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Human Rights and Democracy

The Catholic Church in World Affairs

Publications (31)

The Catholic Church’s approach to human rights and democracy is one of great historical complexity. Though the Catholic Church has supported human dignity and social justice since its foundation, the idea of human rights is a modern notion that the Catholic Church only began to address at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Catholic Church, while advocating fair and justice government, was also suspicious of democracy and its values until well into the last century. Despite the historical positions, the Catholic Church today has become a firm and vocal proponent for human rights and accountable government throughout the world.


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  • June 20, 2014
    In this speech Pope Francis affirms the importance of religious liberty in promoting the common good. He first highlights the way religious liberty creates space for humanity to wrestle with questions of meaning and existence, subsequently arguing that religious freedom must create space for action as well as thought. Pope Francis then addresses the role of religious liberty in framing the relationship between church and state. He concludes by lamenting discrimination and persecution on the...
  • October 24, 2011
    The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released this letter in order to address the pressing question of macroeconomics and social justice. Drawing on the 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, the statement recognizes the harsh realities of the contemporary global financial crisis that struck in 2008, and that a multi-layered approach to reform is required to restore order. The document takes a proactive stance and views the dire state of the world economy as an opportunity for...
  • October 4, 2011
    The 2011 edition of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, published in anticipation of the United States' 2012 election cycle, largely reaffirms the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2007 statement, which emphasized the solemn duty to participate in the electoral process and the role of formation in fostering responsible citizenship. The main body of the text is unchanged from the 2007 document, but it is accompanied by an “Introductory Note” as a reader’s guide; the note...
  • March 8, 2010
    This document, part of a review of the Fourth World Conference on Women and a release of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, stresses the distinction between focusing on the dignity of women versus focusing on gender equality and calls attention to what the Roman Catholic Church sees as the shortcomings of the latter approach. The document notes how challenges like HIV/AIDS, sexual trafficking, and illiteracy still disproportionately affect women and pinpoints certain...
  • November 1, 2007
    Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States is a document, part of a series published every four years, written in anticipation of the 2008 US elections to explain and present Catholic teaching to Catholic voters. Not directly calling for Catholics to vote for a particular candidate or issue, the document instead presents reflections and guidelines on Catholic moral and social policy in order to inform voters...
  • November 14, 2006
    This letter attempts to provide guidelines for pastors seeking to address homosexuality within their community, while also reflecting more broadly on sexual orientation and behavior. The document begins with the premise that a posture of acceptance and openness must be the first principle when approaching the subject of human sexuality. The bishops affirm the goodness of properly ordered sexuality, the dignity of all humans regardless of orientation, and decry homophobic discrimination. The...
  • September 1, 2003
    Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility is the 2003 version of a series of documents published every four years by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Catholic teachings and political elections. Written in preparation for the 2004 election cycle, the document shies away from specific candidates or ballot initiatives, instead explaining and reflecting on Catholic social and moral teaching in order to inform Catholic voters' consciences. The first half...
  • November 13, 2002
    This US bishops’ pastoral document addresses the topic of “the moral scandal of poverty” on both domestic and international levels. Recognizing the uncertainty that the Catholic Church faces as reports of widespread clerical abuse come to light, the bishops also note the vulnerability of children to widespread poverty as the result of globalization, violence, and corporate mismanagement. The document outlines the debilitating effect of contemporary worldwide economic need and the dearth of...
  • November 24, 1999
    Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium is the 1999 version of a series of documents promulgated every four years by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Catholic political life. Addressing both the upcoming 2000 election cycle and the new millennium in general, the document does not directly support any candidate or ballot initiative, but instead explains and reflects on Catholic social and moral teachings in order to help inform Catholic voters'...
  • September 1, 1999
    "From Newcomers to Citizens: All Come Bearing Gifts" is a statement on migration issued by the Committee on Migration of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (the precursor of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). The first half of the short document advocates for the fair and right treatment of immigrants to the United States, condemning proposed restrictions to obtaining citizenship and supporting birthright citizenship for the American-born children of non-citizens. The...
  • March 1, 1996
    In the wake of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 visit to the United States, the US bishops framed their letter as a call to American voters to effectively exercise their freedom for the moral well-being of their fellows. American Catholics are called in a particular way to infuse the democratic process with the wealth of wisdom and virtue that their religion brings to bear in the public arena. Issues include abortion and poverty, the role of the family, and the balance between environmental and...
  • August 6, 1993
    Veritatis Splendor is an encyclical of Pope John Paul II on the moral authority and truth of the Catholic Church. The pope condemns the modern adoption of moral relativism and the claim that the truth is unknowable as fundamentally toxic and dangerous for society, and argues that the Catholic Church possesses the authority to fully pronounce the truth on moral issues. John Paul also commends the protection of human freedom in recent times but expresses concern that the divorce of this human...
  • October 17, 1991
    This edition of the “Political Responsibility” series demonstrates a change in focus for the bishops from "Civil Rights" generally to "Discrimination and Racism" more specifically. The statement also builds on previous Catholic social teaching by underscoring organized labor’s rights to bargain collectively. The bishops also highlight the need for moral education in public schools and address euthanasia directly for the first time. Concern for international refugees, religious freedom,...
  • May 1, 1991
    Centesimus Annus, issued by Pope John Paul II on the hundredth anniversary of Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, reinterprets Catholic social teaching in light of immense geopolitical changes surrounding the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The encyclical cautions previously socialist Eastern European nations to remember that a free market must be meticulously regulated to prevent the worker exploitation, glorification of profit, and marginalization of the lower classes. Persons must be treated as...
  • October 12, 1987
    The bishops’ quadrennial letter on Catholic civic obligation, published in anticipation of the 1988 presidential election, addresses recent socio-economic developments in American life and attempts to provide moral guidance for action. It specifically discusses advances in medical and military technology and contemporary trends in US economic and international policy. While affirming the American separation of church and state, the bishops recognize that the two are intertwined, while...
  • June 30, 1987
    Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, released on the twentieth anniversary of Paul VI's Populorum Progressio, continues in the tradition of Catholic social teaching begun by Leo XIII and focuses on the notion of development, especially the influential, large-scale actions of nations and corporations. The accumulation of wealth in North America and Europe has led to an increasing disparity vis-à-vis poorer, developing nations in Africa and Latin America. The encyclical decries the fact that nations...
  • March 22, 1984
    Political Responsibility: Choices for the ‘80s is the 1984 statement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Administrative Board for American Catholic voters. While the bishops are edified at the apparent increase in voter engagement during the recent 1982 congressional elections, they are nevertheless concerned that the last presidential election turned out only 50 percent of eligible voters; they are particularly interested in promoting participation among traditionally...
  • October 22, 1983
    Charter of the Rights of the Family is a Vatican document drafted by the Pontifical Council for the Family that presents a set of fundamental rights that are inherent to all individuals, families, and societies, whether they be Christian or not. Instead of presenting new materials, the charter organizes a tradition of common human values present in the teachings of the Church. The rights that the charter proclaims, including the right to life, to marry freely, to raise a family, to decent...
  • November 19, 1981
    Health and Health Care is a pastoral letter published by the American Catholic Bishops that presents the Catholic Church's thoughts and position on health care in the United States. The letter consists of four parts: a discourse on theological and historical foundations of Catholic thought on health, a call for personal responsibility for health, a declaration of support for Catholic medical professionals, and a set of basic principles for public health care policy. Regarding public health...
  • November 15, 1979
    The US bishops’ statement on the eve of the 1980 election engages eligible voters in an effort to foster greater participation. The text echoes its 1976 predecessor's concern over voter abstention, which had grown over the previous decade. The bishops perceive a collective sense of disempowerment among American citizens, based on a lack of strong identification with traditional organizing principles. They link this to the psychological instability of rapid social change and the persistence of...
  • October 15, 1976
    Inter Insignores (Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood) is a document promulgated by the Holy See's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The document addresses the "role of women in modern society and the Church," in particular the question of whether women should be allowed to become Catholic priests. Laying out its case with reference to scripture, the life of Christ, and the consistent traditions of the Church, the Congregation...
  • February 12, 1976
    Political Responsibility is the first of the quadrennial US bishops’ “voter guides” published prior to presidential elections. The document’s primary purpose is to encourage American Catholics to exercise their voting rights and participate in the electoral process. On the 200th anniversary of the founding of the republic, the bishops promote the symbiotic relationship between Roman Catholicism and American democracy, but they are concerned that citizens' political apathy threatens to erode...
  • May 14, 1971
    Octogesima Adveniens, an apostolic letter written by Pope Paul VI on the eightieth anniversary of Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, represents a reformulation and expansion of the Catholic social teaching tradition in light of the events of the late 1960s. Paul's letter exhorts Catholics to be politically engaged, but it cautions that political action alone will not resolve the world's problems. The letter focuses on extending participation to include all members of society, sharing responsibility...
  • March 26, 1967
    Popolorum Progressio, released amid the tumultuous late 1960s, expresses Pope Paul VI's concerns regarding growing global inequality and the prevalence of dire poverty in the developing world in light of his own travels to Latin America and Europe. It links basic tenets of Christianity with the moral imperatives created by the unequal distribution of material resources. In addition, the encyclical decries the political instability and social conflict that often flow from such radically unjust...
  • April 11, 1963
    Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII's final encyclical, reinterprets fundamental Christian precepts such as the dignity of the person and the inviolability of human rights and is the first encyclical addressed to "all men of good will." In it, John presses for an end to the Cold War and refutes the notion that Marxism is inherently antithetical to Christianity, but argues that its precepts frequently have been misinterpreted. John praises the progress of workers' rights, the emancipation of...
  • May 15, 1961
    In Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII reexamines social and economic issues originally addressed in Rerum Novarum within the post-war milieu. John praises the potential of science and technology for increasing the standard of living but remains cautious about its potential for restricting human freedom. Decrying the growing economic disparity both between and within nations, he challenges wealthy nations to share their resources with developing nations without infringing upon the autonomy of...
  • June 29, 1959
    Pope John XXIII's first encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram (To the Chair of Peter), is a warm and pastoral letter to the Catholic community on truth, unity, and peace, in a spirit of charity. The pope calls out ignorance of and indifference towards the truth as the cause of many of the world's social evils, and calls for modern communications and the press to remember their responsibility to report only the truth. Concurrently, the encyclical implores readers to seek greater unity between nations...
  • August 1, 1952
    Exsul Familia, an Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius XII, is considered a magisterial magna carta on migration that systematically lays outs the challenges of and principles for providing spiritual assistance to migrants. Holding up the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) as refugee archetypes, Pius XII first reviews the Church's past efforts, including care for pilgrims and pastoral ministry in diverse languages, as well as more recent work with immigrants to the Americas and across...
  • October 20, 1939
    Summi Pontificatus (On the Unity of Human Society) explores the need for the Christian message in a time of turmoil. It affirms the "supernatural brotherhood of peoples" despite the scourge of war and laments the unbelief that has contributed to widespread moral collapse. Pope Pius XII identifies two particularly dangerous errors. First, some deny the fundamental unity of humanity. Pius asserts that this unity is enriched, rather than threatened, by diversity in culture and economic...
  • June 29, 1881
    Diuturnum (On the Origin of Civil Power) outlines the "mutual rights and duties" of governments and citizens as understood in Catholic thought. The encyclical begins by establishing that God is the source of political authority, which citizens are called to obey. Concurrently, rulers must exercise their authority for the benefit of all, rather than solely for personal gain. Pope Leo XIII denounces the Reformation for creating civil-political chaos and creating space for the development of...
  • December 3, 1839
    In Supremo Apostolatus (Apostolic Letter condemning the slave trade), Pope Gregory XVI condemns the slave trade and the very institution of slavery. Gregory first outlines biblical injunctions concerning the master/slave relationship before declaring that true Christian charity demands the freeing of all in bondage. The encyclical then describes past papal denunciation of slavery, citing the writings of Pius II, Paul III, Benedict XIV, and Pius VII. It closes by again warning Christians to...