The Master of Arts in Human Rights

Study Human Rights from the Uniquely Catholic Perspective

When you access the application, please note that the M.A. in Human Rights is under the School of Arts and Sciences.

The Master of Arts in Human Rights, developed by the Institute for Human Ecology (IHE), is designed for students who wish to study human rights from a distinctly Catholic perspective. It draws upon existing courses of several schools at The Catholic University of America. The interdisciplinary degree is awarded by the School of Arts and Sciences. The program’s director is William Saunders, J.D.

“[William Saunders] is genuinely a human rights hero, a person who has literally put his body, put his life on the line upholding human rights in very dangerous places…but to stand in solidarity and to support people who were victims of terrible human rights abuses.”

– Robert George, Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Advisor to our M.A. in Human Rights

Graduates will:

Be an advocate for human rights

This degree will prepare you to bring the rich Catholic perspective on human rights to a variety of different spheres, including:

International, Federal, State Government
Church/Diocesan Apostolates
International Aid Organizations
Advocacy and Social Policy
Private Sector

Wherever people are, you will be a voice for human rights.

“To meet today’s human rights challenges, we need students who are rooted in the founding documents of the human rights movement, enriched by a deep philosophical and even theological understanding of the dignity of the human person. This is precisely what the M.A. in human rights at The Catholic University of America provides.”

– Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law, Emerita, at Harvard Law School and Advisor to the M.A. in Human Rights at Catholic University

A comprehensive interdisciplinary degree

The innovative, interdisciplinary Master of Arts curriculum will draw upon diverse academic offerings throughout The Catholic University of America. Its courses come not only from departments within Arts and Sciences but from the Schools of Philosophy, Canon Law, Theology and Religious Studies, and Law. Full-time students form a strong cohort under the direction of Prof. William Saunders to support one another in their commitment to study human rights.

Following an introductory orientation week before the semester begins, the program consists of 30 semester hours of post-baccalaureate coursework, including a capstone course designed to bring together the insights from the other courses and which looks at the Church’s work at the United Nations and other international bodies. The capstone course consists of a seminar and requires completion of a research paper. The degree, which is completed in one year (if taken full-time), may occasionally include the option to take a summer course. In addition to these courses, students meet weekly with leaders in the field of human rights. 

Students must maintain a minimum of a B average in order to graduate. Students will fulfill the normal requirements for a Master of Arts degree in Arts and Sciences. Electives will be chosen by students in consultation with the Director of the Program in Human Rights and the Executive Director of the IHE; they will advise students on electives that prepare them for their career goals. The list of electives is not exclusive; others might be added.

Core Courses

PHIL 633 Philosophy of Natural Right and Natural Law
LAW 611 Public International Law
POL 644 Modern Christian Political Thought
CL 716 Religious Liberty
TRS 661 Christian Anthropology
POL 595C Washington Internship
Capstone course


POL 5XX/405A Constitutional Democracy (bound graduate course)
POL 643 Foundations of Christian Political Thought
POL 307 Global Issues
SOC 5XX/102 Global Social Problems & Social Justice (the bound graduate version of SOC 102)
LAW 607A International Criminal Law
LAW 419 Human Trafficking Seminar
LAW 410 International Human Rights
IEDM 552 Integral Economic Development Management (international institutions, international development, and human rights)
LAW 410A International Human Rights (Rome)
LAW 685 Catholic Social Teaching and the Law
TRS 632D Biomedical Ethics
TRS 632A Christian Social Ethics
TRS 630A Foundations of Christian Moral Life
TRS 368A Christianity and Politics
PHIL 878 Philosophy of Law (Jurisprudence)
POL 559A Human Rights in International Relations

Admission Requirements

Applicants must submit:

(1)  Application fee (waived until January 10)
(2)  A letter indicating the reasons for pursuing the degree
(3)  Official transcripts of all previous undergraduate and graduate work with a minimum GPA of 3.0
(4)  Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score or a Miller Analogies Test (MAT) score
(5)  Three letters of recommendation
(6)  An admissions interview with the program director, William Saunders

International applicants must submit:

(1)  Application fee
(2)  A letter indicating the reasons for pursuing the degree
(3)  An official translation of foreign transcripts from an approved source 
(e.g., through World Education Services)
(4)  Scores on the IELTS or TOEFL in accordance with university policy
(5)  Three letters of recommendation in English
(6)  An admissions interview with the program director, William Saunders

Application Deadlines:

Priority deadline for scholarship consideration, February 1
Fall deadline for international applicants, July 15
Fall deadline for domestic applicants, August 1

Admissions Mailing Address:

The Catholic University of America
Office of Graduate Studies
620 Michigan Ave, NE
Washington, DC 20064
For admissions questions, please contact the Office of Graduate Studies.

Graduate Tuition and Scholarships

The Cardinal Newman Society Guide, Leonine Forum, Civitas Dei, and John Jay Institute alumni automatically receive a $5000 scholarship upon admission.

Merit-based Scholarships and Grants

In addition to Catholic University’s scholarships and financial aid plans, the Institute for Human Ecology offers partial scholarship to select students in the MA in Human Rights Program. For optimal scholarship consideration, submit application prior to the deadline, February 1.

Non-Catholic University scholarships

Scholarships for International Development
Fellowship opportunities
Donald M. Payne International Development Graduate Fellowship
Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are eligible for Partial Scholarships as Coverdell Fellows.

Tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year:

The MA in Human Rights offers a discounted professional tuition rate of $1,075 per credit hour. The total cost of the program for 30 credit hours is $32,250.

Full-time, the MA program is completed in two semesters and possibly a summer course (upon discussion with program director).

The information below is provided for convenience only; all updated figures may be found on the website of the Office of Enrollment Services here.

For details about FAFSA loans, please visit their website.

For Payment Plan information go to or call 888-713-7234.

Priority Deadline for scholarship consideration, February 1. Applications submitted after this deadline may still be eligible for scholarship consideration.

Final Deadline for International Applicants, July 1

Final Deadline for domestic applicants, July 15

Part-time students are ineligible for scholarships. All of our full-time students receive some scholarship assistance.

“This [program] will really bring something new to the table. That is an understanding of human rights rooted in the deep tradition of thought that takes us back to Athens and to Jerusalem, an approach to human rights that really anchors human rights in the truth about the human person and the flourishing of the human person. … We need that kind of deep understanding.”

– Robert George, Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence

Robert George — Princeton University
Mary Ann Glendon — Harvard Law School
John Dilulio — University of Pennsylvania
John Keown — Georgetown University
Kevin Flannery, SJ — Gregorian University
Thomas Farr — Religious Freedom Institute
Helen Alvare — George Mason Law School

Program Director

William L. Saunders, J.D.

Director of the Program in Human Rights, Institute for Human Ecology

Expertise: Bioethics, Religious Liberty, Human Rights

William L. Saunders is a religious liberty and human rights scholar at The Catholic University of America. He is Law Fellow with the Institute for Human Ecology, Professor and Director of the Program in Human Rights in the School of Arts & Sciences and Co-director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Columbus School of Law. He is Chair of the Religious Liberties Practice Group of the Federalist Society. Before joining The Catholic University of America, Mr. Saunders served as Senior Vice President and Senior Counsel with Americans United for Life for ten years. From 1999 to 2009, he was Senior Fellow in Bioethics and Human Rights Counsel at the Family Research Council.

Mr. Saunders attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Morehead scholarship. He obtained his degree in law from the Harvard Law School.

Mr. Saunders was featured in Harvard’s first Guide to Conservative Public Interest Law in 2003 and again in the 2008 edition. He served on Harvard’s Advisory Committee for its 2008 celebration of public interest law. A member of the Supreme Court bar, he has authored numerous legal briefs in state, federal, foreign, and international courts.

Mr. Saunders’ new book, Unborn Human Life and Fundamental Rights: Leading Constitutional Cases Under Scrutiny, will be published in 2019. His articles and book chapters have been published by the university presses of Harvard, Villanova, Brigham Young, Fordham, Georgetown, Houston, Scranton, and The Catholic University of America, as well as by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Freedom House, Greenhaven Press, Rowan & Littlefield, Praeger, St. Augustine’s, and Intervarsity press. He has given lectures and participated in debates at many colleges, universities, and law schools, including Princeton, Harvard, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. He delivered the annual J. Michael Miller Lecture at the University of St. Thomas (on international law) in February 2007, the annual R. Wayne Kraft Memorial Lecture (on bioethics) at DeSales University in February 2004 and the annual James Moore Lecture (on human rights violations in Sudan) at Millikin University in 1999. He has also lectured, and/or has been published, in many foreign countries, including Italy, Germany, Poland, Austria, Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Mexico, Qatar, Malaysia, Romania, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom.

In addition to speaking and writing frequently on bioethics topics, Mr. Saunders has submitted testimony to the President’s Council on Bioethics, as well as to UNESCO’s Committee on Bioethics, and has briefed Congressional staff and state legislatures. He is a regular columnist for the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.

Mr. Saunders has appeared often in the media, including BBC World News, CNN, Fox News, EWTN, Vatican Radio, and National Public Radio. His articles on issues have appeared in a variety of journals, such as First Things, Human Events, Human Life Review, The Legal Times, Communio, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, Ethics & Medics, and Touchstone.

Mr. Saunders served on the official United States delegation to the UN Special Session on Children in 2001/02. In 2011, he was a speaker at an official briefing at the UN, addressing the topic, why euthanasia is not a human right.

In 2004, he served on the NGO Working Committee in connection with the Doha Intergovernmental Conference for the Family.

Mr. Saunders is Senior Fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute, and Affiliated Scholar with the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Ethics at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. He is President of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and a member of the boards of the International Association of Catholic Bioethicists, the International Right to Life Federation, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

In 1999, Mr. Saunders founded Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., to aid the persecuted church in Sudan. He has worked for and written on behalf of the persecuted church for many years.

Mr. Saunders teaches the Capstone Course.


Our Faculty

V. Bradley Lewis, Ph.D.

Lucia Ann Silecchia, J.D.

David Walsh, Ph.D.

Paul Scherz, Ph.D.

Chad C. Pecknold, Ph.D.

Msgr. Anthony Frontiero, S.T.D. (former Vatican diplomat) 

Dennis Coyle, Ph.D.

  • Robert P. George
    “I think part of the project for those of us who do believe in human rights, seriously believe in human rights, who believe in them not because they're popular but because we think they're true, part of the challenge for us and our job is to be more effective in making the case. I don't mean just moral, just rhetorically effective. I mean to make the case better, make the stronger case, the strongest possible case for a meta-ethical view that would provide a solid ground for belief in human rights.”
    Robert P. George
    McCormick Professorship of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and Advisor to the M.A. in Human Rights at The Catholic University of America
  • Chen Guangcheng
    “I believe that what determines outcomes is people. As long as you have confidence and determination and know that justice is on your side, and the thirst for freedom, you will find the path to overcome your enemies. The quest for freedom is innate within all of us.”
    Chen Guangcheng
    Distinguished Fellow at The Catholic University of America.
  • Steven Howard
    "The M.A. in Human Rights enriched my understanding of human rights by illuminating their Christian origins.  As I deepened my study of Catholic Social Doctrine, I developed a new appreciation for the moral clarity it provides for the challenging issues of our day.  Experiencing the community of Catholic University was also incredibly rewarding for me as a Catholic.  Moving forward, I feel more solidly grounded in Catholic Social Doctrine and prepared to tackle human rights challenges.”
    Steven Howard
    M.A. in Human Rights
  • Thomas Farr
    “This program stands at the very core of Catholic University's mission to teach its students the deep meaning and profound value of human rights grounded in the dignity of the human person. At the center of all human rights is its linchpin—without which the others cannot properly defend true human dignity—religious freedom. No one is better qualified to teach its role in all fundamental rights than the director of the Human Rights Program, William Saunders.”
    Thomas Farr
    Religious Freedom Institute President and Advisor to the M.A. in Human Rights at Catholic University.

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“This Institute, I think, is a very important expression of the renaissance that’s underway at Catholic University in these recent years, and I’m delighted to be part of that.”

George Weigel
About the IHE

The Institute for Human Ecology (IHE) at The Catholic University of America is the nation’s leading academic institute committed to increasing scientific understanding of the economic, cultural, and social conditions vital for human flourishing.

Contact Us
The Institute for Human Ecology
The Catholic University of America

620 Michigan Avenue NE
339 Caldwell Hall
Washington, DC 20064


The Institute for Human Ecology
The Catholic University of America

620 Michigan Avenue NE
339 Caldwell Hall
Washington, DC 20064