Some Thoughts on Rights

Sean Patrick Sanford

On the drive home from a recent lecture about the role of religious traditions on the Civil Rights movement, I listened to the radio as a young Egyptian woman, her voice trembling with passion, proclaimed that she and her peers would not abandon their protest until the voice of the people was heard and their human rights secured. A few minutes later, in a different report, a recently elected member of the U.S. Congress, identified as a member of the Tea Party, explained that many of her constituents supported the movement in order to protect their God-given rights.

Civil. Human. God-given. The concept of rights is such a part of our contemporary cultural lexicon that its use in divergent contexts gives no pause.  Drawn on to support aspirations of racial equality, underscore the removal of a regime, or sustain an ideology, rights-language has become an implicit part of our moral and political discourse.  The broad currency of rights-language appears to suggest rights, or at least a concern for rights, are deeply rooted in the human experience. The United Nations, tasked with monitoring rights for the global community, recognizes its own Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the most translated document in the world. Within the Roman Catholic tradition, particularly the body of thought referred to as Catholic Social Teaching (CST), rights, and correspondingly, responsibilities, are listed among the fundamental principles necessary for the proper governance of the social order.

Despite such prevalence, it would be incorrect to assume that rights have enjoyed a great deal of prestige throughout human history. Nor, for that matter, would it be accurate for us to assert, despite the U.N.’s important contribution, the universal acceptance of rights in the present day. Indeed, the history of rights is the history of an emerging concept, one that continues to be critiqued, amended, modified and occasionally disregarded, in a variety of contexts for an array of purposes.

Those concerned with the genealogy of rights have traced the notion to the Golden Rule, antediluvian Babylon or ancient India, though not without accusations of imposing modern ideas onto the past. Some scholars have pointed to the innovative reforms of early Islam (7th century) or highlighted the ground-breaking introduction of habeas corpus and due process in the Magna Carta (1215), as the progenitor of contemporary rights. The ascendancy of natural rights can be traced to philosophers such as John Locke who universalized a set of rights, endowed by God and famously reiterated in the American Declaration of Independence as “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.” While the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw considerable expansion in rights-discourses, it would be fair to describe the experience of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a veritable explosion.  Liberation movements, from slavery to women’s suffrage, the labor movement to self-determination in the colonized global South, led to extensive reflection and advocacy on the rights not only of individuals but also diverse constituencies and entire societies.

Nonetheless, for most historians the watershed moment in the emergence of human rights was the Holocaust. Certainly, the  impetus behind the rise of the United Nations was the failure of the League of Nations in light of the atrocities of both World Wars, however the Holocaust played a central role in the development of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration attempts to systematically outline the rights of all people, in all contexts, and provide the basis for holding nation-states accountable. In the West it has been cited in such diverse settings as the feminist, Civil Rights, and gay rights movements. Around the world, it has been called upon, with varying degrees of success, to sustain movements around ethnic identity, religious tolerance, and cultural rights. Though not without its critics – from a range of political positions – the Declaration has been a central part of the development and expansion of rights-language for many people today.

Though space permits only a brief overview of the history of rights (or more accurately, rights-language), what becomes apparent is that the history itself does not afford us an authoritative definition of the term.  The Declaration, among other attempts to articulate a list of rights, does not preclude the inevitable conflict that arises from distinct interpretations or the application of such understandings. Black’s Law Dictionary provides no less than forty species of rights, offering that which is  “proper under law, morality, or ethics” or “due to a person by just claim, legal guarantee, or moral principle” as rudimentary. [1]

Among the most harmful developments in the advance of rights-discourses has been the apparent untethering of rights from what most theorists, legal, philosophical and theological alike, consider its fundamental correlative concept, namely responsibilities or duties. I can look back upon my own moral education, as a young person committed to the concept of justice, as an example of this precarious detachment.  In seeking a deeper awareness of justice I eagerly participated in a variety of organizational efforts on behalf of the maltreated: the poor, the sick, the undocumented, the imprisoned, etc. In so doing, I learned more about the complex realities that informed the lives of those whom I met and came to understand how such complexity was rarely represented in political rhetoric. I also became versed in a broad range of rights claims, seemingly well justified, which were predicated on the failure of the community, usually the state, to respond adequately to suffering, oppression or inequality. Unfortunately, my commitment to rights too often failed to account for a sense of responsibility. In reality, like many young activists, I was quick to assign duties to so-called elites. I simply missed the obvious reality that treating victims as powerless was to rob them of their dignity. Slowly, painfully, I came to see my own rhetoric as profoundly partial, and worse, unhelpful. These concerns led to further investigation into the social teachings of the Roman Catholic tradition. As previously mentioned, the concept of rights is listed as one of many broad themes found in CST, yet the role of rights is central to any lucid articulation of Church teaching.

Which is not to say that rights-discourses have been esteemed in Church history. On the contrary, it was only after centuries of suspicion and occasional hostility toward an idea often associated with anti-Catholic movements and secular thought that the Church endorsed a catalog of human rights in Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) in 1963. Of course, the underlying concept of rights, or more accurately, the issues with which rights-language is concerned, have long informed Christian moral thought. Moreover, the emergence of modern rights theories, secular or otherwise, must count among their predecessors the works of Catholic philosophers concerned with natural law, and holy men and women of faith who advocated for living conditions and opportunity for the poor and marginalized. The term rights, though given a fuller reading by John XXIII, was nonetheless present in the writings Pope Leo XIII (1978 – 1903) and the teachings of Pope Pius XII (1939 – 1958). What’s more, Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and Pierre Tielhard de Chardin were drawn upon for the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document whose creation was called for by Pius XII as early as 1941. The noted legal scholar, Mary Ann Glendon, author of A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, discovered extensive evidence that the Declaration’s writers (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) were deeply influenced by the ideas put forth in the social encyclical tradition, including Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor) in 1891 and Quadragesimo Anno (Reconstruction of the Social Order) in 1931.

Be that as it may, Pacem in Terris enthusiastically sanctions the innovations of the Universal Declaration. “Beginning our discussion of the rights of man, we see that every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and, finally, the necessary social services. Therefore, a human being also has the right to security in cases of sickness, inability to work, widowhood, old age, unemployment, or any other case in which he is deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of his own.” (Pacem in Terris, n. 11).

Though Pacem in Terris does not necessarily expand human rights discourse beyond that found elsewhere, it does two vitally important services. First, in keeping with John XXIII’s program of aggiornamento, meaning “bringing up to date”, Pacem in Terris articulates Catholic moral thought in such a way as to integrate pressing human rights concerns into the theological and ecclesial language of the contemporary Church while simultaneously demonstrating that such concerns (albeit, referred to in other ways) are an integral part of the traditional witness of the Church. Second, John XXIII reiterated the necessary correlation, reminding that the “relations of human society” are to be “expressed in terms of rights and duties…” [emphasis mine], a link consistently communicated in the successive social teachings of the Church.[2] The explication of this crucial principle affirms the role of all persons in the achievement of the common good, for while the proper ordering of society indeed mandates access to every suitable need (rights), so too does it require the contribution of everyone to the resources that make such access possible (responsibilities).

Rights and responsibilities as understood in Catholic social thought are, like most other identifiable themes therein, contingent upon a first principle, namely the inherent dignity of the human person. This is the genesis of any and all claims to rights. They proceed from our condition as beings made in the image and likeness of the Creator, living in interdependent relationship with other such beings (society).  Rights claims, insofar as they derive their authority from God, supersede the precincts of legal or political frameworks; nonetheless that is precisely where they are most often settled. What are we to do when appeals to rights appear to be in conflict? When a vision of the common good yields divergent interpretations of not only citizenship, but the reasonable claims of the human person? Certainly, it is fair to say that the index of rights and responsibilities articulated in the social teachings of the Church since 1963 is so extensive and, in the majority of cases so integral to our understanding of human life, as to make difficult any attempt at prioritization. Further complicating the fact is that whereas rights are often specific – life, food, education, housing, health care, etc. – responsibilities are often far less determinate. It is here that the Christian ethic of love emerges as the hermeneutic (method of interpretation) par excellence.  In situations when rights-claims conflict, the primacy of the law of love (1 Corinthians 13:13) calls for ongoing reflection marked by respect, creativity, and discernment. Such engagement in the face of difference (see last week’s posting All Things by John Bradley for an excellent treatment on embracing difference) allows for grace to enter and charity to reign. In cases where ideological commitments jeopardize progress or threaten the cohesion of the community, it is necessary to draw upon our prophetic tradition to remember that like the widows and orphans of old, the needs of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, must, by virtue of our Christian vocation, become our priority. There is, in the end, a morally binding duty on us all to provide for those who suffer. We cannot forget the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16), nor forgo its lesson. Christ dwells among the least, and we are bound to recognize each person’s right “to be seated at the table of the common banquet.”[3]

It is likely that as marginalized communities discover a political voice they will, like others before them, introduce yet unheard of rights-claims. Rather than relegate such demands, or those in currency today, as manifestations of relativism or reaction, the theme of rights and responsibilities in Catholic social thought provides us with useful tools for engaging a marketplace of diverse rights-discourses and claims. CST provides a lens to take measure of the practices of our communities and monitor our own aspirations. What it does not do is give easy answers, nor should it embroil us in worn-out ideological commitments that, despite protests to the contrary, may not be rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our adherence to the dignity of the human person, vision of the common good, and commitment to interdependent communities charged with achieving rights and realizing responsibilities is not easy nor without internal disagreement, however it is a paradigm for disciples seeking a way forward in a divided political culture marked by faith, hope and love. For that, we should be grateful.

— Sean Patrick Sanford


[1] “Rights” Def. 1 & 2. Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. Garner, Bryan A. Ed. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 1999.

[2] Pacem in Terris, n. 45

[3] Sollicitudo Rei Socials, n. 33.

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