Catholic antecedents to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights*

by Phil Hall

Karen Armstrong, the author who specialised in the Axial Age, when many of the religions of the world began, or at least, gathered speed, has come to the conclusion that all religions have compassion at their core and that they should all be looking for issues where they can converge, and that religion should converge on enlightenment values and exist in harmony with the laws of secular democracies. These secular values are enshrined by such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

We have to support the UDHR to the hilt, but rather than use the UDHR to beat a rationalist war drum, we should re-analyse UDHR and broaden it into a commonplace for humanity with a nod to the compassion at the core of religion that Karen Armstrong identifies . From a humane, socialist perspective, we should be looking at the underlying syncretisms between different ethical codes, including religious codes, and in the light of these syncretisms, finally, bring as many people on board the UDHR bandwagon as possible.

What chance is there then that religious or atheist extremists can agree on the need for convergence between secular and religious principles? A concept of human rights that ignores religious belief is exclusive, not inclusive. Likewise, extreme religious beliefs brook no opposition or dilution. Convergence has far more real potential for changing society for the better than fanaticism from extremes of inflexible belief and disbelief.

The space where religious and secular ideas converge around the issues of social justice is interesting, too. It is no coincidence that extremist Islamists often use the need to redress social and political injustice as a justification for their actions. When Khomeni first came back to Iran from Paris, he promised to give Iran back to the poor – according to dissident Iranians – Khomeni is recorded as saying that there should be free health care, the abolition of unemployment and good wages. Nowadays, still, despite Iran’s creeping progress towards tolerance, anyone who possesses a tape of that particular speech will find himself in an Iranian jail.

On the eve of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the murder of Iranian nationalism under Mossadegh by the British and the United States, the loss of human rights under the Shah, the robbery and exploitation of Iranian natural resources by foreign oil companies like BP, the loss of traditions and identity, and torture and repression by SAVAK, were all seen to be the fault of the USA, and to a lesser extent, the UK – both of whom were upholders and originators of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

The Muslim revolution bottled Iranian resentment, sugared it with promises of social justice and sold it like the fizzing yoghurt Iran drink you can now buy in corner stores in London. The population bought into this nationalist brand of Islam because they wanted their country back, and because they wanted social justice and the freedom to practice their religion. The Iranians were duped into accepting a religious autocracy; a monkey on their backs to this day.

There are echoes of religion as anti-capitalism we can hear throughout the world. In attacking religion, the poo pooing secular ‘progressives’ try to banish the symptoms of the failure of their own, pro-capitalist, ideology. One symptom of a rejection of materialism and the social Darwinist ideology of dog-eat dog and the rat race is religion, and sometimes religious extremism.

The antecedents to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were Christian long before they were claimed by the slave owning authors of the American Declaration of Independence, or written in Masonic shorthand into the Constitution of the United States. Listen to Antonio de Montesinos on Christmas 1511, preaching to the Spanish colonialists in a small church:

“This voice [of Christ tells you] that you are all in mortal sin and you live and die in it because of the tyranny and cruelty you use against these innocent people. I tell you, with what law and by what right do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? With what authority have you waged such a detestable war against these people living peacefully in their lands, where you have committed such crimes and caused such suffering, unheard of before? How can you keep these people so oppressed and exhausted…Why do you kill them to exploit them and get gold from them every day? Are these not men? Dont they have rational souls? Aren’t you obliged to love them as yourselves? Don’t you understand this? Don’t you feel this?”

As a result of the petitions to Pope Paul the III coming from Antonio de Montesinos, Bartolome de la Casas and other theologians and priests (forerunners of Liberation Theologians) Pope Paul III finally issued a Papal Bull in 1537 called Sublimis Deus and made the clarification that the indigenous people of America were rational, spiritual and human beings and that their lives and property were to be protected. This papal bull was enacted centuries before similar thoughts occurred to Thomas Paine or John Stuart Mill.

J. S Mill had similar things to say to Antonio de Montesinos, but three hundred years later, and without Antonio’s eloquence, Mill ratiocinates:

“But the great ethical doctrine of the discourse, than which a doctrine more damnable, I should think, never was propounded by a professed moral reformer, is, that one kind of human beings are born servants to another kind. You will have to be servants, he tells the negroes , to those that are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you — servants to the whites, if they are (as what mortal can doubt that they are?) born wiser than you. I do not hold him to the absurd letter of his dictum; it belongs to the mannerism in which he is enthralled like a child in swaddling clothes. By born wiser, I will suppose him to mean, born more capable of wisdom: a proposition which, he says, no mortal can doubt, but which, I will make bold to say, that a full moiety of all thinking persons, who have attended to the subject, either doubt or positively deny.”

J.S. Mill’s ideas on liberty and equality, were underpinned by associationism. He claimed that everyone was equal because environment and accident determined a people’s progress. His appeal for the equality of the Africans was a weak rationalist appeal based on pre-scientific notions of associationism.

Sublimis Dei, published 300 years before Mill wrote “On Liberty”, was more forthright and clear about the universality of human rights and it is the original antecedent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People are not equal on the basis of any scientific rationale, they are equal because we have decided to treat people equally and because, like Chesterton, we reject the ideas of social Darwinism and the survival of the fittest, and most predatory. Sublimis Deus states:

“The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God’s word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.

We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.

  • Edited from an article published in Xuitlacoche and Donkeyshott in 2008

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