Natural Rights and the Medieval Church

Various times over the past few years, I’ve heard it claimed that the idea of human rights arose from Christianity, but never from what you might call an unbiased source, and never with any details. So I was interested to read this article by Brian Tierney. He traces the emergence of the concept back to the initial codification of canon law in the twelfth century, and subsequent commentaries by jurists that explored and developed the concept of natural rights from natural law, then through additional developments including Pope Innocent IV’s argument — against the opinion of extreme papalists at the time, and based on the scriptural affirmation that God makes the sun rise on the good and wicked alike — that Muslim infidels could legitimately own property and form licit governments; a fourteenth century dispute over the radical poverty of the Franciscans; and the argument made most passionately by a sixteenth century Spanish Dominican that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were not natural slaves, but had natural rights.

H/T to Theologians, Inc.

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5 Responses to Natural Rights and the Medieval Church

  1. Theophrastus says:

    I think that there are several potential objections here:

    (1) When Tierney talks about the twelfth century revival in Roman law, he is really speaking of the Justinian code (a point that is clearer in his book, but is also clear from a direct reading of Gratian). Justinian law restricts both government and explicitly acknowledges natural law (a direct predecessor of natural rights). Although Justinian is a saint and had religious impact, his law was not primarily a religious code (Justinian worked to repair relations with Rome). It is also much earlier than Tierney considers — the sixth century. This seems to support Rorty’s claim (which Tierney objects to that “history goes all the way down.” Indeed, one can find predecessors to the Justinian code in the precedents of the Roman Senate in the pre-Christian era. Certainly the idea of a legal code predates Christianity. (Gladstone famously traced the origin of human rights to the Hebrew Bible — which Jefferson strongly objected to.)

    (2) If one is studying the intellectual history of Europe, one naturally would find that all intellectual enterprises are related to Christianity, because Europe was dominated by Christianity. For example, Isaac Newton was a theologian(!) so we could claim that much of mathematics and physics had its origin in Christianity. It is not clear to me Tierney demonstrates that the mainstream thought of the development of human rights had its origin in Christian belief, or whether it just happened to be developed by Christians — because Christians were dominant — particularly in the intellectual class and among rulers.

    If we were talking about the origin of human rights in China, we would naturally trace them to Confucianism. If we were talking about the origin of human rights in the Ottoman Empire, we would naturally trace them to Islam. In this sense, Tierney is saying nothing more than Europe was primarily Christian.

    (3) Tierney at best demonstrates that there were instances of thinking about human rights in the medieval period, but he does not show that Enlightenment figures were directly influenced by these medieval thinkers. It is clear that our modern notions of human rights — obviously deeply influenced by the rhetoric American Revolution and of the French Revolution — were directly inspired by Enlightenment figures — we know this because of the direct quotation of them in period writings. We do not have similar clear-cut evidence of transmission from Medieval thinkers. In this sense, Leo Strauss (who Tierney implicitly criticizes) is much more convincing than Tierney.

    (4) More significantly, Tierney does not demonstrate a clear acknowledgment within Christianity (say by senior figures in the Roman Church) of the notion of human rights. Indeed, it is a bit hard to reconcile a strong support for human rights with, for example, the excesses of Inquisition or the Crusades or the persecution of the Jews, etc. Tierney’s examples of human rights are more like how he describes rights in the magna carta: certain classes had rights.

    As a more concrete example, let me take the statement of Innocent IV, who you indirectly mention in your post — Innocent IV wrote that Muslims would be allowed to have property. However, this did not stop Innocent IV from immediately campaigning upon becoming pope for a seventh crusade (which led Louis IX to attack). This does not correspond to a notion of Muslims having human rights.

    (5) As I mention above, we most directly trace our notion of human rights (say, as articulated by the Founding Fathers) to Enlightenment figures. Those figures were largely acting against traditional religious authority — they may have been deists, but they were largely opposed to the religious institutions of their period. Spinoza was excommunicated from his synagogue and religous community; Locke, in his Letters Concerning Toleration argued against the religious authorities of the period; Pierre Bayle left the Catholic Church and argued for a separation of civil and religious affairs; Voltaire openly criticized all religious institutions of his period; and so on. In America, the Founding Fathers were often Deists (with Jefferson even producing a “Jefferson’s Bible” purged of mystical content!); a central theme of the French Revolution was the so-called “dechristianization” effort. Given that our understanding of human rights comes from those who were largely in opposition to organized religion; it seems that an explanation that human rights really came from Christianity is at best, confusing.

    • Thanks for this very substantive comment, Theophrastus! As I’m not very familiar with this material, I can’t engage with most of your specific points.

      In general, though, the argument being made is not that Christianity has always had strong support for human rights, or that the officialdom of Christianity has taken the lead in such support, or that Christendom was consistent in its valuation of human rights; but rather, that the concept of human rights is implicit in the gospel (meaning the broad sense, not the four books in the NT). Indeed I would expect that support for human rights would emerge as a reform movement within Christianity, as the Christian faithful shaped by the gospel (and without the distractions/temptations of power that plague officialdom) come first to see, then to articulate, then to insist that the gospel demands such a position.

      Did the idea of human rights arise in China, or in the Ottoman Empire? Part of the argument I’ve heard elsewhere is that it did not, and that the fact that human rights emerged in Western Europe is a consequence of the fact that Western Europe was Christian.

      • Theophrastus says:

        Well, it may be the case that human rights is implicit in the gospel, but I don’t think Tierny makes that comment. Religious writings are so large that one can seemingly find anything in them. In the period leading up to the US Civil War, both Northerners and Southerners quoted the Bible voluminously, finding support for their position.

        Human rights did emerge elsewhere. In China, Confucianism talks about balancing the needs of society with the needs of the individual — a clear acknowledgment of rights. Equality of opportunity was recognized early on in China, with the implementation of the examination system. A full legal system was in place in China and accused had a right to a trial. Rights did not emerge in the same way they did in the West, but they did emerge.

        Similarly, sharia law (as realized by the Sunni Ottomans) accords rights to both Muslims and non-Muslims: rights to life, property, fair trial, social protection, as well as specific rights for women. Again, rights did not emerge in the same way they did in the West, but they did emerge.

        Now, we can argue over which cultural realization of rights was best — but both in the Ottoman Empire and in China, rights emerged early that were very late to emerge in the West. (Again, the examination system and fairness of opportunity is something that did not really emerge until the 20th century in the West — although the Chinese have had it for centuries.)

  2. Jacy says:

    I’m doing a National History Day project on the rights and responsibilities of parishoners of the medieval Church of England, and my teacher requires that I have an author. Who might it be?

    • Hi Jacy,
      I’m not really familiar with this topic, though it sounds very interesting! You might try searching at, or asking the helpful folks there on twitter @medievalists.

      Good luck with your project!

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