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Human Development and Human Rights in a Culture of Encounter and Solidarity

By: David Hollenbach

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter as an Engine of Solidarity

Pope Francis has stressed that advancing human development and protecting human rights requires solidarity among people. Authentic development depends on replacing individual pursuit of self-interest with genuine encounter with others, an encounter that reveals the dignity and rights of other persons. In the pope’s words, “Isolation and withdrawal into one’s own interests are never the way to restore hope and bring about renewal. Rather, it is closeness; it is the culture of encounter. Isolation, no; closeness, yes. Culture clash, no; culture of encounter, yes” (Fratelli Tutti, n. 30). On the other hand, Samuel Moyn, a prominent historian of the human rights movement, argues that human rights are based on an individualistic vision of the person. Moyn sees human rights as antithetical to the encounter and solidarity with others that supports development (see his Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World). If Moyn’s analysis is correct, support for human rights and promotion of development are opposed, not mutually supportive.

Pope Francis and the Catholic tradition strongly disagree with Moyn. Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed that achieving human development and securing human rights go together. Neither human development nor human rights can be attained by persons acting alone or in individualistic ways. Both human development and human rights depend on enabling persons actively to participate in communities in ways that support their dignity and freedom. Development and rights require an interactive encounter that strengthens solidarity across national, cultural, ethnic, and religious boundaries. When persons are excluded from relational support in community, their rights will not be attained, including the social and economic rights to nutrition, housing, education, work, and health care that are central to development. Attaining human development and protecting human rights thus require the solidarity that arises from the common humanity all persons share.

Through the influence of Amartya Sen, development practitioners have recognized that exchange in free markets, with the results measured by the growth of monetary income per capita, does not lead to genuinely human development. An adequate measure of development must include the levels of health and education available to people. If commitment to free markets leads to declining investment in education, health care, and social infrastructure, it can undercut development rather than advancing it. With less education and poorer health, significant numbers of people in Sub-Saharan Africa have been left behind. As Pope John Paul II put it, “they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their heads” (Centesimus Annus n. 33). They have simply been left out of the benefits that economic growth can produce. Therefore, genuine development will require more than narrow support for free exchange in the marketplace. It will depend on enabling those in extreme poverty to share in the economic growth taking place. This is a matter of solidarity versus marginalization. Human development comes about when people are able to participate actively in the communities that shape their lives.

There are both normative and empirical reasons for the link between solidarity, participation, and development. Normatively, the fact that humans are relational beings who can flourish only in social interaction has long been an important emphasis in Western religious and ethical reflection and in non-Western traditions as well. Both Jews and Christians see the covenant that God has made with them as the source of their relationships both with God and with one another as God’s people. These relationships call them to show love to their neighbors and also to strangers and outsiders. A bond of love, therefore, should join Jews and Christians in solidarity with their nearby neighbors and also with those from other communities living at great distances.

The normative importance of solidarity is also affirmed in Western secular thought. Aristotle called the human being a social or political animal. .He saw speech and the ability to communicate with others and to live with them in justice as key dimensions of humanity (Politics, book 1:2). Relationship and interaction with others are essential to the moral life. The development of persons in genuinely human ways will depend on their positive encounter with others and on their active participation in the social life that generates goods they cannot gain on their own.

Drawing on the covenantal tradition of Christianity and Judaism and on Aristotle’s social vision of the person, we can affirm that developed society will be one where all persons can actively participate in a life shared together. In a developed society, all members will have access to the education, work, income, health care, and other social goods that their social interaction should make possible. This participation in social relationships will enable them to live with dignity. Thomas Aquinas affirmed this understanding when he insisted that enabling all of society’s members to share in the common good of society is the central requirement of justice, which is itself the most basic standard of morality for social and political life (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, q. 58, art. 5).

This relational, participation-based understanding of humanity was stressed by the U.S. Catholic bishops when they insisted that the most basic form of justice “demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons” (Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, 1986, n. 77). In negative terms, injustice occurs when persons are excluded from participation in the social relationships they need to live with dignity. Pope Francis also sees injustice as exclusion from social interaction and relationships. The pope objects to what he calls an “economy of exclusion.” Such an economy causes poverty by preventing people from participating in relationships that are essential to their development. In the pope’s strong words, “such an economy kills” (Evangelii Gaudium no. 53). Patterns of social interaction marked by inequality, domination, and oppression ought to be replaced by relations based on equality, reciprocity, and solidarity. For Pope Francis, justice requires policies that enable those who are excluded to become active participants in the life of society. Humanly adequate development will not occur if persons are compelled to rely solely on what they can achieve on their own, or, worse, if they are excluded from the social relationships they need to live humanly.

This solidaristic view of the person leads to an interpretation of human rights that sees rights as grounded in the human relationships that are essential to human dignity. The U.S. Catholic bishops define human rights as “the minimum conditions for life in community” (Economic Justice for All, n. 79). Human rights set the basic standards of social participation that are needed to live in dignity. They are the minimum requirements of the communal solidarity that both the Bible and Aristotle’s secular thought see as essential to authentically human forms of life. These basic levels of social participation are due to people by right. Therefore, respect for human rights and a strong sense of communal solidarity are linked, not opposed.

The deepening of solidarity, the advancement of development, and the protection of human rights are mutually supportive. Each of these three objectives requires the other two. An individualistic ethos will undermine all three. Pope Francis calls us to deepen our encounter with others and forge stronger bonds of solidarity both within and across the boundaries of our communities. Positive response to this call will help advance both development and human rights today. Our challenge is how to help our communities respond more effectively to the pope’s call.