Rights and Duties in Catholic Social Teaching
Having identified man as a social being, we are led naturally to a consideration of the notion of “right,” and this for two reasons.
First, because it is a word that is on the tip of every tongue these days and so it seems reasonable to address the most familiar and pressing issues first. This will allow us to iron out any misconceptions that may exist, and clear the way for other issues that may have been obscured by the confusion.
Second, we address the issue of right because it is directly linked to man’s social nature, which is to say: rights are social.
Specific applications will be avoided at this point in favor of a few general observations about the nature of the right. For example, we will forgo the discussion of individual rights (such as those pertaining to life, speech, worship, etc.) until they present themselves naturally in the course of our study.
a. Rights imply relation
St. Thomas Aquinas said that “right is the object of justice.” It is here that we can see the social or relational aspect of the right, since justice implies two parties. Insofar as a man is bound by justice, he is bound in a relationship, even if we reduce this relationship to its most primordial level, such as the original relation between creature and Creator.
What follows from this observation is that there is really no such thing as a purely “individual” right which one claims for oneself against the claims of others and which is owed to him absolutely without distinction and unconditionally. Just as there are two parties in the relationship, there are two aspects of justice, and the right is only one of them—the other aspect being duty. If duty is neglected, the concept of right is undermined from the start.
Nicholas Gomez-Davila struck at the heart of this confusion when he lamented: “It has become customary to proclaim rights in order to be able to violate duties.” To violate one’s own duty is automatically to violate the rights of another.
b. Rights presuppose duties
The Catholic Church always addresses the notion of right and duty at the same time. The former cannot be separated from the latter without undermining both. Following the reasoning of St. John XXIII, we can say that rights “are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person. These rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other.” To use but one example, we can say that the right to life carries with it the duty to preserve one’s life. The two components are two sides of the same coin: “to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.” This is why the Church, sensing an unfortunate “gap” between the letter and the spirit of rights, calls for the constant fostering of a social sense that remains aware of the needs of the common good.
c. Rights are not absolute
From this we can surmise that rights are not to be considered absolute. The Church calls them “inalienable,” which is to say, they are derived from human nature, but their exercise must always be circumscribed within limits. They are “contingent.” To take but one common example, the Church has consistently proclaimed the right to private property, and yet the Compendium says plainly that “Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable.” It will be appropriate to elaborate further on this particular point when we arrive at our discussion of private property below. For now, we need only illustrate that the notion of “right” is a balance, and is just as much directed outward, toward neighbor, as it is inward, toward the self. Rights must never become captive to a self-centered, egoistic paradigm if they are to remain healthy and functional.
 Scholia to an Implicit Text, 2587.