Renouncing Your Rights For The Poor
Those who believe that individual rights are absolute, that they must be “defended” under any and all conditions and against all who would make claims against them, and that any flexibility on this point is an injustice to human dignity, will be thrown for a loop when they read Octogesima Adveniens, paragraph 23, where Pope Paul VI says:
“…the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.”
It is a matter of placing one’s emphasis more on the common good and less on the self. It is a matter of solidarity:
“Without a renewed education in solidarity, an overemphasis of equality can give rise to an individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.”
Here’s the whole passage, with a bit of added emphasis, so you can see it in context:
“In fact, human rights are still too often disregarded, if not scoffed at, or else they receive only formal recognition. In many cases legislation does not keep up with real situations. Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equity. In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others. If, beyond legal rules, there is really no deeper feeling of respect for and service to others, then even equality before the law can serve as an alibi for flagrant discrimination, continued exploitation and actual contempt. Without a renewed education in solidarity, an overemphasis of equality can give rise to an individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.”
The message? An overzealous insistence on equality and the absolute possession of one’s individual rights can all-too-easily be used a pretext for ignoring the needs of the disenfranchised. This leads to a pernicious logic that says: “If the poor have rights equal to those of the rich, then they can better themselves. If they don’t do so, it can only be because they don’t want it bad enough.”
In other words, the only reason a person is poor is because that person is also lazy. Not so, says Pope Paul VI…and every other pope ever in the history of popes.
This Catholic attitude of anti-individualism points to one of the more neglected principles of Catholic Social Teaching, which is that the common good of a society is superior to the private good of the individual.
As “socialist” as this principle might sound, it is really just an acknowledgement of the social nature of the human person. The reasoning here is that the individual requires the common good in order to realize his highest potential. Therefore, he not only should but must serve the common good before he can hope to properly serve his own.
A healthy society is a prerequisite to the healthy development of individuals.
Or, to say it another way, poverty hurts everyone, and so it behooves everyone to do what they can to alleviate it.