History professor Robert Ventresca, a leading expert on the papacy of Pius XII and co-founder of the new collaborative program in human rights studies at King’s College, London, Ont.

New King’s program takes holistic view of human rights

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  • April 16, 2021

On the one hand, human rights might seem obvious. There is surely a minimum of freedoms, responsibilities, care and solidarity owed to all humans just because they are human. On the other hand, is there anything Catholics and Canadians argue about more fervently?

On euthanasia, abortion, gay rights, religious freedom and the history of abuse suffered by Indigenous Canadians our legal, historical, theological and social arguments on all sides are bolstered by claims and interpretations of fundamental human rights. Catholic contributions to the debate about human rights have been put in focus this month by Pope Francis’ April prayer intention for human rights defenders.

“Take special care of those who risk their lives for this (human rights); shake our sleeping consciences, and give us your grace to feel the pain of the other as our own,” Pope Francis prays.

It’s a prayer intention that happens to jibe perfectly with a new program in human rights studies at King’s University College in London, Ont. History professor Robert Ventresca, a leading expert on the papacy of Pius XII and co-founder of the new collaborative program in human rights studies at King’s, was quick to point out how King’s and the Pope are on the same wavelength.

“We’ve developed a whole new major. It’s interdisciplinary, so there are history courses, political science courses, sociology,” he said. “We’ve got a humanistic element to it because King’s is a Catholic college. We’ve got some religious studies elements.”

Though many date the history of human rights only as far back as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in the wake of the Holocaust, the Catholic history of human rights goes back at least as far as Bartolomé de las Casas, the 16th-century Dominican bishop of Chiapas, Mexico. He persuaded Spanish King Charles I, who became the Holy Roman Emperor, to pass the New Laws of the Indies in 1542. De las Casas successfully argued the native people could not be enslaved, robbed or abused simply because they weren’t Christian and weren’t subjects of the king. They shared their humanity with Christ who suffered and died for all.

While those new laws were clearly not obeyed by the Spanish or Portuguese, they did lay down the legal principle that human rights are not dependent on political or religious allegiance.

But the modern history of Catholic thinking about human rights is also significant, pointed out Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny in a short essay for the Jesuit Apostleship of Prayer, which promotes the Pope’s prayer intentions.

“Catholic social teaching roots human rights — economic and others — in the dignity of the human person,” Czerny wrote.

At King’s, a holistic view of human rights is aided by the college’s many established courses in political science, social justice and peace studies, disability studies, sociology, history and even English literature. Whether it’s the American Borders and Borderlands course that takes students to the U.S.-Mexican border to study issues of migration or the Women in Civic Leadership course that pairs students with municipal leaders, King’s established experiential learning programs play right into the new human rights program, Ventresca said.

If polite conversation shies away from religion and politics, the program has no time for manners. Ventresca wants students debating religion, politics, philosophy, law and more.

“We want students to think about the breadth and richness of human rights as an idea, as a philosophical concept, as an ethical idea. What are people owed in terms of rights? From where do they come?”

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