Degree program delves into Catholic thought, perspective on human rights

By Elizabeth Bachmann
WASHINGTON (CNS) – This fall, five graduate students will embark on a unique, one-year journey back to the origins of thought on human nature.
They will study natural law and natural rights, anthropology, international law, religious liberty, global politics and papal encyclicals, emerging from the program with a fully formed, Catholic understanding of human rights and a zeal to defend and explain these rights.
The Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America is offering this master of arts degree in human rights for the first time in the fall of 2019. The program, headed and organized by William Saunders, lawyer and longtime human rights scholar and activist, is interdisciplinary, drawing classes from five of Catholic University’s schools.
“Now is the time for this, because we need people who can help us think clearly about human rights to be part of this conversation,” Saunders told Catholic News Service. “Any ordinary person on the street would be in favor of human rights, but if you ask, ‘What are human rights?’ they don’t know.”
According to Saunders, the master’s program will provide students with a holistic understanding of the underlying philosophy that governing the accepted lists of human rights, and explaining their purpose.
For Saunders, documents such as the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other assertions of rights are mere laundry lists without the Catholic understanding. Without a unifying understanding, Saunders says that it becomes easy to tack “rights” on like a wish list, without any consideration of whether they fit the definition of a true human right.
“What’s missing is a coherent philosophical understanding of why these rights are recognized. Catholic tradition supplies that, and helps you to think about it in a way that will be congruent to Catholicism,” Saunders said. “Because the Catholic perspective is not just a theological thing. It is a hard tradition of reason as well.”
The program will prepare students for any number of careers, from nonprofit relief organizations, to nongovernmental organizations, to Capitol Hill committees, to the private sector, according to Saunders.
“So far as we know, there is no other university offering (a masters of arts in human rights) from the uniquely Catholic perspective,” Saunders said. “Things like natural law, papal encyclicals, human anthropology, and theological anthropology are a part of it. There are a number of masters of arts in human rights, but not from this perspective, and certainly not in the nation’s capital, where you can so easily get involved.”
Some of the central courses include philosophy of natural right and natural law, Christian anthropology, public international law, international human rights and religious liberty.
Saunders emphasized that the program is neither exclusively for Catholics, nor any kind of Catholic conversion machine. He cited St. John Paul II’s encyclicals, in which he often engaged with people of goodwill who were not Catholic, but desired to understand the rich Catholic teaching on human rights issues.
“Natural rights are not disguised Catholic theology,” Saunders said. “They are just based on the idea that we share some things as human beings, and if we find those things out, we can figure out an answer to Aristotle’s question: How can we order our lives?”
Bradley Lewis, associate professor of philosophy at Catholic University, will teach two of the foundational classes for the program: “The Philosophy of Natural Rights and Natural Law” and “Morality and Law.”
He explained that Catholic thought is historically enmeshed in human rights decisions.
“If you go to the beginning of modern human rights projects, a lot of people involved in promoting human rights in the late 1940s and 1950s were Christians and, in many cases, Catholic,” Lewis said. “This approach is something that we have had within the Catholic world, and, at a certain point, it was lost and fell out of discussion. We want to put it back in.”