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Dignity and Human Rights Education

Exploring Ultimate Worth in a Post-Secular World


Robert A. Bowie

This book addresses the question of human rights education in a world that is witnessing a resurgence of religion in public life, and a continuation of religion across much of the globe, long after secularization theories predicted its decline. Promoting a universal vision of human rights while acknowledging religious diversity is a challenge for schools. This book starts with the basic premise that human rights are grounded in a belief in the dignity and ultimate worth of the human person. Drawing on key philosophical and theological sources for understanding dignity, it builds a vision of human rights and religious education that seeks to square the impossible circle of universal human rights education in a religiously diverse world.

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Chapter 6: Christianity


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Dignity has an important position in contemporary Catholic and Protestant theological discussion and also in interreligious dialogue. A selection of sources illustrates this position. Historically, Christian interest in the idea of dignity predates the modern and contemporary rights era. Carlos Ruiz Miguel (2002) charts the development of the idea in the work of St Leo the Great (395–461 CE), Cardinal Lotario de Conti (1160–1216), St Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), and Fernan Perez de Oliva (1494–1531). However, it is in the social thought of Pope Leo XIII, in the nineteenth century, where contemporary Catholic interest in the link between rights and dignity begins. This emerged out of a concern for workers’ rights and the rights of their families. In his study Claims in Conflict, Hollenbach notes, ‘Leo’s encyclicals laid the groundwork for the modern Catholic theory of human rights. Human dignity is the foundation of this theory’ (1979, 49).

Developments in the nineteenth century extended throughout the twentieth century. Coleman (1984) notes that they were heavily influenced by the work of Maritain on human rights, who was to contribute to the drafting of the UDHR itself, ‘The dignity of the human person? The expression means nothing if it does not signify that, by virtue of the natural law, the human person has the right to be respected, is the subject of rights, possesses rights’ (Maritain, 1943, 65). Maritain, a Thomist scholar, associated human dignity with natural...

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