Our debt to de Vitoria: a Catholic foundation of human rights.

Author:Araujo, Robert John

It is exciting to be here with you as we consider and study the foundation of human rights and the contributions from Catholic minds. Moreover, I am delighted to be a part of a community of scholars who recognize the extraordinary contributions of Catholic thinkers to this crucial topic. In particular, I salute those of you who acknowledge the significance and relevance of thinkers such as the two Francises: de Vitoria and Suhrez. I am further delighted that a number of you have addressed their work at this conference.

Here we are, more than half a millennium later, recalling and celebrating their pioneering work to the eminent field of human rights that some argue is quite new. (1) Although for some, the events of sixty-three years ago, when the U.N. General Assembly voted on a resolution adopting an international charter of basic rights may seem like an eternity ago. Nevertheless, since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December of 1948, most individuals have had some exposure to the phrase "human rights"--both the idea itself as well as some application of it in their respective lives or the lives of people with whom they are familiar. It is clear that recognition of this idea and its implementation did not enjoy much popular acclaim before the end of the Second World War, so it would be understandable to assume that human rights are essentially a product of the contemporary age subsequent to the Second World War.

This outlook was recently acclaimed in a review of Professor Samuel Moyn's new book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, (2) appearing in a recent issue of the Columbia alumni magazine. (3) The title of the review is: "Human Rights: Newer than You Think," and the author is quoted by the reviewer as stating that while there were early sources of human rights discourse, the popular concept is of recent generation. (4) Professor Moyn is quoted as saying, "It's not that there weren't early sources, but at the level of common speech, the idea of international human rights doesn't become widespread until the 1970s." (5)

In spite of this interesting perspective held by some contemporary scholars, we must acknowledge that a crucial source of human rights is to be found in the writings of Francis de Vitoria. One of his most influential works regarding the natural law and its application to human rights discourse is De Indis. (6) By failing to understand his contribution, it would be easy to assume that human rights concepts and principles and the laws addressing them are products of the contemporary age, thereby leaving Professor Moyn's position intact. However, doing so would discount the extraordinary pioneering work of the Neo-Scholastic scholars of the sixteenth century to whom we owe a great debt--especially to de Vitoria.

Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546) (7) lived during the age of the Conquistadors and the Reformation. He was for much of his adult life a Dominican friar and professor of theology at Salamanca. (8) Like the Jesuits Suarez and Bellarmine who were to follow, the source of de Vitoria's legal principles dealing with human rights matters was founded in the natural law and the method of legal reasoning that accompanies this school of legal thought. (9) It was this foundation that led him to consider the notions of popular sovereignty and self-determination, essentially unheard of before his time, as vital elements of human rights doctrine. (10) Moreover, he reached conclusions about the legitimate claims of both native peoples and Europeans that established the foundation for fundamental rights that are addressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("Universal Declaration").

The Universal Declaration begins with an important and remarkable claim: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." (11) Two questions immediately occur about the meaning of this passage. The first question deals with the term dignity; the second follows and pertains to the meaning of rights. As we shall subsequently see, de Vitoria provided important groundwork for consideration of these two inextricably related matters that relate dignity and rights of the human person--God's most beloved creation--which found their way into the Universal Declaration.

Regarding the significance of the term dignity, it cannot be restricted to understandings that involve self-respect, self-esteem, or pride. Those definitions would undermine the term's import insofar as these explanations are serf-relational, subjective, and focused on the individual person vis-a-vis the individual himself or herself. Indeed, if the term is to mean something in the context of universal human rights (i.e., claims that are universal and proper to every member of the human family including its most vulnerable--the unborn), it must convey the understanding that the entitlements properly belonging to a person are relational to others. (12) This point made by de Vitoria sets the stage for consideration of the suum cuique: the principle that necessitates that each person is to receive his or her due. (13) What is due one person cannot be correctly understood until what is also due others, who are in relation to the first person mentioned, is methodically considered. This is why the idea of human rights must be universal if they are to have both substantive content and meaning--a point comprehended well by de Vitoria and explained in De Indis. (14) What is claimed by one must be the sort of thing that can rightfully be claimed by others. Here we must take stock of what Jacques Maritain, who chaired the UNESCO committee that advised the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration, had to say about human dignity and rights in 1943:

The human person possesses rights because of the very fact that it is a person, a whole, master of itself and of its acts, and which consequently is not merely a means to an end, but an end, an end which must be treated as such. The dignity of the human person? The expression means nothing if it does not signify that by virtue of natural law, the human person has the right to be respected, is the subject of rights, possesses rights. There are things which are owed to man because of the very fact that he is man. The notion of right and the notion of moral obligation are correlative. They are both founded on the freedom proper to spiritual agents. If man is morally bound to the things which are necessary to the fulfillment of his destiny, obviously, then, he has the right to fulfill his destiny; and if he has the right to fulfill his destiny he has the right to the things necessary for this purpose. (15) De Vitoria recognized these principles offered by Maritain many years earlier when he, de Vitoria, acknowledged that the native peoples of the Americas were, indeed, people to whom were owed the very same things which were owed to Europeans or, for that matter, to anyone else. (16)

With this fundamental understanding of the term dignity in mind (i.e., what is owed the human person because of the very fact that he or she is a human person), we can proceed to defining the term rights. Right or rights is an unpretentious word found in the daily usage of most people. Hence, it is a term of familiarity. Yet its significance is not always understood properly, and so it must be carefully defined when placed in the context of the often-heard phrase "human rights." Does it mean the ability to make any claim a person desires to make on one's own behalf? Or must it take stock of the claims made by a person in relation to the claims or potential claims that can be made by others? In the context of the claims that relate to the Universal Declaration, rights involve the qualities of the human person that relate to that which is proper, correct, and consistent with what is just rather than unjust. The application of objective reason has much to do with defining rights of persons and the justification of claims made about them. Rights deal with the moral dimension of human nature and human existence and with the contexts of individual persons who live in societies with other persons. These points are well comprehended in de Vitoria's thinking and writing.

Thus, the right or rights claimed by a person is or are legitimate and morally proper when justice, reason, and facts fortify and intensify, or restrict or deny, the specific claim and its legitimacy. In short, rights have to do with the essence of what is due the individual person because he or she is an individual person--this is the suum cuique in operation. And what is due the person materializes in reality not because persons, societies, or civil authorities, or associations, or organizations determine what is due; rather, what is due is determined by the fact that the claimant is a person, and, therefore, the claim must be sustained because of the inherent nature and essence of the person and his or her accompanying human dignity as one person who lives in the midst of other persons.

The principle of the suum cuique subsists in ancient legal precepts with which de Vitoria was familiar. For example, there is juris praecepta sunt haec--nos este vivere; alterum non laedere; suum cuique tribuere--these are the precepts of the law: to live honorably; to hurt nobody, to render everyone his due. (17) Another is a traditional definition of justice: Justitia est constans et perpetua voluntas jus suum cuique...

To continue reading