“Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights – for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture – is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination (Pope John Paul II, Christifideles laici, 38).
The language of “rights” has become the dominant moral language of our time, as Mary Ann Glendon noted in her 1991 book, Rights Talk. Therefore, we have to be familiar with this language in order to understand, communicate and dialogue with the modern world.
While not without its serious problems (e.g., the “clash of competing rights”, the assertion of bogus rights, and the difficulty of grounding and explaining them), “rights talk” can be an effective shorthand way of identifying what is “owed” to us simply because we are human beings with a dignity surpassing all other creatures.
But the Catholic Church, which has adopted the global language of rights, especially in her modern social teaching, is quite careful to show how rights, as they point out the demands of justice, are grounded in a sound understanding of the human person and the basic goods that fulfill the person, among other things (More on this in a moment).
To have a proper understanding of rights, we must see them as correlative with duties. Pope John Paul II observes in his 1993 encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis splendor (VS), “As Cardinal John Henry Newman…forcefully put it: ‘Conscience has rights because it has duties.’”
To say it another way: If I don’t have a duty not to kill you, then you don’t have a right to life. But I do indeed have a duty not to kill you, and therefore, you do indeed have a right to life (cf. Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw, Beyond the New Morality).
Rights: From God or Man?
In a sense, we might say from both. And so, we can speak of “human rights” and “God-given rights.” The former refer to our “natural” or “basic” rights that we have simply because we are rational and free beings (e.g., the right-to-life); the latter refer to the same thing, only they remind us of their origin and foundation in God (We also speak of “civil rights”, and these are usually the kinds of rights granted by the state, the government, in a particular country where one has citizenship).
Another way to express this: Human rights are rooted in human nature and human dignity; they are not, in essence, something posited by the state and thus susceptible of being taken away by the state (e.g., as the Nazis tried to do, and as is being attempted with our own government and its imposition of the HHS Mandate flowing out of Obamacare).
Thus, as Princeton University’s Robert P. George argues in his recent book, Conscience and Its Enemies, a right not to be enslaved, for example, is “a right that we have not by virtue of being members of a certain race, sex, class, or ethnic group, but simply by virtue of our humanity.” This is the natural law account of human rights, as opposed to the positivist account.
According to Roger Trigg, the natural law justification of human rights reminds us that they are “moral claims” connected to the unique nature of human beings, and not merely political and legal privileges (Morality Matters). And as Pope John Paul II says in Veritatis splendor “…the natural law expresses the dignity of the human person and lays the foundation for his fundamental rights and duties…it is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all mankind.”
It is the Church’s understanding of human dignity—and how this understanding applies to rights, particularly the right-to-life—that I will address in my next article.