Social teachings of Vatican II, subsequent social encyclicals and United Nations declarations: The convergence of thought and the implications for Australian social conscience.


“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as sub-human living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator.” (Gaudium et Spes)

This quotation is taken from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, know as Gaudium et Spes- (Joy and Hope) from the first two words of the document. It is arguably the most important and far reaching of all the pronouncements of Vatican II. The quotation puts into focus the theme of this talk which is firstly an attempt to trace the development of thought on the critically important issue of human rights as taught in “The Church in the Modern World” and subsequent Social Encyclicals and as expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights. And secondly, to examine the practical implications and imperatives these rights have for Australians and the Australian conscience.


If this forum had been held twelve months ago I think my approach would have been different. However two events of the past year, have dramatically impacted, each in its own way, on human rights. They offer powerful case studies of the gap between the rhetoric and the reality; of the beautifully crafted document and the practical lived expression of human rights; of the erosion or suspension that fear and vengeance can have on human rights. I refer, of course to the unconscionable terrorist attacks on Washington and New York and the exposure of the extent of sexual abuse and its cover up in the Church.

In the case of September 11th there is a real danger that in retaliation, further violations of human rights will occur and innocent people will be punished.

In the case of abuse in the church we have learned not just of the reprehensible actions of clerical predators but of the cover-up by Church leaders-a fundamental denial of the rights of the child to be protected, a scandalous failure of the Church to practise what it preaches and teaches in regard to its duty of care of children. Recall around whose neck the millstone should be attached.

I will return to these and other related events later.

Human Rights Articulated in the Social Encyclicals.

Returning to the text of Gaudium et Spes, we read:

“There is a growing awareness of the exultant dignity proper to the human person, since he (sic) stands above all things, and his rights and duties are universal and inviolable. Therefore, there must be made available to all everything necessary for leading a truly human life such as food, clothing and shelter.”

What are significant in that first sentence, are the words, “a growing awareness”. In other words, human rights and freedoms as we know and enjoy them today are of relatively recent articulation and legislation. The concept of human dignity from which human rights are derived is very ancient one and some philosophers have argued that medieval natural law tradition implicitly contains the idea of human rights. It is latent in the teachings of Christ, especially in his parables such as the “Good Samaritan” and “Lazarus at the Gate of Dives”. Jesus certainly recognised the dignity of each person in his public ministry. However, the idea of human rights did not explicitly surface until relatively modern times, nor was it enshrined in any universal document.

The strong emphasis and teachings of Vatican II on the dignity of the human person and the inescapable rights that flow from them have their origin in Pope Leo XIII ‘s famous encyclical Rerum Novarum, named “The condition of the Working Class”. This document appeared in 1891 when the Agrarian Revolution was in full swing and the Industrial Revolution well underway. Large numbers of people were being displaced off the land and moving to the rapidly developing cities looking for food, work and shelter.

There are two images burned indelibly in my memory that capture for me the inhuman conditions and appalling sufferings that were the context of this encyclical.

The first was a photo I came across while reading a book on slavery in North America. It was of an elderly African-American slave couple, staring into the camera with looks of desolation and a mixture of despair and resignation. They were holding up for the photographer, the stumps of their arms. The caption informed the reader that their master had chopped off the hands of both the husband and wife as punishment for unsatisfactory work. Not only had they been brutally torn from their homeland and forced to work as slaves in exile, they were condemned to spend their last years as victims of further gross indignity and savagery.

The second image was a drawing that appeared in a primary school history book on the Industrial Revolution in England. It depicted young girl of about ten stripped to the waist crawling on all fours in a mineshaft dragging a wooden coal wagon behind her. It is worth noting here that, even though a majority of people at the time accepted or endorsed slavery and child labour, some recognised the in justice and inhumanity and spoke out against them often at great cost to themselves. It is hard to go against the majority as many have discovered in recent days.

In this encyclical then, we have the most important religious authority in Europe committing the Church to struggle with the working class for justice and a decent standard of living-decent wages.

“There had been no precedent for such a systematic statement by a Pope on the Social Question –the complex of problems arising from industrialisation and secularisation in Europe. And yet it set a style and raised expectations, which have continued to this day. It is difficult to think of the Papacy now without such a tradition of active involvement in social debate.”

It was Leo XIII, the patrician, keen to maintain the primacy of the Papacy who started this process and in a sense became the unlikely hero of the working classes.

Leos’ Rerum Novarum was the first major step by the Vatican towards putting the Church on the side of the poor and the working class. It can be seen as the beginning of a process, which eventually led church leaders, including and especially Pope John Paul II, to approve of the notion of an “Option for the Poor”.

Rerum Novarum cannot itself be said to represent an option for the poor. The encyclical expresses deep concern for the plight of the poor, makes a strong protest on their behalf, and calls for changes in society. However, Leo did not make a clear option in favour of the poor, nor specifically refer to human rights. He wished for changes in the economic order, but he was not prepared to approve of the kind of political activity that would be likely to bring about such changes. He was convinced of the prime importance of order in society – stability was a key value of his political theology.

In certain circumstances, especially where the rights of the Church were at risk, Catholics were encouraged to seek political change, but only by legal means. In the last analysis where changes could not be brought about without a threat to social order, Christians were expected to put up with injustice. It was of a kind that actively discouraged the poor from confronting the wealthy to claim their rights; it promised reward in heaven to those who were the victims of injustice on earth.

For the next 40 years the Church, that is to say, the next two Popes, did not pick up on these social issues as expressed in Rerum Novarum, in fact, there was a movement backwards from Leo’s advanced position.

It was not until Pius XI issued “Quadragesimo Anno” that social issues were once again taken up by the Church. This encyclical challenged the capitalist model of society more strongly and more specifically than Leo’s encyclical had done. Pius XII was less radical than his predecessor- he was Pope at the time of the Second World War and was understandably concerned about the dangers of Communism and Socialism. He saw capitalism in spite of its excesses as the answer to overcoming poverty and safeguarding human freedom and dignity than the other alternatives. “His main contribution in this development of thought was his insistence that the right to private property is subordinate to the general right of all people to the goods of the earth.”

It is interesting to recall that in his Christmas radio address of 1942 with the war in Europe well underway, Pius XII proposed a list of basic personal rights including: the right to life, to religious freedom, to family life, to work, to choose a vocation and to make proper use of material goods- and all this at a time when most of these rights were being violated.

United Nations and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Three years after that address, right at the end of the Second World War, the warring nations, putting aside their weapons and recognising the futility of war once again, established the United Nations to seek ways in which the countries and races of the world may follow, leading to peace, harmony and justice for all. The cornerstone of the Declaration was Article 3, which proclaims the right to life, liberty and security of the person. Articles 4-21 specify other civil and political rights and Articles 22-27 deal with a series of economic, social and cultural rights. And conclude all these rights are laid down as: “A common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.” This universal declaration was the first part of a prospective international bill of human rights. I will refer to the subsequent ones later.

The importance of this universal declaration on human rights is emphasised in the words of Professor Henry Steiner of Harvard Law School: “No other document has so caught the historical moment, achieved the same moral and rhetorical force, or exerted so much influence on the human rights movement as a whole. The principles of the declaration have been built into many international treaties and into new constitutions of states in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Its influence was crucial, for example, in the peaceful elimination of apartheid in South Africa.”

Pacem in Terris and Vatican II

On the 25th January 1959 Pope John XXIII in St Paul’s Outside the Walls, announced that there would be a Council of the Church. On the 5th of April fully six months before the first session of the Chapter he issued his landmark encyclical “Pacem in Terris” In it he praised the United Nations Declaration as ” an act of the highest importance and an important step forward on the path toward the juridico-political organisation of the world community”. In the same encyclical he set forth a comprehensive and detailed charter of human rights based on natural law.

Pope John was the first Pontiff to directly refer to the United Nations and its Declaration on Human Rights. It marks the beginning of a close and continued association between the Vatican and the UN with frequent references to the Universal declarations in subsequent encyclicals and through addresses to the General Assembly of the UN by two Popes on three occasions. The Second Vatican Council especially in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, proclaimed in the last session in 1965, took up the teaching of John XXIII and amplified it in the light of divine revelation. The human person standing above the rest of visible creation has inviolable rights and duties. Among these the Council listed: “Everything necessary for living a life truly human such as food, clothing and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norms of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and to rightful freedom in matters of religious too.”

Earlier that same year (1965) Pope Paul VI addressed the UN General Assembly on 4th August. Conscious of the content of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights he said: “We never cease to support your organisation’s functions and initiatives, which are aimed at peaceful co-existence and collaboration between nations. You, the United Nations, are establishing here a system of solidarity that will ensure that lofty civilising goals, receive unanimous and orderly support from the whole family of nations.”

The Social Encyclicals of Pope John Paul II

Of all the Popes no other has given so much emphasis to human rights as John Paul II. He frequently refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his encyclical “Redemptor Hominis” issued in 1979 he described it as a magnificent effort to the objective and inviolable rights of persons including the freedom of religion. In his first address to the United Nations on October 2nd 1979 he spoke of the Universal Declaration as a milestone on the long and difficult path of the human race. He warned against the declaration being subjugated to political interest and the thirst for power. He also traced the scourge of war to the denial of human rights, which he said

“destroys the organic unity of the social order and then affects the whole system of international relations. Only through safeguarding the full rights of every human being he said, can peace be ensured at its very roots.”

In his second social encyclical “Sollicitudo rei socialis” (1987) he protested against the tendency to look only to the material aspects of development rather than to personal rights in their full range. “More attention” he said, “should be given to cultural, political and simply human rights, including religious freedom, the right to share in the building of society and freedom to take initiatives in economic matters.”

In yet another encyclical “Centesimus Annus” (1991) which was issued on 100th Anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical (not by chance) John Paul praises the way in which the Universal Declaration shifted the centre of the social question to the international level, but expresses disappointment at the failure of the United Nations to establish, thus far, effective means for the resolution of international conflicts. Again he proposes a list of basic human rights similar to those given in the 1979 address to the UN. The Pope in that address gives this list:

“Permit me, he says, to enumerate some of the most important human rights that are universally recognised:

the right to life liberty and security of person

the right to food clothing and housing sufficient health care rest and leisure

the right to freedom of expression, education and culture

the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to manifest one’s religion either individually or in community, in public or in private

the right to choose a state of life to found a family and to enjoy all conditions necessary for family life

the right to property and work, to adequate working conditions and a just wage

the right to assembly and association

the right to freedom of movement, internal and external migration

the right to nationality and residence

the right to political participation and the right to participate in the free choice of the political system of the people to which one belongs.”

All these human rights taken together are in keeping with the substance of the dignity of the human person understood in his entirety, not as reduced to one dimension only. These rights concern the satisfaction of man’s essential needs, the exercise of his freedoms, and his relationships with others; but always and everywhere they concern a person’s full human dimension.”

These are in accord and in harmony with the 30 articles that make up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the UN.

In his second address to the UN on October 5th 1995 he called the declaration one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time. And in his message for World Peace Day on January 1st 1998 he took note of the 50th Anniversary of the declaration and warned that it must be observed integrally both in spirit and letter. The transcendent dignity of the human person derives most fundamentally from being created as a visible image of the invisible God. Our human dignity is fully revealed in Christ whose sacrifice eloquently expresses how precious we are in the eyes of the creator. Tarnished by sin, our dignity is definitively restored through the cross and shown forth in the resurrection.

In his long encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” he returns to human rights. Among them he puts in first place the right to life. He teaches that because human life has a sacred and inviolable character, it is gravely immoral to destroy innocent human life and, by extension, to place human life in danger by excessive and unjust laws, for example, the detention of children in camps.

Finally in 1993 the UN sponsored a world conference on human rights, adopting the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action. These instruments agree in affirming that “All human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person.”

Human Rights and the Australian Conscience

As I was preparing this paper, I was struck by a most painful and disturbing irony: in the past century (the 20th) during which, as we have seen, a “growing awareness of the dignity of the human person”, and during which wonderful documents have been written enshrining universal human rights which flow inescapably from this “awareness”, we have also witnessed the most brutal, the most bestial the most bloody period in human history. More human beings have died in wars and conflicts in the past 100 years than at any other time- a conservative estimate puts the figure at around 130 million.

That is not to say that real progress in establishing human rights has not been made. In fact in many parts of the world people are enjoying some of the fruits of the struggle. However as recent events both here in Australian and throughout the world suggest continued vigilance and relentless efforts are needed to preserve those human rights we enjoy, to make sure they are not eroded and to help those who are denied them, especially the fundamental basic rights of food, shelter and security.

The two events mentioned at the beginning illustrate this challenge. Understandably the horror of September 11th caused fear and a sense of righteous revenge to eliminate terrorists. But as we have seen in recent days so called “collateral” damage has claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians. Is this justified?

We witness the incarceration of as prisoners captured in Afghanistan and yet to be indicted. They are denied rights to lawyers and family; the threat of a massive pre-emptive strike on Iraq and the inevitable loss of many civilian lives; The simplistic division of the white hats and black hats-“if you are not for us you must be against us” validating whatever decisions that may be taken against the black hats, the axis of evil.

I hasten to add that the rights and freedoms set forth in the international covenants are to be implemented in the measure possible, but are subject to limitations as needed to protect national security, public order, public health or morals and the rights and freedoms of other persons. Clearly some people and groups through their violent acts abrogate certain of their rights.

Nevertheless, in a climate of fear human rights are often the first casualty. During the Second World War America incarcerated Japanese-Americans (with citizenship) in camps for the duration of the war and confiscated their property. They had committed no crime other than to belong to an ethnic minority. The same happened here in Australia. Curiously, in recent years, a class action was taken out against the US Government by some of those former detainees. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and a token but symbolic compensation was paid.

What has happened here in Australia in recent years and especially since the Tampa incident and 11/9 events? Under the justification of “Boarder Control” we have used our Navy to intercept Asylum Seekers, people fleeing the violence and brutality in their homeland where our young men and women are fighting the very terror from which they flee. For their efforts we force them into detention camps on Pacific islands-many of them legitimate refugees. Access to these detainees is denied. They have committed no crime.

Those who made it to the mainland are held in mandatory detention for as long as two years, including children – Australia is the only Western Nation that locks up children who have committed no crime. But we are improving – a 40 million dollar detention center has just been completed in Port Augusta with state of the art 9000-volt electric perimeter fence – no nastier razor wire.

The continual vilification of these detainees and asylum seekers by way of false propaganda – “children overboard”; “illegals” “terrorists” “diseased” has legitimized verbal and physical abuse and discrimination even to the extent that the Mayor of Port Lincoln seriously urged the government to let the Army use those detainees who riot in response to their illegal detention (according to International law and the UN Convention on Refugees) as target practice!

Some commentators suggest that fear of the foreigner, which has been a feature of white Australia ever since we arrived, has raised it xenophobic head once more taking us back to the bad old days of the “White Australia Policy”. The Government has ruthlessly and shamelessly inflamed and made use of this fear in the community for its own political ends – and human rights are again the causality.

In the case of sexual abuse in the Church, the “good name ” of the church and the “boys club” mentality within clerical circles took precedence over the basic fundamental human rights of the child victims. In 1971 the Synod of Bishops made a major contribution to the development of the social teaching of the church. In part it proclaimed: ” promotion of justice is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel. (It is not an option but an imperative). It questioned the myths of development – and especially the assumption that western type of economic development could be applied all over the world. It also accepted that a church that presumes to speak to the world about justice must itself practice justice in its own life and structures.” In both case studies the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is staggeringly obvious


The list of human rights as expressed in the encyclicals of the Church and the Declarations of the United Nations are extensive and comprehensive. Sadly the human condition suggests that the struggle for the time when all people throughout the world will be invested with the human rights their dignity demands will be long, arduous and plagued with set backs.

In the meantime we must never forget that in all these rights there are three, which are basic, the right to food, shelter and safety. In a country as rich as Australia this has disturbing and inescapable implications.

In a world which constantly refers to the phenomenon of globalisation of such things as trade, commerce, financial institutions, the money-market, corporations there is also global responsibility of the haves for the have nots. Tragically the “have” countries like the USA and Australia have reduced their aid to those in need in recent years.

Recently the UN held the World Food Summit in Rome with the proposal to find ways to halve the estimated 840 million hungry people throughout the world by the year 2015.In half that time the US will spend over 300 Billion dollars on arms.

Only two developed nations sent top-level delegations- feeding the starving was low on the list of priorities. Pope John Paul insisted in a letter to the Summit that the world had a duty to guarantee the right to nutrition for everyone.

And so we end where we began with the quote from Gaudium et Spes:

“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as sub-human living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights- at a glance:

  • Article 1 Right to Equality
  • Article 2 Freedom from Discrimination
  • Article 3 Right to Life, Liberty, and Personal Security
  • Article 4 Freedom from Slavery
  • Article 5 Freedom from Torture and Degrading Treatment
  • Article 6 Right to Recognition as a Person before the Law
  • Article 7 Right to Equality before the law
  • Article 8 Right to Remedy by Competent Tribunal
  • Article 9 Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Exile
  • Article 10 Right to Fair Public Hearing
  • Article 11 Right to be Considered Innocent until Proven Guilty
  • Article 12 – Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence
  • Article 13 Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country
  • Article 14 Right to Asylum in other Countries from Persecution
  • Article 15 Right to Nationality and the Freedom to change it
  • Article 16 Right to Marriage and Family
  • Article 17 Right to Own Property
  • Article 18 Freedom of Belief and Religion
  • Article 19 Freedom of Opinion & Information
  • Article 20 Right of Peaceful Assembly and Association
  • Article 21 Right to Participate in Government and in Free Elections
  • Article 22 Right to Social Security
  • Article 23 Right to Desirable Work and to join Trade Unions
  • Article 24 Right to Rest and leisure
  • Article 25 Right to Adequate living Standards
  • Article 26 Right to Education
  • Article 27 Right to Participate in the Cultural life of Community
  • Article 28 Right to a Social Order that articulates this document
  • Article 29 Community Duties Essential to Free and Full Development
  • Article 30 Freedom State of Personal Interference in the above Rights

“The Human rights movement struggles and stumbles in the face of appalling ignorance, apathy and resistance. The Only certainty is that the abuse of human rights will almost certainly increase if there are no renewed protests or more humane and humanitarian laws.”- The Mobilization of Shame.


Vatican II Documents- Constitution of the Church in the Modern World.

The Mobilization of Shame

Robert Drinan SJ

The Church’s Social Teaching: From Rerun Novarum to 1931

Bruce Duncan CSsR

Option for the Poor: A hundred years of Vatican Social Teaching

Donal Dorr

The Social Teaching of Vatican II.

Rodger Charles SJ

Human Rights-Papal Teaching and the UN

Avery Dulles

(Both sessions were fully subscribed. Because of real interest in and serious concern for the implications of our current asylum seekers policy in regard to human rights and the Australian conscience the conversation was lively and engaging. The issues raised during the conversation in both sessions were the same. What follows is a brief attempt to capture the main points.)

Questions and issues for discussion:

What are our legal and moral obligations to abide by the UN Charter on Refugees which Australia has signed-Article 13

What rights if any do you think Asylum Seekers arriving in Australia have?

Do we as have the right to maintain a policy of Mandatory Detention? For all? For Children?

What do you think of the Pacific Solution?

What are the implications of Australia’s current policy on us as a Nation in the light of those words of Vat II- ” they do more harm to those who practise them than those who suffer the injury”

People in your circle saying about the Church and the scandal of Sexual Abuse- especially in the light of the rights of the child and the Gospel teachings?

Can we continue to maintain our standard of living while so many throughout the world are denied the very basic necessities for life? A fundamental human right.



Summary of Discussion

“The Australia that I love has been taken from me”. This quote from one of the participants, sums up what many in the group were feeling in regard to the development of Australia’s treatment of Asylum Seekers especially since the Tampa incident. At that time polls suggested that 94% of Australians supported mandatory detention for all those arriving here by whatever means without a valid visa should be held in detention. And this in spite of the fact that Australian is a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Even now some polls claim 80% are still in favour despite the fact that a majority have been determined to be refugees under the articles of the Convention.

The persistent negative propaganda put out by the government has inflamed the underlying fear of the outsider eroding the generous compassion so evident in the community during the time of the arrival of the Vietnamese refugees and the Kosovars.

The stories based on personal visits to the detention camps especially the story of the Avesta family in Curtin highlighted how successful the government has been in dehumanising these people in the eyes of the community and therefore ameliorating or assuaging any sense of guilt- by detaining most in inaccessible camps, Australians are denied access to them; by using spin-doctors very effectively to challenge any opposition and the groundswell of concern; by suggesting some may be terrorists; by being very creative with the truth and facts.

The question was then asked, where is the Church in all of this? Where is its voice? Mention was made of the excellent document published on the 26th March by the Bishop’s Conference on the Asylum Seekers calling for a more humane treatment of them. Unfortunately it has not received wide circulation.

This led to a discussion of the importance of telling the stories and appropriate use of simple language. There is a danger of information overload because of the media coverage and many have made up their minds and now just turn off. “The Church needs to stop being clever and simply say ‘this is wrong’.”

“How can we help?” and “What can we do?” elicited, at first, a response pointing out the difficulty of dealing with a Government that is entrenched in this policy aware that it is still politically expedient to remain so. However it was pointed out that there are in fact many Church and community groups who are involved in a variety of ways- Jesuit Refugee Service, Mercy Refugee Service, Edmond Rice Centre, ” Spare Rooms” movement, to mention just a few.

(Jim Carty SM is a Marist priest with extensive experience working for 15 years in Japan where he was also Director of a Vietnamese refugee camp, later in Hon Kong working with refugees, the physically and intellectually handicapped, and the marginalised in SE Asia. He is the author of a report on refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people in our region. He acquired a Masters of Applied Theology in 1987 from Berkley)