In his paper “Personalism, Community and the Origins of Human Rights,” Samuel Moyn argues that a relatively understudied current of Catholic political thought—known as personalism—played a key role in the affirmation of human rights as today’s dominant ideological framework. This may initially appear surprising given the well-known opposition of traditional Catholic social doctrine to the values normally associated with liberalism, modernity and the French Revolution.
However, Moyn’s argument is that Catholic political thought underwent a transformation in the middle part of the twentieth century, developing a distinctive doctrine of human rights on the basis of a concept of the human “person,” which turned out to be crucial for the inscription of human rights within the juridical and political framework of the post-war order. Indeed, Moyn argues that this Catholic rediscovery of human rights took place at a time (the early 1940s) during which other, more progressive, intellectual and political currents were relatively uninterested in them. Thus, he provocatively suggests that the widespread prestige this notion enjoys today has its roots in an essentially “conservative” political project of the mid-twentieth century.