Rights and Responsibilities

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' "

Matthew 25:35-36

In both the presentation on Health Care and the one on our use of Water that I did this year, I included a discussion on the question of rights. The topic of "Rights and Responsibilities" is the third principle of the Seven Principles of Catholic Social Teaching. I am finding the issue of rights is part of the discussion on many social issues. People have basic rights both according to the founding document of our country, The Declaration of Independence and our Catholic Faith (cf. Pacem in Terris). Therefore, I offer the following reflection taking largely from my presentations on Health Care and Water.

The Declaration of Independence, the founding document of our country, states, "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

We are created in the image of God and giving the right to life, liberty, and happiness. It is a founding principle of the United States that we have these basic rights. From these basic rights we develop a concept of human rights. For example, food and water is necessary for life so the right to life includes a right to food and water.

Rights is also a basic concept in our faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons" (CCC, 357).

Nothing can take away this dignity. In Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, (#9) Pope John Paul II reminds us of the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was jealous and murdered his brother Abel, clearly a mortal sin. As punishment Cain is banished but God puts his special mark upon Cain after he murders Abel signifying that no one is to kill him. Nothing takes away our dignity.

In his encyclical Pacem in Terris Pope John XXIII spreads a great deal of time on the subject of rights.  "11. But first We must speak of man's rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood (8)."

The right to life guaranteed in our Declaration of Independence is not just a question of life and death. It is a question of what it means to truly live. To truly live we must have food, clothing, and shelter. Jesus himself includes these among the Corporal Works of Mercy in Matthew 25:31-46.

In Pacem in Terris, (29-31) Pope John XXIII goes from his discussion of rights to a discussion of duty (i.e. responsibility). If we wish to enjoy our rights then it is our duty to see that everyone else has the same rights fulfilled for them. In this case, to know that they will be cared for. Each society is led by a government.

Both governments and the Church must work to ensure the rights of all people. Pope John XXIII speaks of government authority as a natural part of how societies function. But governments do not exist for themselves, or just for the good of those with power. Government exists, as the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults states, “Governments and all other social institutions should serve and enhance the dignity of people” (326, cf. Pacem in Terris, 27). In serving the dignity of all people, governments are called to support the rights of all people.

Rights are not just an American principle or a Catholic value. The United Nations also speaks on the question of rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens with, "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, ... Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations" (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/, Preamble).

Are there limits on our rights? Of course, for instance, the right to private property must be balanced against the principle of “Universal Destination of Goods.” This principle of the "Universal Destination of Goods" recognizing God as the creator of all things and that creation exists for the good of all of God's people, not just one person. Thus, we are called to share what we have for the common good.

To use more than we need, when others are lacking, could be considered a form of stealing. The Catechism of the Catholic Church writes, "The seventh commandment forbids unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one’s neighbor and wronging him in any way with respect to his goods. It commands justice and charity in the care of earthly goods and the fruits of men’s labor. For the sake of the common good, it requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property (2401)."

How can we enjoy our rights and not accept the responsibility to work to ensure others have the same rights protected?


Articles from Renewal of Faith

Other Sources

Catechism of the Catholic Church Second Edition. English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the United States of America copyright © 1994, United States Catholic Conference, Inc.—Libreria Editrice Vaticana. English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Modifications from the Editio Typica copyright © 1997, United States Catholic Conference, Inc. Available online at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/.

Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). 1995. Available at   http://www.vatican.va/edocs/ENG0141/_INDEX.HTM.

Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). 1963. Available at the Vatican Web Site (www.vatican.va) at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem_en.html (see paragraphs 1-32)

United Nations, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 1948. Available online at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, Washington, D.C.: USCCB Publishing. 2006.