Issues Pertaining to Rights and Duties
a. State as protector of rights.
Since the rise of Lockean liberalism, it has become common to imagine that the purpose of the State is nothing more than to act as “mediator of rights” between individuals, and that it should not concern itself in the promotion of any particular good beyond this simple role of safeguarding individual liberties. Unfortunately, this has never been the Catholic view of the purpose of political authority—or, more accurately, the Catholic view includes the protection of rights as a purpose of the State, but it refuses to limit the State to this alone, as if it had no other duty.
Moreover, when the Church speaks of the maintenance of the “rights” of citizens, it usually has other things in mind than those mentioned in political conversation today. The right to meaningful work, the right to education, and the right to food and water, are all notions which the Church has in view when it asks to State to guarantee certain fundamental rights.
The role of the State is an active one—not merely mediating between individuals who exercise their liberties in opposition. It is called to play a positive role in creating an environment where rights and duties can be exercised in their fullness.
b. Free of speech and the press
The Church teaches that rights, while valid, not necessarily absolute. Each must be held to the standard of truth and limited according to the common good, particularly when it comes to its exercise in the public sphere. Apart from truth and the common good, rights tend to undermine themselves and will virtually cease to exist through their own excess. The right of free speech serves as a good example here, as enunciated by Leo XIII:
“We must now consider briefly liberty of speech, and liberty of the press. It is hardly necessary to say that there can be no such right as this, if it be not used in moderation, and if it pass beyond the bounds and end of all true liberty. For right is a moral power which — as We have before said and must again and again repeat — it is absurd to suppose that nature has accorded indifferently to truth and falsehood, to justice and injustice. Men have a right freely and prudently to propagate throughout the State what things soever are true and honorable, so that as many as possible may possess them; but lying opinions, than which no mental plague is greater, and vices which corrupt the heart and moral life should be diligently repressed by public authority, lest they insidiously work the ruin of the State. The excesses of an unbridled intellect, which unfailingly end in the oppression of the untutored multitude, are no less rightly controlled by the authority of the law than are the injuries inflicted by violence upon the weak. And this all the more surely, because by far the greater part of the community is either absolutely unable, or able only with great difficulty, to escape from illusions and deceitful subtleties, especially such as flatter the passions. If unbridled license of speech and of writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate; even the highest and truest mandates of natures, justly held to be the common and noblest heritage of the human race, will not be spared. Thus, truth being gradually obscured by darkness, pernicious and manifold error, as too often happens, will easily prevail. Thus, too, license will gain what liberty loses; for liberty will ever be more free and secure in proportion as license is kept in fuller restraint. In regard, however, to all matter of opinion which God leaves to man’s free discussion, full liberty of thought and of speech is naturally within the right of everyone; for such liberty never leads men to suppress the truth, but often to discover it and make it known.”
Modern man imagines his body and his “self” as yet one more piece of his private property. The popes, however, suggest otherwise:
“Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed.”
We have already discussed in-depth the proper understanding of private property, explaining how and why it can never be considered absolute but is itself only one good in a hierarchy of goods, and he who denies the hierarchy destroys its component goods. However, at this point it might be beneficial to refute another modern error which considers the human person, particularly the physical body, as the legal property of the person to whom it belongs. Self-ownership, while true from a particular point of view, is really only a half-truth, and is therefore misleading if adopted blindly as a guiding principle of law. For example, if we adopt this view unquestioningly, we run the risk of having to mediate between the rights of the unborn and the rights of mothers, and we are led down a very dark road. Much of this misunderstanding stems from our deeply engrained individualism which tells each man that he is completely responsible for what he is and what he becomes. He therefore ought to consider his own “self” his property. But Benedict XVI puts forth another view:
“The human person by nature is actively involved in his own development. The development in question is not simply the result of natural mechanisms, since as everybody knows, we are all capable of making free and responsible choices. Nor is it merely at the mercy of our caprice, since we all know that we are a gift, not something self-generated. Our freedom is profoundly shaped by our being, and by its limits. No one shapes his own conscience arbitrarily, but we all build our own “I” on the basis of a “self” which is given to us. Not only are other persons outside our control, but each one of us is outside his or her own control. A person’s development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes.”
Pope Francis combats the same mentality, encouraging instead a willing participation in the natural body we have received as a gift from the Creator:
“…thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment.”
We cannot own ourselves because we are a gift, and the closest a man can come to owning himself is by making a gift of himself to another. Or, in other words, whosoever wishes to save his life must lose it. Only by acknowledging this principle of the gift and its primordial role in our very existence can we properly understand the nature of our “ownership” of ourselves. It turns out to be a humbler notion than contemporary political discourse would lead us to believe.
d. The rights of God
Finally, it would not be appropriate to pass over a discussion of rights without acknowledging an unwelcome truth about the tradition of the Church—one that will not sit well with those who have learned to accept without question the separation of church and state, along with the humanistic notions of popular sovereignty and secularism. This unwelcome truth is that society itself, if its notions of freedom are to remain legitimate, must never deny its duty to God, for the rights of God precede the rights of man, and the rights of man cannot persist without this foundation. As Leo XIII stated it: “The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.”
And in his encyclical on human liberty, the same pontiff expounded further on the traditional idea of the State and its relationship with religion:
“God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engravers upon it. This religion, therefore, the rulers of the State must preserve and protect, if they would provide – as they should do – with prudence and usefulness for the good of the community. For public authority exists for the welfare of those whom it governs; and, although its proximate end is to lead men to the prosperity found in this life, yet, in so doing, it ought not to diminish, but rather to increase, man’s capability of attaining to the supreme good in which his everlasting happiness consists: which never can be attained if religion be disregarded.”
Here we feel it appropriate to remember the response of the apostles, who, in the face of Christ’s words, exclaimed: “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” We may experience this same discomfort at the mention of an acknowledged relationship between the State and the Church. And yet there it remains, comfortable or not.
 Section IV, parts 2 and 3a-c.
 Mt 16:25.
 Jn 6:60.