise the other as a person, while, from an objective point of view, it constitutes the decisive criteria of morality in the intersubjective and social sphere. The Church’s social Magisterium [i.e., the official social teaching of the Church] constantly calls for the most classical forms of justice to be respected: commutative, distributive and legal justice. Ever greater importance has been given to social justice, which represents a real development in general justice, the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law. Social justice, a requirement related to the social question which today is worldwide in scope, concerns the social, political and economic aspects and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions (ebd. 201).

The Way of Love: It is from the inner wellspring of love that the values of truth, freedom and justice are born and grow (ebd. 205). Love presupposes and transcends justice, which must find its fulfilment in charity. If justice is in itself suitable for arbitration between people concerning the reciprocal distribution of objective goods in an equitable manner, love and only love (including that kindly love that we call mercy) is capable of restoring man to himself. Human relationships cannot be governed solely by the measure of justice… (ebd. 206).

No legislation, no system of rules or negotiation will ever succeed in persuading men and peoples to live in unity, brotherhood and peace; no line of reasoning will ever be able to surpass the appeal of love. Only love, in its quality as form of the virtues (forma virtutum), can animate and shape social interaction, moving it towards peace in the context of a world that is ever more complex. In order that all this may take place, however, it is necessary that care be taken to show love not only in its role of prompting individual deeds but also as a force capable of inspiring new ways of approaching the problems of today’s world, of profoundly renewing structures, social organisations, legal systems from within. In this perspective love takes on the characteristic style of social and political charity: Social charity makes us love the common good, it makes us effectively seek the good of all people, considered not only as individuals or private persons but also in the social dimension that unites them (ebd. 207). In this respect we can say: Social and political charity is not exhausted in relationships between individuals but spreads into the network formed by these relationships, which is precisely the social and political community; it intervenes in this context seeking the greatest good for the community in its entirety……It is undoubtedly an act of love, the work of mercy by which one responds here and now to a real and impelling need of ones neighbour, but it is an equally indispensable act of love to strive to organise and structure society so that ones neighbour will not find himself in poverty, above all when this becomes a situation within which an immense number of people and entire populations must struggle, and when it takes on the proportions of a true worldwide social issue (ebd. 208).

Human Rights: The movement towards the identification and proclamation of human rights is one of the most significant attempts to respond effectively to the inescapable demands of human dignity. The Church sees in these rights the extraordinary opportunity that our modern times offer, through the affirmation of these rights, for more effectively recognising human dignity and universally promoting it as a characteristic inscribed by God the Creator in his creature. The Churchs Magisterium has not failed to note the positive value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, which Pope John Paul II defined as a true milestone on the path of humanity's moral progress (ebd. 152).

The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings, in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator. These rights are universal, inviolable, inalienable. Universal because they are present in all human beings, without exception of time, place or subject. Inviolable insofar as they are inherent in the human person and in human dignity and because it would be vain to proclaim rights, if at the same time everything were not done to ensure the duty of respecting them by all people, everywhere, and for all people. Inalienable insofar as no one can legitimately deprive another person, whoever they may be, of these rights, since this would do violence to their nature (ebd. 153).


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