Reading Christian Human Rights in Latin America

by | 22 Apr 2016

The Flower Carrier by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Flower Carrier by Diego Rivera (1935)

Samuel Moyn’s most recent book, Christian Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania University Press 2015), tells the story of the relationship between European Human Rights and Christianity, both during the interwar period and after World War II. Among other things, Moyn argues that Catholicism met human rights once the Church abandoned its prior authoritarian corporatist commitments of the early 1930s and drifted towards human dignity and personalism to counter the threat that Nazism and Communism posed for the survival of Catholicism in European soil. This argument sheds light over the question of how antiliberal Catholicism, as explained in Rerum Novarum (1891) or Quadragesimo Anno (1931), came to embrace the idea of “rights”, a concept allegedly based in individual liberalism. Personalism, the idea that human beings should be understood as part of a community and not merely as atomized individuals is one of the notions that allowed Catholics to accept the idea of rights -especially of religious liberty. Likewise, the Catholics stressed that a human person was both matter and spirit and this double dimension had to be considered in the idea of “human” dignity and rights. By the end of WWII, Moyn argues, Christian Human Rights based on personalism became dominant in the reconstruction of Europe through the ECHR. Christian Human Rights thus tells the story of how Christians embraced human rights as a conservative project in the face of the threat of Nazism (during WWII) and Communism (during the post War).

Moyn’s book poses some interesting questions for a global intellectual history of human rights. In these lines I would like to push forward some of Moyn’s suggestions that might be relevant for Latin America, a region particularly impacted by Catholic thinking. The engagement between Catholicism and human rights in the region occurred later than in the European case. Authoritarian corporatism remained a suitable and practical model even until the late 1950s. Representatives of this strand of thought and institutional design, such as Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Gustavo Rojas in Colombia and Carlos Ibáñez in Chile, ruled their countries, respectively, until 1955, 1957 and 1958. Unlike Europe, authoritarian corporatism was not retreating in the postwar years in Latin America. Corporatist constitutional reforms, such as the Peronist amendment of 1949, stressed the role of social rights -not human- thereby criticizing individual rights insofar as human beings could only be conceived as part of associations -such as the family, the municipality or unions. Constitutional corporatism was thus compatible with a strand of social -not human- rights.

The meetings of the Latin American Episcopate during the twentieth century also give an idea of the role of human rights in Catholic thought. The concept of rights was far from being a priority for the Latin American Episcopate in the 1950s. The Episcopate Conference (CELAM) met for the first time in 1955 in Rio de Janeiro. The final document of the gathering that brought together the higher hierarchy of the clergy from different countries of Latin America did not even mention the word rights (derechos). Catholics were mainly concerned about the expansion of Catholicism vis-à-vis Protestant sects and the strengthening of sacerdotal vocations. The problem of social justice and the conflict between capital and labor was briefly addressed in the final document stressing the concern for the situation of the “working classes of the cities and the countryside.” However, the Church focused on the idea of charity and assistentialism, thereby implying that the good efforts of Catholics in relieving the situation of the poor were based on moral duties that sprang from a religious basis. Through their charity, Catholics should establish mechanisms of “communitarian coordination” for the purpose of “establishing a Christian harmony between capital and labor.” A rights consciousness was absent from the Latin American Episcopate to the extent that the final document concluded that one of the tasks of Catholics was missionary work to achieve the evangelization of indigenous communities.

The next meeting of the CELAM occurred in 1968 in Medellín. Human rights now appeared in the final document. The Second Vatican Council and especially the encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) had addressed the idea of human rights. Although one might have expected a stronger presence of the term in the final document of Medellín, the notion appeared only twice. The 1968 CELAM conference was particularly critical about the poverty situation of the region and stressed that peace would be impossible if governments did not address their responsibilities in ensuring the “dignity” of many Latin Americans that lived in poverty. The situation of the majority of Latin Americans was a “structural” problem that incited violence. Catholic priests in the region, paradigmatically the Colombian Camilo Torres, had militated in guerrilla movements during the 1960s stressing the impossibility of achieving Christian social justice for the poor within the established institutions. While CELAM was not a call to arms, the final document asserted that violence was understandable in the region in light of the gross violations to “fundamental rights”, a situation that would be plainly unacceptable for those with a higher conscience of “human rights”. Accordingly, one of the final lines of Medellin 1968 called the universities to establish a monitoring body that would assess the degree of application of the Universal Declaration. That was it for the concept “human rights” in Medellín.

The dominant rhetoric of the progressive clergy that met in Medellín was dependency theory and the problem of Latin American underdevelopment. Just as anticolonialism had taken control of the emancipatory vocabulary of regions in Africa, Latin American leftists argued that the countries of the region were not independent. Colonization was not only the formal control by an occupying regime, but also the economic subjugation of the region by great powers. Moreover, inside each country, there was an iteration of the international relations between the powerful and the weak; the riches in Latin America subjected the poor to terrible living conditions; the latter were far from being free and thus were dependent of the former. The question was how to break free from domination, both within each country and vis-à-vis economic powers in the international order. The task for progressives was the establishment of a liberation theology in which, at least in the initial years, human rights were not a language through which this task of liberation could be achieved. They were merely indicators that could help to measure the unbearable socioeconomic situation underlying the political communities in Latin America. But the key for emancipation and overcoming dependency was the organization of workers and generally the poor seeking thus to raise their consciousness about the unjust order that subjugated them. This was a first step for a social mobilization, based on Christianity, which could press governments to take appropriate measures that would alleviate poverty. Rights awareness could aid this sort of “consciousness raising” to the extent that they indicated the deep violations of human dignity -which at its turn was directly related to material poverty.

Eleven years later, in Puebla, the third meeting of the CELAM evidences what has been called the emergence of human rights. The term appeared consistently in the final document and in John Paul II’s initial address to the conference. If human rights were indicators in 1968, eleven years later they were a political language that could eventually commit Catholics to the defense of the poor without drifting into violence or more radical options of social mobilization. John Paul II stressed that Catholics did not need to adopt other “ideologies” to “love, defend and cooperate with the liberation of men”; Catholicism allegedly had a tradition in defending human rights, and this tradition was personalism. What was the use of personalism in Latin America in the late 1970s and early 1980s?

Puebla represented a crossroads for the progressive Catholics. Conservatives wanted to silence the more radical liberation theologians and in some aspects the latter had to retreat. One of the key issues that even John Paul II embraced was the need to correct some interpretations about the gospel that were being popular in Latin America. Addressing Puebla, the Pope criticized those who pictured Jesus as a political revolutionary losing sight of his otherworldliness message. Revolutionary Jesus, an emphasis in overcoming material poverty and the political organization of the poor was a common topic of the progressive clergy in the late 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, prominent clergies like Gustavo Gutiérrez accepted Marxism as a theory that could help Latin Americans to read their societies. Although Gutiérrez rejected some of the orthodox strands of this line of thought he also acknowledged that Marxist theories should be adapted to the specific context in which they were to be applied -hence the praise of Peruvian Jose María Mariátegui’s “Indigenous Marxism.”

Some years after Puebla, in 1985, a Declaration signed by the most conservative members of the Latin American Episcopate (Declaración de los Andes) emphasized the point arguing that associations and governments had to respect the material and spiritual dimensions of human beings; leftists were altering the real meaning of the gospel by interpreting that Jesus was a revolutionary that fought against a dominant class that subjugated the poor. The liberation from poverty was not only the liberation from material but actually from spiritual poverty. Liberation theologians were utterly wrong in their actions: they focused exclusively in socioeconomic issues thereby allegedly losing sight of other essential aspects of human existence.

It is in this intellectual context that one might understand the emergence of a conservative strand of human rights within Latin American Catholicism. While personalism and Christian human rights in Europe emerged when Catholicism sought to distance itself from authoritarian corporatism and against Soviet Communism, the rise of personalist Christian human rights in Latin America was related to the Conservative’s effort to criticize –and eliminate– left wing Catholicism. This rough sketch of Christian (or Catholic) human rights in the region still has to answer why parts of the clergy actively participated in the human rights movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. A possible line of inquiry in this point is the question of whether the left wing clergy shared this personalist aspect of Conservative Catholics or ended up adhering to a secular movement of human rights led by civil society against authoritarian regimes of the region. In other words, the question is whether progressive Catholics embraced the secular project of human rights or not.

Although Moyn’s Christian Human Rights is focused in Europe, this book can be read as an invitation to explore the inner political contradictions of the contemporary project of human rights in different parts of the world. In The Last Utopia (Harvard University Press, 2012), Moyn reassessed the “origins” of the current consciousness of human rights locating its emergence in the 1970s. His story highlighted the political contingencies that occurred to make the rise of human rights possible and thereby emphasized the political limits of such utopia. Following that critical vein, Christian Human Rights explores why Christian conservatives might have adhered to this vocabulary in Europe at some point in history and what are the legacies of conservatism in current human rights adjudication in the ECtHR. This reassessment of the underlying politics of human rights is a challenge to progressives from different parts of the world, insofar as it calls for the use of intellectual history to explore the possible limits of the dominant vocabulary for progressive politics. However, it might also be urgent in a world in need of alternative utopias that can effectively challenge contemporary conservative structures and ideas that seem to sail comfortably in the waters of the political correctness imbued in human rights discourses.

Jorge González is an Associate Professor of Legal History at Universidad Javeriana (Bogota), SJD Harvard Law School. He recently translated Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia to Spanish (La Última Utopía, Editorial Javeriana 2016).


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